How Deep Is the Trail? Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Atlantic Pipeline Case

Old Appalachian Trail near Wintergreen, VA

The Supreme Court heard oral argument on Monday in a case challenging the authority of the National Park Service, which administers the Old Appalachian Trail as a park, to block a permit granted by the Forest Service that allowed the Atlantic pipeline to pass 600 feet below ground under the trail through the George Washington National Forest (which the trail traverses).  The Justices, even some of the liberal ones, were skeptical that the Park Service’s authority over the trail (and thus its ability to block the permit) extended to “the center of the Earth” according to the SCOTUSblog, and thus it appears that the Supreme Court will side with the pipeline in this case.  

Why This Matters:  The plain language of the statute giving the Park Service authority over the trail seemed to clearly trump the statute granting the Forest Service the right to grant a permit for the pipeline — the Congress wanted Parks to be impenetrable from this kind of development that could ruin whatever precious resources are being preserved. In this case, the Justices were trying to draw distinctions between the Trail and other National Parks like Yellowstone that one would want to protect from any kind of disturbance. But even Justice Breyer was skeptical that the same should be true for a trail — that sits on the surface and can be protected in this case, even if the permit were granted, because the pipeline is 600 feet below the trail. And they worried that if they agreed with the Park Service, it would result in the Appalachian Trail functioning as a sort of “wall” blocking all pipelines moving from West to East. What I (Monica) can say is that the area in contention is not flat or easy to drill through — it is full of rocks and steep ledges — so it is hard to imagine that laying a pipeline through this area would not be hugely damaging and disruptive.  

Is A Trail Really A Park?

Environmental groups argued that a 1968 statute called the National Trails Act transferred control over the Appalachian Trail to the National Park Service and that the Mineral Leasing Act prevents the Park Service from granting a permit to disturb the “park” for energy development.  The Pipeline argued that the Park Service’s authority could become problematic with respect to other trails if it were not subject to reasonable exceptions. The pipeline’s lawyer stated that  “The Park Service administers the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Now, if that trail is ‘lands’ in the Park Service because we just can’t get our head around the idea that trails are different from land, then parts of downtown Selma, downtown Montgomery are lands of the National Park Service.”  There are several other legal challenges to the pipeline pending in other courts.  If the Supreme Court sides with the environmental groups in this case, then the $8B pipeline is likely dead.  But if as it appears they allow the permit for the pipeline, construction will still be held up pending the outcomes of the other cases.

To Go Deeper: Click over here to the coverage of the case by our friendly neighbors at SCOTUSblog.

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