Some Good News on the Mountain Valley Pipeline

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There are a lot of bad federal policies currently blocking American energy. Perhaps worst of all are measures bottling up Appalachia’s abundant natural gas that is in high demand on the East Coast, and abroad, but cannot get there due to environmentalist lawsuits stopping new pipelines. But in a recent case, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit saw through a green group’s weak arguments and is allowing one such project to move ahead.

The case, Sierra Club et al., v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, concerns a proposed extension of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The pipeline would carry natural gas 300 miles from where it is produced in West Virginia to where it is needed in Virginia to produce electricity. The proposed extension at issue would allow the pipeline to serve parts of North Carolina as well.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is all the more important now that environmentalists have killed off the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would have taken a similar route. Ironically, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline developers spent years fighting environmental lawyers all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—and won. Even so, the Sierra Club, which also brought the lawsuit in the Mountain Valley case, boasted that since the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is “still lacking 8 permits, this decision is just plugging just one hole on a sinking ship.” Among the other potential roadblocks was an Endangered Species Act permit, a special use permit and right-of-way grant from the U.S. Forest Service, a right-of-way permit from the National Park Service, and Clean Water Act authorizations and other permits from every impacted state. Thus, even with a Supreme Court win in hand, the pipeline developers gave up. Unfortunately, the Mountain Valley Pipeline currently faces a similar avalanche of lawsuits that the developers are still fighting.

But at least with regard to the extension of the pipeline into North Carolina, the Court saw through the vacuous claims of environmental harm. In truth, pipelines are among the safest and most environmentally benign means of transporting energy. The court noted that the statute at issue, the National Environmental Policy Act, simply requires the agency approving the project, in this case the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to assess the potential environmental impacts and consider ways to mitigate them, not to mandate any particular outcomes. The court concluded that that the agency’s Environmental Impact Statement was “reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” All too often, federal judges set the bar for reviewing Environmental Impact Statements impossibly high, and are too easily swayed by environmental litigants’ second-guessing of the analysis.

The Sierra Club has promised to continue opposing Mountain Valley and called it an “unneeded pipeline.” In reality, this and other natural gas pipelines have never been more needed. Though gasoline price spikes have gotten most of the attention, retail natural gas prices have also increased 30 percent over the last year and helped take electricity prices up with them. Getting more of Appalachia’s tremendous surplus of natural gas—if the region were a country it would lag behind only Russia and the rest of the United States in reserves—to consumers would greatly help alleviate their hardships. And there is more than enough natural gas to serve domestic needs while exporting plenty to European nations, thus undercutting Vladimir Putin’s economic and political leverage while supporting thousands of American energy jobs.