Why Canceling the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a Big Win for the Environment

Why Canceling the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a Big Win for the Environment

After six years of legal battles and controversy, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy announced the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project. Though the project sought to bring a lower-cost and lower-emitting energy source to the coal-burning homes and industries in Virginia and North Carolina, many deemed the project unnecessary. They felt it did not justify the immense toll it would have taken on the environment and surrounding communities. Here’s a closer look at what the project entailed and how the cancellation happened.

About the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was a roughly 965-kilometer (600-mile) natural gas project lead by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy. They announced it in 2014 as a way to “meet the growing needs of consumers and businesses” in Virginia and North Carolina, where much of the region currently relies on coal energy. The pipeline’s path would have taken a trek from the state of West Virginia and through Virginia, stopping near the eastern coast of North Carolina. The route would have included a 125-foot wide corridor.

Pushback and delays

Initial projections listed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline as a four to five billion dollar (USD) project, but that number quickly escalated to nearly eight billion (more than 11 billion AUD) over the next several years. This occurred as the project ran into pushback and several setbacks due to the environmental and legal concerns associated with the pipeline’s multi-state path.

Several environmental law groups — including Southern Environment Law Center (SELC), who represented the groups in front of the Supreme Court — challenged the project and sued five associated federal agencies that approved the plan. 

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Pipelines cut through forest in Germany. Photo: Quinten de Graaf.

SELC, along with their partners and concerned citizens, asserted that federal agencies had no legal right to move forward with the projected path, which would cross about 183 meters (600 feet) underground the Appalachian Trail, through George Washington National Forest. In the U.S., national forests are one type of protected public land that preserves the integrity of a landscape while also providing resources like lumber, areas for animal grazing and recreational opportunities. 

While the law sided with environmentalists and a special-use permit was thrown out by the 4th United States Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia, this did not stop or re-route the project. Instead, the United States Supreme Court reversed the move in a 7-2 ruling, allowing it to continue with its proposed plan.

Project cancellation

Earlier this month, on July 5, 2020, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy sent out press releases announcing the cancellation of the Atlantic Coastline Pipeline due to “increasing legal uncertainty that overhangs large-scale energy and industrial infrastructure development in the United States.” They deemed it “too uncertain to justify investing more shareholder capital.” 

The news came after the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana overturned Nationwide Permit 12, a federal permit that gave authority for water and wetland crossings. A Ninth Circuit ruling made any future appeal of the overturn unlikely, which Duke Energy called a “new and serious challenge” to the project, given the likelihood of similar movements taking place in other Circuits.

For a world of environmentally conscious citizens and consumers — 88% of whom who claim loyalty to environmentally efficient companies — the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project is a monumental win. Had the project seen completion, it could have set a negative and ominous precedent for future pipelines and environmentally destructive projects to seek special permission to access sensitive and protected lands. The project would have also caused immense damage to land and wildlife habitats during construction and threatened countless citizens’ well-being.

Negative impacts of pipeline construction

The project’s path would have taken it through 600 miles worth of forests, rivers, streams, lakes, trails, hills and countryside. It would have required large-scale tree removal, blasting, leveling and destructive trenching along the way. To the thousands of plant and animal species who call these lands home, the effects would have been devastating


The pipeline’s intrusion on sensitive land would have challenged the region’s ability to filter water and air successfully. Construction would have added excess sediment and pollution into local waterways, disrupting the natural balance of underwater ecosystems. 

Further concerns were voiced for residents of Union Hill, Virginia, where a compressor station was slated to be built. The emissions from the station would have put the health of the quiet, rural community at risk and created more pollution in local waterways. Natural gas compressor stations have been linked to 70 dangerous chemicals that can contribute to numerous respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological and developmental diseases and cancers.

The possibility of oil spillage

In addition to the environmental and residential ramifications of pipeline construction, oil spills become possible once a pipeline is operational. Oil spills spread quickly and are challenging to correct. They put public health at risk, threaten water supplies and negatively impact the homes and lives of fish, birds and other species. Since 2010, U.S. pipelines alone have been responsible for nearly nine million gallons of crude oil spillage, and almost one-third of the average cost of pipeline failures is spent on environmental remediation.

Pipelines and climate change

Large-scale pipelines are also a significant contributor to climate change. According to a recent report, global coal, oil and gas production is set to exceed the emissions limit set to meet global temperature limits over the next decade. 

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Many environmentalist organizations, including the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, see the cancellation as a positive omen about the future of fracking and fossil fuels. “[The project’s cancellation] adds to the mountain of evidence that we do not require fracked gas to meet our energy needs,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune released in a statement

Photo: Rodion Kutsaev.

Greg Buppert, a Senior Attorney associated with SELC, affirms the cancellation was the best move for the environment and the communities that would have been affected. He says it opens up the opportunity for cleaner energy alternatives. 

Though there are still miles of other pipelines in the works, delays and cancellations of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other projects, including Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL, are a strong indicator that environmentalist voices are being heard and real change is possible.

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Cover image source Dominion Energy.

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