A group of cyclists from Pennsylvania ride the Blue Ridge Parkway near Clearbrook in Roanoke County. Should pipeline builders be able to bypass the existing rules and get quicker approval to cross federal lands such as the parkway?


By Rupert Cutler

If you were watching the national political scene in the 1980s, you’ll remember the man President Reagan appointed Secretary of the Interior, James Watt. A lawyer who’d specialized in representing opponents of environmental laws and regulations, Secretary Watt made his intentions clear to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with reference to the nation’s public lands of which he was a principal trustee, when he said, “We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber.”

Now, think what might happen if (a) legislation under active consideration now by the U.S. Congress (H.R. 2295, S. 411, S. 1196) were to pass that gives the secretary of the Interior (instead of the Congress, as is currently the case) the power to issue oil and gas pipeline rights of way through national parks and (b) another person with Jim Watt’s world view were to be appointed secretary of the Interior?


No question, let the good times roll for the pipeline folks, and so much for thoughtful consideration of the impacts of proposed pipelines on units of the National Park System such as Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail.

On May 13 I asked this question in my Roanoke Times Writers’ Group essay: “Will the conservation law ‘firewall’ ” to protect parks, wildlife and wilderness be maintained or breached in the Mountain Valley Pipeline planning process?” I cited the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 that requires the secretary of the Interior to administer national parks to “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

I also could have pointed to a 1973 amendment to the federal Mineral Leasing Act that exempts National Park System units from a general grant of authority to the secretary to issue oil and gas pipeline rights of way. That 1973 law requires specific park-by-park legislation from Congress to allow the National Park Service (supervised by the secretary of the Interior) to consider granting a right of way to a gas pipeline. That law is still in place. It’s a good thing and needs to be implemented in the case of the pipelines proposed for our neck of the woods.

As a Wilderness Society staffer in the 1960s I came to respect the importance of Congressional committee hearings as a good, transparent way to invite public comment from all sides on pending legislation before action was taken on a bill. Early drafts of the Wilderness Act allowed the executive branch to designate wilderness, but in the final version, Congress appropriately reserved for itself final say over the disposition of the public lands. And so it should be with decisions to allow pipelines to penetrate national parks.

HR 2295, S. 411 and S. 1196 also would breach the “firewall” provision of the National Environmental Policy Act requiring preparation of an environmental impact statement on every major federal action affecting the environment. Instead, they declare that energy corridor designations shall not be treated as actions under NEPA.

This is nuts.

The EIS process was created exactly for the purpose of assuring the thorough study of and public comment on proposals such as the Mountain Valley Pipeline. This attempt by the pipeline industry to make life easier for itself is a clear power grab.

Our U.S. senators and representatives need to know that this attempt to exempt gas pipelines from the requirements of long-standing laws protecting our public lands is not in the public interest. Requiring the preparation of and comment on an environmental impact statement and the permission of the Congress to build a pipeline through a national park will not necessarily stop the pipeline but will allow thorough consideration of pros and cons before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission makes its decision on the matter.

Is there an overriding public need for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, justifying its crossing of national parks? The developer must be required to show in an environmental impact statement that energy conservation, renewable energy and other alternatives have been thoroughly studied and that the proposed pipeline is the “only prudent and feasible alternative.” Taking the shortcut of abolishing legal requirements for congressional review and the transparent study of environmental impacts is not a path that should be followed.