The nation’s highest court will consider a lower court’s decision that effectively halted the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Friday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear a controversial case surrounding the 600-mile-long natural gas pipeline.
That decision has been widely anticipated since last December, when the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said the U.S. Forest Service had violated the National Environmental Policy Act and National Forest Management Act when it approved the project. The panel’s decision stopped the majority of construction on the project, which is slated to run from Northern West Virginia into North Carolina, crossing 21 miles of the George Washington and Monongahela national forests. At one point, the pipeline also would be buried 600 feet below the Appalachian Trail.
At the center of the appeal now is whether the Forest Service has authority under the Mineral Leasing Act to grant rights-of-way for the project through the Appalachian Trail.
The solicitor general, who filed the certiorari petition, argued in legal briefs that the Forest Service does have the authority to approve the project under the Mineral Leasing Act because it has authority over federal forestland; the National Park Service oversees the footpath part of the Appalachian Trail.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey led a group of other attorneys general who submitted a brief in favor of the project in July. On Friday, Morrisey issued a statement saying the lower court’s decision could “unnecessarily block pipeline construction and impede economic growth nationwide.”
“West Virginia strongly supports the Supreme Court’s decision as it signals the court recognizes the profound importance of this case as a matter of federal law and economic impact to Appalachia and the nation as a whole,” Morrisey said.
After the 4th Circuit vacated the Forest Service’s permit, the federal government and ACP asked for a panel rehearing en banc, meaning the case would be heard before all judges on the 4th Circuit. Those requests were denied.
After the lower court’s decision, West Virginia legislators passed a resolution condemning the environmental groups that challenged the project in court. The Gazette-Mail and the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica later found the resolution had been authored by a lobbyist for Dominion Energy, the company building the project.
It’s not the only major pipeline project whose permits are being challenged in court. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile-long project also seeking to tap into the sprawling Marcellus Shale formation, also has defended its permits in federal court.
A spokesman for the ACP project said the case would be heard early next year, with a final ruling expected by June. With a ruling on the ACP’s side, construction would be finished by late 2021, spokesman Aaron Ruby said, adding that the “law and facts are on our side.”
“More than 50 other pipelines cross underneath the Appalachian Trail without disturbing its public use. The public interest requires a clear process for the issuance and renewal of permits for such pipelines, and other essential infrastructure. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline should be no different,” Ruby said. “In fact, the pipeline will be installed more than 600 feet below the surface and more than a half-mile from each side of the Trail to avoid any impacts,” Ruby said.
But environmental groups have challenged the project’s permits, arguing that they’ve been rushed and careless. Environmentalists have also cited a concern about methane emissions from natural gas projects and a need to focus on renewable energy.
On Friday, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club said in a joint statement that they’d continue defending the lower court’s decision.
“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a dangerous, costly, and unnecessary project and we won’t stand by while Duke and Dominion Energy try to force it on our public lands, threatening people’s health, endangered species, iconic landscapes, and clean water along the way,” they said in a statement.
Dominion Energy has maintained that the project fills a public need.
“The region urgently needs new infrastructure to support the U.S. military, manufacturing, home heating and cleaner electricity as we move away from coal,” Ruby said. “We remain committed to this project and are confident it will be completed.”