Spectra suspends pipeline

‘Good news,’ says PEC’s Holmes, but no celebrations yet

By Branden Eastwood

Spectra Energy says it has suspended work on the proposed natural gas pipeline that would run through Rappahannock County.

“We’ll continue to evaluate opportunities in the region, which could include the Spectra Energy pipeline study corridor in your area,” company spokesman Arthur Diestel said this week in a voice mail, speaking of Spectra’s 427-mile, potentially $4 billion plan to run an underground transmission pipeline through Virginia.

In a statement made last week to reporter John Bruce of Highland County’s newspaper The Recorder, Diestel said that such opportunities could include the 550-mile Dominion Southeast Reliability Project pipeline — one of three routes proposed this summer to fill Duke Energy’s need to transport natural gas from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, where Duke is based. Spectra’s corridor was the furthest east.

The abrupt nature of the announcement and the lack of explanation why the project was suspended has left many in the affected communities scratching their heads.

Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy said he reached out to Spectra’s legal council by email last Thursday (Aug. 7). “They’ve gone quiet, not that they were particularly loud to begin with,” McCarthy said this week.“I’m more than a little irritated, they haven’t even offered a cordial ‘No comment.’ ”

“I think citizens of our region can look at this as good news,” said Dan Holmes, state policy director of the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC). Holmes has been meeting with and advising landowners along the proposed Virginia pipeline routes since June.

“Should they break out the champagne? No. It’s not over, but the fact they stopped does indicate that Spectra is aware of the hurdles of a project in our area.”

“It could still come this way with the stroke of a pen,” wrote Rick Kohler, president of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP), which has been printing lawn signs and organizing pipeline protests for the past month.

Among those hurdles are Montpelier, the Orange County historic site and home of President James Madison, and many properties that were placed by their landowners in conservation easements meant to preserve their natural state forever. Other challenges included the region’s topography, succinctly described by Nick Lapham, whose family property on Crest Hill Road (Route 647) is along Spectra’s study corridor:

“They don’t call it Flint Hill for nothing.”

Even with the pipeline on hold, Rappahannock and the region have become part of a larger conversation on the present and future of energy in America. For the most part, the gas that Duke wants to move south is extracted in Pennsylvania and West Virginia by the new and controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

In less than a decade, the boom in fracking has turned the U.S. from a net importer of natural gas to the world’s largest producer. But as good as the economic news has been, it’s offset for many by the environmental consequences, including contaminated groundwater that turns the liquid dripping from kitchen sinks into a combustible material and has been linked by scientists to an increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma.

The rub for environmentalists is that while the natural gas boom has been painful to watch, it has also taken a bite out of the coal industry, which is the single largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions. This June, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new regulations on the emissions of coal-fired power plants.

The intended result is the conversion of coal-powered plants to natural gas. The consequence is that fracking, and the challenges of transporting the gas at high volumes, has become further cemented in the nation’s energy plans.

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