A lawsuit hasn’t been enough to stop construction on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a proposed 300-mile natural gas pipeline that would cross the Appalachian Trail and some of the region’s largest national forests on its way, from starting as soon as this month.
The Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, and Wild Virginia filed a lawsuit in January challenging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval of the pipeline. The case argues that the pipeline is unnecessary and its environmental reviews inadequate.
“These pipelines are dirty and they’re dangerous and they exacerbate climate change, so because they’re bad for people, because they’re bad for our planet and because they’re bad for our communities, Sierra Club opposes them,” says Doug Jackson, deputy press secretary for the Sierra Club. “With clean renewable energy abundant right now, we really should be using that for our energy needs and not these relics of our past.”
The Mountain Valley Pipeline would cut through 3.5 miles of the Jefferson National Forest, crossing waterways more than a thousand times and the Appalachian Trail once.
Construction would require clear-cutting a 125-foot-wide zone, then digging trenches and laying 42-inch diameter pipeline. Its route would climb steep slopes and limestone cliffs laced with cave systems. Its construction would bring noise and traffic, and increase sediment in streams near the headwaters for world class fisheries and amid world class hiking.
While some 58 pipelines already cross the AT, the MVP would run alongside it for almost 100 miles, and would be visible from some of the path’s most visited and photographed vistas, including Angels Rest, Kelly Knob, Rice Fields and Dragons Tooth.
“This area, which is cherished for its recreational, ecological and water quality values, won’t be the same after this pipeline is built,” says Angie Rosser, executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “The landscape will be changed forever—for a pipeline that we believe is not needed.”
Their case challenges the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s issuance of a “certificate of public convenience and necessity,” a requirement of the Natural Gas Act, and what they call an inadequate environmental analysis based on the National Environmental Policy Act.
In an email, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission declined to comment, citing pending litigation
But at least one commissioner agrees with the plaintiffs. The commission split 2-1 on the vote to approve the Mountain Valley Pipeline. In her dissenting opinion, Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur observed that on the same day, the commission had been asked to clear construction for two pipelines, the Mountain Valley and the Atlantic Coast, that bore similarities in their proposed routes, impacts, and timing. Collectively, they covered 900 miles of karst terrain, waterbodies, and agricultural, residential, and commercial areas and encroached on cultural, historic and natural resources, including the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“Given these similarities and overlapping issues, I believe it is appropriate to balance the collective environmental impacts of these projects on the Appalachian region against the economic need for the projects,” she wrote. “In so doing, I am not persuaded that both of these projects as proposed are in the public interest.”
Merging the two pipelines would reduce their cumulative distance by 173 miles, avoid the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests, reduce the number of times the pipelines crossed the AT and Blue Ridge Parkway, and limit construction in rugged karst topography. But instead of evaluating that alternative, LaFleur said, the commission had opted to fast-track the process.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposal calls for drilling through the Blue Ridge Mountains, in areas that have a history of landslides and debris flows, and along narrow ridgelines. If they’re able to achieve that technically challenging feat, says David Sligh, conservation director for Wild Virginia, the changes to those ridgelines and aquatic habitats will be irreparable. In 35 years of working on conservation in Virginia, he can’t recall a project that has promised to so deeply transform the state’s forests and waterways.
“We’ll never be able to restore all these things that make up the value of those natural areas that people hike through and camp in,” Sligh says. “I’ve spent my whole life hiking the Appalachian Trail, being on the [Blue Ridge] parkway, camping in the national forest, and without question there are places that I love that, first of all, I won’t be able to go to while this thing is being built, and second of all, the value will be changed forever.” He notes that the affected forests are some of the biggest concentrations of intact wild areas in the eastern United States.
The company originally planned to begin clearing trees for the pipeline in February. But it’s also still in court over eminent domain claims, having sued about 200 landowners to take possession of a portion of their property to construct the pipeline. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission authorization gives the company the right to take private land, but initially, their case stalled out in court as the U.S. District Court Judge John T. Copenhaver, Jr., required the company to show they had contacted all landowners personally, rather than relying on public notices published in newspapers, and could sufficiently compensate those landowners. Once the court returns a decision, there will be nothing stopping the Mountain Valley Pipeline from breaking ground.
“I would say it’s a matter of days or weeks,” says Anne Havemann, general counsel for Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
Sierra Club and it’s fellow plaintiffs hope their lawsuit will force the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to look at alternatives before construction actually reaches the affected public lands, cultural heritage areas, and recreational assets.
There’s also the broader question of how this infrastructure commits the area’s residents to reliance on burning fossil fuels. Oil Change International, a research organization that evaluates the fossil fuel industry’s contributions to climate change, analyzed the life cycle emissions of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and estimated it’s the equivalent of building 26 new coal-fired power plants or putting 19 million passenger vehicles on the road.
According to advocates, climate change is already affecting the trail, bringing long-term droughts that reduce backcountry water sources, more severe storms that increase erosion, more wildfires, more invasive species, and more occurrences of diseases like Lyme disease. Seasons could shift as well, and alter the experience of “walking with the spring.” Low-lying portions of Virginia have already begun to experience warmer summers, and flood even when it’s not raining, Havemann reports.
“This is not some future event,” she says. “This is happening now, and the decision to build more and more pipeline and lock us in to decades more of reliance on fossil fuels is not what we should be doing right now in an era when we are witnessing climate change.”