Appalachian Trail Pipeline Case Headed to High Court

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide the fate of a permit that would let a pipeline company cut through the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted the permit to Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC in early 2018, but a challenge by environmental groups led the Fourth Circuit to block construction that winter.

“We trust the United States Forest Service to ‘speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,’” U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote for a three-judge panel in December, quoting “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss. “A thorough review of the record leads to the necessary conclusion that the Forest Service abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources.”

In his petition for certiorari this past June, U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco disputed the appellate court’s treatment of the Appalachian Trail as land belonging to the National Park Service rather than the U.S. Forest Service, thus requiring approval by Congress.

“If the court’s ruling were to stand, questions would arise whether the Park Service would be required to manage the narrow slices of national forest land crossed by the Appalachian Trail’s footpath, while the Forest Service would retain responsibility for the surrounding federal lands,” the petition states.

But the environmentalists, led by the Cowpasture River Preservation Association, shot back in its response brief that the prohibition of of pipeline crossings over federal lands in the National Park System is undisputed.

“This is federal land in the National Park System, and a pipeline cannot cross it without congressional authorization,” wrote Austin Gerken Jr., an attorney for the challengers with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

In a joint statement Friday, the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Center both promised to defend the lower court’s ruling. 

“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 wrote. 

The Fourth Circuit’s decision last year has been one of many setbacks for the pipeline project that aims to bring natural gas mined in Ohio down to the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina. Several regional power companies have partnered to tackle the project and, while construction has been halted in some places, it’s continued in others.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline spokesman Aaron Ruby took heart that the high court has taken up the case, saying a ruling in their favor by next summer could put them in place to complete the project by late 2021.

“The law and the facts are on our side, and we’re supported by a broad coalition of stakeholders,” Ruby said in a statement, noting there are dozens of state attorneys general and other industry and labor groups supporting their push.

Ruby also stressed the more than 50 existing pipelines that already cross the trail.

“We remain confident we can resolve the ACP’s other permitting issues to enable resumption of partial construction in a timely manner,” he said.

A spokesman for the Forest Service declined to comment, citing a policy on pending litigation.

Other environmental groups participating in the case include are Highlanders for Responsible Development, Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, Shenandoah Valley Network, Sierra Club, Virginia Wilderness Committee and Wild Virginia Inc.

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