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OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court upholds permit for $8B pipeline under Appalachian Trail | Report finds NOAA 'Sharpiegate' statement 'not based on science' but political influence | EPA faces suit over plan to release genetically engineered mosquito

OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court upholds permit for $8B pipeline under Appalachian Trail | Report finds NOAA 'Sharpiegate' statement 'not based on science' but political influence | EPA faces suit over plan to release genetically engineered mosquito
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HAPPY MONDAY! Welcome to Overnight Energy, The Hill's roundup of the latest energy and environment news. Please send tips and comments to Rebecca Beitsch at rbeitsch@thehill.com. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccabeitsch. Reach Rachel Frazin at rfrazin@thehill.com or follow her on Twitter: @RachelFrazin.

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HIT THE TRAIL: The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a permit for a controversial $8 billion gas pipeline that would tunnel below the famed Appalachian Trail.

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The 7-2 opinion handed a defeat to environmental groups who challenged the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), which would carry natural gas some 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina.

The decision to uphold the permit resolves a complex bureaucratic dispute involving multiple U.S. environmental agencies and overlapping legal authorities.

The case delved deep into philosophical questions. Is a trail more than just the land it sits on? And if so, who controls it?

The justices held that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) had been duly authorized to greenlight the project, rejecting the challengers’ claim that power over the affected land lay elsewhere.

The dispute stemmed from the Department of the Interior’s decision to make the National Park Service (NPS) responsible for the Appalachian Trail, calling into question whether approval for the pipeline rests with Congress.

But Justice Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasPlaintiff and defendant from Obergefell v. Hodges unite to oppose Barrett's confirmation The Senate should evoke RBG in its confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court's Pennsylvania mail ballot tie tees up test for Barrett MORE, writing for the majority, said the administrative arrangement did not remove the USFS’s power to permit construction under the trail.

“Accordingly, the Forest Service had the authority to issue the permit here,” wrote Thomas, whose majority opinion cut across ideological lines.

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"For decades, more than 50 other pipelines have safely crossed the trail without disturbing its public use. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will be no different," ACP spokeswoman Ann Nallo said by email, reiterating the company's plans to be in operation by 2022.

"To avoid impacts to the trail, the pipeline will be installed hundreds of feet below the surface and emerge more than a half-mile from each side of the trail. There will be no construction activity on or near the trail itself, and the public will be able to continue enjoying the trail as they always have."

The case came before the justices on appeal from a 2018 ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with environmentalists.

The lower court ruled that the Appalachian Trail fell under the authority of the NPS, which it said was barred by law from granting land access, known as a right-of-way, for energy development.

The ACP remains tied up in a number of other legal disputes and has yet to secure several other permits it needs to follow its proposed route. 

“While today’s decision was not what we hoped for, it addresses only one of the many problems faced by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. This is not a viable project. It is still missing many required authorizations, including the Forest Service permit at issue in today’s case, and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will soon consider the mounting evidence that we never needed this pipeline to supply power,” DJ Gerken, with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which sued over the pipeline, said in a statement. 

Environmental groups have pledged to continue to fight the pipeline in other outstanding cases.

"This decision doesn’t greenlight the dangerous Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The fact remains the developers cannot move ahead without securing eight crucial federal and state permits required for construction — concerning air pollution, endangered species, rights of way and clean water," the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement.

 "That’s why we’ll continue fighting through all legal and federal and state avenues to ensure this proposed fracked gas pipeline — which threatens the air, drinking water, environmental justice communities and our climate — is never built."

Read the full story here, with more legal analysis from our SCOTUS report. 

NOAA CONSEQUENCES: Leaders at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) violated the agency’s scientific integrity policy by issuing a statement in September contradicting the National Weather Service (NWS) shortly after President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE warned Hurricane Dorian could be headed toward Alabama.

“The development of the statement was not based on science but appears to be largely driven by external influence from senior Commerce [Department] officials who drafted the Sept. 6 statement,” the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) concluded in its report, which was requested by NOAA following public pressure.

NOAA wrote in a Sept. 6 statement that “tropical storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama,” contradicting a Sept. 1 statement from the NWS in Birmingham, Ala., that said the state would see “no impacts” from the hurricane. 

The statement came after Trump insisted that Alabama could bear the brunt of the 2019 hurricane, which ultimately landed on the East Coast. In making his claim, Trump used a marked-up projection map produced by NOAA that conflicted with information given by weather forecasters.

“The administration made matters worse by refusing to correct this known error in real time, and even taking steps to obstruct the career scientists and officials trying to do this work," said Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoOvernight Energy: Trump officials finalize plan to open up protected areas of Tongass to logging | Feds say offshore testing for oil can proceed despite drilling moratorium | Dems question EPA's postponement of inequality training Democrats question EPA postponement of environmental inequality training Clark rolls out endorsements in assistant Speaker race MORE (D-N.Y.), who had been among those calling for an investigation.

