Pipeline scene at Wintergreen

A path has been cleared for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on this Blue Ridge Mountain slope at the entrance to Wintergreen resort, just below the project’s disputed crossing beneath the Appalachian Trail.

The stage is set for a high-stakes showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s proposed crossing of the Appalachian Trail.

The court agreed on Friday to hear an appeal of a decision by a Richmond-based federal appeals court last year. That court revoked the permit the U.S. Forest Service issued to allow a partnership led by Dominion Energy to build the proposed natural gas pipeline beneath the Appalachian Trail between Augusta and Nelson counties in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in December that the Forest Service did not have authority to allow the $7.75 billion pipeline to cross beneath the trail at a critical chokepoint for the 600-mile project to link shale gas wells in West Virginia with energy markets in southeastern Virginia and eastern North Carolina.

Dominion hailed the court’s decision to hear the appeal as “a clear path forward to resolve this important issue,” while environmental groups promised to continue their fight against construction of “a dangerous, costly, and unnecessary project.”

The company said it expects the Supreme Court to hear arguments early next year and rule by June.

Led by Dominion and Duke Energy, the company contends that “long-standing precedent” allows pipelines to cross the 2,000-mile national scenic trail, but the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, says past crossings were made primarily on state or private lands, or under previous federal law.

Construction of the pipeline, first proposed five years ago, already is more than two years behind schedule and almost $3 billion over budget in large part because of rulings by the 4th Circuit that have vacated federal permits for the project.

Dominion is asking the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to reissue a permit that the 4th Circuit vacated last year because of inadequate analysis of the project’s likely effect on endangered or threatened animal species in its path. The company stopped work on the project in December after the appeals court vacated the biological opinion the agency approved.

The 4th Circuit ruling on the Appalachian Trail crossing prompted the company to adopt a new strategy to build the pipeline first from Buckingham County, where it would intersect with an existing interstate natural gas pipeline at a planned gas compressor station, to the Atlantic coast.

Environmental groups have appealed the state air quality permit for the compressor station, which they contend poses unfair risks to a historically African American community at Union Hill.

The rest of the project would depend on the Supreme Court or an act of Congress to allow construction of the pipeline on federal lands beneath the Appalachian Trail.

“A favorable resolution of the Appalachian Trail case will allow us to resume full construction by next summer and complete the project by late 2021,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said.

“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is more important now than ever,” Ruby said. “The economic vitality, environmental health and energy security of our region depend on it.”

The company was joined in the appeal by U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco and 16 attorneys general, led by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

The Southern Environmental Law Center and Sierra Club promised to “defend the lower court’s decision in this case.”

“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a dangerous, costly and unnecessary project and we won’t stand by while Duke and Dominion Energy try to force it on our public lands, threatening people’s health, endangered species, iconic landscapes and clean water along the way,” they said in a statement on Friday.

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