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Atlantic Coast Pipeline Appalachian Trail Case Heads to Supreme Court

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Natural gas pipe for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline sits in a yard Feb. 27, 2019, near Morgantown, W.Va. Photo: Larry Dowling/West Virginia Public Broadcast

A battle over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court Monday, Feb. 24. Oral arguments are scheduled in the case U.S. Forest Service v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association for Monday, Feb. 24.

At the heart of the case is whether the U.S. Forest Service has the authority to grant the Atlantic Coast Pipeline a permit to cross under the Appalachian Trail, federal land, that is a unit of the National Park Service. 

The ruling could have big impacts for the route of the 600-mile natural gas project, which begins in West Virginia and crosses through Virginia and North Carolina. 

In December 2018, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. Forest Service improperly granted the pipeline a permit to cross under the Appalachian Trail, a popular 2,200-mile hiking route that goes from Georgia to Maine. 

Ahead of the case being argued in the high court, both the pipeline’s supporters and opponents say they are cautiously optimistic. 

Federal Barrier? 

“We think that the Fourth Circuit clearly erred,” said Republican West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, speaking at a recent press conference at the capitol in Charleston. Morrisey led a group of 18 state attorneys general who filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s ruling. 

“You cannot set up literally an impenetrable federal barrier to economic development, not only under our constitution or a law, but under the statutes, the Mineral Leasing Act,” he said.

Pipeline spokesperson Ann Nallo said more than 50 other pipelines cross under the Appalachian Trail. In court briefs, pipeline developer Dominion Energy argues if the lower court’s ruling is upheld, that would upend decades of precedent and permits. 

“So, where the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is currently routed, is underneath one-tenth of a mile stretch about 600 feet below the surface of the Appalachian Trail,” she said. “If it’s now going to be understood that it’s National Park Service land, where a pipeline can’t cross without congressional approval, that essentially turns it into a 2,200-mile barrier.”

Other Obstacles

But environmental groups say this case is different. Greg Buppert is an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, one of the groups that will defend the lower court’s decision. 

“Yes, to be sure other pipelines cross the Appalachian Trail. What’s different here is that the crossing is proposed on federal land,” he said. “There’s never been a new right of way for a pipeline on federal land in the last 50 years.” 

Buppert said even if the Supreme Court sides with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in this case, the project’s future remains murky. 

“If you step back away from the just the Cow Pasture case and the Appalachian Trail crossing issue — which I think is just a symptom of the route Dominion chose — I think this project has serious problems and obstacles ahead of it,” he said. 

Several of the project’s federal permits are in flux and other lawsuits are ongoing. Project developer Dominion Energy says the project has ballooned in cost to $8 billion. The Supreme Court is expected to hand down its ruling in May or June of this year.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.