Home Energy and Environment Supreme Court Hears Crucial Atlantic Coast Pipeline/Appalachian Trail Case Today

Supreme Court Hears Crucial Atlantic Coast Pipeline/Appalachian Trail Case Today

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This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing U.S. Forest Service v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association and Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association, the main issue being [w]hether the United States Forest Service has the authority to grant rights-of-way under the Mineral Leasing Act through lands traversed by the Appalachian Trail within national forests.” Over at the invaluable SCOTUSblog, there’s an excellent preview of the oral arguments. Here are a few highlights that jumped out at me, but definitely read the entire thing if you’re interested in this case. Also, see below the highlights for some updates, tweets, etc. And check out the Southern Environmental Law Center’s press conference, starting at 11:30 am.

  • The case “pit[s] a pipeline developer and the U.S. Forest Service against environmental groups that want to halt the pipeline’s construction and protect the Appalachian Trail.”
  • Key statutes to be considered by the Supreme Court include: “the Mineral Leasing Act, which promotes pipeline rights-of-way and other energy development on federal lands (except lands in the National Park System), and the National Trails System Act, which designated the Appalachian Trail as a National Scenic Trail and put the Secretary of the Interior in charge of administering it.”
  • The project at stake here is Dominion’s fracked-gas, $8 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, whose “proposed route…crosses steep mountain ranges and then tunnels underneath the Appalachian Trail within the George Washington National Forest near Wintergreen, Va.”
  • The Trump administration, of *course*, supports the pipeline, and “in 2017 the Forest Service blessed the route and issued a special use permit for the pipeline.” That “permit is at the heart of this case.”
  • “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit vacated the permit in 2018 on the grounds that the entire Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, constitutes land in the National Park System, so the Forest Service had no authority to authorize a right-of-way under the trail. The Forest Service and Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC are urging the Supreme Court to reverse the 4th Circuit, contending that the Forest Service retains full and exclusive jurisdiction over land in the George Washington National Forest.”
  • If the Atlantic Coast Pipeline folks and the Forest Service win this case, it’s quite possible that “the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will be shelved because of the expense of rerouting the entire pipeline to cross the trail at another location (such as where the trail crosses privately owned land).”
  • If the pipeline folks *win* the case, on the other hand, “the pipeline’s future will remain somewhat uncertain because the 4th Circuit has vacated seven other required permits.” 
  • “The thing to watch in oral argument will be how much weight the justices give to the Trails System Act. Does the administrative authority given in that act to the Secretary of the Interior supersede the jurisdiction of the Forest Service within a national forest? If so, how far does that administrative authority go?”
  • Also worth watching: “[H]ow deeply the justices engage with the larger energy implications of the case. Will they be concerned that the Appalachian Trail could become a ‘Great Wall’ that blocks most energy projects between the Midwest and the East Coast? Will they worry about the precedent that affirmance would set for other national trails administered by the Secretary of the Interior? Anticipating this possibility, the environmental groups emphasize that the 4th Circuit’s decision does not preclude all pipeline crossings under the Appalachian Trail. It simply precludes pipeline crossings at the parts of the trail located on federal property, which would still allow pipeline rights-of-way to proceed across the 20 percent of the Appalachian Trail that runs through state or private land.”

Verrrry interesting, I’d say, and also very important not just for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, but potentially for other pipeline projects as well. Of course, it would be nice if the Supreme Court would also consider climate and other environmental implications here, but that’s apparently not what’s being argued. It also would be nice if we could have any confidence on this right-wing, Trump-loving court, but…not sure about you, but I sure as hell don’t. So, we’ll see, but honestly I’m not optimistic, simply because this court is terrible. Hope I’m wrong!

SELC press conference starts about 7 minutes into this video.