The Atlantic Coast Pipeline intended to carry natural gas across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina would have some adverse environmental effects, including impacts on water resources, forest and other habitats, but most could be reduced to insignificant levels, an assessment by federal regulators found.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate natural gas pipelines, released its final environmental impact statement Friday for the proposed 600-mile (965-kilometre) pipeline, which has broad support from political and business leaders but is staunchly opposed by environmentalists and many affected landowners.
The assessment found that the pipeline would also impact some endangered species in its path. But it concluded that if developers use proper construction and mitigation techniques, most of the environmental impacts could be reduced to "less-than-significant" levels.
The leading company behind the $5 billion project called the assessment "favourable" and said it paved the way for final approval later this year.
"While some impacts on the environment and landowners are unavoidable with any infrastructure project, the report demonstrates that we've taken all necessary steps to minimize those impacts and balance them with the urgent public need for the project," Leslie Hartz, Dominion Energy's vice-president for engineering and construction, said in a statement.
Environmental groups have argued that FERC's process for approving pipelines is broken and doesn't adequately evaluate the true need for additional infrastructure.
"FERC still hasn't addressed the most basic question hanging over this project: Is it even needed?" Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Greg Buppert said in a statement. "It's FERCs responsibility to determine if this pipeline is a public necessity before it allows developers to take private property, clear forests, and carve up mountainsides. Mounting evidence shows that it is not."
The agency's commissioners will weigh the environmental impact statement as well as whether the project meets a public need and whether its proposed gas rates are just and reasonable in making that decision, according to FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen.
Ordinarily, a final decision can come any time after a pipeline's final environmental impact statement is complete, but the five-member panel currently lacks a quorum, with only one commissioner currently serving.
President Donald Trump has announced four nominees, who still must be approved by the Senate.
Initially proposed in 2014, the underground pipeline would originate in north-central West Virginia, cross Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and run south of the Virginia capital of Richmond to a compressor station near the North Carolina border. An extension would run to the Hampton Roads area along the coast while the main pipeline would continue into North Carolina, ending near the South Carolina line.
Pipeline proponents — including union leaders, economic development officials and top lawmakers of both parties in all three states — have said it would deliver cheap and abundant energy that is cleaner than coal.
Developers also promised construction alone will create 17,000 new jobs and $2.7 billion in economic activity across the region. Once the pipeline is operational, they say the reliable supply of natural gas will attract heavy manufacturers that have previously passed over Virginia and North Carolina.
Opponents, however, said the pipeline would infringe on landowners' property rights, damage pristine areas and commit the region to a fossil fuel just when global warming makes it essential to invest in renewable energy instead. They also argue the demand for gas has been overstated and the capacity of existing infrastructure has been underestimated.
The pipeline is being developed by four energy companies: Richmond-based Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and Southern Company Gas.