U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of Atlantic Coast Pipeline construction

Published on June 15, 2020 by Hil Anderson

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Construction of the $8 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) could resume before the end of the year after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday overturned a lower court’s ruling that had voided a key permit for work along the Appalachian Trail.

The court said in its June 15 ruling that the U.S. Forest Service had acted appropriately when it issued a permit allowing the 604-mile pipeline to cross the popular hiking trail and link natural gas produced in West Virginia with markets in North Carolina.

Dominion Energy, a partner in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, said the ruling was an affirmation for the pipeline and the communities that are depending on it for jobs, economic growth and clean energy.

“Communities across Hampton Roads, Virginia and eastern North Carolina are experiencing chronic shortages of natural gas,” Dominion said. “They urgently need new infrastructure to support military bases, manufacturing and home heating. The ACP will also support our region’s transition from coal and the rapid expansion of renewables, both of which are essential to Dominion Energy’s and Duke Energy’s plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.”

The favorable ruling prompted preparations to resume work in the coming months on the project where both Dominion and Duke Energy are investors.

“We are currently resolving the other pending permits to ensure the ACP resumes construction this year,” Atlantic Coast Pipeline officials said in a written statement. “The ACP team will continue to work closely with local, state and federal agencies to complete this project with the smallest possible impact on the environment.”

The ACP project had been derailed by a legal standoff over a 0.1-mile segment of pipeline to be buried under the Appalachian Trail as it passes through 16 miles of the George Washington National Forest in Virginia. The segment will be built deep underground as have many earlier pipelines crossing the fabled Trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia and is annually visited by more than 3 million people, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the National Forest system, had granted Dominion a permit to cross the trail in 2018; however, pipeline opponents argued successfully before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that the trail was actually under the authority of the National Park Service and that pipeline rights-of-way were not permitted on National Park lands under the federal Mineral Leasing Act.

The majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas concluded, however, that the National Parks Service had only been given the responsibility to administer the trail “as a footpath” by the Department of the Interior and that the land itself remained part of the Forest Service.

“We conclude that the lands that the Trail crosses remain under the Forest Service’s jurisdiction and, thus, continue to be ‘federal lands’ under the Leasing Act,” the opinion said. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, arguing that giving the National Parks Service responsibility for “administration” of the Trail meant that the Trail was indeed part of the National Parks Service.

West Virginia’s attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, said in a statement that the Fourth Circuit’s ruling would have “transformed 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail into a near-impenetrable barrier to energy development.”

“The Supreme Court’s opinion overturns a devastating decision (by the Fourth Circuit) and will go a long way to building a stronger economy and tax base nationwide, especially in north central West Virginia,” Morrissey said.

While there was no immediate update on the completion of the ACP, Dominion said running the pipeline under the trail would not cause any disruptions.

“In its decision today, the Supreme Court upheld the longstanding precedent allowing infrastructure crossings of the Appalachian Trail,” the company said. “For decades, more than 50 other pipelines have safely crossed the trail without disturbing its public use. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will be no different.”