In early 2014, it took the Dominion Energy engineers just a week to map out the entire route of the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline. They studied the physical terrain, looking for the most efficient path to send 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from the Marcellus Shale fields in West Virginia to markets in eastern Virginia and North Carolina.
What the engineers and executives at Dominion and Duke Energy, the other giant utility backing the project, didn’t account for was just how challenging the human, political, geographic, and economic terrain would prove to be.
Earlier this month, after six years, dozens of legal challenges, and several billion dollars spent with no pipe laid in the ground, Dominion and Duke finally abandoned the controversial project. In a joint statement announcing the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s cancellation, Dominion and Duke effectively acknowledged that those legal challenges had successfully delayed the project to the point that pouring more money into it had become untenable. “This announcement reflects the increasing legal uncertainty that overhangs large-scale energy and industrial infrastructure development in the United States,” it read.
“One of our huge tactical advantages was that the administration was working for these pipelines,” says a project opponent.
Indeed, in recent weeks, several major oil and gas pipeline projects — including the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines — have hit legal and regulatory walls. Energy analysts, activists, and attorneys who worked against these ventures say three factors played a role in their demise or delay. The first was the Trump administration’s zeal to push through new fossil fuel infrastructure, which led to rushed federal approvals that left large legal vulnerabilities for opponents to exploit. The second was overconfident, slipshod route planning by pipeline developers, fueled by unconditional support from Washington and a history of compliant state regulators. And the third was shifting political winds that have left some states to embrace more aggressive decarbonization targets, undermining the long-term economic viability of pipelines that would lock in large amounts of planet-warming emissions for decades to come.
A day after the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s July 5 cancellation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that construction of the Keystone XL pipeline — which would eventually bring oil from Alberta, Canada to U.S. refineries as far away as Texas — could not continue until further environmental review was conducted. The Supreme Court cited lower court concerns that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to properly examine how the pipeline would affect endangered species in the rivers it would cross.
On the same day, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered that the Dakota Access pipeline — which the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, along with other indigenous groups and climate activists, have been fighting since it was built in 2016 — be shut down and emptied of oil by August 5. The judge similarly concluded that the Corps of Engineers had failed to adequately assess its environmental impacts as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
In the case of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Duke and Dominion Energy still lacked eight needed permits. Federal judges had also repeatedly found that, in issuing approvals, agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service had conducted flawed or inadequate reviews of environmental and other risks.
In announcing the abandonment of the project, Duke and Dominion specifically cited a recent ruling by a federal judge in Montana that rejected a key Army Corps of Engineers permit that had been used to provide blanket authorization — more than 37,000 times since 2017 — under the Clean Water Act for oil and gas pipelines to cross wetlands and water bodies.
“One of our huge tactical advantages was that the administration was working for these pipelines,” said D.J. Gerken, the senior attorney who led the Southern Environmental Law Center’s litigation efforts against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. “When political masters ignore the experts, that’s what courts are for. That’s why we have judicial review. That was the story in every single one of these cases. We took the record to the courts and showed them that this was not an agency applying the law in good faith.”
When the Trump administration took office in 2017 and began to aggressively push its deregulation and fossil fuel infrastructure agenda, some employees at the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies felt pressured to speed up their reviews of pipeline projects. In the case of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, that meant playing down the pipeline’s impact on protected species and the danger its construction posed to steep, landslide-prone slopes. The irony is that this fast-tracking is precisely what created openings for lines of legal attack that doomed ACP and other major pipelines.
The growing, diverse societal movement to address climate change helped kill the project.
“The companies thought it was Christmas, but it was actually a disaster for them,” Gerken said, referring to the advent of Trump administration control of permitting agencies. “The [administration was] firing, demoting, or shifting aside anyone at these agencies who looked at the facts. The people pointing out that this was the worst place in the world to build a pipeline were pushed out of the way. They were told to ignore the law.”
Indeed, a year ago, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond reviewed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline case and observed that, “In fast-tracking its decisions, the agency [U.S. Fish & Wildlife] appears to have lost sight of its mandate under the [Endangered Species Act].”
Atlantic Coast Pipeline opponents also benefited from a recent shift in political power in Virginia. Last year, Democrats took control of Virginia’s state legislature. In March, the state passed a new law, the Clean Economy Act, that includes a mandate that Dominion Energy supply 100 percent carbon-free electricity to its customers by 2045. In a subsequent filing to state regulators, Dominion stated that the act’s requirements meant that “significant build-out of natural gas generation facilities is not currently viable.”
