The transition away from non-renewable energy sources has become increasingly urgent in the face of climate change. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a collaborative $5 billion investment in natural gas infrastructure proposed by Dominion Energy, is antithetical to this transition. Though often labeled a clean energy source, natural gas releases a significant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and produces even more methane than coal. While Dominion characterizes the pipeline as allowing “reliable generation of critical back-up sources of electricity when renewable sources cannot meet energy demand,” the company has no comparable investments in renewable energy. Rather than providing a “back-up,” the construction of the pipeline would further entrench Virginia’s dependence on environmentally harmful energy.
Beyond the long-term environmental impact of reliance on fossil fuels, the pipeline directly threatens some of the state’s most cherished natural resources, including 55 acres of protected conservation easements in counties neighboring Albemarle. Potential runoff during pipeline construction or potential future leakage could pollute groundwater and rivers, many of which feed into drinking water sources like Charlottesville’s South Fork Rivanna Reservoir. Dominion can view pipeline-related accidents as a manageable risk with primarily financial consequences. For Virginians, particularly in Nelson County just a few miles from the University, a single accident could cause significant, long-lasting damage.
At the same time, Dominion has shown limited interest in alternative energy. Last year, the company partnered with the University on the Hollyfield Solar Facility project. The solar plant, set to begin construction in December 2017, will cost an estimated $30 million and offset 12 percent of the University’s current energy consumption. The Hollyfield project is a significant step toward achieving the University’s sustainability goals and it should serve as a model for renewable energy partnerships around the state.
Nevertheless, Dominion’s investment in Hollyfield — and the company’s $700 million in solar energy infrastructure spending in 2015 — pales in comparison to the cost of the pipeline. A $5 billion fossil fuel pipeline will play a larger role in Virginia’s future energy consumption than any current solar power projects. Increased investment in alternative energy and a move away from fossil fuels will allow Virginia to shift towards clean energy sources.
The environmental impacts of natural gas outweigh the economic justifications for building a large-scale pipeline through Virginia. While nonrenewable resources will be necessary to supplement alternative energy in the short-term, Dominion should expand clean energy practices and not construct new fossil fuel infrastructure. In order to create a sustainable future and maintain the health and safety of Virginians, the pipeline must not be built.