The United States Supreme Court on June 15 paved the way for a critical permit for a proposed natural gas pipeline that would cross under the Appalachian Trail, siding with energy companies and the Trump administration.
The justices ruled 7-2 to reverse a lower court ruling that had thrown out the permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. It would bring natural gas from West Virginia to growing markets in Virginia and North Carolina. Its supporters said the pipeline would bring economic development, thousands of jobs and reduced energy costs for customers.
The 605-mi.-long pipeline project is now projected to cost $8 billion. The proposed route begins in Harrison County, West Virginia, drawing gas from wells in the Utica and Marcellus gas fields. It travels southeast through Virginia and North Carolina to its terminus in Robeson County, N.C.
Along the way, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would run in part through the George Washington National Forest in Virginia and West Virginia, where a 0.1-mi. segment of the line would cross about 600 ft. beneath the Appalachian Trail.
Other legal issues remain before construction of the pipeline could begin. The narrow question before the Supreme Court was whether the U.S. Forest Service has the authority to grant rights-of-way through lands crossed by the Appalachian Trail within national forests, as project developers Dominion Energy and Duke Energy argued.
Atlantic Coast Pipeline spokeswoman Ann Nallo said in a statement that the decision is an "affirmation for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and communities across our region that are depending on it for jobs, economic growth and clean energy" and that they "look forward to resolving the remaining project permits."
The Sierra Club and other environmental groups had argued that because the 2,200-mi. scenic trail from Georgia to Maine is considered a unit of the National Park System, no federal agency can grant a right-of-way for the pipeline. They said only Congress can approve such a crossing.
The Richmond, Va.-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with environmentalists in 2018 and threw out a special-use permit for the pipeline.
D.J. Gerken, program director of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented the environmental groups before the Supreme Court, said the Forest Service will now need to restart the environmental review process and then decide if it will reissue a permit for the pipeline. The Forest Service also must address three other issues cited by the 4th Circuit when it tossed out the permit, including the court's finding that the agency had failed to fully consider alternative routes to avoid national forests.
"The practical, real-world requirement of having to look for a different route for this thing is still very much on the table," he said.
Dominion said the pipeline will bring a critical new gas supply to Virginia and North Carolina to support the shift away from coal and toward intermittent natural resources like solar. The company also said greater availability of natural gas will attract manufacturing businesses.