By Fayetteville Observer Editorial Board
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has hit a big and expensive snag. Cost estimates for the proposed 600-mile natural-gas pipeline have ballooned from $4.5 billion to $7 billion. That’s raising questions about whether the pipeline will ever be built.
The pipeline is a project of Dominion Energy, Duke Energy and Southern Company Gas. It will begin near the fracking fields in West Virginia and run through Virginia then across eastern North Carolina, roughly following the path of I-95 down to Pembroke.
The pitch for the pipeline is that it will bring plentiful supplies of inexpensive natural gas to regions that have little gas availability. The builders tout the pipeline as a potent driver of industrial development in parts of this state that desperately need an economic boost.
But in truth, most of the gas is already spoken for, destined for present and future gas-operated power plants owned by Duke Energy. The pipeline’s owners will also be, by far, its biggest customers. That means that Duke’s electricity consumers may also end up paying for much of the pipeline’s construction costs, and the impact on rates may be one factor in the utilities’ decision to put the project on hold at least for a few months.
Much of the preliminary work has been underway. As the project advanced, it drew increasing opposition from property owners and environmental groups.
The pipeline’s sponsors correctly point out that when it’s burned, natural gas is one of the cleanest fossil fuels. What they don’t talk much about, however, is that natural gas — methane — has an enormous impact on the atmosphere when it’s released unburned. That’s true when it’s released at the pumping sites and also true when it leaks out of the pipeline along the way — and as careful as the utilities may be, leaks happen. So, occasionally, do explosions, which is one more reason why property owners have fought the project.
The pipeline’s progress has also bogged down in the regulatory process. While it got an easy clearance from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, other agencies have been less compliant.
There are also large questions about the need for the pipeline, since alternative energy sources, especially solar, have advanced far more rapidly than most utilities expected. Solar battery technology now can keep the power flowing continuously and solar installations are rapidly becoming the cheapest form of electrical generation. While none of the existing energy alternatives is ready to completely supplant fossil fuels, that day is coming faster than expected.