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SCOTUS Decision Revives Stalled Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline has managed to jump a significant hurdle in the way of completion.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) is a 600-mile long natural gas transfer system that would begin in West Virginia and end in North Carolina. The pipeline is being constructed to provide operators in Appalachia’s Marcellus and Utica shale basins with access to southern markets and export terminals located in the south. The project was proposed and initially green-lit in 2014, receiving most of the necessary permits needed for construction, but was halted when the pipeline was set to pass beneath a section of the Appalachian Trail in the George Washington National Forest.

The ACP initially received special use permits issued by the US Forest Service using the Mineral Leasing Act as the rationalization of the US Forest Service’s legitimacy to provide such a permit. However, a group opposed to the pipeline filed suit against the US Forest Service in federal court, arguing that as the Appalachian Trail is a part of the National Park Service, the Forest Service would have no jurisdiction to issue such a permit. That power is held only by the National Park Service, which has prohibited any sort of energy infrastructure from being constructed on park grounds. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the group, vacated the permits, and effectively halted Dominion from further construction of the ACP without a total rerouting.

This decision was subsequently challenged, with the Supreme Court taking the case. The issue at hand for the Court was whether the land within the George Washington National Forest that the Appalachian Trail is located on is under the jurisdiction of the US Forest Service or the National Parks Service. In a 7-2 decision, the Court decided in favor of the US Forest Service, stating that the Appalachian Trail’s traversal through the national forest does not remand authority from the Forest Service, and thus would not be under the National Parks Service’s authority. In the majority opinion, penned by Justice Clarence Thomas, it is noted that the Appalachian Trail acted on the basis of a right-of-way through the national forest, which grants the National Park Service no ownership of the land on which the trail exists. Additionally, there was a longstanding agreement delegating the maintenance of national trails that pass through national forests from the Park Service to the Forest Service. During oral arguments, counsel for the ACP gave examples of this agreement at work, noting that when a tree falls on a national trail within a national forest, it is the US Forest Service that clears the tree, not the National Park Service.

Though on its face the case seems to be an energy issue, it is absolutely not, and a decision, either way, has broad consequences. For example, if the Court had ruled in the opposite direction, it would create a precedent that would grant the National Park Service jurisdiction over all of the lands that a national trail traverses. What is often forgotten is that many national trails, including the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, begin and end in cities. If all national trails would be under the Park Service’s jurisdiction, cities like Selma, Montgomery, St. Louis, and Portland would be subject to their particularly restrictive mandates, including the prohibition of energy infrastructure.

Though the ACP 'won' in this case, they are still involved in several other cases regarding its permitting that are ongoing.

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