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Obama’s Solicitor General Has Pivoted to Defending Climate-Killing Pipeline

Donald B. Verrilli Jr. is leveraging his personal connections to the Supreme Court to help the fossil fuel industry.

Attorney Donald B. Verrilli Jr. speaks in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on January 7, 2007, in Washington, D.C.

One of the highest-ranking U.S. government attorneys under the Obama administration leveraged his public service experience to successfully defend a natural gas pipeline, which is set to hasten global warming while threatening vulnerable communities and ecosystems along its route.

Donald B. Verrilli Jr., solicitor general from 2011-2016, is the lead counsel for the holding company behind the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) on a petition to the Supreme Court filed on July 14.

Verrilli and his colleagues with the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP asked justices to overturn rulings that temporarily forbade their client from completing construction of the fossil fuel vessel. On the morning of July 27, the court granted the request in a brief order with no dissenting opinions to report.

The dispute was focused on legislation Congress passed in June to fast-track the MVP, which had been held up by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in rulings citing concerns about regulators’ decision to approve the pipeline.

The legislation — which stopped House Republicans from engineering a breach of the so-called debt ceiling, an event that would likely trigger a U.S. government sovereign default and an ensuing global economic crisis — said that Congress “ratifies and approves” all outstanding authorizations for the MVP.

The Fourth Circuit, however, refused to expedite the approval process after President Biden signed the bill into law, having previously rejected environmental impact assessments in support of the pipeline.

Environmental impact assessments must normally be issued by federal regulators before major infrastructure projects can be built. Questions about MVP impact assessments were rendered moot by the Supreme Court.

If completed, the pipeline will take fracked natural gas from northwestern West Virginia along a 303-mile route to a terminal in southern Virginia. The pipeline would cut across farmland and iconic stretches of wilderness, including the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge mountains.

Activists in communities throughout West Virginia and Virginia have vociferously opposed the MVP since plans for the pipeline were first unveiled in 2014. Opponents have estimated that the infrastructure will produce carbon emissions equivalent to 26 coal-fired power plants. Protests have included a prolonged tree sit-in featuring rotating participants who blocked the pipeline’s right-of-way “for 932 days, with activists enduring three winters, snow, ice and turbulent weather,” according to Appalachian Voices, an environmental organization fighting the MVP in court.

The group was among 10 environmental organizations trying to stop the pipeline in one of the cases that the Supreme Court decided in favor of the fossil fuel industry. David Sligh, conservation director of Wild Virginia, another environmental group involved in the case, emailed Truthout hours after the decision. Sligh decried the project as reckless, citing a recent disaster involving another pipeline in Shenandoah County, Virginia.

“The pipeline explosion this week in Virginia is a graphic example of what could happen in close proximity to many peoples’ homes who live within hundreds of feet of the MVP. Will officials wait until people die to take this seriously?” he asked rhetorically. Nobody was hurt, but the explosion left a crater in preserved Civil War battlefields.

Sligh also raised concerns about the durability of protective coating on the pipeline that has been exposed to the elements for years, and noted that the project cuts across “very steep slopes and unstable geology.”

“There have been five earthquakes in the area of Virginia near the MVP recently,” he added. Sligh called on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to try to stop the pipeline, citing authority held by an office within the Department of Transportation, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

But the Biden administration has no intention of invoking regulatory authority to stop MVP construction, according to a brief filed by the current Solicitor General, Elizabeth B. Prelogar.

“Congress expressly found and declared that ‘the timely completion of construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline is required in the national interest,’” Prelogar wrote. “To that end, Congress ratified the agency actions at issue here notwithstanding any other provision of law.”

The solicitor general represents the U.S. government in litigation before the Supreme Court and appellate matters. Before joining the private sector, Verrilli appeared before the high court more than 50 times, according to another one of his clients, Grayscale, a cryptocurrency firm fighting enforcement action brought by stock market regulators.

Many high-ranking Obama administration officials went from public service to the corporate world, despite Obama having campaigned on promises to end the so-called revolving door phenomenon. Some of those officials ended up fighting regulatory initiatives that they once promoted while in government, according to an analysis published in 2015 by Politico.

“The revolving door — the pattern of people going from industry to agency, back to industry — that will be closed in the Obama White House,” Obama said in 2007. But at least 1,165 people who served his administration, including “members of his transition team” and “staffers in various agencies,” either came to public service from the corporate world or left it for the private sector, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In representing Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, Verrilli is following the path of one of his predecessors. Neal Katyal, who took on several roles in the solicitor general’s office from 2009-2011, including acting solicitor general, left the Obama administration to work for the corporate law firm Hogan Lovells.

Katyal’s work for the firm before the Supreme Court includes one case defending Nestlé against claims that the multinational could be held legally liable for doing business with a contractor that employed child slave labor. In June 2021, justices voted 8-1 in Nestle’s favor, with all liberal justices backing the case made by Katyal, which cited the fact that war crimes prosecutions after World War II spared “the firm that supplied Zyklon B gas, which the Nazis used to kill millions.”

When Munger, Tolles & Olson announced that it would hire Verrilli, partner Ronald Olson said that he expected the former solicitor general’s experience to come in handy.

“We have had Supreme Court arguments before, but it hasn’t been a big practice for us. We look forward to growing the practice under Don and supporting him any way we can with talented lawyers from our other offices,” Olson said. He noted that he expected the outcome having hired “someone of Don’s experience and stature.”

Verrilli did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.

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