The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline has stirred opposition in Nelson, Augusta and Highland counties.

Story by Danielle Ruble

Photos courtesy of Friends of Nelson County

In the typically tranquil and scenic Nelson County, a controversy stirs. Protest signs line Route 151, petitions circulate the internet and opposition groups form. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is proposed to run through Nelson and nearby Augusta and Highland counties. But this 550-mile natural gas pipeline has encountered heavy resistance.

The issues that surround the construction of the pipeline are intricate. Dominion, which has partnered with Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources to build the pipeline, says the project will improve the natural gas supply in North Carolina and Virginia. The pipeline is designed to carry natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, which spans Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Opponents of the pipeline claim the infrastructure to provide natural gas to those areas already exists. They believe the 10,200-mile Williams-Transco Pipeline that extends from South Texas to New York City is already capable of bringing natural gas to the area.

“The additional infrastructure is primarily being built so that the natural gas can be extracted as quickly as possible and sold as quickly as possible,” Ernie Reed says. Reed is the vice president of Friends of Nelson, a group devoted to stopping the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Dominion, however, says the need for natural gas is growing in North Carolina and Virginia, with demand expected to increase 165 percent by 2035.

“The urgent public need for this project is clearly demonstrated by the fact that five major public utilities in the region have signed on for 96 percent of the gas,” says Aaron Ruby, the media relations manager for Dominion Energy.

The reason there is such high demand for natural gas, explains Ruby, is that burning natural gas produces half the carbon emissions that burning coal does. He says using natural gas will result in cleaner air and lower carbon emissions all across Virginia.

Ruby says that Dominion expects to receive approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in early 2017. If they receive approval within this time frame, Dominion plans on beginning construction in summer 2017 and having the pipeline in service by 2018.

Opponents of the pipeline are still critical of the environmental impacts of harvesting the natural gas, a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or more commonly, fracking. The process involves blasting water, sand and chemicals at the subsurface shale, releasing the natural gas and oil underneath.

Opponents say fracking results in a long list of environmental nightmares: contamination of groundwater, fracking-induced earthquakes, pollution and methane gas leaks. The irony is that even though natural gas releases less carbon than burning coal, the process of fracking releases high amounts of methane. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is one of the powerful greenhouse gases that could contribute to global warming.

“If this pipeline and other pipelines are built there will absolutely be no shut-off valve on all the fracking that goes on in West Virginia and Ohio, a practice which totally pollutes and destroys the communities where it happens,” Reed says. “West Virginia becomes a sacrifice zone.”

Pipeline opponents are also worried about the pipeline’s effects on the value of their properties and Nelson County. Friends of Nelson contracted with an independent economics firm, Key-Log Economics, to analyze the cost of the pipeline on Nelson County. Reed says the analysis found that if the pipeline is constructed, it would cost Nelson County $43 million a year. This includes $25 million in property values, $18 million in annual tourism losses and over a million dollars in personal income for Nelson County residents.

Dominion offers a much different outlook. They say the pipeline will contribute an estimated $1.2 million in annual tax revenue each year to Nelson County and $1.9 million to Augusta County. They also predict the pipeline will save Virginians $240 million every year in energy costs. Many residents, however, still fear the pipeline will affect tourism in Nelson County.

“Nelson County is a destination for so many people because it’s beautiful and it’s not industrial and it’s a fabulous place to be,” Reed says. “To have an industrial landscape in an area that its greatest charm has to do with its natural beauty is just wrong.”

The planned pipeline route was recently rerouted to avoid sensitive habitats in the national forest, but now the route runs straight through the gatehouse at Wintergreen Resort, one of the county’s top economic generators.

Ruby says there are many examples, however, both in Virginia and around the country, where tourism has not only coexisted, but thrived alongside natural gas pipelines.

“Perhaps the best example is California’s Napa Valley, where hundreds of miles of natural gas pipelines operate through one of the most successful tourist and wine-producing regions of the country,” Ruby says.

There are 2.5 times as many miles of interstate pipeline as interstate highway in Virginia. He references White Hall Vineyards in Albemarle County as a local example. A natural gas pipeline runs through the vineyard, which has been a prosperous tourist destination and has produced award-winning wine for more than 20 years. In Fluvanna County, four major pipelines have operated in the Lake Monticello area for decades.

“These communities are thriving,” says Ruby. “They are vibrant, safe and peaceful communities where people have lived and raised families alongside natural gas pipelines for many years.”

Yet in Nelson County, a community of residents are resisting the natural gas movement. Even though natural gas is surpassing coal as the top source of electricity in America, they are passionate and persistent, their love for Nelson County apparent.

“We cannot afford to lose this fight,” says Reed. “In fact, we can’t lose this fight because it’s that important.”