Lawyers were nearly half-way through their arguments in a federal courthouse Thursday in Richmond, Va. when one of the presiding judges informed the court that the Supreme Court had issued an order allowing construction to resume on the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
The brief, unsigned order added another layer of complexity to the already-complicated case, leaving the future of a $6.6 billion controversial natural gas pipeline, endangered species and a national forest hanging in the balance.
Here’s where things stand.
How the Supreme Court got involved
The 4th Circuit issued two stays — temporary holds — on the project earlier this month after environmental groups filed motions requesting the pipeline’s construction to stop. The groups argued that, without a stay, the pipeline’s construction would cause “irreparable harm” while the current legal challenges worked their way through the courts.
Lawyers for the pipeline responded by filing an emergency petition with the Supreme Court to get the holds removed and the two pending cases dismissed, citing the need for quick action in order to meet the project’s winter deadline.
They got some of what they wanted: the high court, in an unsigned order Thursday, threw out the stays, which means construction can resume on the last section needed to finish the 303-mile natural gas pipeline: a controversial 3.5-mile section that snakes through the fragile terrain of the Jefferson National Forest. But the Supreme Court didn’t weigh in on the pending cases, leaving the 4th Circuit to decide whether to move forward with the lawsuits.
The role of the 4th Circuit Court
The Supreme Court’s decision came down right as pipeline lawyers, environmental lawyers and judges were all gathered in the federal courthouse in Richmond, Va., to hear arguments on a motion to dismiss the current legal challenges against the pipeline.
Those lawsuits, all filed by environmental groups, argue the pipeline’s plan doesn’t follow federal environmental law. One challenge stems from the U.S. Forest Service’s move in May to amend its land management plan: as proposed, the project violated several standards of the national forest’s original plan. Attorneys for the Wilderness Society petitioned the 4th Circuit Court to review the amended Land and Resource Management Plan, arguing that it violates several environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act.
The lawsuit also argued that the permit granted to the pipeline by the Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Policy Act.
The other pending lawsuit, filed by a coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2023 report that concluded endangered species wouldn’t be jeopardized by the pipeline.
Thursday’s arguments revolved around a motion to dismiss the environmental groups’ cases. Backers of the pipeline argue that the 4th Circuit Court no longer has jurisdiction over the legal challenges, after Congress passed a debt ceiling bill that included a provision to fast track the remaining approvals needed to complete the pipeline and stripped the court’s power to review permits given to the project by federal departments.
The provision also gave the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals sole judiciary authority over any legal challenges against the pipeline.
While the pipeline says the 4th Circuit Court no longer has authority, the environmental groups disagree. As the news of the Supreme Court decision allowing pipeline construction to resume came down on Thursday, it was right as Kym Meyer of the Southern Environmental Law Center was arguing that Congress didn’t have the constitutional authority to reassign authority over the pipeline.
“You can’t use jurisdiction stripping, as Congress has intended to here, as a means to an end,” she said. Instead, the groups are arguing that Congress overstepped and violated the separation of powers doctrine, which is meant to prevent a governmental branch from having too much authority.
Now, the court has to determine whether Congress overstepped its constitutional authority and if it even has jurisdiction to rule on the constitutionality of the pipeline provision enacted by Congress.
The fate of the Mountain Valley Pipeline
Ultimately, the future of the pipeline is still uncertain. Its completion can’t be guaranteed as it still waits for the 4th Circuit Court to decide whether to dismiss the pending two cases challenging the project.
If the court decides to dismiss the cases, the environmental groups could potentially pursue legal recourse through the D.C. Circuit Court, which was the court Congress granted jurisdiction through the debt ceiling bill. But if the court decides not to dismiss the lawsuits, the environmental groups could try to halt construction again as their cases continue to work through the court.
For now, what comes next will be determined by how the 4th Circuit Court rules over the motion to dismiss the cases. Until then, construction on the pipeline can continue.
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