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Atlantic Coast Pipeline cancellation removes specter for SC environmentalists

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Dominion Influence Pipeline (copy)

Signs mark the route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Deerfield, Va., on Feb. 8, 2018. File/Steve Helber/AP

South Carolina environmentalists praised Sunday's cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a proposed 600-mile transmission line for fracked natural gas that had been in the works since 2014.

The pipeline's route from West Virginia was slated to stop in Lumberton, N.C., — 21 miles from the South Carolina border.

Many green groups suspected the path could one day extend into the Palmetto State and potentially link to coastal ports in Georgetown or Charleston.

"We were definitely surprised," said Greg Buppert, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who helped to file eight lawsuits opposing the transmission line.

"I did not expect on a Sunday afternoon to learn that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was canceled," he added, "but it is the right decision and it is a tremendous relief for all of our clients that have worked for six years to oppose (it)."

While the companies behind the pipeline never officially moved to lengthen the route past Lumberton, Dominion CEO Tom Farrell II said in 2018 it was a possibility.

"We would like to bring the pipeline to South Carolina if the demand is there," he said at the time.

Virginia-based Dominion Energy and North Carolina-based Duke Energy said that legal uncertainties of defending the gas transmission line had grown too great to continue the project. Originally pegged at $4.5 billion, estimates for the total bill had ballooned to $8 billion, and the timeline for the project was running on a 3½ year delay.

"This announcement reflects the increasing legal uncertainty that overhangs large-scale energy and industrial infrastructure development in the United States," Farrell and Duke Energy CEO Lynn J. Good said in a joint statement.

"Until these issues are resolved, the ability to satisfy the country’s energy needs will be significantly challenged," the statement added.

The utilities had argued the pipeline would meet growing energy demand in several states and provide cleaner power than coal-fired plants. 

Brian Tucker, the economic development coordinator for Georgetown County, said he didn't see the demand for natural gas in the Southeast going away any time soon. He said he'd heard rumors that the pipeline could head toward the city of Georgetown, home to a mostly unused port on Winyah Bay. 

"A lot of that speculation on the pipeline coming into South Carolina was based on the demand, and the demand is still there," Tucker said. "I would like to think at some point that decision (to cancel the pipeline) will be revisited and we will have that infrastructure energy source." 

Environmentalists like Peg Howell, however, were concerned the pipeline's owners could leverage Georgetown's port to create a liquefied natural gas facility and ship excess product to overseas markets.

Howell is a member of Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic, which has opposed oil exploration in the Atlantic. She said she also worried about onshore gas infrastructure along the cost. 

"I am hopeful because this provides a window, this whole market downturn provides a window of opportunity for the expansion of renewables," she said.

Florence-based activist the Rev. Leo Woodberry said he was "ecstatic" about the cancellation, and said arguments for natural gas as a cleaner energy source amount to "green-washing."

He also said the decision was a win for places that can face an outsized burden from industrial projects, like Union Hill, Va., a historic Black community near the route of the gas line.

"We're very, very concerned that these sources of energy which would still pump greenhouse gases in the air were detrimental not only to environmental justice communities but also would not help us at all with climate change," Woodberry said.

The carbon dioxide and methane emissions from burning fossil fuels make the Earth warmer when they escape into the atmosphere, scientists agree, leading to sea level rise and other aspects of climate change.

Not long ago, however, those opposing the line were dealt what appeared to be a significant blow to halting the gas line's move east and south. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the utilities in a court case over whether the pipeline could cross under the Appalachian Trail. The decision cleared the way for the U.S. Forest Service to issue a permit allowing the crossing. 

Separately, many other legal challenges were pending, Buppert said, because the gas line was still missing multiple permits for other areas of the route, notwithstanding the high court's decision. 

A separate legal case across the country in Montana, related to the Keystone KL Pipeline, also served to invalidate an Army Corps of Engineers permitting program for oil and gas pipelines, Buppert said. Dominion and Duke specifically cited that case as a reason for abandoning their pipeline through the Southeast. 

"We have just written the book on how to oppose a risky and unnecessary project like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline," Buppert said.

Beyond just the pipeline, Dominion announced it would move out of other aspects of the natural gas business by selling its gas transmission and storage assets to an affiliate of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. in a roughly $10 billion deal. That includes the 1,500-mile interstate gas pipeline that runs mostly through South Carolina and partly through Georgia.

Dominion acquired that system from the former SCANA in 2015. That sale happened more than three years before Dominion completed an eventual merger with what was once South Carolina's largest investor-owned utility. 

In a statement, Farrell said the sale was part of a narrowing focus on greener power generation for Dominion. The company announced earlier this year it would aim for net zero carbon emissions in its energy generation by 2050. 

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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