RICHMOND, VA.: Civic leaders in town after town along the 600-mile route of a proposed natural gas project have posed for similar photographs, smiling and accepting poster-sized checks from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Dominion Energy says it’s being a good neighbor by handing out $2 million in grants of around $5,000 to $10,000 in communities affected by its joint venture with fellow energy giants Duke Energy and Southern Co.

But critics say Dominion is buying support on the cheap to outflank opponents of the project, which would carry fracked natural gas from West Virginia into Virginia, North Carolina, and potentially further south at a cost that’s swelling to as much as $6.5 billion.

“It continues to astonish me how tiny these grants are and how ready people are to sell their souls,” said Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for North Carolina, a nonprofit fighting the pipeline.

Documents obtained by the Associated Press as well as interviews with company officials, supporters and opponents, show the considerable lengths Dominion has gone to as it builds support for its largest capital project. The company says its grant program is charity, and not part of what it calls its largest outreach program in Dominion history.

“We wanted to make sure our side is adequately told,” said Bruce McKay, who as senior energy policy director for Richmond-based Dominion oversees the project’s public affairs. He calls the outreach necessary in part because of the pipeline’s complex, multijurisdictional nature and growing opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure.

Dominion is the leading percentage owner of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, responsible for its construction and operation. So far, only some trees have been cleared.

Supporters say the pipeline will meet a critical need for natural gas — primarily for power generation — in a region with constrained supplies. They say it will create jobs, boost the economy and support a shift from coal.

Opponents say it will harm the environment, and contend developers are overstating the need to build a project for which regulators will allow them to recoup a handsome return on their investments.

McKay, who wouldn’t reveal the program’s overall cost, delivered some “lessons learned” in an October presentation posted on Dominion Energy Transmission Inc.’s website, including this advice: “Must create and maintain a political environment which allows permitting agencies to do their work,”

McKay also denies any quid pro quo for campaign donations, saying Dominion gives to candidates who support sound energy policy.

The five Virginia lawmakers who signed a letter last year urging regulators to approve the pipeline have together taken more than $1 million from Dominion for themselves or their PACs during their careers, according an AP accounting of records maintained by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.