Elise Keaton Liegel on the Growing Opposition to The Natural Gas Pipelines in West Virginia

Fracking has been halted in New York and Maryland.

That means it’s open season on West Virginia.


Two major pipelines have been proposed– the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline — that would cut through the West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina countryside — and move 2.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas from the frack fields of West Virginia to domestic and export markets.

But opposition is brewing.

Elise Keaton Liegel is with the Greenbrier Watershed Association, one of the groups organizing against the pipelines.

“I am organizing communities ahead of the proposed Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines in West Virginia,” Keaton Liegel said in an interview with Corporate Crime Reporter last week. “These are two proposed 42 inch export lines that would carry up to 2.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from the frack fields in Wetzel and Doddridge counties to other markets outside of the state of West Virginia.”

“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a project of Dominion — and Duke Energy is involved with that project as well. And for the Mountain Valley Pipeline — the primary actors are the EQT company and NextEra Energy.”

These pipelines will move natural gas from the northern part of West Virginia and hook up with other pipelines to take the gas to export markets.

What is the legal status of the pipelines?

“They are in the pre-filing phase with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC),” Keaton Liegel said. “The companies have submitted a document to FERC that basically says — we are interested in building a pipeline, we are doing some research regarding what the best route for that pipeline would be. The process allows for environmental surveys. It allows for a preliminary run through of where the pipeline would go.”

“At the end of that pre-filing phase, the company either feels comfortable enough that the route is a good one that they then file a formal application with FERC, or they abandon the project and do not file a formal application with FERC. If these companies decide to file a formal application with FERC, that will happen in October 2015.”

“They have not filed a formal application with FERC and that’s very important. Many people think that FERC has already approved the pipelines and they are going to be built anyway. But the reality is that FERC must now take into consideration the thousands of comments that have been submitted in the past six months regarding specific issues with the proposed route.”

This natural gas that will be delivered by these pipelines is for export?

“If the natural gas is for export, then federal government may not grant eminent domain for these companies to take the private property they would need to take to build the pipelines,” Keaton Liegel says.

“But the export argument is probably the easiest for FERC to dismiss. The pipeline companies argue that any person in the U.S. can pull gas off of this pipeline. You may need a $50 million facility to do it. But any person who can put together a $50 million facility and pull gas off of those pipelines can do it. Therefore there is a public benefit in the United States.”

“The export argument is not going to get us there. The export argument is easily dismissed by FERC. A stronger argument will be the impact on archaeological artifacts and endangered and threatened species and the damage to local water sources.”

Both Maryland and New York have effectively banned fracking. But in West Virginia, it’s full steam ahead.

“Every market that shuts down and says no fracking means that West Virginia is more of a target. It means we are the state that is going to let them frack it, so they all want to come here and get it,” Keaton Liegel said.

How do you explain explain the difference between West Virginia and Maryland and New York.

“Maryland has never been an extraction state,” she says. “West Virginia, from its inception in 1863, has been an extraction state. We have been conditioned to believe that that is our identity and that is what we do — we produce coal and natural gas. We lack an imagination beyond that. We lack a voice from our elected officials who know that their people are suffering. We know that we have the highest death rates and cancer rates. We know that the life expectancies here are the lowest in the country.”

“We know that our water resources here are irreparably contaminated in some of these places. And we know that the watersheds they want to cross with some of these lines are some of the last pristine water resources in our state. And yet, nobody stands up and says that. If you are counter to industry, you are not going to get elected next time. There are layers of institutional and community pressures that are holding down an honest conversation about what we can imagine for the state and for our future.”

“It’s different for us. We have been told for so long who we are and what we are here to do. That’s not been the case in Maryland and New York. And in New York, it took six years of diligent millionaires to pull off what they pulled off. They needed tons of resources to do what they did there. We don’t have those same resources here. We have to maximize every existing network. We have to maximize existing organizations in a way that can get out word without billboard and television ads and the types of things that have worked in other states.”

Politicians in West Virginia and Virginia almost universally support the pipelines. But opposition is bubbling up from the grassroots.

