North Carolina approved one pipeline. Why is it now questioning another?

When it comes to approving natural gas pipelines, North Carolina’s environmental regulators apparently can’t keep their standards straight.

The state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has approved the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s passage through central North Carolina over the howls of environmentalists, but the agency is raising strong objections to the proposed 74-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate extension that would run from Rockingham County to Graham.

In comments submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), state environmental regulators questioned the need for the $468-million Southgate extension, criticized FERC for failing to fully consider environmental impacts and cited the rising affordability and availability of clean energy alternatives. DEQ’s comments were first reported by Law360, a newsletter covering litigation and policy developments.

DEQ criticized the federal regulator for ignoring renewable energy options to a pipeline: “The commission justifies its decision to end its analysis of non-natural gas alternatives because the stated purpose of the project is to transport natural gas. This circular reasoning based on unsubstantiated purpose does not hold up in today’s rapidly changing energy economy.”

Environmentalists and consumer advocates raised the same objection against the much larger, 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but the DEQ gave the project a green light anyway.

“That’s a huge contradiction going on there, what the (Cooper) administration is saying on one hand and then on the other,” said Jim Warren, head of the utility watchdog group NC WARN, which opposes the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

DEQ spokeswoman Sharon Martin said Tuesday that she did not have details on the agency’s different positions, but she noted that all permit applications are considered on “a case-by-case basis.”

The two pipeline projects are quite different, but the main issues are inseparable. States should be wary of making a major investment in fossil fuels at a time of rapid climate change and great leaps in the development of renewable energy.

Beyond environmental concerns, cost considerations also weigh against new pipelines. The rising cost of laying pipe over waterways and mountainous terrain will drive up the price of natural gas even as advances in battery storage are making renewable energy less expensive and more reliable. The projected cost of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, for instance, was originally announced as between $4.5 billion and $5 billion. Now it’s between $7 billion and $7.5 billion.

Other calculations regarding pipelines have shifted in recent years. As DEQ said in its comments: “The cost of renewable energy resources is rapidly declining and the economics now favor utility-scale solar and onshore wind plus storage over construction of natural gas infrastructure.”

Ridge Graham, a field coordinator for the environmental group Appalachian Voices, said DEQ’s turnaround on the Southgate Pipeline may be a reaction to the heat the Cooper administration has taken over its approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

“It’s probably due to the major push-back the Cooper administration has gotten, not wanting to make the same mistake twice,” he said.

If that’s the case, perhaps Gov. Cooper should reconsider the first decision. A petition is before the governor asking him to do so. If he looks at the Atlantic Coast Pipeline the same way his environmental regulators have looked at the Southgate Pipeline, he may conclude that DEQ got it right the second time.