Lorax Takes US Forest Service To Woodshed Over New Natural Gas Pipeline

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Now that the COP 24 climate talks are winding down, the world is wondering how anything of real consequence will be achieved without US involvement. That’s an especially fraught question considering that the US has been contributing massive amounts of natural gas to its own global warming profile in the recent past, and now it is ramping up natural gas exports as well.

Hmmm…well…it seems as though not everyone in the US is on board with this natural gas thing. There is a wall, and it consists of the private and public lands that need to be taken for new pipelines. The latest development involves the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $7 billion group project spearheaded by Dominion Energy.

New Natural Gas Pipeline Scotched, For Now

The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry natural gas from the Utica and Marcellus shale fields (those should be familiar names by now) through West Virginia and on to Virginia and North Carolina.

If all goes according to plan, the project will cross two national forests and the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

The project was previously greenlighted to start construction over the summer but it halted earlier this month, on account of a stay previously issued by the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Apparently the court had an issue with the Biological Opinion and Incidental Take Statement from the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

The ACP people contend that the statement authorized all 600 miles of the new pipeline. They also argued that construction should be restarted on most of the pipeline while outstanding issues were being resolved on a relatively few sections.

Be that as it may, last Thursday a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit gave the thumbs-down to Forest Service permits that would have enabled the pipeline to cross the parks and the trail.

As reported by our friends over at the Charlotte Business Journal (follow the link and support local journalism), Thursday’s ruling involved some hinky goings-on at the US Forest Service (emphasis added):

A three-judge panel ruled Thursday that the Forest Service had inexplicably abandoned its initial demand that ACP submit plans that went around the parks as well as plans that went through. The court ruled that the service had violated federal requirements “by failing to take a hard look at the environmental consequences of the ACP project.”

Do tell! To complicate matters further, the Journal reports that Congress may need to get involved:

The opponents also contended that the Forest Service had no authority to allow construction crossing the Appalachian Trail. They argued the trail is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service and that Congress reserved to itself the authority to allow construction crossing it.

What About The Lorax?

The Southern Environmental Law Center was involved in the case against the pipeline, along with the Sierra Club. In a December 13 press release, SELC issued this celebratory observation:

“The George Washington National Forest, Monongahela National Forest and the Appalachian Trail are national treasures. The Administration was far too eager to trade them away for a pipeline conceived to deliver profit to its developers, not gas to consumers. This pipeline is unnecessary and asking fracked gas customers to pay developers to blast this boondoggle through our public lands only adds insult to injury,” said Southern Environmental Law Center Attorney Patrick Hunter.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to Mr. Hunter to see if SELC has any idea why the Forest Service performed such a bald faced about-face on the pipeline.

The 4th Circuit also weighed in with some interesting comments, and that’s where the Lorax comes in.

Wait, before we get to the Lorax, let’s just note that the Court was crystal clear about the impacts of the pipeline project. The pipeline would be *only* 42″ in diameter, and the opinion lays what exactly what that actually means:

Construction would involve clearing trees and other vegetation from a 125-foot right of way (reduced to 75 feet in wetlands) through the national forests, digging a trench to bury the pipeline, and blasting and flattening ridgelines in mountainous terrains. Following construction, the project requires maintaining a 50-foot right of way (reduced to 30 feet in wetlands) through the GWNF and MNF for the life of the pipeline.

Yikes! Regarding that inexplicability thing, the opinion provides a detailed rundown of the Forest Service’s earlier position, which was thumbs-down all the way up to May 2017 when a big switcheroo occurred, and the Forest Service abruptly dropped its objections.

So, what changed their minds? Who knows! The upshot was that US Circuit Judge Stephanie Thacker, who wrote for the three-judge panel (the other two judges concurred btw), capped the 60-page opinion with a reference to a children’s book (emphasis and break added):

We trust the United States Forest Service to “speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” Dr. Seuss, The Lorax (1971).

A thorough review of the record leads to the necessary conclusion that the Forest Service abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources. This conclusion 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.

There’s that reference to something inexplicable again. ACP stakeholders have already promised an appeal, but if they come to court again it looks like the judges expect to get a full explanation about that sudden and mysterious change of heart over at the Forest Service.

Meanwhile, Natural Gas

Not too long ago natural gas was considered a “cleaner” fuel that could quickly replace coal while lowering overall greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s cold comfort for the communities suffering health impacts from local natural gas operations, to say nothing of the strain on water resources.

On top of all that, evidence is beginning to show that natural gas is not all that clean in terms of global warming emissions from the wellhead through the transportation and storage system, and on to local distribution points.

That thing about transportation could prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the US fossil fuel industry.

Fuel pipelines are natural bottlenecks, and many US communities that are being asked to host new natural gas pipelines (and other fossil fuel infrastructure) are protesting loudly and vigorously, sometimes facing extreme personal danger as in the Keystone XL and Dakota Access protests.

New projects have won some battles in the western US, but their record is mixed on the west coast and in the northeast — where the population is more dense, wealthy, and lawyerly.

Aside from the ACP natural gas project, the proposed Pilgrim petroleum products pipeline through New York and New Jersey has also hit a snag.

Another New Jersey project, the PennEast natural gas pipeline, just won the green light from a federal court to start eminent domain proceedings, but opponents are prepared to continue the fight, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Photo: by Wiredforlego via flickr.com, creative commons license.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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