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Atlantic Coast Pipeline Survives Appalachian Trail Challenge Before U.S. Supreme Court

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[FarmLaw Editor’s Note: Since publication of this feature, the backers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline indefinitely suspended work on the gas pipeline]

In a 7-2 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) – a 600-mile natural gas pipeline conveying gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in Northeast West Virginia to a terminus in Robeson County, North Carolina – can cross beneath the Appalachian Trail in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest. The ACP cuts through eight North Carolina counties:  Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland, and terminates in Robeson. The ruling in the case of United States Forest Service v. Horsepasture River Preservation Association (No. 18–1584) overturns the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals holding that the ACP cannot transect the subterranean estate below the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (the famous “AT”) absent a specific act of Congress. Specifically, the 4th Circuit overturned the US Forest Service’s issuance of a right of way permit for the ACP pursuant to a requirement of the Mineral Leasing Act (“MLA”) for such an easement across public lands, reasoning that the AT is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service (NPS) with greater restrictions on land use. As such, the 4th Circuit reasoned that the AT fell under the MLA’s prohibition of such pipelines crossing national park land, and as such, only Congress has the authority to countermand a directive in federal legislation.

The Court held – in an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas – that the delegation of management over the AT to the NPS did not itself change the nature of the land over which the AT runs, at the proposed pipeline crossing, in this case, the George Washington National Forest unit. Justice Thomas reasoned in the end that such an administrative decision – to transfer management authority within divisions of the federal agencies (i.e., USDA Forest Service to Department of Interior NPS) – did not amount to, in absence of statutory language concerning the transfer, an expansion of national park land. In other words, the administrative transfer of management did not do something that only Congress can do:  create a national park. He also reasoned that – by implication – such a decision would render the private and state-owned lands over which national trails – including the AT – run to the authority of the National Park Service.

Justice Sonya Sotomayor and Justice Elana Kagan dissented in the case, resting on the plain language of the National Parks Organic Act, which states that “any area of land…administered” by the Park Service for “park, monument, historic, parkway, recreational, or other purposes” is part of the National Park System, and as such, part of the MLA’s easement prohibition. Though a victory for the ACP, there are still numerous active challenges to the pipeline in the federal courts, including various procedural challenges under the Natural Gas Act, the National Forest Lands Management Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act.