By Ned Barnett
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a long way from being constructed, but it’s already proving a leaky conduit for cash.
The cost keeps rising for the proposed 600-mile natural gas pipeline from West Virginia, through Virginia and down to the southern border of North Carolina in Robeson County. Estimated in November 2018 to cost $5.1 billion, the project jointly owned by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, is now expected to cost approximately $8 billion, a 60 percent jump in a year and a half.
That estimate is bound to go up as the pipeline is stalled by multiple legal challenges. The Supreme Court is weighing one concerning permits for the pipeline crossing under the Appalachian Trail. Even if the pipeline gets past its legal issues, the construction delay and the inevitable unexpected construction issues will add to its price.
The question now is: How much financial pressure can the pipeline stand? Southern Company, once a small partner in the project, sold its 5 percent share to Dominion last month, and Morgan Stanley analysts recently predicted that Dominion will abandon the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in favor of renewable energy. “We believe this project will not move forward due to legal risks, and as a result [Dominion] will pursue additional renewables investments,” the analysts wrote.
That prediction fits with reports that show that power from renewables surged in 2019 as low-cost renewable electricity is becoming cheaper than power from fossil fuels.
Despite the legal and cost issues, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy are not wavering. Aaron Ruby, a Dominion spokesman, said, “The ACP remains vitally important to North Carolina’s economy and our shift to clean energy, and we’re totally committed to its completion.” Sasha Weintraub, senior vice president of Duke Energy’s natural gas business unit, said Duke has set ambitious targets for cutting its carbon emissions and “natural gas is a big part of that.”
While the utilities point to the pipeline as providing a fuel that’s cleaner than coal, natural gas isn’t necessarily friendlier to the atmosphere. Obtaining it through fracking has led to extensive leakage of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Meanwhile, renewable energy would certainly be a stronger option if Dominion and Duke spent $8 billion on solar, wind and other renewable sources instead of on a natural gas pipeline.
Last week, a collection of more than 70 social justice, clean energy and faith groups called on Gov. Roy Cooper to declare a climate emergency and block further construction or expansion of natural gas-fired power plants and pipelines.
In a letter to the governor, the groups said, “We contend that ’coping’ with this ongoing emergency includes the authority to help prevent it from growing worse indefinitely.”
Cooper, facing the COVID-19 outbreak, has a more immediate emergency at hand. But the alarm about the long-range threat — and the pipeline’s potential contribution to it — has merit. It is supported by a new climate report written in response to Cooper’s executive order to increase North Carolina’s resilience to the consequences of a warming planet. The North Carolina Climate Science Report found that it is likely that temperatures will “rise substantially” in North Carolina by the end of the century and with the higher heat will come more powerful hurricanes, rising sea levels, more floods and more intense droughts.
After the current crisis, Cooper would do well to consider the one that’s looming. A 600-mile pipeline will only bring it closer.