The builders of the $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline say they will appeal a federal court ruling Thursday that invalidated a permit allowing the pipeline to be built through two national forests and across the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.
A three-judge panel at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., threw out the U.S. Forest Service permit for a 20-mile section of the trail near Staunton, Va. The court said the Forest Service lacks the authority to approve the pipeline's Appalachia Trail crossing.
But pipeline spokesman Aaron Ruby says the court ignored the opinions of a slew of agencies, including the Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife Service, and Department of the Interior.
"All of these agencies agree that the Forest Service has the full legal authority to approve the Atlantic Coast Pipeline's crossing of the Appalachian Trail," Ruby said. "Under Democratic and Republican administrations alike for many years, 56 other oil and natural gas pipelines have operated across the Appalachian Trail."
None of those pipelines is as big or expensive as this one. The ruling presents a major roadblock to the project, which needs to cross the Appalachian Trail to reach most of its customers in Virginia and North Carolina.
The 600-mile pipeline is being built by Dominion Energy of Virginia to carry fracked natural gas from West Virginia. Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and The Southern Co. of Georgia are co-owners.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has given overall approval, and Dominion has begun work on about 300 miles of the route in West Virginia and North Carolina. But court challenges have made key environmental permits elusive. And work is currently on hold after another ruling last week by the same federal appeals court, which put on a hold a Fish & Wildlife Service permit.
Opponents have also challenged the main FERC permit, in part on the grounds that the pipeline is not needed. But Ruby disagreed.
"More than 90 percent of the gas is already under contract with public utilities that serve customers in Virginia and North Carolina," Ruby said. He also said natural gas pipelines that serve the region are at capacity, which has led to gas shortages in recent years.
Assuming the project goes forward, Dominion has said it expects most of the pipeline to be in service by the end of 2019, with the remainder in 2020. Delays have pushed up the cost, from early estimates of $5 billion to the current projection of $6.5 billion to $7 billion.