After polluter contributions, McAuliffe and Northam must stand strong against pipelines

In the lead up to the 2017 Virginia primary, then Democratic gubernatorial candidate (now the Democratic Party nominee) and current Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam announced a “comprehensive campaign finance reform package.” In the press release distributed by his campaign, Northam states, “Virginia’s campaign finance system is a boondoggle that alienates its citizens and makes them lose faith in government.”

Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam pictured with Gov. Terry McAuliffe

The quote surely rings true for Virginians where Dominion Energy, the fossil fuel-powered utility, is the state’s largest corporate donor to political campaigns. Amongst the two establishment gubernatorial nominees, fossil fuel contributions have so far totalled $477,378 (20016–17) with $100,203 going to Northam and a whopping $377,175 going to Republican nominee Ed Gillespie.

As fossil fuel money pours into Virginia’s elections, two companies in particular — Dominion Energy and Pennsylvania-based EQT Midstream — are banking on key pipeline permits to flow out of Virginia’s executive branch to greenlight their respective Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley gas pipeline projects. These permits are currently under review by the McAuliffe-Northam administration, and could be decided by the current governor or his successor.

While Dominion’s contributions have been par-for-the-course in Virginia politics (though an increasing number of candidates are bucking this trend) a concerning and so far unreported fact is that out-of-state company EQT, the company behind the 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, is also trying to curry favor. So far, EQT has made two donations to Northam’s campaign, totalling $20,000. Both $10,000 contributions were made this year: the first on March 6 and the second on June 13, Primary Election Day.

Undoubtedly, EQT is hoping that, if elected governor, Northam would not wield his authority under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act to cancel the proposed project. Meanwhile, EQT (and the fossil fuel industry) already knows it has an ally in Gillespie who supports both the proposed Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines despite strong concerns about property rights violations and environmental degradation from those in its path.

To restore “faith in government,” it’s time for the current McAuliffe-Northam administration to draw a bright line against polluter influence and fully utilize its authority to review and reject water quality permits for both massive pipeline projects, as state leaders in New York and New Jersey have done.

The proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline will cross hundreds of waterways.

Thus far, the McAuliffe administration has waffled in its willingness to fully exercise its permit authority under the Clean Water Act, sparking a growing controversy and concern that corporate influence is corrupting the process. In early April, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released a statement saying it would conduct project-specific 401 permit reviews for each pipeline, including a review of individual stream and wetlands crossings. However, just seven weeks later, the agency suddenly backtracked, calling that previous statement a “miscommunication.” Instead, DEQ said it will defer to a blanket “Nationwide Permit 12” issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, which would approve hundreds of stream crossings at once without any site-specific review. DEQ claims it will still examine “other” issues beyond the waterway crossings. Water advocates say this would amount to an evasion of the state’s legal duties and a coalition of 80 Virginia groups are calling on the Governor to direct the DEQ to go back and do it properly.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Northam says he supports 401 permit reviews, writing “I recommend that DEQ strongly consider utilizing individual permits” in a letter circulated by his campaign. Additionally, at a May debate in Roanoke, Northam stated he did “what I could as lieutenant governor through the executive branch to make sure that we changed from blanket permitting to a site-specific permitting, which they followed my lead on.” It seems the DEQ is not listening.

In the face of EQT money, it’s encouraging to see Northam call for the necessary environmental reviews of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. However, if Virginians are to gain faith in their elected officials in a political environment so heavily dominated by fossil fuel interests, it’s incumbent upon both Gov. McAuliffe and his potential successor, Lt. Gov. Northam, to take action now to ensure the reviews happen. Anything else will call into question polluter influence, exacerbating the mistrust many Virginians have in both the pipeline review and electoral process.

If elected governor, let’s hope Northam continues his “commonsense [campaign finance] reforms.” If so, he certainly will be closer to taking “a huge step forward in regaining the people’s trust.”