RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Richard Averitt and his wife have spent six years and more than six figures fighting to keep the Atlantic Coast Pipeline off their picturesque central Virginia property.
In all that time, Averitt said he couldn't recall meeting a single person who thought they would succeed. The massive interstate natural gas pipeline designed to start in West Virginia and run at least through Virginia and North Carolina was being developed by some of the country's biggest and most politically powerful energy companies with support of lawmakers and governors from both parties, labor unions and the Trump administration.
But on Sunday, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy announced they had pulled the plug on the $8 billion project, citing uncertainties about costs, permitting and litigation.
When Averitt found out, he rushed to his parents' nearby home to share the news. He and his family popped a bottle of Champagne and shouted from their front porch in delight.
“It was a fight worth winning," said Averitt, who now wants to restart stalled plans to develop some of the land into a resort.
Environmental advocates and other opponents of the ACP called the decision to scrap the project a historic David-beats-Goliath win that — along with a recent blow to the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline — marks a turning point in the climate fight, illustrating the time has passed for energy companies to invest in massive fossil fuel infrastructure projects.
“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was an anvil that would have stymied investment in renewable energy for decades, harmed vulnerable communities, and crushed mountainsides,” Greg Buppert, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which for the past six years has represented conservation groups opposing the project, said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette laid blame at the feet of the “well-funded, obstructionist environmental lobby” that he said had killed the project.
Prominent conservation groups including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and SELC did fight the pipeline, but the effort also included smaller, grassroots organizations, including more than 50 in Virginia and West Virginia that banded together to form the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance.
In addition to lawsuits that led to the suspension or dismissal of many permits, pipeline opponents waged a fight that included organized aerial surveillance, marches, letter-writing campaigns and protests outside the Virginia governor's mansion. In Union Hill — a historic African American community — former Vice President Al Gore and social justice advocate the Rev. William Barber joined a fight against plans for a compressor station.
“This is a testament to perseverance, that’s for sure,” said David Sligh, who was deeply involved in the effort as conservation director of Wild Virginia.
The pipeline was publicly announced in September 2014. Lead developer Dominion poured time and resources into an influence campaign involving direct mail, community meetings, ads and social media campaigns along the pipeline's route. The company also gave $2 million in grants in communities affected by the pipeline, something Dominion described as a separate “charity” effort.
Getting the project built would have involved tree removal and blasting and leveling some ridgetops as the pipe, 42 inches (1 meter) in diameter for much of its path, crossed mountains, hundreds of water bodies and other sensitive terrain and burrowed underneath the Appalachian Trail.
Dominion and Duke said in their announcement that a key reason they were abandoning the pipeline was a decision by a Montana judge in a case over the Keystone XL that would potentially keep the ACP tied up in court too.
In the Keystone case, an April ruling from a federal judge dealing with a type of permit used to approve oil and gas pipelines and other utility work through wetlands and streams had threatened to delay not just that project but more than 70 other pipelines across the U.S. and add as much as $2 billion in costs, according to industry representatives.
“It is a bit shocking, but it underscores the growing challenges and the escalating cost when it comes to constructing new pipeline capacity,” said Rich Redash, head of global gas planning at S&P Global Platts, of the pipeline cancellation.
Natural gas was once seen as a cleaner-burning transition fuel away from coal, but many communities are now aiming to use 100% renewables. Companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook are also increasingly buying renewable generation.
But some utilities say they need to keep natural gas in the mix because they can’t always rely on solar and wind energy, which fluctuate with the winds and the clouds, throughout the day.
Beyond the arguments over the gas itself, many landowners say the project's demise is a win for property rights.
In mostly rural Halifax County, North Carolina, Valerie Williams and her son spent years trying to keep the ACP off the more than 100-acre (40-hectare) family farm they jointly own.
She called Sunday's news “a miracle.”
Purchased by her grandparents in 1916, the farm has provided food, recreation, shelter and protection to her family during the years of segregation, Williams said. She promised her late father she would never let it be split up.
“That was my drive, my total drive: defense of our heritage, our history, our tradition, our memory, because the farm really is the family tree,” she said.
Associated Press writer Cathy Bussewitz in New York contributed to this report.