Jun 16, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Supreme Court ruling seen as boon to natural gas pipelines

 Scenery with river and forest at Appalachian Trail near Goshen Pass, Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia.
View from the Appalachian Trail near Goshen Pass in Virginia. Photo: Getty Images

A Supreme Court ruling Monday removes a key hurdle for two natural gas pipelines and could have ripple effects for future projects.

Driving the news: In a 7-2 ruling, the court said the U.S. Forest Service has the power to grant the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline right of way under the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. Another pipeline proposed in the same area, the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, has faced similar challenges.

Where it stands: At issue was what federal agency controls the land the pipeline would traverse, the U.S. Forest Service or the Interior Department's National Park Service.

  • Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said under the lower court ruling that Monday’s decision overturned, any pipeline crossing at similar "footpaths" controlled by the Park Service would need an act of Congress for approval.
  • 21 such footpaths exist across the country comprising at least tens of thousands of miles, per Thomas’ opinion, according to Gary Kruse, managing director of research at LawIQ, an energy regulatory analytics and advisory firm.
  • "That would have been a severe restraint on pipeline development throughout the country," Kruse said.

The other side: "There is a serious concern that areas of lands long to be considered off-limit for pipeline construction will now be perceived as worthy for potential investment and construction," said Gillian Giannetti, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed an amicus brief opposing the pipeline.

  • This could include opening up protected Park Service areas like the Timpanogos Cave National Monument and the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument to gas pipelines, according to a blog post she co-authored earlier this year about the decision’s potential implications.

Yes, but: These pipelines wouldn’t be the first to go under the iconic Appalachian Trail. At issue is the type of land at the crossing: federal, versus state or private. Existing pipelines cross the trail at 34 locations, pipeline backers say, per the Washington Post.

The big picture: The case turned on a technical issue, but don't let that cloud the bigger picture. The lawsuit is one of many representing a decade-long fight over fossil-fuel infrastructure, climate change and other environmental issues first born out of the high-profile Keystone XL pipeline battle, which itself is still raging and unsettled.

What we're watching: Whether these two pipelines are ultimately built. The court ruling Monday removed a key hurdle — but not the only ones, per Bloomberg Law.

What's next: The Supreme Court is expected to decide June 25 whether it will hear another pipeline lawsuit, one involving eminent domain that could have even broader implications.

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