Environment, News

U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear Atlantic Coast Pipeline case

The U.S. Supreme Court announced this morning that it will review a decision by a federal court of appeals that threw up a major barrier to construction of a 600-mile natural gas pipeline being developed by Dominion Energy.

The order by the court consolidates two cases brought by environmental groups against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the U.S. Forest Service. No date has been set for oral hearings. (Click here to explore Policy Watch reporter Lisa Sorg’s extensive coverage of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.)

The cases had been appealed to the nation’s highest court after the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals revoked a permit previously granted by the U.S. Forest Service to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline allowing it to cross the Appalachian Trail.

In a lengthy December 2018 ruling that quoted Dr. Seuss, the 4th Circuit declared that “the Forest Service abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources.”

That finding, said the court, “is particularly informed by the Forest Service’s serious environmental concerns that were suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company’s deadlines.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the development of which is being led by Dominion Energy in partnership with Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas, disputed the appeals court’s conclusion in asking the Supreme Court to review the 4th Circuit decision.

The 4th Circuit, ACP claimed, “ignores key provisions in several statutes, contradicts the longstanding views of every agency involved, and converts a special rule about National Park Service lands into an impregnable barrier dividing energy sources west of the (Appalachian) Trail from consumers east of the Trail.”

Furthermore, the pipeline company complained that the ruling “will stymie this and other needed efforts to serve the Eastern seaboard’s growing energy needs.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has argued the environmentalists’ case in court, has disputed the contention that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is necessary to meet energy demands.

The Virginia and North Carolina portions of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline route. Image via the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“One issue regulators and the public and decision makers shouldn’t take their eye off is we still don’t have a clear answer on whether the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a public necessity,” said SELC attorney Greg Buppert.

A statement by Dominion Energy as reported by WBOY (a West Virginia TV station) called the Supreme Court’s decision to take up the case “a very encouraging sign.” (Dominion officials have said in the past that the company has a policy against speaking with the Virginia Mercury.)

“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,” the statement read.

Buppert, however, disputed that the court’s decision to review the 4th Circuit ruling was a victory for the pipeline.

“The fact that the court is taking this case up doesn’t mean Dominion wins,” he said. “This issue is not resolved, and it won’t be resolved until the Supreme Court decides this question.”

Sarah Vogelsong is a reporter at the Virginia Mercury, where this story originally appeared.

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