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SCOTUS Rules Pipeline Construction Can Proceed

Fri July 28, 2023 - National Edition #16

The Supreme Court on July 27 cleared the way for construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline to proceed, granting an emergency request from backers of the project that has the support of Congress and the Biden administration.

The justices agreed to lift lower court orders that froze construction of the project while legal challenges play out, CNN reported.

The Supreme Court's order is a victory for West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has championed the project and pushed for it during debt ceiling negotiations in June.

In the brief order, the court offered no extensive reasoning, and no dissents were noted.

Despite climate activists urging the Biden administration to stop approving fossil fuel projects like the Mountain Valley Pipeline, White House officials have been supportive of the pipeline since it was first introduced in Congress in 2022.

More recently, administration officials, including White House senior adviser John Podesta and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, voiced support this year for the pipeline's approval.

The White House did not immediately return CNN's request for comment on the Supreme Court allowing the pipeline to proceed.

The 300-mi.-long pipeline is designed to transport gas from West Virginia's Marcellus and Utica shale areas to Virginia. Along the way, it would cross waterways and federal national forest lands, which is why it went through a complex environmental permitting process and led to multiple lawsuits.

The project has faced long delays, in part because several of the court challenges were upheld by the Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has repeatedly tossed the pipeline's permits, citing environmental violations.

In June, however, members of Congress came together during the debt ceiling negotiations to pass the Fiscal Responsibility Act, known as Section 324, mandating the completion of the pipeline and stripping jurisdiction of courts to hear challenges regarding federal approvals of the project. President Biden quickly signed it into law on June 3.

When it was revealed that Manchin's pipeline provisions would be added to the debt limit bill, a White House official told CNN it would make good on a compromise that the Biden administration and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer struck with Manchin in 2022 to secure his vote for the Inflation Reduction Act.

"The Supreme Court has spoken and this decision to let construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline move forward again is the correct one," Manchin's office said in a statement. "I am relieved that the highest court in the land has upheld the law Congress passed and the president signed."

Environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society argued that Congress had exceeded its authority in passing the law. On July 10, the appeals court entered an order freezing construction and agreed to expedite the case.

Backers of the pipeline had said that if they could not resume operations by July 26, they would be unable to put the pipeline into service by the end of the year.

A hearing in the case was scheduled for July 27 at the appeals court in Richmond, Va., where backers of the pipeline had planned to ask the court to dismiss appeals brought by the groups, which were expected to argue that Section 324 was unconstitutional.

Lawyers were midway through the hearing before the federal appeals court on the case when they learned of the Supreme Court's order, which was briefly discussed.

In court papers, lawyers for one of the environmental groups told the Supreme Court that Section 324 was "tailored to mandate victory" for the Mountain Valley pipeline and that Congress "cannot pick winners and losers in pending litigation by compelling finds or results."

They also stressed the environmental concern for the pipeline which, they argued, forced "hundreds" of private landowners to go to court for eminent domain proceedings. They said the pipeline crosses terrain that is both "demanding and fragile" and at times climbs up steep "landslide-prone" mountains.

Supporters of the project countered in court papers that the appeals court did not have jurisdiction to consider the case because under Section 324 of the law all such challenges had been rendered moot. They also argued the law was constitutional.

The emergency application received the support of a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Manchin, who filed his own friend of the court brief in support of the enterprise, CNN reported.

U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar told the justices in court papers that Congress was "well within" its constitutional authority to pass the law and argued that the court of appeals lacked authority to stay the agency's action in a move which "profoundly impaired" operation of the pipeline.

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