"It will be clear to anyone reviewing the accounts captured in this highly credible, independent Scientific Integrity report that the political leaders who interfered in our emergency response system need to publicly apologize or resign,” Tonko added.

In its response to the report, NOAA said: “Scientific integrity is at the core of NOAA’s work and is essential for maintaining the public’s trust in the agency’s ability to provide accurate, thorough and timely science."

The agency said it largely agreed with the report's findings, which focus most heavily on NOAA head Neil Jacobs and his deputy chief of staff and head of communications, Julie Roberts.

“As the head of the agency and the director of communications, Dr. Neil Jacobs and Julie Roberts should take responsibility for the statement,” the report said.

But, it added, “they purported to believe it was out of their hands. It is important...to take into account the circumstances under which the Sept. 6 statement was developed and released.”

Investigators said they attempted to interview two Commerce Department officials involved in the drafting and release of the statement but were denied access by NOAA.

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The NAPA investigation is one of three probes into what was dubbed "Sharpiegate" in reference to Trump’s additions to NOAA graphics. The House Science Committee and the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General are also investigating. The Commerce Department oversees NOAA.

The NAPA report concludes by saying NOAA staff should undergo training on scientific integrity as part of annual ethics trainings and that the agency should formalize an agreement with the Commerce Department to guide how it helps draft NOAA communications.

Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that had called for the investigation, said that while the NAPA recommendations may be useful, the lack of any consequences for NOAA or Commerce staff do little to ensure there won’t be future political interference.

“This is important stuff. We’re about to be in another hurricane season and we’re going to have more natural disasters like pandemics and there don't seem to be any consequences for manipulating the science,” he said, “and that puts real communities, real people at risk.”

The story is here

AROUND THE AGENCIES:

EPA… The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is facing a lawsuit over its approval of a plan to release genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida and Texas.

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Several groups, including the Center for Food Safety, the International Center for Technology Assessment and Friends of the Earth filed a notice of intent to sue on Friday. They allege that the EPA violated the law by failing to consult with wildlife agencies before determining that the mosquitoes will not pose risks to threatened species.

“EPA’s ‘no effect’ findings and failure to consult are arbitrary and capricious and violate the [Endangered Species Act] because they fail to follow the ESA’s mandated procedures, fail to use the best scientific and commercial data available, fail to consider significant aspects of the issue, and offer an explanation that runs counter to the evidence before the agency,” the groups claimed in their notice. 

The EPA last month approved an experimental use permit for a company that wants to test the use of genetically engineered mosquitoes as a way to try to reduce mosquito populations and protect people from mosquito-borne illnesses.

Read more on the potential suit here

Interior… A bipartisan group of Florida lawmakers is questioning the Interior Department after it was reported last week that it could start pursuing oil and gas drilling off the coast of Florida following the election this November. 

In their Monday letter, the 18 Florida lawmakers, asked the administration when it planned to release its next offshore drilling proposal and if it would consider excluding lease sales from new areas in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic. 

“Florida relies on coastlines unencumbered by oil and gas drilling to sustain its economy, preserve its marine life and natural resources, and protect our national security,” they wrote. 

Four sources told Politico about the plan, noting that the administration is waiting in light of how unpopular offshore drilling is in the state. 

An Interior Department spokesperson, in response, characterized the article as “#FakeNews based entirely on anonymous sources who don’t know what they’re talking about.” 

“Current offshore plans do not expire until 2022, and  @Interior does not plan to issue a new report in November,” the spokesperson tweeted. 

Read more on Florida’s concerns here

All of the above… Efforts to stymie government research into climate change and other controversial topics are increasingly being pushed by mid-level managers rather than high-level appointees, according to reporting from The New York Times. 

Fears of losing jobs and funding has led career employees to undermine scientific efforts, asking government researchers to remove references to climate change in their studies.

“If top-level administrators issued a really clear public directive, there would be an uproar and a pushback, and it would be easier to combat,” Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, told the outlet. “This is a lot harder to fight.”

Indeed, many of the biggest scientific efforts from the Trump administration have faced steep resistance.

Growing research suggests the effort to restrict some scientific studies isn’t limited to the highest ranks.

Read more on restrictions on research here

ON TAP TOMORROW:

-The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing to examine the impacts of COVID-19 on the energy industry

-The House Energy and Commerce Committee will also hold a hearing COVID-19’s impact on the energy sector 

- The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will look at Ex-EPA employee Nancy Beck’s nomination to lead the Consumer Product Safety Commission

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

Decommissioned nuclear reactor coming to Nevada roads, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports

A canal that opened the Montana prairie may soon dry up, The New York Times reports

Emissions from 13 dairy firms match those of entire UK, says report, according to The Guardian

ICYMI: Stories from Monday and over the weekend…

Group targeting environmental racism relaunches amid disparities in coronavirus impact

Oil giant BP takes $17.5B writedown in response to coronavirus

Conservative climate group runs pro-environment ads on Fox News

Officials undercut Trump administration's Lafayette Square claims: Washington Post

Four poachers arrested for allegedly killing endangered silverback gorilla