U.S. natural gas projects face Keystone-like resistance

Source: USA Today

The U.S. is producing record amounts of natural gas, a fuel widely viewed as cleaner and preferable to coal for electric power generation. But building the infrastructure necessary to bring that fuel to market is increasingly difficult for the industry.

That was the message from industry executives at an “Infrastructure Week” event held in Washington by America’s Natural Gas Alliance, an industry group.

Among them was Diane Leopold, the president of Dominion Energy, whose company is proposing a 550-mile gas pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina and just got final government approval to export liquefied natural gas from a plant in Maryland.

“While this may be the most exciting time in our history, it also may be the most challenging,” Leopold said, citing an “increase in high-intensity opposition” to infrastructure projects. “It is becoming louder, better funded and more sophisticated.”

As she spoke, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which issues permits for interstate pipelines and LNG export facilities, was meeting in a session that had been rescheduled to avoid large-scale protests planned later this month by critics of hydraulic fracturing. The technology has unlocked gas from shale in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

ANGA President Marty Durbin suggested that opponents of projects like Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Cove Point LNG export plant are taking a cue from resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline, the $7 billion project that would carry oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

TransCanada, the pipeline company that would build Keystone, has been awaiting U.S. government approval for more than six years now, with no decision in sight. Opposition by landowners along the route of the proposed pipeline and environmental groups has turned Keystone into one of the most controversial energy projects ever in the U.S.

Similar opposition is shaping up against the ACP project.

“These aren’t new issues,” Durbin said of questions over safety and property access that are common to energy projects. “These are things that pipeline developers have had to deal with for a long time. But we’ve seen a change in the debate. I hesitate to put it this way, but call it the Keystone-ization of every pipeline project that’s out there, that if you can stop one permit, you can stop the development of fossil fuels. That’s changing the way we have to manage these projects.”

Dominion Energy, a subsidiary of Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Resources, is already feeling the heat over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which it proposed last year. Just recently, opponents targeted Dominion Resources’ annual shareholders meeting.

“We need more than good laws and regulations if important infrastructure projects are to get built,” said Leopold, who added she was speaking out to “give voice to an industry.”

“We in the natural gas industry need to speak clearly, speak effectively and — when necessary — speak loudly,” she added. “We need to make all stakeholders aware of how critical it is to our society that we move forward with growing and improving our natural gas infrastructure.”

Dominion Energy stepped up its communications strategy with Cove Point, which still faces legal challenges from environmental groups. The company conducted its largest outreach effort in its 100-year history, including 25,000 “fact books,” 15,000 phone calls and an extensive social-media campaign.

“We advertised so often and in so many places that project opponents became annoyed that they could not escape it,” she said.

Dominion Energy plans to build on its Cove Point experience to promote the ACP pipeline, which would deliver gas to six utilities in Virginia and North Carolina and cost an estimated $4.5 billion to $5 billion to build. The project is in the early stages of the permit process at FERC.

“Today, communications and stakeholder outreach is a strategic skill and as important as engineering and construction,” Leopold said. “It is an absolutely necessary skill. Nothing will get built without it.”