Update: This article has been revised to clarify comments by Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina.
Critics of a proposed natural gas pipeline through the Triad's eastern perimeter say it could meet an end similar to the recently scrapped Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
The same economic and societal forces that doomed the so-called ACP could affect the proposed MVP Southgate pipeline in Rockingham and Alamance counties, they believe.
"Big corporations make big mistakes," said Jim Warren, executive director of the energy watchdog NC WARN. "The last thing in the world we need to be doing is expanding the fossil fuel infrastructure."
Duke Energy and its partner Dominion Energy made headlines this week when they abruptly announced they were canceling the proposed 600-mile ACP from West Virginia through Virginia and eastern North Carolina.
The utilities said that the $7 billion project faced an "unacceptable layer of uncertainty and anticipated delays" stemming at least partly from legal challenges mounted by environmental groups.
The $468 million Southgate project would be a 75-mile extension of another proposed natural gas project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Like the failed ACP, the MVP "mainline" project originates in West Virginia and then crosses Virginia on a 303.5-mile route, before its Southgate spur enters North Carolina near Eden.
The Southgate extension would follow a southeasterly course through the Dan River and Haw River basins to an endpoint near Graham.
Federal officials recently approved Southgate for future construction. But in a situation reminiscent of what stymied the ACP, backers of the North Carolina extension cannot begin building it until authorities lift a current stop work order stemming from lawsuits involving its parent project.
Southgate supporters don't see any red flags in the ACP cancellation.
Mountain Valley spokesman Shawn Day noted that only last month the Southgate spur received a key go-head from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, widely known by its FERC acronym.
The federal board approved the project's required certificate of public convenience and necessity on June 18.
"This certificate follows more than two years of project planning, development and review," Day said in a written statement.
The federal agency's action "recognizes the clear public need for this important energy infrastructure project," he added.
"The MVP Southgate team has worked diligently with land owners, community members, local officials, and state and federal agencies to identify the best possible route," he said.
Project backers assert that one of the major selling points for the Southgate project is that it would give North Carolina something the state currently lacks, a direct link to fracked gas from the shale fields of West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia.
Day noted that when it gets under way, Southgate construction is expected to create 1,700 jobs and generate more than $10 million in tax revenues for North Carolina and Virginia.
But where project proponents see dollar signs and links to a new fuel source, skeptics who include the nonprofit Dan River Basin Association see the likelihood of great environmental disruption to supplement supplies of natural gas they think already sufficient.
"DRBA has insisted that FERC obtain a comprehensive, independent socioeconomic analysis to determine whether there is a need for additional fracked gas in North Carolina," said Tiffany Haworth, the civic group's director.
Haworth said that such a study should "thoroughly evaluate the capacity of pipeline transporters already serving the region."
She added that in addition to doubting Southgate's necessity, her group also objects "to the negative impact it would have on the environment and the citizens that live, work and play in the Dan River Basin."
FERC approved the certificate last month without benefit of the in-depth study recommended by DRBA and several other groups.
The federal agency said in part that the need for the project was significantly demonstrated by the fact that applicant Mountain Valley LLC already had an agreement with one customer committed to buying 80% of Southgate's daily shipments of natural gas.
That customer? Virginia-based Dominion Energy, Duke's ex-ACP partner that also serves customers in parts of North Carolina.
Southgate developer Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC is a Delaware-based partnership led by five energy companies that include Con Edison Transmission, EQM Midstream Partners, NextEra Energy, RGC Midstream and WGL Midstream.
Much of its mainline project already has been built. But the remainder is blocked by lawsuits and regulatory actions that so far have prevented it from going through Jefferson National Forest in Virginia and West Virginia, traversing certain areas where endangered species live and making a number of stream crossings.
Published reports this week noted that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision could soon resolve the stream issues, but the rest of the mainline still lacks approval by federal forest, fish and wildlife officials.
"The day they issue a permit will be the day we are back in court," one Virginia protester told the Roanoke Times this week, the newspaper reported.
Normally, last month's FERC approval of the Southgate extension would mean the pipeline partners could start building it in Rockingham and Alamance counties.
But in their decision, the four FERC board members who approved it said Southgate construction should not begin "until Mountain Valley receives necessary federal permits for the mainline system and the Director of Energy Projects ... lifts the stop work order and authorizes Mountain Valley to continue constructing the mainline system."
Environmentalists say they are poised to challenge Southgate in court and in continuing public debate, taking an approach similar to that which contributed to the ACP's demise.
"We're hoping it meets the same fate," said Emily Sutton, riverkeeper with the nonprofit Haw River Assembly. "Every delay is a lot of money they are spending with no return on investment."
Sutton said she has been encouraged by the state Department of Environmental Quality's questioning approach to the project.
The state agency submitted a detailed critique of the project in the FERC case, among other things joining DRBA in doubting whether the project is needed when "domestic commercial and residential natural gas demand is flat."
The state agency also denied Mountain Valley's initial, 2018 application for DEQ's separately required approval of the Southgate project. That application had sought DEQ certification under the Clean Water Act, which protects streams and wetlands from degradation.
"MVP reapplied in 2019 and this application is currently under review," DEQ spokeswoman Anna Gurney said of the Clean Water issue.
Project leaders also need state government to sign off on their plan to control erosion and sedimentation along the proposed pipeline route. Their initial submission to the state Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources was denied last year, Gurney said.
While Duke Energy is not part of the Southgate project, the company warned this week against reading too much into the ACP's abrupt curtailment.
Natural gas burns cleaner than coal and it remains an integral part of the utility's efforts to reduce carbon emissions from its power plants, said Duke spokesman Neil Nissan.
"Natural gas will remain an important part of our company's clean energy strategy to facilitate retirement of coal and to achieve our 2050 net-zero carbon goal," Nissan said via email this week.
Environmental activists don't think natural gas is needed as a bridge between dirtier fuels and such renewable sources of electricity as solar energy.
But as much as they would like to see Southgate and other fossil-fuel projects rejected because of their impact on the environment and climate change, some believe they also are vulnerable to the economics of supply and demand.
Industry analysts predicted long before ACP folded that it would not work out financially for the two utilities, said Hope Taylor, executive director of nonprofit Clean Water for North Carolina.
Taylor said the North Carolina Utilities Commission also raised caution flags about the ACP in 2018 when it said project backers were expecting too great a return on investment.
Given staunch opposition from environmental and other groups, that likely spurred later worries among stockholders that the commission would be "particularly attentive to concerns of ratepayers" in regards to any future ACP-related costs in their power bills, she said.
While noting that utilities were much less directly involved in the MVP, Taylor said that its investors "could still be concerned by some of the same factors, including lack of need."
"It's all about profit," Taylor said.
And when it comes to profit, there's good news for such sources of clean energy as solar and wind power that could mean trouble for fossil fuels, said Warren of NC WARN.
Great strides have been made in the science of battery storage, he said, enabling utilities to store power generated when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing for later use when they aren't.
"It's grown quicker than even its most ardent supporters could have conceived," Warren said of battery technology and availability. "The good news is that industry is being turned away from fossil fuels at a speed that is really encouraging."