“There is a coalition that works with my group including the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), the Highlands Conservancy, Christians for the Mountains, and Appalachian Mountain Advocates. There are a number of groups working in coalition with us,” Keaton Liegel says.

“We have regularly scheduled calls. What’s also happening is that along the pipeline route in each particular country, groups in opposition have popped up – Preserve the New River Valley, Preserve Monroe County, Preserve Craig, Preserve Greenbrier County. In Summers County, they call themselves Summers County Against the Pipeline (SCRAP). And now these groups are coordinating regionally, which is great news.”

“On the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – there is Friends of Nelson County and Friends of Augusta County,” Keaton Liegel says. “Those are both in the Charlottesville, Virginia area. They are loud and vocal against the pipeline. Apparently, both of those counties are completely saturated with no pipeline signs.”

“Both pipelines go through Lewis County, West Virginia. The folks there had been fighting the fracking industry. They have now begun to focus on this pipeline because the pipeline will necessitate more fracking. There is a lot of opposition up in the northern part of West Virginia – Lewis, Doddridge, Gilmer and Wetzel County. In Nicholas and Braxton counties, there is not a lot of opposition.”

“But when you get to Summers and Monroe counties, still in West Virginia, on the southern end before you get to Virginia, the opposition is profound. They turn out 140 people to every meeting they have.”

Are the companies currently going to property owners trying to get them to sign away their property?

“Yes,” Keaton Liegel says. “They are buying up the land from willing sellers. Just asking property owners to come onto their land to do environmental surveys has failed by and large. Many people are resisting giving the companies access to their property. If the landowners refuse, that’s supposed to make us stop and ask – is this the right place for the pipeline?”

“Instead of following that process, listening to the landowners who are refusing, they are going in with contracts and saying – okay, we are going to pay you $150,000 for an easement – is that okay with you? That way, we don’t have to ask you permission to come onto that part of your land. It’s a strategic move by the companies to do that.”

Do we know how many landowners have been approached, how much land has been purchased or easements purchased?

“That’s not public information,” she says. “What is public is the percentage of the route of the pipeline they have received approval for. Every couple of months, Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are required to post a summary report. And the most recent one shows they had obtained rights to survey 80 percent of the pipeline route. That means 20 percent of the pipeline route is still resisting the surveys.”

“Virginia just enacted a law that says if the pipeline companies send you two certified letters and you tell them – no you can’t come on the property – they can sit outside your property until you go to work and they can go on your property. That just passed into law.”

Is there a similar bill pending in West Virginia?

“In West Virginia, they amended a statute – the eminent domain statute – to allow gas pipeline companies to come on and survey your land without your permission. However, the whole premise of that statute is based on the grant of eminent domain. If the federal government hasn’t given them eminent domain, then they don’t even qualify for entry under the West Virginia statute.”

“The pipeline companies sued 103 landowners under the West Virginia eminent domain statute to gain entry to their land. And that case is in federal court now. And the main question in that case is – without a grant of eminent domain from FERC, does this company have the right under the state statute to survey the land? And this has never been decided. This will be a precedent setting case.”

“The investors saw that this lawsuit is going to hold them up in federal court for about eight or nine months. That will kill their timeline. Instead of following through with that lawsuit, they are now going to those 103 landowners and offering them money for the easements.”

“They are saying – you don’t want to be in court, we don’t to be in court – why don’t we just buy the easement? Here is some money so we can come onto your property.”

How much are they being offered?

“I’ve seen contracts between $60,000 and $160,000 – depending on the acreage.”

Have you spoken with any landowners who just want to fight to the end?

“That twenty percent number is pretty accurate – they are pretty adamant about it. Another third are less adamant. They are saying – what do I need to do to start preparing for the worst case scenario for myself?”

“Then there is another third who are really okay with taking that money and signing that easement. When you depress the economy the way they have in this state, it’s like 150 years ago when the coal companies did the same thing with coal. It’s easy to depress an economy and then wave money in front of them to encourage them to give up more of what they have. It’s a continuation of that same narrative.”

(For the complete Interview with Elise Keaton Liegel, see page 29 Corporate Crime Reporter 25(11), June 22, 2015, print edition only.]

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