RALEIGH, N.C. — A pipeline that would carry fracked natural gas from West Virginia into the Southeast cleared another regulatory hurdle Friday when North Carolina’s environmental agency issued a water quality certification.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s office separately announced pipeline partners Dominion Power and Duke Energy will spend $58 million on environmental initiatives such as expanding renewable energy. Funds can also be used for offshoots that allow North Carolina communities along the pipeline’s path to offer natural gas to their businesses, the governor’s office said.
“My goal for North Carolina is complete reliance on renewable energy, which builds a cleaner environment and a stronger economy,” Cooper said in a statement. “During the time it takes to get us to a full renewable energy future, we will still need to rely on other fuels as we move away from the pollution of coal-fired power plants.”
The pipeline, which would cross West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, is being built by neighboring energy giants Dominion Energy in Virginia and Duke Energy in North Carolina.
The two utilities and the pipeline company agreed that the money will go first toward “mitigation for the unavoidable effects” of the pipeline on “interior forest habitats, open-space lands, water bodies, and natural resources” in communities along the pipeline’s route.
The deal doesn’t bar North Carolina from recovering damages if the pipeline leaks or causes fuel spills.
The state Department of Environmental Quality certification was required because the pipeline would cross about 320 waterways and also could harm wetlands and animal habitats. The agreement added conditions including that the pipeline must go under the Neuse River rather than rest on the river bottom and that agency staff will do monthly inspections of pipeline construction activities.
The 600-mile (965-kilometer) project still needs other federal, state and local environmental protection permits.
Environmentalists expressed anger at the state agency’s approval. They contend the pipeline isn’t needed and that thousands of people have expressed opposition to it.
Amy Adams, a former state water-quality regulator now part of the environmental and clean-energy group Appalachian Voices, said the understaffed environmental agency can’t fully monitor the pipeline’s route through the state to prevent damage.
“Gov. Cooper cannot dress up this pipeline approval by throwing a few million dollars for environmental mitigation, which in itself acknowledges there will indeed be severe impacts to communities and our natural resources,” Adams said in an email.
While environmental groups are strongly opposed, the $5 billion infrastructure project is supported by business leaders and politicians of both major political parties in all three states.
Virginia community and environmental groups have filed court challenges to a decision by regulators in that state to grant a water-quality permit with added conditions for the pipeline.
Richmond-based Dominion Energy is lead developer of the project. The company’s proposed merger with SCANA Corp., which already operates natural gas transmission pipelines in South Carolina, has created the possibility that the pipeline could be extended farther south in the future.