A federal court has dealt another setback to a hotly disputed pipeline project that would ship natural gas through Western Maryland and beneath the Potomac River.

Court dismisses case for gas pipeline under Western Maryland Rail Trail

Protestors hold up signs opposing pipeline under Potomac River at a 2018 public meeting in Hancock, MD. The state Board of Public Works denied the project a needed easement to drill beneath the Western Maryland Rail Trail, and a federal court has thrown out the company's lawsuit seeking access to the site. (Chesapeake Climate Action Network)

The U.S. District Court for Maryland on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by Columbia Gas Transmission seeking access to a strip of land owned by the state so it could complete the 3.5-mile pipeline intended to supply gas from Pennsylvania to West Virginia.

Environmental activists, some western Maryland residents and more than 60 state legislators oppose the project. The company has said it's needed to provide energy for future business and residential growth in West Virginia's eastern panhandle. Critics contend that the construction poses risks to the Potomac, which furnishes drinking water to millions downstream. They also argue that the pipeline will encourage more natural gas production, which while less polluting than coal still adds climate-warming emissions to the atmosphere.

In January, the Maryland Board of Public Works voted unanimously not to grant an easement for the pipeline to be drilled under the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a key link in the project.

Columbia Gas Transmission filed suit in May, seeking a preliminary injunction to get access to the property. The company, owned by TransCanada (now TC Energy), argued that federal approval of the Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project grants it the power to seize the property through eminent domain.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had, in July 2018, given the project a “certificate of public convenience and necessity,” which does empower the company to condemn property.

But the Maryland attorney general’s office moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that the state has sovereign immunity under the U.S. Constitution from condemnation suits and that the federal court has no authority to order the state to grant the easement. Judge George Levi Russell III agreed, dismissing the case.

“We are pleased that the court has agreed that a private pipeline company cannot force the state to accept a pipeline under the Western Maryland Rail Trail,” said Attorney General Brian Frosh. “We will continue to defend Maryland’s right to control its public lands against any other efforts by the natural gas industry to move forward with this project.”

Environmentalists hailed the ruling. Kirsten Collings, deputy director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said “justice prevailed,” adding that the company “wants to trample over states’ rights and steal our precious public land, all for a dangerous pipeline that we don’t even need.”

Brent Walls, the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper, said he hoped this would end the two-year controversy over the pipeline, which he said threatened to impact drinking water for millions of people.

It’s unclear if the company intends to appeal the ruling.  Its representatives did not return phone calls or emails.


Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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