Supreme Court won't have final word in pipeline case

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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - The fight over a partially-built, controversial pipeline linking West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina plays out in front of the world’s most powerful judges. But, the nation’s highest court is unlikely to have the final word in this case.

Supreme Court justices will consider one piece of lower court's decision to block Atlantic Coast Pipeline construction. (Source: Gray DC)

The Supreme Court is now weighing arguments made by the government, pipeline developers, and environmental groups Monday morning. During the hearing, the justices floated several of their own arguments – leaving it even more unclear than usual how they’ll eventually decide this case.

Environmental protesters used props and costumes to make their case to the public against the planned, and at least temporarily stalled 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The pipeline is designed to pump natural gas from West Virginia, East to North Carolina and Virginia.

But, inside the court, the debate centered around a complicated but narrow question: can a pipeline run under a portion of the Appalachian trail owned by the federal government?

Lawyers for environmental groups argue that a ban on pipelines in National Parks covers federal land on the Appalachian Trail, but not privately-owned sections where more than 50 already run underneath the foot trail.

Government and energy company attorneys argue the decision reached by the 4th Circuit court -- which pulled permits from the project -- would force pipelines around the whole trail, costing pipeline financiers Duke Energy and Dominion Energy billions of dollars.

Several justices – conservative and liberal – made it clear they saw substantial holes in the arguments made by both sides. Congress could sort out the confusion by passing a new law, but that isn't likely given Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are unlikely to agree on the issue.

The Supreme Court will decide the case by the end of June. Regardless of what it decides, pipeline developers will need to address environmental concerns raised by the lower court if construction is to begin again.

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