Duke wins initial OK for natgas pipeline in Va.

27 March, 2002

(UPDATE: Recasts, adds Wood quote, background)

WASHINGTON, March 27 (Reuters) - Federal regulators gave preliminary approval on Wednesday for a natural gas pipeline that would cross Virginia's scenic Blue Ridge Mountains, a project opposed by local farmers, hunters and politicians who say it would mar the natural beauty of the region.

The project's sponsor, Duke Energy subsidiary East Tennessee Natural Gas Company, wants to have the Patriot Pipeline operating by May 2003 to eventually ship more than 500 million cubic feet of natural gas per day.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must still review the environmental impact of the pipeline before deciding whether to give final approval for the project.

Although the four-member commission gave unanimous preliminary approval to the project, FERC Chairman Pat Wood said there was`substantial'' opposition from landowners concerned about the environmental impact on the Blue Ridge Mountains. The $289 million project would transport natural gas along a new 94-mile pipeline route, as well as through the company's existing pipeline system.

In southwest Virginia, hundreds of opponents to the pipeline turned out at a public meeting last autumn to express concern about the impact on the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and the River Trail State Park. Critics have gathered more than 4,500 signatures on a petition opposing the pipeline.

The Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the nation's best-known highways, was built during the Great Depression to link the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks.

Farmers, environmentalists, hunters, fishermen and local politicians complain that the pipeline would disturb more than 1,270 acres of agricultural land and nearly as much woodland.

Duke maintains the pipeline extension is needed to supply natural gas to the region to fuel new electric generating plants and improve reliability. The project will also create jobs in rural Virginia and North Carolina, the company said.

The pipeline extension will bring natural gas service to portions of southwest Virginia for the first time and introduce a competitive supply of natural gas to North Carolina from Appalachian and Gulf Coast producers, according to Duke.

The company plans to develop the Patriot project in three phases, initially having the capacity to transport 130 million cubic feet per day (MMcf/d), increasing to 310 MMcf/d in November 2003 and eventually transporting 510 MMcf/d in January 2004.

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