Supreme Court Hands Win to Atlantic Coast Pipeline Developers Looking to Cross Appalachian Trail

But the fight to protect communities, wetlands, and wildlife from the proposed pipeline is far from over.

Big Schloss, George Washington National Forest, Virginia

Pat & Chuck Blackley/Alamy Stock Photo

In a 7–2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with developers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline today, ruling that the proposed project can legally cross underneath a federally owned portion of the Appalachian Trail. Despite the setback for environmental groups and the roughly three million people who hike parts of the treasured trail each year, the court’s ruling only impacts one of the project’s multiple required permits—many of which have not yet been granted.

“This decision doesn’t greenlight or advance the dangerous Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” says Gillian Gianetti, an attorney in NRDC’s Climate & Clean Energy Program who helped prepare an amicus brief against the pipeline developers. “The fact remains that the developers cannot move ahead without securing eight crucial federal and state permits required for construction—concerning air pollution, endangered species, rights of way, and clean water.”

In 2018, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated a number of the pipeline’s permits on multiple grounds. The key question left for the Supreme Court was whether the Appalachian Trail qualifies as land in the National Park system so as to prohibit pipeline construction on the federally owned portions of the trail under the Mineral Leasing Act. The 4th Circuit had found that it was, but today, the Supreme Court agreed with the developers.

“In her noteworthy dissent, Justice Sotomayor clearly gets what should be obvious: that the Appalachian Trail is land in the National Park system,” Gianettti says. “And under federal law, a pipeline plainly cannot cross land in the National Park system.”

If approved, the proposed 600-mile-long Atlantic Coast Pipeline would transport gas from West Virginia, through Virginia, and into North Carolina, posing significant risks to communities, waterways, wetlands, and wildlife along the way. It would pass through steep, forested mountains—one of the most intact landscapes in the Southeast—and disrupt critical spawning and nursery habitat for endangered fish, such as the Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon.

“That’s why we’ll continue fighting through all legal and federal and state avenues to ensure this proposed fracked gas pipeline—which threatens the air, drinking water, environmental justice communities and our climate—is never built,” Gianetti says.”

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