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Editorial: Be wary of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

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In early 2018, Dominion Energy CEO Thomas Farrell opposed to any terms that would require Dominion to get state approval before extending the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. File

Why should South Carolinians care whether the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is allowed to cross the Appalachian Trail in Virginia?

The simple answer is that S.C. Dominion Energy customers could be footing the bill for an extension into the Palmetto State a few years down the line.

The 600-mile pipeline, a Dominion-Duke Energy project for moving shale-fracked natural gas from West Virginia to markets south and east, is planned to end in Robeson County, N.C., which borders South Carolina. But Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell told S.C. lawmakers in 2018 that, “We would like to bring the pipeline to South Carolina if the demand is there.”

Well, Dominion has a lot of ratepayers here — about 700,000 electricity customers and 350,000 natural gas customers — since acquiring South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. And all Dominion and Duke have to do is demonstrate to regulators there is a demand for electricity or gas, then ratepayers would have to pay for extending the pipeline and buy natural gas from themselves.

Just like the disastrous Base Load Review Act enabled SGE&G to charge ratepayers for costs sunk into the V.C. Summer nuclear station expansion, Dominion could be allowed to charge South Carolina ratepayers for the cost of  bringing the pipeline into the state.

That’s what the director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Asheville office, D.J. Gerken, calls a “stacked monopoly.”

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The good news, he says, is that the energy companies might still have to find another route through the mountains and park lands under a federal court ruling separate from the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that would allow the pipeline to cross the Georgia-to-Maine hiking trail.

The latter ruling, however, could make it easier for other applicants, like the Mountain Valley Pipeline, to cross the Appalachian Trail and other sensitive land in Virginia. In some cases, utilities can use the power of eminent domain to force the sale of private land for pipeline construction.

South Carolina already gets plenty of gas through the Transcontinental pipeline, which runs through the state’s northwest. Other pipelines from the Gulf Coast also deliver natural gas. But, according to Mr. Gerken, also an attorney who has argued several cases on the topic, Dominion and Duke would rather buy gas from themselves. He also suspects the energy companies would like to run the pipeline to a port where the gas could be liquefied for export.

The energy companies argue the pipeline would create thousands of jobs and deliver a cheap, relatively clean source of energy to the states it passes through. But environmentalists say there’s no real need for more gas or electricity. Indeed, demand for electricity has been almost flat in recent years despite population growth in part because of evolving energy markets, including renewables.

South Carolinians should at least be wary, despite the energy companies needing eight more permits to complete the route to the Lumberton, N.C., area. Pipeline cost projections have ballooned from about $3 billion to $8 billion over the past few years, and federal regulators allow the companies a 14% return on such capital projects — payable by their customers. The project bears watching.

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