U.S. Supreme Court. Courtesy of Joe Ravi.

Environmental groups opposing the Mountain Valley Pipeline responded Tuesday to the pipeline company’s emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying recent lower court decisions halting construction activity on the project should remain in place while legal challenges to the pipeline remain unresolved.

In its response, the nonprofit conservation group The Wilderness Society noted that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear oral arguments Thursday over whether pending cases against the pipeline should be dismissed.

It said upholding the stay of construction activity in the society’s case — which involves whether the pipeline can cross through the federally protected Jefferson National Forest — would show appropriate deference to the appeals court.

The Wilderness Society said that the three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit was within its rights to issue the stay and that Mountain Valley Pipeline would not be “irreparably harmed” by it.

“The Fourth Circuit is taking its constitutionally assigned task seriously,” The Wilderness Society wrote.

In a separate response, a coalition of environmental groups including Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club said Mountain Valley had not shown that circumstances were extraordinary enough to merit the Supreme Court’s intervention in its case. The groups are challenging a federal opinion that states the pipeline won’t harm protected endangered species along its route.

“MVP fails to show that it will suffer any harm beyond temporary financial loss as a result of the stay, and the equities weigh heavily in favor of avoiding harm to protected species,” they wrote.

The responses Tuesday mean both proponents and opponents have now made their voices heard to Chief Justice John Roberts regarding the controversial $6.6 billion, 303-mile, 42-inch-diameter natural gas pipeline from West Virginia into Virginia. It’s unclear when Roberts will next act on the case; the full court is on summer recess.

Mountain Valley’s emergency appeal came earlier this month after a three-judge panel of the Richmond-based 4th Circuit ordered two stays of construction activity, one of which halted all work on the pipeline’s entire route.

The first stay, issued July 10, was in the case involving The Wilderness Society, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, and was specific to the Jefferson National Forest. The second stay, on July 11, involved the pipeline’s potential effect on endangered species and therefore had a much broader impact on the entire route.

Mountain Valley said that the 4th Circuit had no jurisdiction to issue the stays and that the stoppage of construction activity harms the pipeline, the timely completion of which Congress has said is in the national interest.

“Time is of the essence,” Mountain Valley wrote in its July 14 appeal. “Maintaining the stay orders for even a few additional weeks will prevent the Pipeline from being placed in service by the end of the year as currently planned. MVP mobilized crews into the field and positioned equipment to recommence work last month as soon as it obtained all necessary authorizations to complete work on the Pipeline. The Fourth Circuit’s stays have brought that work to a halt.”

Mountain Valley Pipeline has sought to have the environmental groups’ pending cases against it dismissed, arguing that a provision in the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law June 3, removes the jurisdiction of the 4th Circuit, which over the years has ruled multiple times in favor of those challenging the pipeline.

The act — the main purpose of which was to suspend and later raise the nation’s debt ceiling — ordered the approval of all remaining permits necessary to finish the pipeline, shielded the project from further legal challenges by removing judicial review of those permits, and said that only the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals can hear any challenges to the constitutionality of the provision.

“In both of those stay orders, the court of appeals, without a word of explanation, defied Congress’s clear commands” to clear any remaining obstacles to the pipeline’s completion, Mountain Valley wrote in its emergency appeal.

Pipeline opponents say Congress overstepped its authority, violating the separation of powers between the legislative and the judicial branches and effectively picking Mountain Valley Pipeline as the winner in pending court cases — an argument that was reiterated in Tuesday’s filings.

Not only should the cases continue to be heard, opponents say, but the 4th Circuit should hear them and can determine the constitutionality of the Fiscal Responsibility Act’s pipeline provision.

Since the emergency appeal was filed, a number of parties have filed amicus briefs in support of the pipeline. They include U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, who was the primary backer of the Fiscal Responsibility Act’s pipeline provision; the state of West Virginia, via Attorney General Patrick Morrissey; other elected officials; and multiple energy companies.

On Tuesday, a group of four “constitutional law and federal jurisdiction scholars with expertise in the separation of powers” — William Araiza, Erwin Chemerinsky, Caprice Roberts and Howard Wasserman — filed an amicus brief in support of the environmental groups.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline, in which Equitrans Midstream Corp. holds the largest interest, was first announced in 2014 and initially was expected to be complete in 2018 but has been delayed for years by legal battles and permitting disputes.

Mountain Valley says the pipeline now is more than 90% complete, although opponents disagree with that figure, citing unfinished restoration work on affected land.

“All that remains is construction of a 3.5-mile stretch of the Pipeline that would traverse the federally owned Jefferson National Forest, as well as completion of stream crossings outside the Forest and final restoration of the construction environment,” Mountain Valley said in its emergency appeal.

The pipeline’s path begins in northwestern West Virginia, then in Virginia passes through Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin counties before connecting to a compressor station in Pittsylvania County. 

Landowners and environmental activists have opposed the Mountain Valley Pipeline for years due to concerns about safety, the project’s environmental impact and its acquisition of private property through eminent domain.

Supporters have said the pipeline will be a safe, vital component of the U.S. energy supply that will meet a market demand for natural gas.

Matt Busse is the business reporter for Cardinal News. Matt spent nearly 19 years at The News & Advance,...