A key state permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was approved by state regulators Friday, clearing a major hurdle for the interstate natural gas project to move ahead in North Carolina.
The state Department of Environmental Quality announced its long-awaited decision more than a year and a half after Duke Energy and other partners filed their application. Opponents immediately vowed legal challenges to try to block the project.
The approval for the underground pipeline comes with a number of conditions for testing, monitoring and inspections.
“DEQ left no stone unturned in our exhaustive eight-month review,” DEQ Secretary Michael Regan said in the agency’s announcement.
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“Our job doesn’t end with the granting of the permit but continues as we hold the company accountable to live up to its commitments,” DEQ said. “Our efforts have resulted in a carefully crafted permit that includes increased environmental protections, while giving us the tools we need to continue close oversight of this project as it moves forward.”
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has already received several federal permits, as well as approvals from Virginia and West Virginia regulators, leaving North Carolina as the last major hurdle. The project still requires several minor state approvals in North Carolina: an air-quality permit to operate a compressor station in Northampton County, as well as stormwater permits for Nash and Cumberland counties.
The issuance of the water quality certification Friday allows the pipeline to be built through and under wetlands, marshes, streams, creeks and other waterways. The pipeline, which will cross more than 300 waterways in North Carolina, will traverse eight counties roughly parallel to Interstate 95, bringing natural gas to operate Duke Energy’s power plants and to heat homes and businesses.
The Sierra Club is one of dozens of groups involved in four lawsuits against the project – including a suit against the National Park Service for allowing the pipeline to cross under the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. The Sierra Club, warning of chemical spills during drilling and construction, vowed to continue its effort to organize local residents against the project and to try to block the pipeline through legal challenges.
“The permit should have been denied,” said Kelly Martin, the director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign. “We do not have the assurance the state’s water quality won’t be impacted by this massive fracked-gas pipeline that we don’t need.”
Duke Energy, which is replacing aging coal-burning power plants with modern natural gas burners, characterized the approval as a boon for the economy and a plus for the environment.
“With new infrastructure, the region will be able to attract manufacturers and other new industries, and the good-paying jobs they bring,” Duke said. “It will also accelerate the transition from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas and support new investments in renewables, resulting in cleaner air and lower emissions in communities across the state.”
N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger praised Gov. Roy Cooper for distancing himself from what Berger characterized as anti-business elements within the Democratic Party.
Shortly after his administration approved the water permit, Cooper said the energy future points toward renewables such as solar and wind power, but natural gas will be needed as a bridge fuel until the renewable future arrives. The governor announced that Dominion Power and Duke Energy will put $57.8 million into a fund to be used for environmental mitigation initiatives.
“My goal for North Carolina is complete reliance on renewable energy, which builds a cleaner environment and a stronger economy,” Cooper said in a statement. “During the time it takes to get us to a full renewable energy future, we will still need to rely on other fuels as we move away from the pollution of coal-fired power plants.”
The 600-mile pipeline would extend from West Virginia, cross Virginia and arc through Eastern North Carolina, delivering natural gas from fracking operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The permit issued Friday is the main environmental statewide permit to allow construction to move ahead on a project that is already more than a year behind schedule and had been slated to begin operating by the end of this year. Now construction on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is expected to start this spring, with completion at the end of 2019.
The project has already begun tree removal and land clearing in the other two states and will start clearing in North Carolina when it receives state approval for its sedimentation control plan.
“This decision is a loser for the people of eastern North Carolina, their economy and the urgent fight to slow climate change,” Jim Warren, director of NC WARN, an energy watchdog group, said in a statement. “At the very time when GE, Siemens and other big energy corporations are laying off thousands due to multiple factors that are moving natural gas toward obsolescence, Duke Energy, Dominion Resources and North Carolina leaders seem oblivious to that fast-paced reality. Of course, Duke and Dominion are largely gambling with customers’ money, although their stockholders will also get burned.”