Construction has stopped along the Atlantic Sunrise gas pipeline's 37-mile route in Lancaster County amid a confusing stay order issued by a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., on Monday.
A temporary stay was issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in response to an emergency motion filed Oct. 30 by environmental groups opposing the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline.
The emergency motion asks that work cease until the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission does a comprehensive environmental review on the project's short- and long-term impacts, as well as whether there is a public need for the pipeline.
The stay order was issued so the court could consider the motion. The court cautioned that the temporary stay "should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits of that motion."
The order confused opponents and pipeline builder Williams Partners alike.
Oklahoma-based Williams filed a motion on Tuesday to have the court clarify whether it meant to stop construction.
"These current actions by opponents of American energy are, this morning, idling thousands of workers in Pennsylvania and could delay benefits of low-cost energy delivery to millions of American families," said Michael Dunn, Williams Partners' chief operating officer.
"Atlantic Sunrise has undergone a nearly four-year review process and is operating and being constructed in compliance with all state and federal permits."
But a coalition of groups, including the Sierra Club and Lancaster Against Pipelines, maintain that FERC, which approved the project, "overstated the pipeline's economic benefits while discounting or ignoring its true costs."
Other groups seeking the review are Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Lebanon Pipeline Awareness, Concerned Citizens of Lebanon County, Allegheny Defense Project, Clean Air Council, Heartwood and the Accokeek, Mattawoman, Piscataway Creeks Community Council.
Work on the 197-mile Atlantic Sunrise pipeline broke ground in Pennsylvania on Sept. 15. In Lancaster County, work got underway several weeks ago.
Williams said while work has stopped temporarily on the pipeline, it will maintain environmental controls to protect the environment and stay in compliance with federal and state permits.
The temporary work stoppage comes as Williams prepares to bury a 42-inch pipe in a cornfield near Columbia owned by an order of nuns and on which an outdoor chapel sits.
The Adorers of the Blood of Christ have filed a federal suit under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to stop construction of the pipeline on their property.
The suit, filed against FERC and Williams subsidiary Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co., is based on the nuns’ belief that the Earth is God’s creation and that land is a “gift of beauty and sustenance” that should not be used in an “excessive and harmful way.”
The suit was dismissed by a federal judge in Reading on grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction. The nuns have appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia and are awaiting a ruling.
Pipeline opponents say Oklahoma-based Williams is rushing to bury the pipeline on the property before the appeal can be heard. It is the first actual pipeline burial planned for Lancaster County.
In a press statement, the nuns applauded the temporary halt to pipeline work. "The Adorers hope that a permanent stay will be entered because environmental science confirms the development of this massive fossil fuel pipeline will only accelerate global warming and harm God's sacred earth," the nuns said.
The nuns blasted the pipeline builder for what they said was a calculated adjustment of the pipeline schedule to build the pipeline on their property before their appeal could be heard "in clear disregard of the Adorers' religious freedoms and beliefs."
“The arrogance of the industry is on full display as they rush this project and silence protesters while there are still pending cases in court,” Mark Clatterbuck, co-founder of Lancaster Against Pipelines, said Monday in a statement issued by the Sierra Club.
Contractors began working at the West Hempfield Township field on Oct. 16 and were met with protesters, 23 of whom were arrested and charged with defiant trespass. Six more protesters were arrested Oct. 22.
The $3 billion pipeline is scheduled to be completed in July 2018 and will run through 37 miles in western and southern parts of Lancaster County.
Staff writer Jennifer Todd contributed to this report.