When Dominion Energy and Duke Energy unexpectedly cancelled plans to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on July 5, environmental advocates throughout the Southeast cheered.
But even a few days later, Mark Sabath, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, still seemed a bit shocked by the victory. His organization worked for six years to stop the 600-mile-long pipeline, which would have transported fracked gas through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.
“We were surprised in terms of it happening when it did,” he says of the companies’ decision. “But it was certainly something we were thinking for a long time should happen.”
Of course, should and would are often a world apart. In fact, just a few weeks earlier, the energy companies had won a substantial victory when the Supreme Court ruled that their pipeline could cross the Appalachian Trail.
So when the word came down that Dominion and Duke were throwing in the towel, it caught a lot of people off guard. And it wasn’t unique — the announcement came along with a wave of other bad news for the oil and gas industry, including bankruptcies and more stalled pipeline efforts.
In his weekly column for The New Yorker, Bill McKibben summed it all up: “It’s been a truly awful few days for the fossil-fuel industry, which is another way of saying that it’s been an unexpectedly good few days for planet Earth.”
Indeed, at quick glance, the industry looks like it’s on the ropes, but what does it all mean in the big picture? Here are some takeaways.
Cutting corners backfires
In a statement on the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which had ballooned in cost from an estimated $5 billion to $8 billion, the developersblamed “the increasing legal uncertainty that overhangs large-scale energy and industrial infrastructure development in the United States.”
But there’s much more to the story than that. One of the biggest factors, Sabath says, is that the developers — and their government boosters — didn’t follow the rules.
“Cutting corners — and pressuring the agencies to cut corners with their environmental reviews — certainly slowed things down and made it more difficult to finish the project,” he says.
Lorne Stockman, senior research analyst at Oil Change International, an anti-fossil-fuel advocacy group, explained in a blog post that federal agencies rubber-stamped eight permits without proper review.
“But none of these could stand up to scrutiny when challenged in a court of law, and all were eventually revoked or suspended,” wrote Stockman. “The fact that [the Atlantic Coast Pipeline] can’t be built without violating the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act or the National Environmental Protection Act should be an important and concerning lesson.”
This short-circuiting of environmental review is a common thread Sabath sees in two other pipeline decisions that came just a day after the Atlantic Coast announcement.
On July 6 the Supreme Court nixed an attempt by the Trump administration to jumpstart construction on the Keystone XL pipeline…