Justices reject pipeline, wildfire cases

By Niina H. Farah, Pamela King | 10/07/2019 01:10 PM EDT

The Supreme Court today rejected an eminent domain challenge by Karolyn Givens and other landowners along the Mountain Valley pipeline.

The Supreme Court today rejected an eminent domain challenge by Karolyn Givens and other landowners along the Mountain Valley pipeline. Pamela King/E&E News

The Supreme Court will not wade into a closely watched battle over a practice that allows natural gas pipeline developers to access private lands before paying.

Givens v. Mountain Valley Pipeline, a case that deals with a type of eminent domain known as "quick take," was among a long list of petitions the justices rejected this morning.

The high court declined to consider landowners’ plea that the builders of the 300-mile pipeline through West Virginia and Virginia should not be able to begin construction on their property without first paying "just compensation," as guaranteed under the Constitution.


"Obviously, we are disappointed; we felt like our position and our arguments were correct and that some of these courts had gotten this issue completely wrong," said attorney Chris Johns, who represented landowners in the case.

This is at least the second time the Supreme Court has declined to review the issue of quick take. Court watchers had considered it unlikely that the justices would take up the case (Energywire, Sept. 30).

Appellate courts have long allowed pipeline backers to seize private property after securing a preliminary injunction. There has recently been little disagreement among the lower benches that pipeline firms are entitled to immediate possession of property in such cases.

Johns pushed back on the idea that there was no circuit split on the issue and noted the importance of the case to thousands of landowners.

"There is just a general sense that it’s interesting they would take the Cowpasture case that does not involve a circuit split and involves one permitting decision," he said, referring to the Supreme Court’s decision Friday to accept a separate case involving the neighboring Atlantic Coast pipeline’s crossing of the Appalachian Trail (Energywire, Oct. 7).

A spokesperson for the Mountain Valley pipeline did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Wildfires petition

One of California’s largest utilities will not have a chance to make its case to the Supreme Court that the Constitution prevents states from holding privately owned power providers liable for wildfire damages without recouping costs from ratepayers.

The case stems from the California Public Utilities Commission’s denial of San Diego Gas & Electric Co.’s request to recover $379 million in costs from wildfires that the company said have become the "new normal" in the Golden State.

"The prospect of such liability has increased insurance costs, weakened credit ratings, and discouraged investment in California’s privately owned utilities, who supply power to the overwhelming bulk of the State’s businesses and residents and provide a vital aspect of California’s infrastructure," SDG&E argued in its petition to the high court.

SDG&E pointed to Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s bankruptcy as one high-profile example of such liability.

ClearView Energy Partners LLC analysts have said a measure enacted this year by the California Legislature may appease some of the concerns raised in SDG&E v. California PUC. The legislation allows utilities to access a $21 billion wildfire disaster fund if regulators determine the disasters did not result from the companies’ negligence.

Other denials

The justices can hear only about 1% of the many thousands of cases they receive each term. Here are some other notable environmental cases the court rejected today:

  • Jonna Corp. v. Sunnyvale, Calif., a property rights dispute between a recycler and a Golden State city over the definition of "solid waste."
  • Save Tacoma Water v. Port of Tacoma, a challenge involving local ballot initiatives over industrial water use in Tacoma, Wash.
  • LAJIM LLC v. General Electric Co., a case born from a citizen suit under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The court took no action on Competitive Enterprise Institute v. Michael Mann, a defamation lawsuit stemming from a blog post in which conservative interests accused climate scientist Michael Mann of fraud and compared him to convicted child abuser Jerry Sandusky.