In Cowpasture River Preservation Association, et al. v. United States Forest Service, the Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down an approved right of way for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline by the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service. The court held, among other things, that since the proposed pipeline would cross the Appalachian Trail, it came under the jurisdiction of the Department of Interior’s National Park Service and not the Forest Service, and thus the approval was improper.
A map of the Appalachian Trail reveals why this dispute is so important for the future of natural gas on the east coast. Stretching more than 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine, the trail bisects the substantial and growing shale gas production to its west and many coastal population centers to its east. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina. Similar east-west pipelines have also been proposed. If the Appalachian Trail is allowed to become a Great Wall that blocks this flow—which is the goal of the activist groups that brought the litigation—Atlantic states would soon face significant challenges securing affordable supplies of natural gas sufficient to meet growing residential and business demand.
Energy infrastructure crossings of the Appalachian Trail are critical, and so is the choice of bureaucracies overseeing them. The Forest Service operates under statutes that make obtaining these rights of way merely difficult, but the Park Service makes them nearly impossible. Unless reversed, this case could set a precedent ending any new east-west pipelines absent congressional intervention.
Beyond strengthening the nation’s energy infrastructure, the project has been estimated to create 17,000 construction jobs as well as other economic benefits to communities located along the pipeline’s 600 mile path.
Fortunately, the Trump administration is seeking a rehearing of the decision, and the Department of Justice filed a brief making a convincing argument that the case was wrongly decided and that the Forest Service is the proper lead agency in such matters.
Hikers of the Appalachian Trail—the subject of the excellent book (and not-so-excellent movie) “A Walk In The Woods”—routinely step over underground oil and natural gas pipelines without ever knowing it. The trail is already crossed by dozens of such pipelines, with little, if any, discernible above-ground footprint and few incidents of mishaps over the decades. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other new pipelines would be required to employ state-of-the-art environmental and safety controls.
The Trump administration is right to take on this troublesome decision, and doing so advances two of its key priorities—furthering domestic energy dominance and streamlining infrastructure permit approvals.