The U.S. Supreme Court today takes up a case that has broad implications for West Virginia’s energy economy, as well as the future of natural gas production, shipping and use throughout the country.
The case is U.S. Forest Service v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association and it centers on which federal agency has permitting jurisdiction over land that the Appalachian Trail traverses.
Dominion Energy and Duke Energy are building the $8 billion, 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline that will ship natural gas from north central West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina for energy production. Environmentalists want to stop this and other pipelines as part of their fight against carbon-based fuels.
The U.S. Forest Service approved construction of the pipeline through the George Washington National Forest. The pipeline would cross the Appalachian Trail, tunneling 600 feet under the pathway near Wintergreen, Virginia.
Pipeline opponents argue the trail constitutes land in the National Park System and therefore the Forest Service has no jurisdiction. The Forest Service contends it has authority over the land because the trail is a mere right of way through the national forest.
The Cowpasture River Preservation Association has already prevailed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which vacated the permit issued in 2018, halting pipeline construction. The Forest Service will ask the high court today to overturn the 4th Circuit’s decision.
Noah Sachs, professor and director of the Merhige Center for Environmental Studies at the University of Richmond School of Law, wrote in SCOTUSblog, “many analysts project that if the petitioners (Forest Service) lose, 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 trial crosses privately owned land).”
If the environmentalists prevail, it will have a dramatic impact on the country’s increasing use of natural gas as a cheap, reliable energy source. Sachs wrote that about half of the Appalachian Trial passes through national forests so the Trail would become a virtual “wall” that blocks pipelines.
(It’s worth noting that there are already 55 pipelines that cross the Appalachian Trail at 34 locations along the 2,100-mile route.)
But the implications are even broader than that. There are about 11,000 miles of national trails that cross federal land. Imagine the impact on pipeline construction in this country if no pipeline could tunnel under any of those trails.
West Virginia is leading an 18-state coalition that has joined in the fight on behalf of the Forest Service. Last Friday, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey held a press conference in support of the pipeline construction, and he was joined by workers who have been laid off because of the court challenge.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, whose construction has also been halted by this case, are integral to the lives of those workers, natural gas production in this state and the shipment of energy across the country.
The opponents know well the pipelines will have no impact on the Appalachian Trail, but they are pursuing an obscure legal maneuver as part of an anti-carbon agenda. Hopefully the U.S. Supreme Court will recognize their meritless argument as well as the negative impact on the country’s energy production and independence should they prevail.