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West Virginians divided over natural gas pipeline despite Manchin's support

Pipes that have been sitting for four years on the property of impacted landowner Maury Johnson, in Greenville, W.Va., on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.
Carlos Bernate for NPR
Pipes that have been sitting for four years on the property of impacted landowner Maury Johnson, in Greenville, W.Va., on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.

Updated September 7, 2022 at 5:23 PM ET

GREENVILLE, W.Va. — The Mountain Valley Pipeline exists as a 303-mile-long chain with hundreds of missing links. Without all of its federal permits, the natural gas project cannot cross Jefferson National Forest or many of the streams and wetlands in its proposed path from West Virginia to North Carolina.

That includes one segment at the bottom of Maury Johnson's family farmland in mountainous Monroe County, W.Va.

"It's built from there over to the next hollow, and they can't cross that stream," Johnson says, pointing about halfway down the ridge, near a small patch where he grows corn, pumpkins and zinnias.

Maury Johnson, co-chair of the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights Coalition, looks over his property in Greenville, W.Va., on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.
/ Carlos Bernate for NPR
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Carlos Bernate for NPR
Maury Johnson, co-chair of the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights Coalition, looks over his property in Greenville, W.Va., on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.

That could change soon. When Congress passed historical climate spending last month, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced that his support had hinged on future legislation that would change the process for issuing permits for large energy infrastructure projects such as this one. A one-page summary released by Manchin's office explicitly named steps to support the completion and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. With Congress back in session, debate over this deal and what it means for the future of fossil fuels in the United States is resuming.

In West Virginia, supporters of the pipeline, including Manchin, say finishing it will bring in $40 million annually in tax revenue to the state and provide greater energy security for the United States.

"There's not another project in America today that will bring this much energy within four to five months," Manchin told West Virginia's MetroNews radio network in August. "This has everything to do not only with West Virginia, but our country and the security and energy that we need."

But local environmental groups say this deal subverts community input processes, and new fossil fuel infrastructure is incompatible with U.S. climate goals.

Pipes that have been sitting for years at Peter's Mountain, Greenville, W.Va., on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.
/ Carlos Bernate for NPR
/
Carlos Bernate for NPR
Pipes that have been sitting for years at Peter's Mountain, Greenville, W.Va., on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.

"This is not just about Mountain Valley Pipeline, it's about every community that has been sacrificed across this country" to further fossil fuel extraction, says Johnson, an activist who says pipeline construction put sediment in his well water and degraded his farmland.

Lawsuits over environmental impact stalled the pipeline

A series of lawsuits has slowed the Mountain Valley Pipeline's progress.

Originally approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2017, the project was supposed to wrap up in 2018 with a budget of $3.5 billion. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Appalachian Mountain Advocates sued federal agencies that issue the pipeline's permits, arguing they failed to adhere to environmental law, and succeeded in getting several permits thrown out, some more than once. The cost of the project ballooned to more than $6 billion.

The area is too steep, too full of rivers and streams and home to endangered species such as the candy darter, a small colorful fish, for the pipeline to be completed, says Joe Lovett, founder and executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

"It's just an inappropriate project. Some things just can't be built," he says.

View from the top of Peter's Mountain shows the effects of the pipeline, Greenville, W.Va., on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.
/ Carlos Bernate for NPR
/
Carlos Bernate for NPR
View from the top of Peter's Mountain shows the effects of the pipeline, Greenville, W.Va., on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.

Legislation to speed up permitting for energy projects could change how future lawsuits are handled.

Lawsuits against the pipeline have been heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, Va. The summary from Manchin's office called for requiring "the relevant agencies to take all necessary actions to permit the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and give the D.C. Circuit jurisdiction over any further litigation."

Manchin, whose office did not respond to requests for comment for this story, is the top recipient of donations from pipeline companies, according to Open Secrets.

Local activists balked at these proposals.

"If you have a criminal on the street that breaks the law, do you hold the criminal accountable or do you change the law so that they're allowed to walk free?" says Autumn Crowe, program director with the non-profit West Virginia Rivers Coalition. That group has documented environmental concerns, including erosion and stream sedimentation, with federal regulators.

Autumn Crowe, program director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, poses in Lewisburg, W.Va., on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.
/ Carlos Bernate For NPR
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Carlos Bernate For NPR
Autumn Crowe, program director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, poses in Lewisburg, W.Va., on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.

Equitrans Midstream Corporation, the company managing the pipeline's development and the largest owner of the project, did not respond to requests for interviews or comment for this story.

But pipeline advocates say lawsuits have led to unnecessary delays.

"There are certainly constituencies that believe that Mountain Valley has not had a fair hearing before a very narrow panel of judges," says Christine Tezak, managing director with Clearview Energy Partners, a research firm that advises investors in major energy projects such as pipelines.

Some want natural gas in the renewable energy future

For some in the area, the pipeline symbolizes a larger battle happening over the future of fossil fuels in the United States, amid the transition to renewable energy.

"People don't understand how many jobs are affected by gas, coal and oil," says Bill Ray Wiseman, who works in equipment sales related to coal mining.

The pipeline cuts a path through some of his land in Summers County, W.Va., and he says the pasture that created improved his land.

Wiseman says he knows the gas, which is slated for markets in the eastern and southeastern United States, will not lower his gas bills, but he still thinks it should be completed, and fossil fuels should stay in the picture.

For utility companies and industrial energy users on the other end of the pipeline, natural gas is a part of their clean energy plans, since it would reduce their use of coal, Tezak says.

"They look at the availability of natural gas as a way to do their job in a better and lower emissions fashion," she says.

But as climate scientists warn that the world must rapidly wean itself off fossil fuels, many others want it stopped.

"For the environmental community ... every incremental pipeline is one pipeline too many," says Tezak.

Pipes that have been sitting for four years on the property of impacted landowner Maury Johnson, in Greenville, W.Va., on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.
/ Carlos Bernate for NPR
/
Carlos Bernate for NPR
Pipes that have been sitting for four years on the property of impacted landowner Maury Johnson, in Greenville, W.Va., on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.

Maury Johnson, of Greenville, is in that group. He's heading to Washington, D.C. on Sept. 8 to join a protest against the pipeline and permitting reform, held by a group called People vs. Fossil Fuel.

Johnson says communities near fossil fuel infrastructure like Mountain Valley didn't get a say in the pipeline deal, and now they want to be heard.

"We're going to try to convince [Manchin] that this side deal is terrible," he says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.
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