They say high energy users want natural gas; opponents of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline reject that argument
While environmentalists and private property advocates celebrated the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline this month, economic developers said the state literally lost fuel that North Carolina needs to attract large employers to lower-income areas in the eastern part of the state.
Over the past three years, Cumberland County and the Fayetteville area were considered for more than $1 billion worth of industrial projects "that either won’t be coming or could not come because we did not have the natural gas structure that they needed," said Robert Van Geons. He is the president and CEO of the Fayetteville Cumberland County Economic Development Corp.
"Some of them located in other parts of the state and other parts of the Southeast. But once it came down to profiling their energy load, we just weren’t able to accommodate it," Van Geons said, declining to name the companies.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was a joint project of Duke Energy and Dominion Energy. It would have run about 600 miles and carried natural gas from West Virginia to central and eastern Virginia and Eastern North Carolina.
Construction was underway, and it was supposed to be completed this year. But the project was stalled by lawsuits and other efforts by its opponents. The estimated construction price rose from $5 billion in 2015 to $8 billion this year.
Duke and Dominion announced the end of the project on July 5. They said ongoing delays and "increasing cost uncertainty" threatened the project’s economic viability.
The opposition included a variety of critics.
Some were property owners who were angry at being forced to give up land for the pipeline. Others were residents along the route who worried about natural gas leaks, fires and explosions near their homes.
And many were environmental activists. They oppose the use of fracking techniques to extract natural gas and they want the world to move away from fossil fuels that exacerbate climate change by adding to the amount of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.
The opponents have argued the nation should further expand the use of renewable energy sources.
Fueling the coast
In North Carolina, the pipeline was going to run roughly parallel to Interstate 95, through Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland and Robeson counties.
Rural counties in Eastern North Carolina often have high poverty rates and have been in economic decline for the past several decades as traditional manufacturing plants and farming jobs disappear.
With connections to local distribution lines, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s gas supply would have been available for industrial projects across much of the eastern half of North Carolina, said Steve Yost, president of the North Carolina’s Southeast regional economic development organization. His agency works for 18 Southeastern North Carolina counties.
Customers could have been as far west as Montgomery County in the center of the state and and as far east as the coastal cities of New Bern and Wilmington, Yost said.
The natural gas wouldn’t have solved all the problems in the region, he added, but "it’s a very important piece of the economic development puzzle when it comes to the infrastructure and energy needs."
In Fayetteville and Cumberland County, Van Geons said he fully supports innovation and use of renewable energy, he said, but that technology has not advanced far enough to meet many industrial manufacturing needs.
Natural gas is the most efficient and effective way to generate the large amount of heat needed for food processing and baking, metal product manufacturing and plastics manufacturing, Van Geons said. Natural gas also is a raw material for making plastics.
But Yost and Van Geons argue that the supply is not enough to meet the needs of plants that consume large quantities and need it year-round without interruption. These factories would see their supplies temporarily cut off, they said, if the gas companies run short in a cold winter and need to maintain heat for residential customers.
Need more than gas
Opponents of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline don’t buy those arguments.
"There’s natural gas in Robeson County now and they’re not coming in," said Jeff Currie of the Winyah Rivers Alliance, an environmental organization. "We’ve had industry before that used that natural gas, but currently we don’t have that industry."
The complaints about the failure of the pipeline are a way "of explaining away that it’s hard to attract jobs to Southeast North Carolina," he added.
Currie said Robeson County residents didn’t want to give up land for the project. And some were concerned that the portions of pipeline in swampy areas would reduce the ability of those wetlands to take up rainwater during heavy rain events, and that would lead to flooding. The county was heavily damaged by flooding in the hurricanes of 2016 and 2018.
"(The pipeline) was just a way for the companies to make more money ... on the backs of folks in North Carolina," Currie said.
Paul Woolverton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 910-261-4710.