EDITORIAL: On pipeline project, a misplaced debate

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EDITORIAL: On pipeline project, a misplaced debate

The Daily Press

By The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling favoring construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline recalls a Virginian-Pilot editorial published almost two years ago.

As editorials go, it was more obvious than profound, more practical than idealistic: Ensure a reliable, safe power supply, tend to issues of water quality and environmental protection and make sure we get a “robust, informed and public debate” over the necessary choices.

The environmental community decided to pursue this case instead.

And lost. Badly.

The litigation (U.S. Forest Service v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association) involved federal agencies, legal definitions and the permitting required for the pipeline to cross the Appalachian Trail, a celebrated dirt path running along ridgelines from Maine to Georgia.

The legalistic details are fun to parse and you are welcome to look them up. Suffice to say, the Supreme Court — Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the court’s 7-2 majority opinion — said that those who brought the suit took a “circuitous path” and got lost.

See, Justice Thomas does have a sense of humor.

In other words, he suggested, the environmental community is out there with its arguments, confused over where they are and getting it wrong.

We’re confused, too. This is hardly the most pressing subject for debate.

There’s some irony, too: Does anyone really think this is about a pipeline per se? No. It’s about the stuff in the pipeline — the natural gas.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel and thereby an agent of climate change. The environmental community must believe that you fight fossil fuels by fighting anything that facilities the use of fossil fuels.

Ergo, kill the pipeline. Bad pipeline. Evil pipeline. Crossing the mountains? Terrible.

Only there appear to be about 50 other mountain-crossing pipelines already in place and that does not include Claudius Crozet’s great mid-19th century railway achievement — longest one in the world, at the time (16 feet wide, 20 feet high and 4,237 feet long) — the Blue Ridge Tunnel.

In fact, a second, larger tunnel was built in the 20th century and remains in use to this day. Both tunnels carve through the mountain near Afton just a few miles north of the new pipeline’s right-of-way.

Did we mention that Interstate 64 rolls over the top of the Blue Ridge at roughly the same location, possibly the mightiest intrusion of them all? And that all these things intersect (or run beneath) the Appalachian Trail?

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, by the way, will stretch 604 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina, including 16 miles of land within the George Washington National Forest.

Obviously, the pipeline opponents thought they could simply use the AT to trip the project up. Instead, the Supreme Court ruling left the project on firmer footing and poised to proceed.

We get the larger purposes here. So does the public. Most people understand the stakes involved. A sizable portion of the population yearns to see a future less threatened by climate change.

But whether you’re talking about pipelines or public arguments, so long as you’re operating in a democratic setting, it always matters how you there. This is where the environmental community could stand to help itself.

Granted, it’s not easy. Making a reasoned argument, in the current political era, on behalf on any public proposition has never been more difficult. You can so easily trigger an ideological or partisan reaction and immediately divide, rather than consolidate public opinion.

Still, the debate over the climate — the hope of making headway — is so vital that it requires everyone to make the effort, however challenging it may be.

Being persuasive, in this setting, where science and public opinion commingle, takes a certain measure of precision, so that arguments stand on facts rather than emotion and trivialities do not intrude.

Again, the desired means to a better end rests on a “robust, informed and public debate.”

Did taking this case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court advance that cause?

Hardly.

Read more in The Daily Press.