A federal court in Richmond has halted construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, setting off a battle with Congress that could end up at the Supreme Court.
The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, issued a pair of rulings on Monday and Tuesday to halt work on the project, which is intended to carry natural gas about 300 miles from the Marcellus shale fields in West Virginia through nearly 1,000. streams and wetlands before ending up in Virginia.
That was notable because Congress moved jurisdiction over the pipeline last month from the court in Richmond, where environmentalists have found some success in their decades-long battle, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It was a very unusual provision that was inserted into legislation that had nothing to do with pipelines – the law to raise the debt ceiling.
Congress also included provisions to expedite construction of the pipeline and insulate it from legal review. Those elements were added as a concession to Senator Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat whose vote was 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 a change in courts, Congress violated the separation of powers clause in the Constitution.
In orders released this week, the Fourth Circuit court of appeals granted a temporary stay of construction of the pipeline sought by nearly a dozen environmental groups.
“The unprecedented end of Congress around the courts tried to waive proper checks and balances and declare the sinking ship that is the MVP a winner,” said Ben Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “This, as we know, was wrong from the beginning. Congress cannot demand that federal regulators throw caution to the wind. Environmental laws are more than mere suggestions, and must be observed.”
Mr. Manchin said the Richmond court was disregarding the law.
“The law passed by Congress and signed by the president is clear — the Fourth Circuit no longer has jurisdiction over the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s construction permits,” he said in a statement. “This new order halting construction is illegal, and regardless of your position on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, it should alarm every American when a court ignores the law.”
The Justice Department supported the pipeline, submitting briefs this week to the Fourth Circuit appeals court supporting a motion to dismiss the appeals challenging the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s right of way through Jefferson National Forest in West Virginia.
Why It Matters: An important constitutional matter is at stake.
Some experts say the new law raises questions about whether Congress can limit the courts’ actions.
background: Biden used the pipeline to get a key Manchin vote.
Over the past year, the Mountain Valley Pipeline has metastasized from a parochial state infrastructure project to a national environmental goal — and a powerful lever in Washington negotiations.
Last summer, as Mr. Biden sought to pass major climate legislation, it appeared that the effort would die when Mr. Manchin withdrew his critical vote on equality. Only after Mr. Biden promised to ensure that construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline would be completed did Mr. Manchin agree to support the climate law, which pumped $370 million into clean energy spending and will reduce the nation’s planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions by around around billion tons in 2030.
Mr Manchin faces a potentially difficult re-election campaign next year, and pushing the pipeline to a close could help him with 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 state that President Trump carried by nearly 40 percentage points in 2020. Retaining that seat is a priority for Democrats, but Mr. Manchin has not yet said whether he plans to run for re-election.
What Next: The judges could weigh in.
The case could be headed to the Supreme Court.
“We continue to evaluate all legal options, which include filing urgent appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Equitrans Midstream Corporation, one of the companies building the pipeline.
Some analysts predicted that if the high court were to hear the case, it would understand the pipeline developers.
Christi Tezak, an analyst with ClearView Energy, a nonpartisan energy analysis organization, wrote in a research note Tuesday that the pipeline’s builders “would have a good chance of securing a reversal on appeal at the Supreme Court; however, that scenario would result in a longer delay in the resumption of construction.”