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Conservation News

A Pipeline Planned to Cross the Appalachian Trail Just Got Cancelled

Citing cost of litigation, builders call off project just three weeks after Supreme Court ruled in its favor.

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The partners behind a controversial pipeline that would have crossed the Appalachian Trail have canceled the project, less than three weeks after winning approval for a key permit from the Supreme Court.

In a press release, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy cited the uncertainty and cost of ongoing litigation over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s environmental permits as a factor in their decision to end the project.

“Unfortunately, the inability to predict with confidence the outcome of the project’s permits and the potential for additional incremental delays associated with continued legal challenges, means that committing millions of dollars of additional investment for tree-felling and subsequent ramp up for full construction is no longer a prudent use of shareholder capital,” the companies said.

On June 15, the Supreme Court removed one obstacle to the ACP’s construction when it ruled 7-2 that the Forest Service had acted within its authority in permitting the pipeline to cross beneath the Appalachian Trail. However, several other permits the project required were still in limbo; in April, a federal court in Montana struck down a US Army Corps of Engineers policy that had allowed construction on the ACP and other pipelines to proceed. (That decision is currently under appeal.)

Senior Attorney Patrick Hunter of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which sued to block construction on the pipeline, said that the cancellation caught him by surprise.

“I was not expecting to get the news on Sunday—didn’t have any idea that the decision was being made,” he said. “I will say that this project had a lot of problems.”

First proposed in 2013, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would have run 604 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina, transporting some 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas daily from the Utica and Marcellus Shales. Opposition to the planned pipeline was swift. Tribal nations including the Lumbee, Coharie, and Haliwa-Saponi expressed concerns that they hadn’t been consulted about the pipeline’s impact on culturally-significant areas and water supplies, while private landowners lobbied against it.

The pipeline’s planned crossing of the Appalachian Trail near Raven’s Roost on the Blue Ridge Parkway was particularly contentious. While the pipeline itself would have been underground, maintaining it would have required crews to permanently clear a 50-foot-wide swath of trees above the planned route to prevent roots from snaking into the line, as well as extensively blasting ridgelines to flatten them. A coalition of environmental groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center, sued over the plan, notching an early victory in 2018 when a federal appeals court ruled in their favor.

“The pipeline will create a permanent scar on views from the Appalachian Trail, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and spots in the National Forest,” DJ Gerken, an attorney for the SELC, said following that ruling. “The Park Service complained that the pipeline developer ignored the shape of the land, even more than a road or railroad would, and carved through mountains and valleys with no consideration for what the route would do to these scenic treasures.”

But while that legal challenge was ultimately unsuccessful, fighting it and others ultimately drove up the cost and risk of building the ACP to unsustainable levels. In its press release, Dominion said the lawsuits had inflated the project’s price tag from about $4.5 or $5 billion to $8 billion and delayed its projected completion date three-and-a-half years to 2022.

In an email, the SELC called the cancellation “a victory for all communities and natural areas in the path of the pipeline—countless farms, rugged national forests, thousands of rivers and streams, and historic African-American and Native American communities.”

Among those beneficiaries: hikers, who will be spared the impact that construction would have brought with it.

“The process for installing [the pipeline] was going to take 24-7 drilling for more than a year to get through a mile of rock,” Hunter said. “They were going to have to use heavy industrial equipment and heightened lights would be visible from the trail. It certainly would have had an impact on someone hiking.” 

Monday brought two more victories for pipeline opponents, as a federal court on  ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline to cease operations within the next 30 days and the Supreme Court refused to reinstate a rule that would have fast-tracked construction on Keystone XL. However, at least one other pipeline that would impact the Appalachian Trail is still on track for now: The Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile project wending through West Virginia and Virginia, is 92 percent complete, and its owners estimate it will go into service in early 2021.

In the future, Hunter hopes that energy companies will more carefully consider the their projects’ effects on the landscapes they cross.

“We have so few protected, pristine places,” Hunter says. “We can’t afford to sacrifice what we have left building unnecessary infrastructure.”