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 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, released a pair of rulings on Monday and Tuesday to stop work on the project, which is intended to carry natural gas about 300 miles from the Marcellus shale fields in West Virginia across nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands before ending in Virginia.
That was notable because Congress had moved jurisdiction over the pipeline last month from the court in Richmond, where environmentalists have found some success in their decade-long fight, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It was a highly unusual provision that was tucked 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 judicial review. Those elements were added as a concession to Senator Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat whose vote has been 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 has violated the separation of powers clause in the Constitution.
In orders released this week, the Fourth Circuit appeals court granted a temporary stay of the construction of the pipeline sought by nearly a dozen environmental groups.
“Congress’s unprecedented end run around the courts attempted to forgo proper checks and balances and declare the sinking ship that is the M.V.P. 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 start. Congress cannot mandate that federal regulators throw caution to the wind. Environmental laws are more than just mere suggestions, and must be adhered to.”
Mr. Manchin said the Richmond court is disregarding the law.
“The law passed by Congress and signed by the president is clear — the Fourth Circuit no longer has jurisdiction over Mountain Valley Pipeline’s construction permits,” he said in a statement. “This new order halting construction is unlawful, and regardless of your position on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, it should alarm every American when a court ignores the law.”
The Justice Department backed the pipeline, submitting briefs this week to the Fourth Circuit appeals court supporting a motion to dismiss the appeals challenging Mountain Valley Pipeline’s right of way through Jefferson National Forest in West Virginia.
Why It Matters: A major constitutional issue is involved.
Some experts say the new law raises questions about whether Congress can limit action by the courts.
Background: Biden used the pipeline to get a key Manchin vote.
Over the past year, the Mountain Valley Pipeline metastasized from a parochial state infrastructure project to a national environmental cause — and a powerful lever in Washington negotiations.
Last summer, as Mr. Biden sought to pass landmark climate legislation, it appeared that the effort would die when Mr. Manchin withdrew his critical tiebreaking vote. 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 would reduce the nation’s planet-warming carbon dioxide by about a billion tons in 2030.
Mr. Manchin faces a potentially difficult re-election campaign next year, and pushing the pipeline to completion could help him with voters. West Virginia’s governor, Jim Justice, a popular Democrat-turned-Republican, has announced he will run for the Senate. West Virginia is a ruby red 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 if he plans to run for re-election.
What’s Next: The justices might weigh in.
The case could be headed for the Supreme Court.
“We continue to evaluate all legal options, which include filing emergency 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 be sympathetic to the pipeline developers.
Christi Tezak, an analyst for ClearView Energy, a nonpartisan energy analysis organization, wrote in a research note on Tuesday that the pipeline’s builders “would have good chances of securing a reversal on appeal at the Supreme Court; however, that scenario would result in a longer delay of the construction restart.”