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In fifty years, when our country and the rest of the world is being fueled by renewable energy, citizens of West Virginia will look back at the glut of natural gas pipelines and ask — why?
Why did we give out-of-state fossil fuel corporations the power of eminent domain to take the land of farmers so that the corporations could make a cheap dollar on transporting fossil fuels that will be phased out over the next fifty years?
And the answer will be — corporate money and power.
Out of state fossil fuel corporations are throwing around cash and flexing their political muscle in West Virginia to overpower flesh and blood citizens.
Five years ago, a member of the Sierra Club in West Virginia called and asked me to look into why Sierra Club was supporting natural gas expansion in West Virginia.
I looked into it and eventually wrote a story for the Corporate Crime Reporter titled “Sierra Club Tells Members — We Don’t Take Money from Chesapeake Energy — When in Fact They Took $25 Million.”
The story of corporate money and power is once again hitting close to home with the proposed Potomac River Pipeline.
TransCanada is pushing a pipeline that will deliver fracked gas from Pennsylvania. The proposed natural gas pipeline will cut through farmland in Maryland just west of Hancock, under the C&O Canal and the Potomac River and into Morgan County, where the gas will flow into a proposed pipeline owned by Mountaineer Gas (a subsidiary of the Oklahoma fossil fuel holding company IGS Utilities) that will cut west through prime Morgan County farmland, and into Berkeley County.
The corporate boosters in the area keep saying that this pipeline will deliver much needed natural gas to the people of the eastern panhandle.
But a 2015 feasibility study commissioned by Jefferson County Commission, Berkeley County Council and IGS Mountain Gas undermines this claim.
The study makes it clear that “most existing homeowners whose homes used other energy sources besides natural gas — propane or electric — would likely not switch to natural gas even if it was available.”
“The primary reason is that the cost to switch from one energy source to another and the related cost of retrofitting or replacing existing appliances would be prohibitive,” the study found. “Also, new infrastructure would need to be installed in existing neighborhoods, which is costly and time consuming.”
After the study came out, the study’s recommended option of coming up from the south was rejected for a plan to ship in the gas via TransCanada from the north and into Morgan County and then east.
In May 2016, then Morgan County Commissioner Brad Close sent a letter “on behalf of the Morgan County Commission” to the West Virginia Public Service Commission “to offer our full support of Mountaineer Gas Company’s plan to expand capacity of its existing natural gas distribution system in the Eastern Panhandle.”
Morgan County Commissioner Joel Tuttle says that “though I support the idea of bringing natural gas to Morgan County, I never saw or signed a letter of support for the plan.”
Commissioner Bob Ford, says that the idea of a letter was discussed in a Commission meeting, but he never saw the letter before it went out.
“I don’t see the necessity for the pipeline,” Ford said. “I have never had anyone come before me and demonstrate it was necessary. Why not a public discussion about this?”
The letter was sent to the Public Service Commission — which ruled, despite more than 70 letters of protest — many of them from Morgan County residents — that there was a public necessity for the project and IGS Mountaineer Gas could use eminent domain to take parts of the 500 acre Kesecker farm in Morgan County and other properties along the way for their pipeline.
With the ruling in their back pocket, IGS Mountaineer Gas sued the Keseckers under eminent domain in an effort to take the land. The Keseckers have hired a lawyer and are fighting back. Mountaineer Gas has threatened eminent domain lawsuits against many other landowners.
In 2015, our state Senator, Charles Trump, shepherded into law a bill — S 390 — written by the natural gas industry.
The bill made the Potomac River pipeline possible because it fast tracked natural gas pipelines in the state.
The law delivers corporate welfare to a powerful industry that is pushing similar legislation in states around the country. But only West Virginia and a handful of other states have passed it. The law effectively shifts the burden of paying for construction of new natural gas pipelines from the corporation to existing ratepayers in the state.
The bill was ramrodded through the legislature and signed by the Governor with little notice.
Senator Trump likes to repeat industry talking points that solar and other renewable energies can’t compete with fossil fuels without “subsidies” from the government.
But governments give far more in corporate welfare to the fossil fuel industry than they give to the renewable energy industry — by about 100 to 1.
And Senator Trump, like Sierra Club when it was pushing natural gas in West Virginia five years ago, does not come to the issue with clean hands.
Trump has taken thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies — including natural gas companies.
The corporate boosters of the pipeline downplay safety concerns.
But there are about two pipeline incidents in the United States every day.
According to the Pipeline Safety Trust, half of those are significant incidents — incidents that kill someone, send someone to the hospital, cause $50,000 in property damage, or spill a large amount of fuel into the environment.
And the number of pipeline incidents has been increasing in recent years.
In December 11, 2012, a Columbia Gas Transmission natural gas pipeline exploded near Sissonville, West Virginia and destroyed several homes. The resulting fire melted an 800 foot section of Interstate 77.
Federal inspectors found that the gas pipeline was corroded and hadn’t been inspected since 1988. They said that Columbia Gas Transmission officials should have realized the gas pipeline was at risk of failure, because gas company inspectors had found corrosion in two other lines in the same system. (Columbia Gas Transmission was purchased in 2016 by TransCanada.)
West Virginians are rising up against this pipeline. In February, more than 100 citizens, mostly from West Virginia, confronted TransCanada at a company sponsored open house in Hancock.
And on July 11, there will be a public hearing before the Shepherdstown Town Council to discuss the matter.
“We are calling on the Town Council to reject this pipeline,”said Tracy Cannon, an organizer with Eastern Panhandle Protectors. “The gas company has used bullying tactics to secure the land needed to build the pipeline. The gas would come from hydraulic fracturing, which is harmful to the people’s health and the environment.”
Republican Maryland Governor Larry Hogan recently signed into law a ban on fracking in Maryland. Hogan has the power to stop the TransCanada fracked gas pipeline from cutting through Maryland. There is a petition campaign urging Hogan to do just that because the pipeline would “threaten the health of the millions of people who source their drinking water from the Potomac.”
In the meantime, IGS Mountaineer Gas and the corporate politicians in West Virginia refuse to publicly debate the issue. And yet, now more than ever, we need a public debate.
What exactly are they afraid of?