On April 11, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) circulated a Notice of Department Decision, effectively agreeing that Dominion Carolinas Gas Transmission’s Transco to Charleston natural gas pipeline project will not negatively impact water quality along it’s 55-mile route through Spartanburg, Laurens, Newberry and Greenwood Counties. This decision, certifying the project under Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act, is the last hurdle in the pipeline’s regulatory approval process. Upstate Forever (UF) and the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP) have challenged the project since it was filed with the Federal Energy and Regulatory Commission (FERC) in March of 2016. Upstate Forever and SCELP questioned both the need for the project (in light of the construction on the VC Summer nuclear plants in the midlands) as well as the route choice.
Shortly after the DHEC approval, Westinghouse Electric Company, the contractor for the two VC Summer nuclear reactors, filed for bankruptcy protection. Upstate Forever has been monitoring the VC Summer situation since last year, but public statements made by SCE&G only recently have made it clear that the viability of the entire project is truly in jeopardy due to the likely inability of Westinghouse to fulfill its contract. We have conducted our own analysis and determined that the probability of abandonment of the nuclear project is high.
If the nuclear project is abandoned, then SCE&G must replace that planned 1.2 gigawatts of baseload with an alternative, and the most economical alternative for SCE&G’s ratepayers may be a natural gas plant that had otherwise not been in SCE&G’s plans.
While the long-term fate of the nuclear units is still unknown and may not be fully determined for months, Upstate Forever and SCELP are faced with the current deadline for requesting DHEC Board review of the staff recommendation and then with appeal of a final board decision to the Administrative Law Court. Based on our analysis of the situation with VC Summer, Upstate Forever and SCELP will not request DHEC Board review of the Dominion Transco to Charleston pipeline project.
This final approval, the only significant regulatory decision delegated to the state, is the capstone in a national process that is flawed and biased against the citizens most significantly impacted – those who own private property that will be crossed and who depend upon clean Upstate waters. Upstate Forever and SCELP have sought much greater scrutiny of the project, and the federal process simply dismisses the questions and shuts out the public from the decision-making process. The fact that Dominion and other pipeline companies are readily handed the right to use eminent domain to force landowners into easements restricting the use and value of their property makes the process even more egregious.
Upstate Forever and SCELP were successful in encouraging greater scrutiny by DHEC. In addition, the organizations provided information to the agency that allowed a greater opportunity for the public to provide input, culminating with a public meeting on March 21. The additional time and publicity that the organizations facilitated gave landowners additional time to negotiate easements with Dominion and it enabled some landowners – previously kept in the dark by the process – to connect with each other and learn more about their rights. Upstate Forever and SCELP added considerable transparency to a process that is difficult to navigate.
One thing is clear. This will not be the last pipeline project in South Carolina, and this fact should be on the public’s radar. Until sufficient pressure is put on Congress to fix this terribly flawed and biased process, the outcomes will continue to be the same and property rights will continue to be abused without scrutiny.
At the state level, Upstate Forever will be examining the flaws in South Carolina policy that result in projects that are a burden to ratepayers and to the environment. Both the federal and state regulatory structures need significant overhaul in light of the increasing likelihood of natural gas export opportunities, increasing natural gas prices, the low cost and high payback of energy efficiency investments, and the decreasing costs of renewable energy combined with battery storage capability.
For more information, contact Shelley Robbins, Energy and State Policy Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org.