Federal govt. approves Columbia Gas line under Potomac

by Kate Shunney

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on Thursday, July 19 issued a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity to Columbia Gas Transmission to build a natural gas pipeline from Fulton County, Pa. through the area west of Hancock and under the Potomac River to reach Morgan County, W.Va.

FERC’s decision will allow Columbia Gas to build a 3.37-mile, 8-inch diameter natural gas line. The line will connect an existing gas line in Fulton County, Pa. to a 23-mile gas line being built by Mountaineer Gas from the Berkeley Springs area to Martinsburg in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

The project is referred to as the Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project.

In the 54-page Order issuing the certificate, FERC officials say they have made a thorough study of the Columbia Gas construction proposal,   financing of the estimated $25 million project and the potential environmental impacts of construction and operation of the line.

The project is designed to deliver up to 47,500 Dekatherms per day of natural gas to Mountaineer Gas’ West Virginia system.

FERC officials specifically address environmental issues presented to the agency during comment periods since Columbia Gas applied for the certificate in March 2017. The Potomac Riverkeeper Network has been at the forefront of mobilizing the public and state agencies against the pipeline project, citing risks of contamination of the Potomac River from construction and operation of the gas line.

Drilling under the Potomac

Columbia Gas plans to construct the line under the Potomac River by using Horizontal Directional Drilling.

Company officials have said a drilling rig on the West Virginia side of the river will drive a bit under the riverbed. That drill will emerge north of the C&O Canal National Historical Park in the area west of Hancock. Plans say the pipeline will be built on the Hancock side of the river, then pulled back through the drilled space under the river to the Berkeley Springs side of the Potomac.

Company officials have said the drilling operation will be located on an already-cleared pad on the east side of U.S. 522 roughly a mile south of the Hancock bridge.

Two members of FERC issued separate opinions on the order to grant Columbia Gas’ certificate.

In a four-page concurring statement, Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur writes that the project is in the public interest, but she believes FERC should focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as part of their process to evaluate pipeline projects.

She writes, “I believe we could better account for changes in the GHG emissions resulting from the combustion of the transported gas by calculating the Social Cost of Carbon which more accurately reflects the climate change impacts of a particular project.”

“As for the upstream impacts associated with the Eastern Panhandle Project, the Commission declines to include even the generic upstream information we have been disclosing since 2016, finding such information to be irrelevant. I do not support this decision,” LaFleur writes.

Commissioner Richard Glick, in a six-page dissent from the FERC certificate, takes similar issue with the agency’s decision not to consider the overall impacts of natural gas extraction and burning when calculating the environmental impacts of the project.

“The Commission also finds that the Project will not have a significant effect on the environment. Yet, in reaching these conclusions, the Commission maintains that it need not consider the harm from the Project’s contribution to climate change. I believe that the Commission’s refusal to do so falls well short of our obligations under the Natural Gas Act (NGA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),” Glick writes.

His dissent, he writes, is in part because he believes “the Commission cannot find that the Project is in the public interest without first considering the significance of the Project’s contribution to climate change.”

The FERC order also includes a six-page list of Environmental Conditions that Columbia Gas must follow in construction of the pipeline.

Columbia Gas Transmission must still secure the required state and local permits to build the pipeline, before being granted a Notice to Proceed on the project.