Chickahominy Pipeline project tries to exploit an apparent regulatory loophole
A new 1.6 gigawatt gas-fired power plant has been proposed outside of Richmond, Virginia, and would be larger than any of the other gas plants in Virginia. Although until late this summer, the source of fuel to the power plant was unclear, the Chickahominy Pipeline LLC company now plans to build a supply line to the facility in order to deliver fuel to the plant, running through Louisa, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent and Charles City Counties. This new pipeline company and power plant are being proposed by a subsidiary of Balico, Inc., run by Washington, DC-area entrepreneur Irfan Ali. Balico is staffed by only a handful of employees. Chickahominy Pipeline LLC appears to have little to none experience in the construction of pipelines, and was only established a few years ago. With no track record, or even a simple website, the Chickahominy Pipeline plan has encountered skepticism and resistance from the local community. The capacity of the involved companies to undertake such a project is, by all accounts, questionable.
Confusing messaging from the outset
Ordinarily, a new pipeline would require regulatory approval for construction and for tapping into a major transmission conduit – such as the nearby Transco Pipeline. In fact, a map provided by The Virginia Mercury (online), and presented in an interactive map created by FracTracker later in this article, shows one end of the proposed Chickahominy Pipeline meets Transco.
Confusingly, news articles published earlier this summer indicated that the proposed Chickahominy Pipeline had no intention of sourcing fuel from this major gas transmission conduit. Chickahominy asserted that they would purchase their gas via a third party “with upstream and midstream operations in Virginia.” According to Chickahominy, purchase of gas from the utility would be both “impracticable and unfeasible” because the supply from lines owned by Virginia Natural Gas (VNG) was be inadequate. The third-party gas would still arrive at the proposed plant by pipeline. But because the pipeline would serve two or fewer customers, Chickahominy has maintained that they can sidestep Virginia State Corporation Commission’s regulatory approval process that oversees public utilities.
Nevertheless, this plan seems to have shifted in recent weeks to include a direct hook-up to the Transco Pipeline via a new pipeline that would parallel the existing VNG pipeline for much of its route.
During a recent public meeting, Chickahominy revealed that the pipeline will be built to transition to 100% hydrogen, but will initially operate with 30% hydrogen fuel. It will run parallel to existing utility lines for 40% of the route, and pass through 392 parcels in all. The project includes a new electric-powered compressor station, designed to minimize greenhouse gas emissions, and the power plant includes air-cooled—rather than water-cooled turbines, in an effort to reduce impacts on nearby water bodies. Chickahominy has claimed that over the next 3-4 years, the project will create 6-7000 “high paying, short-term and long-term jobs” in the area, and once fully online, the plant will replace 12 currently-operating power plants in the region.
Local environmental, EJ concern about pipeline and two power plants, and more
Residents and environmentalists have opposed the Chickahominy Power Station and another power plant, C4GT, just a mile away since they were proposed in 2016, citing goals including a transition from fossil fuels. In fact, Virginia’s 2020 Clean Economy Act requires that by 2050, all energy in the state be produced by renewable or nuclear energy.
The 1.06 GW Charles City Combined Cycle Power Plant (C4GT), had been planned in 2016 for a location only a mile away from the proposed Chickahominy plant. Virginia Natural Gas would have supplied gas for this site. However, the project – which would have served 750,000 households and supported a substantial data center industry in Virginia – was cancelled in July 2021 after ongoing environmental justice concerns. Construction had already begun on the facility, but had been halted in December 2020 because the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality found the work to be out of compliance with its permit.
According to the Bay Journal:
[Charles City C]ounty’s 7,000 residents — 46% of whom are Black and 7% Native American — have largely opposed the pair of projects, along with the expansion of a landfill, citing environmental justice concerns.
“These power plants and industries are not going to help anyone in our majority-minority rural area,” said Wanda Roberts, co-director of the group Concerned Citizens of Charles City County, or C5. “The character of our rural county is up for grabs right now.”
A local group, Citizens Against the Chickahominy Pipeline is using Facebook as an organizing platform for their fight against Chickahominy, with a focus on protecting residents’ air and water.
Environmental impacts not documented
Because the Chickahominy Pipeline proposal is attempting to circumvent detailed regulations, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) does not seem to have been developed at this time. Said Cari Tretina, Henrico County Chief of Staff, “The most concerning aspect is that this proposed project runs through floodplains, wetlands and specifically right through the Chickahominy [River].”
Given the concerns reported by the Bay Journal and others in local government, FracTracker examined the geospatial data for the impact zone and determined that the pipeline route included twelve of 30 census block groups with a minority population exceeding 30% (ranging 31.3-55.5%), and eleven of 30 census block groups with low-income populations exceeding 30% (ranging from 30-60%). Nearly 7000 people live within a half mile of the pipeline route.
Additionally, the proposed pipeline route crosses approximately 27 freshwater wetlands, 77 forested-shrub wetlands, and 64 riverine wetlands. These hydrological features may be impacted by both pipeline construction and maintenance.
