The Mountain Valley Pipeline probably seemed like a slam dunk to its developer when it first proposed building the pipeline across three Appalachian states eight years ago. The region has become one of the most prolific fracked gas fields in the United States, pumping out upwards of 32 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day in recent years.
But despite the arguably still booming fracking industry, and the fact that Mountain Valley is being proposed in states that have historically been very friendly to fossil fuel development, the pipeline has emerged as the latest test case for the nation’s growing climate and environmental justice movements. Just 20 miles of the 303-mile pipeline remains to be completed, but a series of recent defeats has thrown into question the fate of the $6.2 billion project that would deliver natural gas from West Virginia to North Carolina.
In a series of lawsuits, climate and Indigenous rights activists argue that Mountain Valley would exacerbate the climate crisis, endanger wildlife and threaten to increase pollution in already overburdened communities. The project would even run through tribal burial grounds. So far, several judges and regulators have agreed with some of those arguments.
On Thursday, a federal appeals court reversed a permit granted to Mountain Valley by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the Trump administration, saying the federal agency failed to properly evaluate the project’s potential environmental impact on two freshwater fish species that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
It was the second federal permit denied to the project by the appeals court in less than a month, and it’s the fourth permit Mountain Valley has failed to obtain since 2020—a notable hurdle if the company intends to stay on schedule and complete the project by this summer.
Last week, the same federal court shot down a permit that would have allowed the pipeline to cross through the Jefferson National Forest, similarly citing an inadequate environmental assessment. In December, a Virginia regulatory board denied a permit for a key piece of infrastructure for the pipeline, citing the state’s landmark environmental justice law, which requires regulators to consider cumulative pollution impacts on vulnerable populations. And North Carolina regulators denied Mountain Valley a permit to cross into their state in 2020, and again on appeal in 2021—saying the pipeline’s myriad legal challenges made it a questionable investment for North Carolina.
It’s unclear if the recent defeats will be enough to prompt Mountain Valley’s developers to abandon the project. In a statement, the company said it’s reviewing the court’s decision and evaluating its next steps.
But for many activists—particularly those from Indigenous rights groups—the permit denials have been much needed validation in their fight to transition the U.S. away from burning oil, gas and coal, which they say is incompatible with a healthy environment and a sustainable way of life.
“Sacred life prevailed today,” said Russell Chisholm, co-chair of the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights Coalition, in a Thursday press release. “This decision not only protects the candy darter and other endangered species, it sets us on course to … transition away from deadly fossil fuels, and reroute towards a renewable economy on a livable planet.”
The Mountain Valley rulings come as other Indigenous-led fights against major pipelines have ultimately failed, including the attempts to stop Line 3 in Minnesota and the Dakota Access Pipeline in North and South Dakotas. In that sense, thwarting Mountain Valley would also be a major symbolic win for the Indigenous rights and climate movements, which have struggled to hold the Biden administration to its pledges to elevate climate change and environmental justice to the top of its environmental agenda.
That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.
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