When a federal appeals court ruled that a natural gas pipeline cannot cross under the Appalachian Trail, it erected a “2,192-mile-long barrier” that blocks service to much of the East Coast, lawyers for Mountain Valley Pipeline say in court papers.
But that barrier may not be as high for Mountain Valley as it would be for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which on Monday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn an earlier ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
For Atlantic Coast, a Dominion Energy-led venture that plans to build a pipeline across Central Virginia, the 4th Circuit’s ruling could doom the project. Last year, the appeals court rejected a permit from U.S. Forest Service that allowed the pipe to burrow under the Appalachian Trail in the George Washington National Forest, near the Wintergreen resort.
Because the land in question was administered by the National Park Service, the 4th Circuit held, the Forest Service lacked authority to issue the permit.
Environmental groups who brought the lawsuit say the unneeded pipeline would damage the Appalachian Trail, a scenic footpath that runs from Georgia to Maine.
Although Mountain Valley’s crossing of the trail — to the west, in the Jefferson National Forest on the Giles County-West Virginia border — was not directly challenged in the case, it could be affected by what the Supreme Court does.
In a friend-of-the-court brief, Mountain Valley’s attorneys wrote that the 303-mile pipeline being built across Southwest Virginia is about 90% done, and that the unfinished trail crossing is “a key missing link to the almost completed project.”
As one of more than a dozen interested parties to file briefs in the closely watched case, Mountain Valley was not allowed to participate in oral arguments Monday. A ruling from the high court is expected by June.
Mountain Valley says it has other potential options for crossing the Appalachian Trail should the 4th Circuit’s ruling be upheld in a lawsuit brought by the Cowpasture River Preservation Association and other groups.
“Once a final decision is made in the Cowpasture case, MVP will determine the best path forward for completion of the project, which is targeted for late 2020,” company spokeswoman Natalie Cox wrote in an email.
Last year, Mountain Valley said it proposed a land swap with the U.S. Department of the Interior that would allow the company to keep its current trail crossing atop Peters Mountain in exchange for a piece of private property it owns nearby, adjacent to the national forest.
The company is also evaluating several route changes that would involve crossing the trail on private land, Cox said.
One alternative route, detailed in filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, would take the pipeline south toward Pearisburg, where it would cross the trail near current pipelines used by Columbia Gas of Virginia.
Cox declined to elaborate on that or other routes, or to say which option Mountain Valley would pursue next if the environmental groups prevail in the Supreme Court.
A different decision by the 4th Circuit stopped Mountain Valley in 2018 from crossing a 3.5-mile swath of the Jefferson National Forest, which includes the Appalachian Trail.
In that case, the appellate court ruled the Forest Service did not adequately prepare for the erosion that was expected from burying the pipe along steep wooded slopes.
The Forest Service was ordered to reconsider the permit, a process that is on hold until the Supreme Court rules in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline case.
In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy — which created the trail and oversees its maintenance, development and protection as part of an agreement with federal and state agencies — did not take a position on whether the Atlantic Coast Pipeline should go forward.
It’s not that the conservancy supports the pipeline.
“There are clearly well-formed reasons for organizations, and people affected by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, to oppose that project,” said Andrew Downs, a Roanoke-based regional director for the group.
But the conservancy urged the Supreme Court to respect the carefully constructed management system that has protected the trail for decades.
“Altering this system could upend” that process and “subvert the very values [it] was meant to protect,” lawyers for the conservancy wrote.
While the organization took no position on the Atlantic Coast project, Downs said it remains opposed to the location of Mountain Valley’s proposed trail crossing.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cross under the trail close to the Blue Ridge Parkway, in an area that includes other roads and homes. The planned crossing is more than 600 feet deep.
Mountain Valley, by comparison, selected a much more remote section of the Jefferson National Forest, adjacent to a federally protected wilderness area and miles from major roads.
The pipe would be buried 80 feet beneath the trail and run for about 600 feet. Both boring sites would be located within the national forest.