Proposed Chickahominy Pipeline in Virgina
This interactive map looks at the proposed Chickahominy pipeline and related energy infrastructure. View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article. In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu. Items will activate in this map dependent on the level of zoom in or out.
Poor communication by Chickahominy LLC to local stakeholders
Residents in the five counties traversed by the proposed 24-inch gas pipeline learned about the project in July 2021 when they were contacted by Chickahominy Pipeline LLC with a requests to access their properties in order to survey for the pipeline route. Elected officials in Louisa, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent and Charles City Counties had not been notified of the project prior to the direct outreach to individual landowners.
Louisa County officially challenged Chickahominy’s position in a September 27, 2021 filing to the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC). The County demanded that Chickahominy Pipeline, LLC’s regulation exemption request be denied by the SCC. The SCC extended public input until October 8, 2021, and started hearing the case on October 29, 2021. A decision is not expected until later in November.
After Chickahominy representatives did not attend a presentation they were scheduled to make to the Louisa County Board of Supervisors at their September meeting, the company sent Chuck Akers, their ill-informed representative, to the County’s October 4th meeting. The Supervisors—while polite to the company’s contract employee—were less than impressed by his presentation.
The Board of Supervisors Chairman called out the representative for contradictory approach of saying they support local government, but then bypassed supervisors in announcing the project, and went directly to the land-owners one-on-one. This created confusion because the supervisors see their jobs as “represent[ing] our people and protect[ing] our land” but they were not informed about the project so they could not answer questions from their own constituents. “I can’t fathom a company doing it in THAT way,” said one of the supervisors. When pressed about Chickahominy’s approach, the representative simply said, “I guess I don’t have an answer. It’s typically the way we’ve done projects in the past…I know that this kinda got flip-flopped.”
One Supervisor expressed yet stronger concerns. “In my 24 years on the Board, I’ve seen a lot of presentations…[this] was POOR. At best. This is not becoming of an elected body presentation. It insults me as a board member, and I’m probably one of the mildest guys you will meet, but I would have some choice words for what we just got offered just then.”
Another Supervisor added, “I’ve been in business for 42 years, and been on this board for four. That’s the worst presentation I’ve ever seen in my life. This whole thing should be in Business 101: “How to totally screw up a project and do your public relations” because it’s been terrible… people are going to leave tonight…they STILL don’t have any information.”
A Supervisor ended the presentation Q&A session by saying that if Chickahominy “has any designs of doing business in Louisa County…this is just not acceptable to this Board, it’s not acceptable to our people”, stressing the need for more information, plans, short- and long-range goals, engineering. He continued, “the lack of specificity and detail is unconscionable.”
This is a clip (1:07:08 to 1:21:23) from the Louisa County Regular Meeting held on Monday, October 4, 2021. The full video and meeting minutes can be found here.
A mismatch with Virginia’s climate goals
Ironically, this controversy is swirling concurrently with the Commonwealth of Virginia’s announcement that as of October 1, 2021, its Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy is now the Virginia Department of Energy –an effort to reflect its focus on renewable energy. In addition, the Division of Energy is now called “Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency,” and the Division of Mined Land Reclamation is now “Mined Land Repurposing.”
According to Virginia’s Governor Northam, “Virginia is all-in on clean energy…We’ve passed one of the most sweeping clean energy laws in the country, and we are transitioning our electric grid to 100 percent renewable energy. These are exciting changes, and they mean new jobs, new investment, cleaner air, and a stronger economy.” Virginia has a goal of being 100% carbon-free by 2045, but is continuing to build fossil-fuel infrastructure that would, in theory, be converted to carbon-free fuel by that date.
The Take Away
Let’s hope that in keeping with Northam’s pledge, the Commonwealth of Virginia will deny Chickahominy’s request to bypass regulatory oversight on this proposed pipeline. Rather than sidestep stakeholder relationships, Chickahominy LLC needs to be transparent and also listen to the concerns of the community. Clearly, Chickahominy—a company that has little to no experience in building oil and gas infrastructure—has a lot to learn. The residents and elected officials of Louisa, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent and Charles City Counties, as well as the environment itself, should not have to be collateral damage for this upstart company’s entry into the fossil fuel energy generation and transportation.
11/23/21 Update: On November 10, 2021, Chickahominy Pipeline LLC stated “we acknowledge that we could have done a better job communicating with stakeholders ahead of launching our initiative,” and announced plans to host virtual public listening sessions. But opposition continues as a Virginia state regulatory official pushes for the State Corporation Commission to have oversight of Chickahominy Pipeline’s plan to build. As a result, the Chickahominy Pipeline may need to seek a certificate of public convenience and necessity to construct the project before proceeding.
12/17/21 Update: On December 9, 2021, Chickahominy Pipeline LLC held a virtual public meeting to address central Virginia residents’ questions and concerns about the pipeline. The operator told residents that the pipeline would benefit the community by providing power to local nursing homes, grocery stores, schools, and home. But the power plant’s electricity will likely be used in other states — not Virginia. Read more at Richmond Times Dispatch.
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