Builders of the pipeline, led by primary stakeholder Dominion Energy, and the Trump administration appealed a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit that said the U.S. Forest Service lacked authority to grant a permit to tunnel under the popular hiking trail.
“The Supreme Court’s acceptance of our petition is a very encouraging sign and provides a clear path forward to resolve this important issue,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said via email Friday.
Dominion and its coalition, which also includes Duke Energy of North Carolina, say that more than 50 other pipelines cross beneath sections of the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine.
Environmental groups who brought the original challenge to the permit vowed to continue fighting.
“We will defend the lower court’s decision in this case,” the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club said in a joint statement. “The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a dangerous, costly, and unnecessary project and we won’t stand by while Duke and Dominion Energy try to force it on our public lands, threatening people’s health, endangered species, iconic landscapes, and clean water along the way.”
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is being built through rugged and rural terrain from West Virginia, across the center of Virginia and into North Carolina. Opponents have fought it every step of the way, saying that it was hastily approved and that the natural gas it would deliver is not needed in a changing energy marketplace.
The project has attracted national attention, with former vice president Al Gore and the Rev. William Barber, a civil rights leader, visiting Virginia earlier this year to highlight the plight of a historic African American community being disrupted by pipeline construction. It has also factored into state politics, helping inspire a movement for candidates and lawmakers — most of them Democrats — to reject contributions from Dominion.
Federal judges suspended several permits last year, including those that set standards for allowable harm to endangered species of wildlife and that allowed the pipeline to cross national forests. The judges wrote that “the Forest Service abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources” in a rushed and incomplete permitting process.
The most significant challenge to the project was the finding, issued in December, that the Forest Service lacked authority to give the pipeline permission to cross the Appalachian Trail. A panel of federal judges said the National Park Service had jurisdiction over the crossing, but the Park Service had said that it could not grant right of way without permission from Congress.
Dominion pursued legislative relief from Congress but considered its appeal to the Supreme Court to be a stronger recourse.
On Friday, Ruby said the company is confident that, with the support of the Trump administration’s solicitor general, it will prevail. Sixteen state attorneys general filed a brief with the court in support of the pipeline, along with several industry and labor groups.
“West Virginia strongly supports the Supreme Court’s decision” to take up the case, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said Friday in a news release. “We remain hopeful this decision is a precursor to ultimate victory and an end to the unnecessary delays that have negatively impacted the livelihoods of our working class families and the services they receive.”
The court is likely to take up the case early next year. Ruby said the company anticipates a ruling by June, and that it hopes to resolve its other permitting delays in a similar time frame. In that case, he said, construction could resume by next summer and wrap up by late 2021.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is one of two major natural gas projects under construction in Virginia. The Mountain Valley Pipeline has also faced delays in crossing mountainous terrain in the far southwestern part of the state.