The AT and the ACP: a Case for the Supreme Court

Feb 21, 2020

Environmentalists will be back before the Supreme Court Monday, arguing that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline should not be built under the Appalachian Trail.  The court will have to decide whether the AT is National Park Service land.

Environmental groups will tell the U.S. Supreme Court that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline may need permission from Congress to cross the Appalachian Trail.
Credit Southern Environmental Law Center

Under the Mineral Leasing Act, if you want to drill or build or tunnel on federal land, you need permission from whatever agency controls the land, but there’s one exception. 

“Where National Park Service land is involved, the applicant would have to go directly to Congress,” says Cale Jaffe, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.  He predicts builders of the pipeline will argue that the Appalachian Trail is part of the National Park Service, but it’s not really land – it’s just a path.

Environmental groups will beg to differ.  In a friend-of-the-court brief, for example, Jaffe and his students argue that the AT is a very profitable piece of land.

"We authored a brief on behalf of the city of Staunton and Nelson County where the  Appalachian Trail is an important resource, an economic resource and a tourism draw for both of those localities."

And, he says, building a natural gas pipeline would be damaging.

"It would bore right underneath where people walk and would certainly during the time of construction and after that have an impact on the trail, because during the construction process you have a significant amount of land clearing that goes on."

If the court agrees, Dominion and Duke Energy, the primary builders of the pipeline, might take their case to Congress, or they could change their route to cross the AT where it’s on private land, state property or existing rights of way.  

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.