Landowner Response to a Rural Appalachian Natural Gas Pipeline Project

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Virginia Tech


Recent research identifies a number of factors associated with public support for or opposition to environmentally-contentious energy infrastructure projects. Much of that research documents the attitudes of populations surrounding projects where energy is produced, such as powerhouses, mines, or drilling operations. I use survey and interview data to argue that those factors do not adequately reflect the concerns of landowners distributed along the 303-mile path of a rural Appalachian natural gas project, which I identify as a site of energy transmission rather than production. I use social representation theory to elicit factors unrecognized in prior research. It provides a framework for the process by which resident rural landowners become aware of, interpret, evaluate, and then respond to the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Landowners express their sense of injustice when the pipeline developer, public policymakers, and permitting authorities are unaware of or indifferent to factors that are especially relevant to them as the pipeline is imposed on their rural environment. The study is based on a sequential mixed-methods approach. I conducted a secondary analysis of the Quality of Life in Rural Virginia and West Virginia Survey dataset (Bell et al. 2019), which consists of mail surveys completed by 783 residents living in 10 counties along the route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. In 2021 and 2022 I conducted follow-up semi-structured interviews with 25 landowners in the blast zone, which is 1,115 feet on either side of this pipeline, who had completed the survey. The first aim was to test three factors that prior research suggested are associated with attitudes toward such projects. The first factor, economic self-interest, was statistically nonsignificant for these landowners. The interview data suggest that unlike sites of energy production, where jobs stimulate support, landowners saw few jobs available for local people. Any financial value from the sale of easements did not affect their support. The second factor, political ideology, was important in other studies, because conservative ideology is associated with pro-business attitudes. In contrast, even though 60% of the landowners in this study identified themselves as conservative, there was only a weak association between political ideology and support for the pipeline, due in part to the perception of inappropriate application of eminent domain law by the pipeline developer and the courts. Distance from the pipeline, the third factor, was moderately associated with attitude toward the project, with less support for pipeline construction among landowners in the blast zone. The second aim was to use social representation theory to reveal factors in addition to distance that influenced landowners' attitudes toward the project. Interviews revealed that landowners in the blast zone were as concerned with threats to cherished water supplies, for both domestic and agricultural uses, as they were with the danger of a pipeline explosion. The interviews also revealed participants' concern for the disruption of their attachment to and dependence on their properties. These factors were underrepresented in the planning and permitting for this project. The intuitive, common-sense structure for eliciting landowners' attitudes provided by social representation theory was effective at this microscale of inquiry, and may be useful for comparative studies that further distinguish between sites of energy production and sites of energy transmission.



social representation, energy production and transmission sites, perception of danger, place disruption, eminent domain, environmental hazard, sites of acceptance and resistance, quiescence, acquiescence