The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently revoked Dominion Energy’s (“Dominion”) permit to construct its Atlantic Coast Pipeline project. The proposed project would begin in West Virginia and cross Virginia and North Carolina. The project would’ve required the deforestation of a 125-foot wide easement through the national forests, the excavation of a pipeline trench, and the explosive reshaping of mountain ridgelines.
The environmental approval permit was originally granted by the U.S. Forest Service (“Forest Service”), the government agency responsible for analyzing the environmental impact that pipeline projects will have on national forests. The Court found that the Forest Service’s granting of the permit violated both the National Forest Management Act (“NFMA”) and the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). It also found that the Forest Service lacked the authority necessary to permit pipeline access across the Appalachian Trial. Further, the Court revealed that its decision “is particularly informed by the Forest Service’s serious environmental concerns that were suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company’s deadlines.” In demonstrating its disapproval, the Court quoted from The Lorax, a conservation themed children’s book by Dr. Seuss: “We trust the United States Forest Service to speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”
This decision means that Dominion cannot begin construction on its pipeline project, at least on the current specifications. However, this setback does not mean that Dominion is prevented from resubmitting revised specifications for approval later. Indeed, Dominion is hardly the first pipeline company to attempt construction through protected national forests. As it stands, the Appalachian Trial is crisscrossed by fifty-six oil and gas pipelines whose owners have successfully navigated the approval process. Only time will tell whether Dominion’s Atlantic Coast project will one day be among them.