Ginsburg, Breyer Join Conservatives in Supreme Court Decision to Clear Appalachian Trail pipeline

U.S. Supreme Court Justices
All nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices pose for official photographs at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. on November 30, 2018. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined the court's conservative majority Monday in ruling against environmentalists attempting to stop a natural gas pipeline from being built under the Appalachian Trail.

The court's 7-2 majority opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, overturned a lower court ruling that would have blocked the U.S. Forest Service from issuing permit a allowing the pipeline to cross under the trail. Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent, joined by Justice Elena Kagan.

A 2018 decision had found that the Forest Service lacked authority to issue a permit because the trail is overseen by the National Park Service. In Monday's ruling granting right-of-way for the pipeline to be built, Thomas wrote that "the National Park Service did not transform the land over which the Trail passes into land within the National Park System" despite being responsible for the trail.

The legal challenge was brought by the Cowpasture River Preservation Association and other environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center. The project has also been opposed by several other groups, including a number of Native American tribes.

The pipeline, a joint venture between multiple energy and gas companies, is expected to be built over 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina, with the section crossing the trail passing 600 feet below it. The companies building the pipeline, who were supported by the Trump administration in their legal defense, touted economic advantages while insisting that the project would supply "clean energy."

"Today's decision is an affirmation for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and communities across our region that are depending on it for jobs, economic growth and clean energy. We look forward to resolving the remaining project permits," Dominion Energy, the project's lead stakeholder, said in a statement.

Kelly Martin, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign, told Newsweek that the decision had only affected "one in a long line of permits" that the project requires, while vowing to continue the legal fight and predicting a "long uphill battle" for the pipeline.

"It's been met with opposition and resistance from thousands of people living right in the path and hundreds of thousands of other folks that are concerned about water quality, air quality, climate change and an overreliance on fracked gas instead of clean energy," Martin said.

"Every day that passes it looks more and more unlikely that it will ever be completed," she added. "At a time when we in the midst of a climate crisis, the investment should be going to clean energy instead of doubling down on dirty and dangerous fossil fuels."

The decision was one of two made by the court on Monday that saw a pair of justices break with colleagues generally seen as holding similar ideological views. A 6-3 majority opinion penned by conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, found that workers cannot be fired on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.