A pipeline protest in Richmond, Virginia in 2015. Credit: AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bob Brown

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline wouldn’t cause more fracking or more gas-fired power production, federal regulators argued in a recent environmental review.

Largely for that reason, the proposed 600-mile pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina “will not contribute to [greenhouse gas] cumulative impacts or to climate change,” officials wrote.

With its conclusion, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) continued what critics say is a trend: ignoring much of the impact new gas projects could have on global warming.

And even with a Trump administration days from power, climate advocates say they’ll continue to press FERC to shift course.

“Pipelines,” said Dr. Richard Ball, scientist with the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, “create a financial incentive to sell the gas for a long time into the future – a future in which the science clearly indicates the world has to stop burning fossil fuels if we are to have a chance at preventing serious, perhaps even catastrophic, climate change.”

‘Not causally connected’

FERC, a three-member panel with staggered terms appointed by the president, will decide the pipeline’s fate in the fall based in part on its environmental impact, per federal law.

The agency’s draft assessment, issued December 30, includes hundreds of pages of analysis of how the project – designed to transport 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas each day to Virginia and North Carolina – will impact rivers, wildlife, migratory birds, and more.

FERC did examine some climate ramifications of the pipeline: its construction, compressor stations, and transmission leaks of methane – a potent greenhouse gas. But it concluded the associated emissions – nearly 1.2 million metric tons per year after construction – would be minimal.

And though officials determined gas combustion from the power plants served by the pipeline could create 29 million metric tons of pollution per year, they said neither this “end-use” or additional gas drilling should be tied to the pipeline itself.

“The upstream production and downstream combustion of gas is not causally connected because the production and end-use would occur with or without the projects,” officials wrote, referring to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the related Supply Header Project in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. “Therefore, the circumstances in this case do not warrant the inclusion of production or end-use as an indirect effect of the projects.”

More pipelines, more pollution?

FERC will take comments on its draft statement until April 6, and advocates say they’re working on their own climate change impact analysis to offer for the public record.

Though they concede some drilling and natural gas combustion will occur even without the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, they say it will inevitably cause more of both – especially in combination with the raft of new gas infrastructure projects in the works.

“It is difficult to give a definitive answer to questions of additionality,” said Ball of the Sierra Club, a former analyst with the U.S. Department of Energy who now volunteers on energy issues. But, he said, “providing pipelines to areas not already served or inadequately served certainly enables greater usage.”

In a July report, Oil Change International estimated 19 pending projects designed to transport fracked gas from the Marcellus and Utica Shales would enable an additional 116 trillion cubic feet of gas production by 2050.

The resulting pollution, the study said, would make global and domestic climate goals established in Paris impossible to reach.

“Pipelines would facilitate an increase in natural gas production, which would push the world past climate limits,” said Greg Muttitt, a contributor to the study.

Advocates are also concerned about natural gas drilling on the front end – not just combustion on the back end – because methane plays such an outsized role in global warming.

“Methane is [over] 80 times as potent as carbon,” said Kelly Martin, associate director for Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, “so when it’s leaking at the wellhead, it’s leaking along the distribution lines, and getting burned, you’ve got a significant climate polluter.”

An estimate  from Martin’s group shows natural gas production to supply the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could cause, on the upper end, 30 million metric tons of global warming pollution per year.

Equally vexing for advocates is a $5 billion investment they say will guarantee fossil fuel dependence for decades to the exclusion of clean energy sources like wind and solar.

“What makes this particularly problematic is that this is poised to happen at a time the cost of renewables keeps dropping dramatically,” said Greg Buppert, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We’re committing to a fossil fuel future at a time that it doesn’t make economic sense to do so.”

A question of necessity

Advocates back up their assertion the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will lead to more pollution with another claim: it isn’t needed for new gas power plants already planned by Dominion and Duke Energy.

Once it is built, Buppert said, “utilities will be very motivated to use this pipeline because it’s profitable.”

Two different studies show current pipeline and storage infrastructure can meet peak demand in the region at least until 2030, even as utilities make the shift from coal to natural gas.

Dominion, the company building the pipeline, vigorously disputes that notion.

“It is an anti-pipeline report paid for by anti-pipeline groups,” spokesman Aaron Ruby said of one analysis commissioned by the Southern Environmental Law Center and Appalachian Mountain Advocates. “They are dedicated to completely eradicating the use of fossil fuels from the American economy, period.”

Ruby says the report overestimates gas storage capacity and underestimates peak demand, charges Buppert rejects. “Dominion hasn’t read our study very carefully,” he said.

Ultimately it will fall to FERC to sort out who’s right, and it won’t reveal its analysis until it approves or denies the project’s application.

But the need for the project and its environmental repercussions are closely intertwined. According to federal regulations, the “heart” of the impact statement is consideration of alternatives, “including the alternative of no action.”

Considering the impact of not building the pipeline at all requires some understanding of its necessity, and in that regard FERC’s draft environmental assessment falls far short, said Buppert.

“I see that as a critical defect in the document so far.”

‘Trump can’t change that’

In August, the White House issued guidelines for how federal agencies should incorporate climate change into their environmental assessments, instructions FERC followed only partially in its examination of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

But as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take the reins, advocates stress the Obama guidance only clarified existing law; it did not create new requirements.

“With or without this guidance,” said Anne Havemann, general counsel for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, “[FERC] is still required to look at climate impacts. Trump can’t change that.”

And since FERC has proven reluctant to evaluate climate impacts even with a president egging it on, advocates say the courts may play the biggest role in how the agency behaves on the issue moving forward.

FERC has been sued for its failure to look at climate impacts and probably will continue to be sued,” Havemann said, until it begins adequately studying the climate implications of the dozens of new natural gas projects being proposed.

“If we don’t understand what the climate impacts are, we’re not entering into this with our eyes open.”

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.