The Supreme Court today sided with the developers of the Atlantic Coast pipeline in a dispute over the project's planned crossing beneath the Appalachian Trail.
Justices for the court ruled in a 7-2 decision to overturn the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' finding that the Forest Service could not authorize the natural gas pipeline to pass hundreds of feet below the trail.
"Sometimes a complicated regulatory scheme may cause us to miss the forest for the trees, but at bottom, these cases boil down to a simple proposition: A trail is a trail, and land is land," the court, led by Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote in an opinion issued this morning.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined the opinion, as well as Justices Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg signed on to all but one part of the majority's opinion.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, dissented.
Developers of the Atlantic Coast pipeline, a group led by Dominion Energy Inc., argued that upholding the 4th Circuit's ruling would create an impenetrable barrier to natural gas development on the East Coast. Environmental groups opposing the project maintained that the National Park Service, which is governed by a stricter land conservation mandate than the Forest Service, is responsible for administering the scenic trail and that pipeline construction on federal lands adjacent to the trail is therefore barred.
The groups said that existing pipelines that cross beneath the trail traverse state and private lands or are located on federal easements that predated the establishment of the trail.
During oral arguments, the justices questioned whether they could come to a narrow decision that drew a distinction between a surface trail administered by NPS and subsurface land controlled by the Forest Service (Greenwire, Feb. 24).
In the majority decision the justices found that the Interior Department held a limited easement for establishing and administering the Appalachian Trail but that the land itself remained "federal lands" under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service.
Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association was one of the last cases the justices heard before the novel coronavirus pandemic forced the high court to indefinitely postpone arguments scheduled for the remainder of its term (E&E News PM, April 3).
The stalled 600-mile pipeline still faces a number of obstacles to completion, as it requires more than half a dozen approvals tied up in litigation unrelated to the Supreme Court case.