Pipelines in the Shenandoah: A Conservative Environmentalist's Perspective
By Nathan Richendollar '19
The other fortnight, I was headed to co-op, as omnivorous BBQ lovers are wont to do, and as usual, I took Nelson street the whole way from East Denny Circle. Upon turning onto Nelson, I saw something that I couldn’t quite believe: a large natural gas truck, fully bedecked with warning signs reading “flammable” turned off of Washington Street’s dead end next to Gaines Hall and onto US 60. Though the truck may have gotten lost in downtown Lexington and was likely not supposed to be driving through the quad, this was not a one-off occurrence for the town. At least ten times, I have seen gas trucks from various companies rolling down US 60 into or out of town, hauling natural gas and toxic recovered fracking fluids into and out of the gas land of the Allegheny Highlands, West Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky beyond. Alternately, trains running on rails built decades or centuries ago haul tankers full of the stuff out of Appalachia and into the markets of the Northeast, lowland South, and Midwest to keep the lights on. Plainly, we need to produce as much energy as we can, as safely as we can do it, with as little environmental impact as possible, as cheaply and cleanly as possible. But we also need to be able to transport that energy to markets with the same considerations in mind. Though there are some caveats to be discussed, it’s about time we came to the realization that the proposed Mountain Valley and Dominion Southeast pipeline projects are in all of our best interests.
First let me add one of the caveats: back in 2013 I attended a Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) meeting in my hometown about a proposed Michigan pipeline and observed that company officials approaching landowners would use the veiled threat of eminent domain to get resistant landowners to grant them lease agreements and right-of-way. As a free marketer, I do not support this kind of coercive government power being used to push through development. If the individual property owners themselves do not all consent (and at this point only about 25% of Nelson County landowners in the path have), then the pipeline should be re-routed or not happen at all. Much like Abraham Lincoln said of the GOP in yesteryear, I am for the man and the dollar, but where they are in conflict, the man before the dollar. The sacred foundation of property rights, the republic’s bedrock, must trump transient economic interest. This piece is not meant to encourage building at all costs, but to encourage landowners to consent to the pipeline and local residents to support it voluntarily.
Another caveat: environmentalists do have one very legitimate gripe with pipeline maintenance: after cutting down trees on either side of the route, it is common for energy companies to spray herbicides every year to keep plants from growing back in around the pipeline. In areas as hilly as the Western Virginia Appalachians, this is bound to affect private property not covered by right-of-way provisions and seep into some of Virginia’s best trout streams and headwater springs. Instead, these companies should use mowing to maintain the grassy margins of the pipeline, in the process creating even more jobs along the pipeline’s route.
Come the weekend, you’re more likely to bump into me along Woods Creek trail looking for birds or along the Blue Ridge Parkway searching for snakes and salamanders (my all-enveloping secret life of field herpetology) than you are to see me at a frat house, more likely to see me tromping about the woods taking pictures and mimicking bird calls while identifying trees than to see me playing video games. I love nature. Every darn thing about it…..except the ticks and possibly the more pernicious of the mosquitoes. Whether it be a Tennessee spruce forest, Ohio shale ravine, or Michigan’s northern wilds, I feel most at home the furthest from civilization. But I must recognize that this nation has energy needs, and simply not producing any energy in the Marcellus shale is not an option, nor would it be a moral one if available. I fail to see the morality of raising energy prices to a point at which poor and working-class families are choosing between paying heating/cooling bills or eating, between putting the morning commute on a credit card or using sick days only to decrease the amount of land disturbed by a few percent. The question is how we can safely and cheaply use energy with minimal environmental impact, not whether there will be any environmental impact. So what is the Marcellus shale and why all the hub-bub about it lately?
The Marcellus and Utica shale formations, long too expensive to harvest because of the trapped nature of the deposit, has become accessible due to hydraulic fracturing, a process whereby porous rocks containing deposits of trapped natural gas are blasted with highly pressurized waters and a concoction of chemicals, creating fissures in the rock where the gas can seep to the surface to be harvested. This technique’s spread has unlocked hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas beneath the Western Appalachian Plateau, making America the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, driving spot prices for invisible gold from over $9 per million BTUs in 2008 to below $3 now as supply expands rapidly, with Marcellus states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania seeing a quadrupling of production just since 2010. The problem is that this area, chiefly rural and mountainous, has limited infrastructure to transport the gas to market once it is extracted, thus the hankering for pipelines.
Someone is going to produce this energy whether we let the pipelines come through Virginia or not, which is good for the environment and the economy in an aggregate sense to begin with, as natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than coal or oil, requires less surface damage to the ground to extract than coal, and is cheaper for the average citizen’s electric bills than coal, oil, nuclear, or renewables (barring massive subsidies for any of those options, of course). The question is: would we rather have the natural gas leaving for markets in trucks and trains, which run the risk of derailment and crashes, increasing the risk of human death from transportation of gas as opposed to a few large-volume pipelines, and which are less cost-effective than pipelines but don’t constitute bothersome eyesores, or have pipelines.
For the sake of cost efficiency, safety, and national security, it’s time to build the pipelines, even if they are in my backyard. Sure, these routes should be designed to go through the least environmentally sensitive areas of the GW National Forest and the Parkway, such as Reddish Knob and Big Levels, but they can still go through nonetheless, reducing the cost of natural gas to working families and eliminating the possibility of catastrophic truck crashes or train derailments, which occur several times per year in the United States. Further, the building of these pipelines would create well-paid construction jobs all across some of the most depressed areas of the state, namely Southwest and Southside Virginia, not to mention the jobs that will be created in maintaining the pipeline for the foreseeable future. Put it in my backyard. The wildlife will still be here, the streams will still be clear and unaffected by the movement, and the mountains will still be green as far as the eye can see, with safer roads and cheaper energy to boot.