The Mountain Valley pipeline stalled as the legal row intensified

A federal court in Richmond has halted construction of the Mountain Valley pipeline, setting off a fight with Congress that could end in the Supreme Court.

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, issued a pair of rulings Monday and Tuesday to halt work on the project, which aims to transport natural gas 300 miles from the Marcellus shale fields in West Virginia through nearly 1,000 creeks and wetlands before it ends. in Virginia.

It was notable because Congress transferred jurisdiction over the pipeline last month from the court in Richmond, where environmentalists have had some success in their decade-long battle, to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It was a very unusual provision made in legislation unrelated to pipelines – the debt ceiling hike bill.

Congress also included provisions to expedite construction of the pipeline and insulate it from judicial review. Those items were added as a concession to Sen. Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat, whose vote is crucial to President Biden’s domestic agenda.

But environmentalists, Democratic members of the Virginia congressional delegation, and some constitutional law experts argue that by directing change in the courts, Congress violated the separation of powers clause of the Constitution.

In orders issued this week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a temporary stay on construction of the pipeline sought by nearly a dozen environmental groups.

“The unprecedented congressional end tried to get around the courts to abandon the proper checks and balances and declare the shipwrecked winner of MVP award winning,” said Ben Jelus, executive director of the Sierra Club, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “This, as we know, has been wrong from the start. Congress cannot order federal regulators to throw caution to the wind. Environmental laws are more than suggestions, and they must be adhered to.”

Mr. Manchin said the Richmond court is ignoring the law.

“The law passed by Congress and signed by the President is clear – the Fourth Circuit no longer has jurisdiction over permits to build the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” he said in a statement. “This new construction stop order is illegal, and no matter where you are on the Mountain Valley pipeline, it should upset every American when a court ignores the law.”

The Justice Department has backed the pipeline, filing briefs this week with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in support of a motion to dismiss appeals challenging the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s right-of-way through West Virginia’s Jefferson National Forest.

Some experts say the new law raises questions about whether Congress can limit court action.

Over the past year, the Mountain Valley pipeline has morphed from a narrow-minded infrastructure project into a national environmental issue — and a powerful lever in the Washington negotiations.

Last summer, when Mr. Biden sought to pass landmark climate legislation, that effort looked set to end when Manchin withdrew his critical break vote. Only after Mr. Biden promised to ensure construction of the Mountain Valley pipeline was completed did Mr. Manchin agree to support the Climate Act, which would inject $370 million into clean energy spending and would reduce the country’s planet-warming carbon dioxide by about 1 billion tons per year. 2030.

Mr. Manchin faces a potentially tough re-election campaign next year, and pushing the pipeline to completion could help him woo voters. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a popular Democrat-turned-Republican, has announced that he will run for the Senate. West Virginia is a ruby ​​red state that President Trump has gained by about 40 percentage points in 2020. Keeping that seat is a priority for Democrats, but Mr. Manchin has not yet said if he plans to run for re-election.

The case can go to the Supreme Court.

“We continue to evaluate all legal options, which include filing emergency appeals to the US Supreme Court,” said Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Equitrans Midstream Corporation, one of the companies building the pipeline.

Some analysts have predicted that if the Supreme Court were to hear the case, it would be sympathetic to the pipeline developers.

Kristi Tyzack, an analyst with ClearView Energy, a nonpartisan energy analysis organization, wrote in a research note Tuesday that pipeline builders “will have good chances of securing a reversal on appeal in the Supreme Court; however, this scenario would result in a longer delay to restart Building “.