Our American Energy
What the possible construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline means to those opposed
Words by Juliana Callen and Kasey Roper. Illustration by Max Patten.
Editor’s note: abcd talked to four people in the Charlottesville community opposed to the construction of the ACP. We attempted to interview Dominion in April, and after reaching out again in the fall, we were not able to get a response before publishing. This article will be updated as more information is received.
“This is Our American Energy,” claimed Dominion Energy in a 2017 advertisement for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline which would transport natural gas, a non-renewable resource.
Today, Dominion Energy is still advocating for the construction of the ACP, and debate continues over what “Our American Energy” is.
While the proposed pipeline would not cross Charlottesville directly, it would still impact the community and those nearby, as it would run through Augusta, Nelson and Buckingham counties if completed. Additionally, some of the controversial issues surrounding the ACP’s construction including environmental concerns are all too familiar to residents.
Pipeline Background & Purpose
“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a critical infrastructure project that will strengthen the economic vitality, environmental health and energy security of the Mid-Atlantic region,” the ACP’s website states.
In 2015, Dominion Energy submitted an application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for construction of the ACP after doing extensive research on its need and possible environmental effects. FERC then conducted its own research and compiled an environmental impact statement, eventually approving the project.
The 600 miles of pipes were initially designed to cross the Appalachian Trails, cut through the Blue Ridge Mountains and claim vast amounts of public and private land through eminent domain laws.
Eminent domain laws permit governments and other agencies to confiscate land for necessary public goods or services. The most common use is for the U.S. Department of Transportation to confiscate land in order to construct highways.
Ellen Bassett, associate professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning in the School of Architecture, explained that Dominion Energy has this power of eminent domain because it is a utility service. It provides consumers with a product — electricity that is generated by natural gas — and pipelines transport the natural gas needed to provide this product. Bassett compares the issue of eminent domain regarding the ACP to that of a highway.
“Highways [are] pretty similar to a pipeline,” Bassett said. “You’re letting things flow. Commerce is flowing. Cars are flowing. Energy is flowing.”
Class of 2019 alumna who double-majored in Biology and Music, Alice Clair, has actively challenged the pipeline since its proposal in 2015. Originally from Nelson County, Clair was stricken by the implications of the ACP’s use of eminent domain laws.
“In America, we’ve been given the right to own private land and to protect it from the government, and here is direct governmental legislation that’s allowing them to displace you from your private land on the basis of a private corporation — for literally private corporate gains,” Clair said.
Though it has claimed land from landowners and the ACP would cross several national parks, Dominion has made over 300 route adjustments, including those to avoid sources of drinking water, wildlife habitats and sensitive geological features.
Some of Dominion Energy’s main reasons for constructing the pipeline are to create jobs and stimulate the economy, in addition to bringing energy to parts of North Carolina.
Since Dominion Energy uses natural gas to provide electricity to its consumers, it has the power of eminent domain as long as the pipeline is considered necessary.
Third-year Global Studies & Environmental Studies double-major Eliza Fisher is concerned about the impacts the construction of the ACP would have on the environment.
According to Fisher, Dominion Energy is encouraging the continued use of nonrenewable resources by constructing the pipeline. Rather than building “the fossil fuel industry,” Fisher believes the United States should be creating sustainable methods of energy consumption.
“We need to be acting now for a positive climate future,” Fisher said. “The pipelines that are already [in Virginia] aren’t even serving at capacity — and they shouldn’t be, we should stop fueling the demand [for] natural gas.”
Dominion Energy claims that the ACP will improve air quality, since burning natural gas releases fewer carbon emissions than burning coal. While it is true that natural gas burns “cleaner” than coal, Bassett points out that it is not a sustainable energy source.
“It’s still not a renewable,” Bassett said. “It’s not solar, it’s not wind. It’s still an energy source that is certainly contributing to climate change.”
For Fisher, the ultimate concern over the pipeline comes down to its abuse of power and its negative impacts for energy consumption. For Bassett, the ACP masks deeper concerns about consumers’ dependence on nonrenewable resources.
