This could take a while

Published 8:58 am Friday, September 5, 2014

One thing is certain regarding a natural gas distribution line that has been proposed for construction between Harrison County, West Virginia, and Robeson County, North Carolina, with a spur that would pass through Southampton County: For the time being, it’s more pipe dream than pipeline.

Dominion and three other energy companies — Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources — hope to start construction as soon as 2016, according to a news release. Considering the fate of other high-profile projects in recent memory — from the Route 460 replacement to the U.S. Navy’s Outlying Landing Field to the Keystone XL Pipeline — 2016 seems an optimistic deadline, at best.

It seems just as likely that the project could be derailed by environmental concerns in one or more of the dozens of counties, cities and towns through which it would pass. Or that political pressures in Washington could tie up the necessary approvals for many years to come.

Surely the companies involved benefit from creating a public perception of inevitability around the project, just as they benefit from the near-instantaneous support they received from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the other elected officials, who see big dollars in the project for their constituents and a chance to reduce unemployment rates to levels that will make national headlines.

But before anyone earns a penny of construction revenue, before there is any noticeable move in the unemployment rate, before any appreciable economic benefit is gleaned from the proposal, the project must pass muster with an alphabet soup of agencies from three different states, the federal government and an unknown number of municipalities.

Sit back and relax. This could take a while.

Considering the questions that are still unanswered, folks should be glad to know that nobody’s going to be digging trenches anytime soon. On Wednesday, a day after the initial surprise announcement, for example, some local and state officials in Virginia and North Carolina were still unsure whether there would be an opportunity for connections to be made to the distribution line. It seems there has been some conflicting — or at least unclear — information released about the project.

Public meetings — including one at Paul D. Camp Community College’s Regional Workforce Development Center in Franklin on Sept. 25 — will help answer some of the remaining questions, and news coverage will answer others. Given their recent history with big projects that could change their communities, area residents will probably be digging up some of their own answers.

Fresh off the Route 460 debacle and with memories of the Navy OLF near-miss still haunting them, folks from the area are likely to turn out in large numbers for the Franklin meeting. They’ll expect to hear a lot of positive spin on the project from company and state officials.

If anybody in Richmond has been paying attention for the past few years, they’ll come with expectations, too. They’ll come expecting a tough group of people who’ve hardened themselves against hucksterism. There aren’t many naïve people left in Western Tidewater. Folks have learned to be leery of men in dark suits carrying briefcases and poster-sized maps. And some of those folks have the Corps of Engineers on speed dial.

Sit back and relax. This could take a while.