The Interior Department has authorized the Mountain Valley pipeline’s crossing through a national forest, giving another boost to a project that is being fought by environmentalists even as it is defended by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.
According to a record of decision posted Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management approved a permit and right-of-way request this week for the 42-inch pipeline’s path through 3.5 miles of the Jefferson National Forest. Tommy Beaudreau, the Interior Department’s deputy secretary, backed the decision, according to BLM’s document.
The approval is a win for developers of the 303-mile natural gas pipeline who are aiming to place the project in service in late 2023. The pipeline is designed to travel from West Virginia to southern Virginia and is supported by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
BLM’s announcement follows a record of decision this week from the Forest Service approving the pipeline’s traversal through the same forest.
The Mountain Valley pipeline is a “critical infrastructure project that is essential for our nation’s energy security, consumer affordability and ability to effectively transition to a lower-carbon future,” Natalie Cox, a spokesperson for the project, said Thursday.
Yet the Forest Service noted that “Mountain Valley is not authorized to undertake activities related to construction on [National Forest System] lands until the company has obtained all Federal and State authorizations outstanding for the entire project.”
Cox acknowledged Thursday that construction in the forest won’t happen immediately.
“While this is a significant step in the regulatory review process, forward construction is not expected to begin until the project receives its few remaining permits,” Cox said in an emailed statement.
The pipeline is now awaiting a decision on a Section 404 water permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, but it’s unclear how long that might take.
The uncertainty stems from an April decision from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has axed a series of federal permits for the pipeline. It struck down West Virginia’s certification that had found pipeline construction complied with state water quality standards.
The panel ruled that West Virginia regulators had ignored two years of state water regulation violations by the pipeline when they certified the project under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. The developers will need West Virginia to reissue this permit before the Army Corps of Engineers can act on the water permit.
Granholm and the 4th Circuit
John Thieroff, vice president for Moody’s Investors Service, said it is still feasible for Mountain Valley developers to get the necessary permits “in hand” by the end of June.
But the 4th Circuit has proved to be a formidable obstacle for Mountain Valley. Last year, the court struck down both BLM’s and the Forest Service’s approvals for the pipeline to cross the Jefferson National Forest. The ruling required both agencies to redo their analysis of the pipeline.
In 2022, the same 4th Circuit panel also axed a Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion and incidental take statement for a pair of fish species harmed by pipeline construction.
The Fish and Wildlife Service released new approvals in February and is facing new litigation — filed in the 4th Circuit in April — from environmental groups that said the agency hadn’t properly evaluated the project’s “environmental context.”
Environmental opponents may also mount new legal challenges to the renewed BLM approval, although a spokesperson for the Sierra Club said the group was still evaluating its next steps.
Mountain Valley has said total project work is 94 percent complete, a percentage disputed by opponents. The pipeline’s website notes nearly 56 percent of the right of way is fully restored.
The BLM decision arrived as Granholm defended the pipeline Thursday at POLITICO’s energy summit in Washington, which was interrupted by protests against the project (see related story).
“We know that there is a real desire to have energy security in areas where there’s huge demand for power,” Granholm said when asked why she sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month supporting the pipeline.
“While we still have to have pipelines, and pipelines for CO2 and hydrogen as well, we want to make sure that we are also accelerating the clean,” Granholm added.