December 7, 2021 What Three Pipeline Fights Say About Fossil Fuels’ Future

A controversial pipeline in Virginia is facing a setback for “environmental justice” reasons. Another in Missouri caught a momentary break but larger issues still loom over it. And a whole network of pipelines spanning the U.S.-Canada border faces a shorter than expected lifespan due to aggressive climate policies, its own developer said. Today’s Climate is starting off the week looking at what three recent pipeline fights say about the future of fossil fuels in America.

In a 6-1 vote, a board of Virginia regulators on Friday denied a permit that would have allowed the developers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline to build a key piece of infrastructure for running the conduit, citing the state’s environmental justice law, which was passed earlier this year, Virginia Public Media reports.

The piece of equipment in question, a compressor station that would have helped to more efficiently pump natural gas 75 miles into neighboring North Carolina, would have been built within miles of several low-income neighborhoods and communities of color that are already polluted by heavy industry. 

It was the first substantial permit to go before Virginia’s regulatory board since the passage of the state’s environmental justice law, which requires regulators to actively promote the idea of environmental justice, not just consider the issues at play during decision making. That may make Virginia’s environmental justice law one of the strongest in the country. And as more and more states adopt or consider some kind of law or regulation regarding environmental justice, the trend could prove to be a burgeoning legal hurdle for fossil fuel developers.

In a separate Friday decision, federal regulators granted a temporary operating permit to the Spire STL Pipeline, which carries natural gas 65 miles from Illinois into Missouri’s St. Louis region, until the longer-term fate of the 2-year-old line can be decided, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

At the heart of the Spire pipeline fight is the argument over the country’s need for new natural gas infrastructure, as urban population centers continue to grow and demand for electricity and home heating increases. For years, utilities and pipeline builders have argued that new infrastructure is necessary to meet growing demand and keep the energy supply safe and reliable—particularly on the coldest winter days.

But those arguments have been increasingly challenged by environmentalists who say the money would be better spent on energy efficiency and renewable power, particularly as a growing number of states adopt laws to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In June, a federal appeals court agreed with that line of argument, siding with an environmental group that said the Spire pipeline shouldn’t have been built in the first place. Ultimately, how that case pans out could be a sign of how big of a role natural gas plays in the U.S. in the decades to come.

Finally on Sunday, the Star Tribune reported that Enbridge Energy—which owns and operates the largest network of pipelines that bring Canadian crude oil into the U.S., including Minnesota’s Line 3 and Michigan’s Line 5—now foresees the economic lifespan of that network only lasting through 2040, about a decade shorter than previously predicted. The company blames the growing Indigenous rights and climate movements.

“Unprecedented actions by state, local and tribal governments to attempt to regulate, and ultimately shut down, existing pipeline infrastructure, such as experienced by Enbridge Energy in Michigan and Wisconsin with respect to Line 5, is a new and emerging risk not imagined [just five years ago],” the company said in a document it filed with federal regulators back in May.

That’s it for this issue of Today’s Climate, and I’ll see you again on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

$250 billion

That’s how much money global banks have issued to fossil fuel companies in bonds so far in 2021, according to an analysis by Bloomberg.