Federal regulators declined to stop work Wednesday on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline after an appeals court invalidated a key permit for the multistate project.
The decision came over the objections of environmental groups that insist the vacated permit means all construction must cease.
An official with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a letter Wednesday directing the natural gas pipeline only to file documentation within five days explaining how it will avoid the threatened or endangered species the permit was intended to protect.
The pipeline, which is being developed by a group of energy companies, has informed the commission it will not proceed with construction in areas where such activities might affect those species, the letter said.
D.J. Gerken, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the commission staff appeared to be "skipping lightly" over its own requirement that a valid permit be in place.
Construction must cease because other federal permits allowing work to proceed are contingent on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approval — called an incidental take statement — vacated by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Gerken said.
"This is at best FERC winking at its own requirements for the benefit of Atlantic," said Gerken. The law center sued over the incidental take statement on behalf of several environmental groups.
It's too soon to comment on next legal steps, Gerken said.
Jen Kostyniuk, a spokeswoman for lead pipeline developer Dominion Energy, has said the company remains confident in the project approvals and that the pipeline will continue to move forward with construction as scheduled.
"Although we disagree with the outcome of the court's decision, and are evaluating our options, we are committed to working with the agency to address the concerns raised by the court's order," she said in a statement.
The 600-mile pipeline being developed by Dominion, Duke Energy and Southern Company is designed to start in West Virginia and run through Virginia and North Carolina. Developers say it will boost the economy, create jobs and help utilities transition away from coal. Opponents say it will harm the environment, trample on property rights and commit the region to fossil fuels at a time when climate change makes it imperative to invest in renewable energy.
The cost of development and construction has grown to between $6 billion and $6.5 billion, and developers aim to have fracked gas flowing by the fourth quarter of 2019.
Trees have been cut down in all three states along the pipeline route, and FERC granted permission last week to commence full construction in parts of West Virginia.