Supreme Court ruling could pave way for Potomac River pipeline

A court ruling on a New Jersey case could pave the way for construction of a gas pipeline near Hancock, despite objections from the state of Maryland.

In a 5-4 decision on Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court ruled that pipeline projects with federal approval can take state ownership to build natural gas pipelines. This case, PennEast Pipeline Co. v. New Jersey, allows PennEast to take land from New Jersey to build a 116-mile pipeline through Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Representatives from environmental groups and an energy company have drawn comparisons between this case and what Columbia Gas Transmission Co. calls its “Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project” in western Washington County. This pipeline would extend from southern Pennsylvania through Maryland and under the Potomac River to West Virginia.

A woman holds a sign among the crowds of pipeline protesters at Hancock High School in this 2017 Herald-Mail file photo.

The Columbia project stalled when the Maryland Public Works Council denied the company’s claim for an easement under the Western Maryland Rail Trail. The company filed a complaint. The case has been before the courts since 2019.

“Today’s decision (in the PennEast case) runs counter to a long history of preserving a state’s authority to protect natural resources within its borders against projects. inter-state harmful and should be a wake-up call for heads of state to find new ways to protect their interests “, Phillip Musegaas, vice president of the Potomac River Guardian Network, said in a statement.

“In the case of the Potomac pipeline, an unwanted fractured pipeline that would lead to increased emissions of harmful greenhouse gases and endanger the safety of drinking water for 6 million people downstream and the health of the river Potomac could be built despite strong objection from the Governor of Maryland. and residents of Maryland. “

A spokesperson for TC Energy based in Canada, parent company of Columbia Gas Transmission, did not specifically address the construction of the new pipeline.

“We cannot comment on pending litigation,” the company said on Friday in an email response to inquiries from Herald-Mail Media. “However, TC Energy is pleased with the US Supreme Court ruling this week.”

The company said interstate infrastructure projects “are critical to maintaining a constant supply of reliable and affordable energy,” especially when demand increases during summer and winter.

“To avoid possible supply disruptions in our communities, it is imperative that the federal government maintain its full authority to regulate interstate commerce between states,” the email said. “A stable and predictable regulatory and legal environment is necessary to build and operate our vital infrastructure. “

Some environmental groups have issued statements reiterating their opposition to the proposed pipeline. They cited what they called environmental threats and continued dependence on fossil fuels.

David Smedick, Senior Campaign Representative for Sierra ClubThe Beyond Coal campaign for the mid-Atlantic region highlighted “increasing heat waves, flooding and other impacts of the climate crisis”.

“This move allows the fossil fuel industry to take public land and worsen the climate crisis,” he said.

Upper Potomac River Guardian Brent Walls chats with about 50 people who gathered on the Western Maryland Rail Trail in Hancock in this 2019 file photo. They were protesting the Columbia Gas Transmission Co project. . to operate a pipeline from Pennsylvania to West Virginia.  The pipeline would pass under the railroad, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park, and the Potomac River near Hancock.

Anne Havemann, General Counsel of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said it was time to start phasing out fossil fuels.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision sets the stage for the Potomac pipeline to move forward and marks a sad day for Maryland and for the climate,” she said. “We thank the leadership of Maryland for fighting this pipeline as hard as they did and urge them to do everything in their power to continue to defend Maryland against this harmful and unwanted project.”

Gas company and Maryland in court

Columbia Gas Transmission Co. has already built parts of the pipeline in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

According to the Sierra Club, the project still needs a final right-of-way permit from the National Park Service to cross the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park. The agency has completed an initial review and is awaiting approvals from the US Department of the Interior.

The company also needed an easement from the State of Maryland to drill under the West Maryland Rail Trail, which runs along the C&O Canal near Hancock. But the The Maryland Board of Public Works unanimously rejected this request.

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In 2019, Columbia Gas Transmission sued the State of Maryland. The company argued that, since it had received the required certificate from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, it had the authority, under federal law, to take land for the pipeline.

Like PennEast in its lawsuit against New Jersey, Columbia cited the Federal Natural Gas Act of 1938 in its legal argument.

Later in 2019, the Maryland U.S. District Court Dismissed Columbia Lawsuit. The court ruled that the state enjoyed “sovereign immunity” under the US Constitution, protecting it from such a lawsuit.

The company took the case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. It remains pending in the judicial system.

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