“My takeaway is [that] the pipeline is almost a symptom of something deeper,” Bassett said, “which is [that] we really have to come to grips with how we are heavily dependent upon petroleum products.”
Rather than relying on non-renewable resources, Bassett suggested that America shifts its source of energy to renewable resources, such as wind, solar and hydraulics.
“We have to have an energy revolution.”
Dominion Energy assures landowners and environmentalists that land will be restored once construction of the pipeline is complete. This is one such restored area. The path of the pipeline can be seen, since no trees can be planted above it. Photo from ACP’s Media Center. To Bassett, this loss is devastating and would take away part of what she loves about her state.
“What’s so beautiful about this part of Virginia is we have so much forest cover,” Bassett said.
Yet, the ACP would negatively impact viewsheds, or a view of a landscape from a particular vantage point, according to Jonathan Gendzier, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who is working on court cases it filed against the ACP.
“Once construction is complete there will be a permanent impact to the viewsheds from the trail and from some special overlooks that the Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway access in that area,” Gendzier said.
Environmental Racism & Social Justice Considerations
Bassett explained that companies are more likely to place things like factories or, in the case of the ACP, compressor stations that can be potentially detrimental to the health of people and land in minority communities.
In the United States, minority communities, such as historically African-American neighborhoods or Native American lands, are often infringed upon for the purposes of industrialization.
“In Charlottesville we talk about Vinegar Hill, which is the old African-American neighborhood that got basically wiped out,” Bassett said.
During the 1960s, Vinegar Hill, a 20-acre neighborhood between the University and the Downtown Mall, was demolished as part of an urban renewal project to expand Charlottesville and build apartments and shops. Hundreds of African-American families and businesses were displaced from their community. However, the land stood empty for decades and was eventually paved over with parking lots. The community members voices were not heard, since a poll-tax prevented the majority of them from voting on the project.
A similar fate lingers overhead of Union Hill, a historically African-American neighborhood in Buckingham County, Va. about an hour’s drive away from Charlottesville. The ACP received approval to construct one of three proposed compressor stations in direct proximity to the neighborhood, which is still inhabited today. However, this construction has been stalled along with that of the pipeline.
Compressor stations are a central part of natural gas transportation because they help maintain the pressure of gas so that it can travel through the pipeline across different elevations and temperatures. The locations of these stations are typically strategically placed to counteract the effects of topography, which impact the pressure inside the pipeline.
However, according to Bassett, the location selected for this compressor station is “a classic environmental justice or environmental racism question.” This is a concern for her because it seemingly ignores the voices of current residents, who have been actively opposing the pipeline and compressor station by holding rallies.
Fisher agreed that this is problematic, adding that the compressor station would be a site of constant loud noise and serious health and pollution concerns.
The proposed location of the ACP’s compressor station is not a unique occurrence, but rather a pattern.
“We tend to put the least desirable or most polluting health, sort of deleterious land uses near minority communities,” Bassett said.
The Union Hill community has actively been protesting the construction of this compressor station. Some members of the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, a University organization, have become directly involved with the Union Hill community by attending protests and discussions led by famous environmental activists, including Al Gore, and residents of Buckingham County.
Fisher, a member of VSEC, believes that those who stand up and practice environmental activism are remarkably brave.
“I think that given the stakes of something like this pipeline — how big the stakes are — people who put themselves in positions of extreme vulnerability through direct action are incredibly courageous,” she said.
Though she has not been directly involved with Buckingham County, Fisher has made an effort to learn as much as she can about the ACP issue.
“I think learning as much as you can about it is extremely important,” Fisher said. “And I think listening to the communities on the front line of the resistance is extremely important in just seeing what sort of support that they need.”
One example of environmental activism is a tree-sit, which occurs when people construct a small platform in a tree slated to be cut down in order to protest deforestation and protect the environment.
