Since the 1920s, companies seeking to build pipelines through national parks have had to obtain approval from Congress — but a single provision in the Trump administration’s proposed infrastructure plan could completely upend that status quo.
According to a leaked draft of the infrastructure plan obtained by the Washington Post, the administration is considering proposing changes to the approval process for natural gas pipelines that cross National Park Service owned land. The change would only require approval from the secretary of the interior — a move that environmental and conservation groups derided as a giveaway to the oil and gas industry at the expense of public lands.
“There is a reason why these pipelines require Congressional action — we’ve seen pipelines leak over and over again. National parks are where people go and spend their time, and if you have a leak, it could be dangerous to the environment and the people visiting,” Raul Garcia, senior legislative counsel with Earthjustice, told ThinkProgress. “This isn’t substantive and well thought-out. It’s just another political favor for an industry that is well-positioned within the administration.”
Beyond spills, however, opponents worry that the construction associated with pipelines — which requires companies to essentially clear-cut swaths of land on either side of the proposed infrastructure — would essentially change the landscape of some of the country’s most cherished natural areas.
“People don’t go to these [parks] to see giant clear cutting and pipelines going through them,” Garcia said. “It takes way from what the national park system is supposed to provide for the American people.”
The proposed infrastructure plan would give the secretary of interior broad authority to issue right-of-way approvals for natural gas pipelines that cross National Park Service-owned land. The Trump administration is not the first to propose transferring the approval of pipelines that cross through National Parks from Congress to the interior secretary: In 2015, under the Obama administration, the House passed the National Energy Security Corridors Act as part of legislation funding the government. This would have allowed the secretary of interior to designate “energy security corridors” where pipeline companies could be given right-of-way through National Parks.
Conservation and environmental groups worry that allowing the secretary of interior to have such broad authority in approving pipeline projects would put development of public lands at the whim of political winds — a fossil fuel friendly administration such as the Trump administration, for instance, might use that authority to vastly increase the amount of energy infrastructure that is allowed across National Parks. In April, leaked documents from the Bureau of Land Management revealed that the Trump administration wanted to “streamline” the extraction process for fossil fuels on federal lands, representing a shift in priorities for an agency that, under the Obama administration, prioritized conservation over extraction.
“This is a significant departure from the norm, and not one that we would be supportive of whatsoever,” Ani Kame’enui, legislative director at the National Parks Conservation Association, told ThinkProgress, adding that the proposed change was likely the result of pressure from particular industries. “Like so many of the provisions in the leaked document, you can draw pretty clear lines from this provision to some pet interest projects.”
Kame’enui pointed to two proposed pipelines in the southeastern United States that, if constructed, would run for miles alongside the Appalachian Trail. While neither would cross through a National Park, both would transect federally-managed public land, sparking fierce opposition from local environmentalists and conservation groups. One project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would run some 300 miles from West Virginia to Virginia, would transect the Appalachian Trial in the Jefferson National Forest, and require a 150-foot-wide corridor to run alongside the trail for dozens of miles. The second project, a proposed 600 mile pipeline known as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, would run below a portion the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is managed by the National Park Service. Dominion Energy, the company behind the pipeline, amended the proposed route of the pipeline in 2015 to specifically avoid crossing National Park Service land, which would have required Congressional approval and could have potentially derailed the project. Both projects recently won approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline issue is a perfect example of why we are grateful to have the congressional approval issue,” Kame’enui said. “We are certainly troubled by the fact that [the leaked plan] called out National Parks specifically.”