Located along a winding road in the peaceful Blue Ridge foothills of Nelson County, the Acorn Inn Bed and Breakfast boasts 15 guest rooms close to local vineyards, craft breweries and the ski runs at Wintergreen. English, Dutch, German and Spanish are spoken.
It’s also an epicenter of an energy battle growing with the same kind of intensity surrounding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. That project, stretching from Canada to the Gulf Coast, was shot down by the U.S. Senate last month.
Richmond-based Dominion Transmission and three other large utilities have their own plan in the works — a $5 billion pipeline that would take new troves of cheap natural gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing drilling from West Virginia to Virginia, through Nelson County, around Richmond and on to North Carolina.
Kathy Versluys, co-owner of the Acorn B&B, was one of many Nelson residents surprised to learn of the plan in May.
“It came out of the blue,” says Versluys, who predicts that her business will be ruined if it will be in the pipeline’s pathway, as Dominion has indicated it might be.
The ambitious, 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline would start in the busy fracked natural gas lands of northern West Virginia, climb over environmentally sensitive tops of the Appalachians, 4,000 feet high, and then drop southeast through Augusta and Nelson counties to Buckingham County about 60 miles west of Richmond. From there, it would continue to North Carolina, with a spur line into Hampton Roads.
Scheduled for completion in 2018, the pipeline would pump 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas daily.
Controversial fracking methods have proven so successful economically that they’ve turned the U.S. energy picture upside down. They could make the country a net exporter of petroleum for the first time in decades.
In the fracking process, pipes are drilled into mountains horizontally. Water and powerful chemicals are used to fracture rock pockets to free oil and gas that earlier drilling methods couldn’t reach. A huge new source of fracked gas is the Marcellus Shale formation, stretching from western New York to Virginia.
But there are concerns that the method could contaminate groundwater, release dangerous methane, cause explosions and fires — and disrupt communities.
Pipeline partners Dominion, Georgia-based AGL Resources, and North Carolina-based Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas covet natural gas because it’s a cleaner and now cheaper substitute for coal. They say coal generates twice as much carbon dioxide as gas, a claim that environmentalists dispute.
Dominion insists it will do its best to minimize impacts.
“We have to meet strict requirements,” says Pamela Faggert, the chief environmental officer for Dominion Resources. The project has some influential backers, such as Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who, perhaps ironically, ran as a pro-green candidate in last year’s election. He says the project could create 8,800 jobs and give Virginia “direct access to the most affordable natural gas supply in the United States.”
But for many residents of Nelson County, including Connie Brennan, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, the lines are clearly drawn. “We are known for our incredible beauty,” she says. “We are very opposed to the pipeline. This is a huge burden with very little payback with small taxes and the loss of property values.”
An important step will be for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate energy supplies, to prepare an environmental impact statement, perhaps starting next summer. But before that happens, the pipeline owners must settle on a route.
At the moment, Dominion has run into trouble because a number of landowners refuse to allow its representatives onto their land for surveys. “Dominion has very politely asked us to let them survey,” says Versluys, who fears that the approximately 100-foot-wide right-of-way for the pipeline will destroy her bed and breakfast business.
Met with refusals, Dominion’s powerhouse Richmond law firm, McGuireWoods, has swept into action, sending 189 property owners in the state “final” notices that they will be sued if they refuse to let Dominion survey their land. Thirty-seven landowners in North Carolina and West Virginia received similar letters.
Some Nelson County residents question where Dominion gets the right to force its way onto their land. Anne Buteau, who runs an organic farm, says that the law cited by Dominion is vague.
“The law doesn’t exactly say they can come on in if we refuse,” Buteau says. “It seems to say that they can come in if no one responds to their request.”
Joanna Salidis, another landowner, adds: “There’s a lot of fear.”
In Nelson County, the pipeline likely would provide little monetary benefit, but that isn’t the case in other counties. Dominion plans a 32,000-horsepower compressor station in Buckingham County, where the pipeline would intersect an older Transco pipeline that takes gas from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast.
The station, the cost of which hasn’t been announced, would provide local jobs. But Buckingham residents, like their Nelson counterparts, have complained about being treated rudely over land surveys, according to news accounts.
Dominion has made a big play in natural gas. It has converted its coal-fired Bremo Bluff power plant to gas and has a new $1.3 billion, 1,326-megawatt, gas-fired plant coming online along the proposed pipeline route in Brunswick County.
Dominion also has approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to convert a liquefied natural gas import plant built in the 1970s at Cove Point, Maryland, into an export facility. The utility has contracts to sell the gas exports through the $3.6 billion project in India and Japan. Dominion spokesman Jim Norvelle says that none of the gas pumped in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will be exported.
Worried Nelson County residents have allies in the national green movement. Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, says his group opposes the pipeline because it will disturb communities and possibly harm sensitive, mountain-dwelling plants and animals.
Dominion’s Faggert says the pipeline route already has been shifted to avoid the breeding areas of the rare Cow Knob salamander, which lives only at elevations higher than 2,400 feet in Augusta, Rockingham and Shenandoah counties in Virginia.
Besa says that because of well leaks and the potential for the release of potent methane, natural gas use has dubious advantages over coal.
For some Nelson County residents, the threat is more immediate. “We’re threatened with eminent domain,” Salidis says, “and this project will be subsidized by our property.” S