Last week, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be allowed to cross underneath the Appalachian Trail. Dominion Energy, the pipeline’s main backer, has characterized the Supreme Court’s decisions as a significant step forward for the controversial project.
If completed, the pipeline would carry natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina. The project’s initial price tag was $5 billion, but more recent estimates say it will cost as much as $8 billion. Gas was supposed to be flowing by 2019, but the Southern Environmental Law Center says that less than 6 percent of the pipe has been installed so far.
The project has been slowed in part due to years of dedicated work from grassroots activists, who have fought tooth and nail to stop the pipeline from slicing through the Appalachian wilderness. They say the project will have devastating effects on water quality and wildlife in the area, and that it’s not economically necessary.
“This is a major victory for the project,” Dominion says of the decision in a press bulletin. “It paves the way for the ACP to be completed and bring jobs to the region, stimulate the economy and lead us to a cleaner energy future.”
“They’ll parade the decision to shareholders, and probably make some additional press releases to make [the pipeline] seem like an inevitable project,” says Daniel Shaffer, a geospatial consultant for the anti-pipeline coalition Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance. “But it really doesn’t change their situation.”
It’s worth taking a closer look at the terms of the case that came before the Supreme Court. In 2017, the project secured a key construction permit from the U.S. Forest Service. Then, in 2018, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond vacated that permit. Dominion challenged the Fourth Circuit’s decision, and that’s the challenge that went to the Supreme Court.
Lew Freeman, the executive director of ABRA, says the group is “disappointed, but not entirely surprised” that the Supreme Court ruled the way it did. “We’re quick to point out that this is only one of several issues on which the Forest Service permit was struck down,” Freeman says. “Those other reasons for vacating the permit were not challenged by Dominion in this case.”
In other words, the Supreme Court case doesn’t ensure that the Forest Service permit will be reinstated—it just removes one of many hurdles that Dominion will have to clear when it requests another Forest Service permit.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, which is dedicated to protecting the environment, has led the legal opposition to the pipeline. After the decision last week, the SELC noted that eight other permits for the pipeline are still in question.
“Their certificate of public necessity and convenience is under review,” says Shaffer. “They can’t cross any water anywhere. Can’t take any endangered species. Can’t cross under the Blue Ridge Parkway. We don’t know what will happen with the Forest Service permit.”
And in January, a permit to build an invasive compressor station in Buckingham County’s historically black Union Hill neighborhood was thrown out.
If all of this conflict over permits seems confusing and convoluted, that’s exactly the point. Tying up the project in time-consuming and costly litigation has been one of the anti-pipeline group’s core strategies from the beginning. Shaffer says now, he’s “absolutely” optimistic about the possibility of eventually killing the project, “much more so than I was when I first joined the fight.”
ABRA, which is an umbrella organization that coordinates more than 50 environmental groups from West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, continues to fight the pipeline on other fronts, too.
Construction on the project has been halted since 2018, but when it resumes, Shaffer says, ABRA and its subsidiaries will be ready to resume their construction monitoring. Shaffer says they’ve also lent a hand to groups fighting other non-renewable energy projects like the Mountain Valley Pipeline or the Header Improvement Project.
Recently, ABRA published a paper that demonstrates how even small amounts of construction in the area can cause significant environmental problems. “Land disturbance in the Appalachian mountain area, because of its excessive rainfall and steep slopes and fragile topography, can spawn landslides with very little disruption,” Freeman says.
“Long term, obviously, we hope it won’t be built,” Shaffer says. “Short term, we hope to keep everybody engaged, to supply our legal partners with any information we can, and continue keeping people educated.”
“I don’t make predictions about what’s going to happen in a political or legislative or legal sense,” says Freeman, when asked if he thinks the pipeline will ever be finished. “I will say this: I believe that this project was wrongheaded from the beginning…We’re going to continue to fight it.”