An environmental regulator in Virginia who quietly promoted a proposed gas pipeline project may soon rule on one of its permits. TC Energy’s river and stream crossing permit application for its Virginia Reliability Project is currently before the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), which will rule on the permit in the next few months. James (JJ) Minor, a VMRC board member, lobbied for the project last year. 

In its filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), TC Energy, a Canadian gas pipeline giant, anticipated receiving the VMRC permit by September this year. As part of the VRP, the company plans to double the size of its existing pipeline that carries fracked gas into the Hampton Roads area and upgrade two compressor stations.

The project’s sole customer is gas utility Virginia Natural Gas, a subsidiary of Southern Company. FERC is currently conducting its environmental impact review of the project.

Based on documents provided by the Energy and Policy Institute, the Richmond Times-Dispatch revealed in August that Minor, who works for the city of Richmond and heads the Richmond chapter of the NAACP, used a private email account to promote the pipeline project. Writing on behalf of “Team VRP,” Minor urged city of Petersburg officials to send ghostwritten letters supporting the project to FERC. The VRP will double the horsepower in TC Energy’s gas-fired compressor station in Petersburg, increasing pollutant emissions.

Environmental Justice Concerns

The area adjacent to the Petersburg compressor station is an environmental justice community. TC Energy’s own statistical analysis submitted to FERC found that people living along the project route and compressor stations suffer from significantly higher health risks compared to the state and national averages, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, life expectancy, low birth weight, and exposure to PM2.5 pollution. 

Minor also recruited a Black leader to TC Energy’s Community Advisory Committee, a body the company established in order to garner support for the pipeline from affected communities. An investigation by the Guardian found that the committee includes a number of Black pastors. A 2019 report by the NAACP detailed the various deceptive tactics used by the fossil fuel industry at the expense of communities most affected by their pollution. A report by the Energy and Policy Institute similarly documented the ways that utilities use charitable giving to gain support from organizations that represent low-income communities and communities of color.

Minor told the Guardian: “I’ve worked on countless projects as a consultant, a volunteer and in a leadership capacity. I only work on those that I believe will benefit the commonwealth and our communities. VRP fits this description … I am proud of the work I do.” 

Minor did not respond to the Guardian’s questions about his precise role or salary with TC Energy. He similarly would not tell the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s whether he was paid by the company or a subsidiary.

“There has not been issues”

When asked about recusals, Minor told the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “When it comes to the VMRC then I’m going to have to recuse myself from it. That’s all.” But last fall, after an activist asked the VMRC during an open meeting about Minor’s apparent conflicts, Commission Chair Jamie Green said that “there has not been issues” with Minor. Minor voted last June in favor of approving a TC Energy water crossing permit for a smaller pipeline replacement project.

The VMRC did not respond to the Energy and Policy Institute’s questions on whether Minor will recuse himself from voting on the VRP.

In a recent disclosure to the Virginia Ethics Commission, Minor reported income last year from consulting, which he described only as “Community Outreach and Grassroots Organizing/ “Federal Issues”.” Minor did not respond to questions from the Energy and Policy Institute about who hired him and whether he in fact plans to recuse himself from deciding on the VRP’s permit. 

TC Energy did not respond to a request from the Energy and Policy Institute for comment.

Posted by Itai Vardi