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Mountain Valley Pipeline begins pumping natural gas

Members of Third Act Virginia protest at Attorney General Jason Miyares' office
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Protesters at Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares' office attempt to deliver a petition calling for a stop work order on the Mountain Valley Pipeline on Feb. 21, 2024 in Richmond.

Residents, activists and a Southwest Virginia congressman want more info.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline went into service on Friday after receiving federal approval earlier in the week.

The 303.5-mile-long natural gas pipeline transports gas from shale fields in the Appalachian basin to Pittsylvania County, Virginia, and was completed this month after a decade of development.

“This is an important and long-awaited day for our Nation and the millions of Americans who now have greater access to an abundant supply of domestic natural gas for use as an affordable, reliable, and cleaner energy resource,” said Equitrans Midstream CEO Diana Charletta, the pipeline’s developer.

MVP’s construction was held up for years by court challenges to state and federal permits regarding water crossings and construction in a section of the Jefferson National Forest. Environmental violations, protest actions and struggles with weather and terrain also contributed to delays. Developers originally projected an in-service date of late 2018.

Delays also more than doubled the cost of the project to $7.85 billion.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (I–WV) eventually forced the issue, securing language in the 2023 Fiscal Responsibility Act requiring that all federal permits for the project be granted. Congress’ language also removed jurisdiction over court challenges from the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals — where the permits had previously been vacated.

That led to a consent order between Equitrans and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration that detailed requirements for the project to go in-service, including testing years-old pipes that had been left in the elements.

Virginia Rep. Morgan Griffith (R–09), who represents counties that the newly operational pipeline runs through, told VPM News he still has concerns.

"I really am one of those individuals who has a lack of confidence in the Mountain Valley Pipeline Corporation… to run things properly,” Griffith said in a phone interview. “But we'll see. I hope I'm wrong."

Griffith said his concerns date back to the earliest days of pipeline development, when farmers in his district reported that MVP surveyors came onto their properties without notice — reportedly with permission from federal regulators. Over time, he’s been unsatisfied with how the developer and regulators have handled public discontent, despite being a supporter of building out natural gas infrastructure.

“Regrettably, Mountain Valley Pipeline over the years has said that they were going to take care of things like erosion. ‘Oh, that won't be a problem,’ and that turns out to be a problem,” Griffith said. “They did not anticipate that there would be a problem with their pipes. Many people raised concerns about the piping… and then Mountain Valley was doing some testing and one of the pipes had a serious problem.”

West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported a section of pipe burst on May 1 during hydro testing of the pipeline in Roanoke County, sending large quantities of water onto adjacent properties. Equitrans did not immediately disclose the pipe failure to the public.

The pipeline developer later said the failed test showed pre-operation inspections were doing their job and ensuring a safe final product and regulators at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality said erosion controls were in place.

Activists say it’s concerning that they have not seen results of metallurgical testing done on that section of pipe.

In a Wednesday press conference with activists and residents adjacent to the pipeline route, Russell Chisholm of the Protect Our Water, Heritage Rights Coalition said he has many transparency concerns.

“This is all part of a pattern of how we are kept in the dark as the people who most in harm's way, who have to make decisions for themselves, about whether they can continue to live here,” Chisholm, who also lives in the pipeline’s impact zone, said.

Despite a wave of public comments expressing concerns after MVP requested to go in-service on Monday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission stated Tuesday it was confident the requirements of the consent order and environmental permits had been met.

“We've heard lip service from our agencies all along, that ‘there's no problems associated with this pipeline,’ and we've documented problems,” said Autumn Crowe of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition during the Wednesday conference.

MVP is contracted to deliver most of its capacity to the Transcontinental Pipeline, which runs from Texas to New York City.

It will also deliver some gas to Roanoke Gas Company.

“Demand for natural gas in Southwest Virginia continues to grow, and the importance of MVP’s energy supply cannot be overstated,” said Paul Nester, president and chief executive officer of Roanoke Gas Co., in a statement published by MVP. “MVP’s delivery points to Roanoke Gas in Franklin and Montgomery Counties are certain to provide direct, long-term economic benefits to our community and this region.”

Congressman Griffith said he agreed that access to natural gas would be helpful for economic development in Southwest Virginia — as long as it is paired with essentials like good geography and access to water, sewer and electrical service.

“Does it offset my concerns for safety? No, not completely. But they are two separate issues. I don't see them as being the same,” Griffith told VPM News.

Chisholm questioned how beneficial the expanded access to gas will be compared to other costs.

“All those kinds of claims need to be measured against the costs for decades that are going to come from this project,” Chisholm said. “Pumping methane into the atmosphere is overheating our planet, is creating crisis situations in our communities along this route.”

Another underlying concern of residents is the terrain the pipeline is built into. MVP traverses karst — a landscape characterized by water-soluble rock that creates caverns and sinkholes. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the pipeline’s route runs through a sinkhole hotspot.

MVP utilized a karst mitigation plan featuring monitoring and stabilization protocols, which states: “Avoidance of a karst feature constitutes the first and foremost recommendation for mitigating impact. If an identified karst feature cannot be reasonably avoided, or if a previously unidentified karst feature is encountered or forms during construction, this Karst Mitigation Plan provides recommendations for impact mitigation and feature stabilization.”

In 2022, 35% of the United States’ total carbon dioxide emissions came from natural gas.

Natural gas is mostly made up of methane (CH4). Methane itself is a highly potent greenhouse gas, but when burned its high hydrogen (H) content means it produces less carbon dioxide (CO2) than coal for an equivalent amount of energy.

But it still releases a lot of CO2, which the International Panel on Climate Change says humans need to eliminate as soon as possible to lessen the effects of climate change.

At full capacity, the pipeline is able to transport 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas daily. According to an EPA carbon equivalences calculator, burning that much natural gas would release 110,000 metric tons of CO2.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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