Tree-sits have successfully stopped construction of pipelines in the past, which Fisher finds encouraging because it gains press for the movement. In April 2018, tree-sits by Red Terry and Minor Terry successfully delayed the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a fracked natural gas pipeline planned to cross 303 miles in West Virginia and Virginia.
“It’s great to bring attention to these issues if someone’s living in a tree,” Fisher said. “There have been Washington Post articles written about it.”
Not everyone is able to tree-sit, though. At the University, students turn to student-run organizations, such as VSEC, for involvement opportunities.
According to its Facebook page, VSEC “unifies students across Virginia to create a network for advocacy, education and action.” Some of its main concerns are the use of fossil fuels and the intersection of environmental activism and social justice.
VSEC partnered with The Ties That Bind—a #NoPipelines Community Collaborative Art and Story Project coordinated by eco-artist and poet Amelia L. Williams. They held an event on April 14th to create braids, ropes, festoons and swags. These will be added to a larger project that links together fabrics from multiple communities, symbolizing how these communities are braided together in their collective effort to protect the health of the environment.
Also taking action in opposition to the ACP is Clair, whose music has been influenced by the issue. She performs both solo, with a folk band and with her band, the BLDRS.
“It is very clear what is right and what is wrong in this situation, and I’ve used my music I guess as a platform,” Clair said. “I’ve written many songs in opposition to the pipeline.”
Taking a similar approach as Clair is the SUN SiNG Collective, which is working to create a new No Pipeline anthem and song video to stop the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines. They had a concert at Jefferson Theater this past April. The SUN SiNG Collective is an event organized by the group Water Is Life. Protect It, which consists of environmentalists across Virginia working to protect clean water.
Clair spoke about some of the fundamental concerns surrounding the ACP issue, namely, the public’s lack of concern for Dominion Energy’s use of eminent domain laws, as well as for the construction of the ACP in general.
“If we as informed, educated, privileged citizens of the United States don’t pay attention to the first people getting [affected] by legislation like this, the first people that are gonna be attacked by this kind of overstepping of governmental bounds, then we’re gonna be next,” Clair said. “And really we shouldn’t even view it like that — we should see it as our duty to keep this Earth as intact as possible.”
The Future of the Pipeline
While Clair and Fisher are actively strategizing ways to stop construction, the fate of the ACP will ultimately be decided in the courts.
SELC, whose headquarters is located on West Main St. in Charlottesville, worked on two court cases that challenged the construction of the ACP.
On behalf of the Sierra Club and the Defenders of Wildlife and Virginia Wilderness Committee, SELC filed a legal challenge to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Biological Opinion, which, according to the FWS, is a document that states the opinion of the [FWS] as to whether or not the Federal action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.”
The permit issued by the FWS was blocked by the Virginia Fourth Circuit of Appeals, as Gendzier hoped, which he says could cause serious delays in construction. However, Dominion told its investors in an earnings conference call that the permit would most likely be reissued by the end of 2019. So, while construction in Virginia has temporarily been halted, the pipeline still may be built.
In August 2018, SELC and the Appalachian Mountain Advocates, on behalf of 13 conservation groups, filed a lawsuit against FERC over the approval it gave the ACP. As the overarching permit for the project, this case challenges the underlying necessity of the ACP and is set to be heard in the fall.
“I think it’s important for the public to understand that the claimed need for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to power natural gas for electricity generation in Virginia — it just isn’t there,” Gendzier said. “This pipeline is unnecessary.”
In an article they published online, SELC asserted that the pipeline is not justified by challenging the initial arguments in favor of the ACP, such as that it is needed for power plants, that it would reduce utility bills for residents and that it would produce jobs.
Whether the pipeline is legally justified or not, its proposal has raised questions of social justice and environmental racism.
As the ACP court cases unfold, Gendzier emphasized the fallacy in the ACP’s mission to provide energy to those who need it and suggested a different motive.
“The bottom line is that we do not need the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to generate electricity in Virginia,” Gendzier said.