The two joint ventures planning to route 42-inch diameter natural gas pipelines through forests and fields long to hear the whining roar and chatter of chainsaws felling trees.
Both the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline hope to start clearing trees in mid-November from construction rights-of-way for the buried pipelines. There is an urgency to get started: The projects plan to suspend felling trees after March 31 to comply with federal conservation guidelines tied to potential impacts to the Indiana bat, a federally endangered species, and the northern long-eared bat, a threatened species.
Restricting tree clearing to the period from mid-November to the end of March also protects some species of migratory birds that nest during other months of the year.
Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, said Wednesday that the project's timeline, and the project itself, could suffer if tree clearing activities don't get underway during this period, which could mean waiting until mid-November 2018 to fire up chainsaws and other tree-felling equipment.
"It's important that we do all the tree clearing and grading this season," Ruby said. "It's an important window and we've got a lot of work to do."
Each project plans to clear all vegetation from a temporary construction right-of-way that would be 125 feet wide in most terrain. The permanently treeless rights-of-way would be 50 feet in most places.
Both pipelines are interstate projects and thus require approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. In a letter to FERC dated Sept. 7, top executives for three of the companies involved in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline asked FERC's commissioners to issue an order in September to approve the project "so that initial construction activities and tree clearing can begin in November and conclude in early 2018 as described in the final [environmental impact statement]."
Ruby said Wednesday that if Atlantic Coast isn't able to clear trees during the prescribed period this fall and winter, the project could miss its intended in-service target of late 2019. He said contractual obligations to begin supplying natural gas could be affected, as could contracts with construction companies lined up to build the pipeline. Five of six shippers of natural gas on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are affiliates of partners in the joint venture.
Catherine Hibbard, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the mid-November to late March window provides a time for tree clearing with less risk to the Indiana and Northern long-eared bats.
“Those are the times when we would expect the bats to be in hibernation,” Hibbard said. “They would not be roosting in trees.”
Mountain Valley Pipeline's biological assessment reports that the company also would suspend tree clearing operations from June 1 through July 31 to prevent killing young bats not yet capable of flight.
Hibbard said northern long-eared and Indiana bats leave hibernation areas in the summer for wooded areas.
"The females roost under the loose bark of dead or dying trees, where they give birth and raise their young," she said. "Indiana bat females tend to roost in groups in maternity colonies, whereas northern long-eared bats roost in colonies or singly. Pups are nursed by the mother, who leaves the roost tree only to forage for food. The young stay with the maternity colony throughout their first summer."
Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Mountain Valley, said the company will begin clearing trees as soon as it receives the necessary authorizations.
"These activities could begin as early as November 2017, in which case the majority of clearing is expected to be complete by March 31, 2018," Cox said in an email.
The 303-mile, $3.5 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline would begin in Wetzel County, West Virginia, and end at the Transco pipeline in Pittsylvania County. The 600-mile, $5.1 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline would begin in Harrison County, West Virginia, travel southeast through Virginia and proceed south to Robeson County, North Carolina. Each would transport natural gas at high pressure.
The deeply controversial projects have received support from Gov. Terry McAuliffe, business groups and some legislators. But they also have stirred fierce opposition because of concerns about impacts to the environment, property values and property rights. If FERC approves the pipelines — an outcome expected by most observers based on FERC's history of approving similar projects — the joint ventures will have access to eminent domain to acquire easements across private property.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has said limited tree clearing does not require its authorization.
In an email, Ann Regn, a DEQ spokeswoman, reported, "Whether it’s MVP or ACP, hand clearing with chain saws and limited mechanical cutting depending on the type of equipment to be used is not considered land disturbing activity. Removal of cut trees, grubbing, clearing and grading activities is considered land disturbing activities and requires approved [erosion and sediment control plans]."
Many observers had anticipated that FERC would act last week to grant a certificate of public convenience and necessity to the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The commission on Sept. 20 held its first public meeting since the departure of former chairman Norman Bay in February. The commission regained a quorum in August after the U.S. Senate confirmed Neil Chatterjee, who became acting chairman, and Robert Powelson. Both men were nominated by President Donald Trump, and they joined Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur.
After the Sept. 20 meeting, however, an industry news site, Utility Dive, quoted Chatterjee saying he'd prefer to wait for the full Senate's confirmation of two remaining FERC nominees, Richard Glick and Kevin McIntyre, before tackling the most contentious issues facing the agency. Chatterjee did not say whether he considers the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast projects to be among those contentious issues.
Tamara Young-Allen, a FERC spokeswoman, said Chatterjee was quoted accurately.
Opponents of both pipelines have said delays ultimately could help halt one or both projects.