Pipeline opponents seized on this as tacit admission that the pipeline’s central rationale — Dominion’s projections of rising future natural gas demand in the region — had been demolished.
“We can’t underestimate the importance of both the grassroots opposition and the importance of the Virginia Clean Energy Act,” said Greg Buppert, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center and the architect of the group’s legal strategy against the ACP over the past six years. “There was a compelling and growing body of evidence that there’s not demand here” for the pipeline’s gas. “If there was any doubt about demand, that legislation resolves that.”
David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a nonprofit climate and fossil fuel watchdog group, said that mounting concerns about global warming from both policymakers and investors played a major role in the defeat of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. “If you’re trying to find a grand unifying theory that nicely wraps together all the things that killed the ACP, you could do a lot worse than saying it was the growing incredibly diverse, broad societal movement to address climate change,” Pomerantz said. “The pipeline was always a house of cards. Many people were pointing out all the ways that the house was flimsy. And as some of those big cards started to get knocked down, the logic to keep going with the pipeline became totally unsustainable.”
Dan Brouillette, the Trump administration’s Secretary of Energy, had a more blunt summary of what dealt the fatal blow to the project: “The well-funded, obstructionist environmental lobby has successfully killed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.”
From the outset, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline sparked opposition among diverse communities in its proposed path, from Union Hill, Virginia, a settlement founded by Freedmen and Freedwomen emancipated after the Civil War, where Dominion sought to build a 54,000-horsepower compressor station; to lands owned by members of the Lumbee tribe of rural Robeson County, North Carolina; to conservationists and advocates for the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, which the pipeline would have crossed.
A fatal flaw with the ACP, these opponents said, was the route itself, and the haste with which ACP’s backers and federal and state agencies sought to grant approval for it. The pipeline would have crossed dozens of waterways and steep mountainsides and eventually would have tunneled under not only the Appalachian Trail but also the wide James River.
“If there’s one overarching issue that drove this project into the ground, it was self-inflicted problems that began right at the beginning” with the pipeline’s heedless route planning, Buppert said.
Doug Wellman, a retired professor and resident of Nelson County — a rural swath of central Virginia that is home to about 15,000 people nestled in the hollows, river bottoms, and wooded slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains and its foothills — recalled one public information meeting with Dominion’s engineers. “We saw this line they had drawn across steep slopes and through rivers, and asked them, ‘What will you do when you run into problems?’” Wellman said. “They said, ‘Think about a piece of wet spaghetti. We lay it out straight, you figure out what the problems are, and then we wiggle it.’”
That route, with its 125-foot-wide right-of-way, would get “wiggled” hundreds of times, undergoing many minor adjustments. But its central thrust remained the same, cutting through the George Washington National Forest, the steepest wooded slopes among the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains, and across the property of many private landowners. The prospect of a 42-inch-wide pipe carrying highly pressured natural gas through their forests, farms, and backyards galvanized an unlikely cross section of the community — libertarians and local officials, climate-concerned environmentalists, farmers, church pastors, and brewery owners, and everyday citizens — into becoming activists and organizers. Some worried about risk of ruptures and explosions. Some fretted about how potential pipeline leaks would affect local water quality. And many conservative Nelson residents opposed the ACP out of fury at Dominion’s use of eminent domain to secure easements on private land along the route.
In 2019, investment analysts concluded the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was doomed, given all the legal challenges it faced.
As the legal battles slowed the project timetable and Virgina’s Clean Economy Act cast a new shadow over the demand case for the project, investors were growing restless with Dominion and Duke. When the ACP application was filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2015, the companies expected to have the pipeline filled with gas by late 2018, at a total cost of about $5 billion. Early this year, they pushed back the in-service date to early 2022, and revised the full price tag upward to over $8 billion.
In late 2019, analysts at the investment bank Morgan Stanley concluded that the ACP was doomed, given all the legal challenges it faced. That growing wariness from Wall Street may have tipped Dominion and Duke toward the surprise cancellation, which came after the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in June that the pipeline could legally tunnel under the Appalachian Trail.
Many landowners along the pipeline route were jubilant at the news of the project’s termination. Wisteria Johnson — whose extended family of mixed Cherokee, African American, and European ancestry has lived in eastern Nelson County for seven generations — was among those celebrating.
“There’s a lot of peace here,” said Johnson. “Putting the pipeline here would have taken that away. All of these things that have sustained the mountains and streams and the people down through the generations can remain intact, until there’s another threat. For now, we breathe easy.”