(Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court has stayed a previous court decision against Forest Service permits that allowed Dominion Energy Inc to build the $6.5-$7 billion Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline across national forests and the Appalachian Trail.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday froze the previous decision by a three-judge panel until the full court decides whether it will rehear the case en banc.
The appeals court panel had said in December that the U.S. Forest Service had “abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources” when it issued the permits.
Dominion argued that the ruling by the three-judge panel to vacate the Forest Service permits went beyond the court’s authority and created an “impregnable barrier (from Georgia to Maine) dividing energy sources west of the (Appalachian) Trail from consumers east of the Trail.”
Dominion spokesman Karl Neddenien said on Wednesday the company remained confident it would complete the 600-mile (966-kilometer) pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina, even though the timing is “somewhat fluid” due in part to federal lawsuits.
In the past, Dominion said it expected to finish the project in mid-2020, but the company has suspended all construction since early December after the Fourth Circuit stayed a federal permit in another lawsuit.
That other lawsuit involved the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Incidental Take Statement, which authorized the pipeline to build in areas inhabited by threatened or endangered species.
Given the composition of the Fourth Circuit, analysts at Height Capital Markets in Washington, D.C. said “a rehearing en banc could plausibly bode well for Atlantic Coast.”
Height Capital Markets said the panel was comprised of three judges nominated by Democrats, while 7 of the 12 remaining active circuit judges were appointed by Republicans.
“While the appointing president’s party doesn’t necessarily define a judge’s legal perspective, we continue to see political affiliation play an outsized role in debates involving environmental rules,” Height Capital Markets said.
Separately, a bill passed a committee in Virginia’s legislature last week that would add restrictions on Dominion’s ability to pass the costs of transporting gas on the Atlantic Coast pipeline to its Virginia-based power plants.
Dominion said the bill was unnecessary since Virginia’s utility regulator “already has a strong process in place to protect consumers.”
“Atlantic Coast is going to lower consumer energy costs and make their electricity more reliable,” Dominion’s Neddenien said.
Reporting by Scott DiSavino, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien