If confirmed to the Supreme Court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett could decide the fate of a major pipeline case pushed by the fossil fuel lobbying organization where her father served as a top official. The case could limit states’ power to halt fossil fuel projects at a moment when scientists say climate change could render large swaths of the United States uninhabitable in our lifetime.
Barrett — who has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the validity of climate science — has been under intensifying pressure to commit to recusing herself from fossil fuel cases because of her father’s ties to the industry. As a lower-court judge, she had recused herself from cases involving Shell Oil, where her father worked as a top attorney. But she has since refused to commit to recusing from oil company cases, even though Shell currently has a major climate case before the high court.
In a separate but equally far-reaching case, PennEast Pipeline Company, LLC, v. New Jersey, the American Petroleum Institute (API) is pushing Supreme Court justices to intervene to overturn a lower court ruling that barred a fossil fuel corporation from using eminent domain to seize state-owned land in order to build a natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.
API, a top fossil fuel lobbying group in Washington, filed an amicus brief backing the case. In that brief, API criticized the lower court ruling because it “allows states a unilateral and unconstrained veto, subject to their sole discretion, over federally approved interstate pipeline projects.” API said the organization has “substantial and direct interests in continued investment in and development of interstate natural gas infrastructure.”
Last week, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), noted that according to a biography on the website of Barrett’s father’s law firm as recently as 2016, Barrett’s father was an “active member of The American Petroleum Institute Subcommittee of Exploration and Production Law and served twice as its Chairman” for two decades. That website said her father “also served as Chairman of the Offshore Operations Committee legal subcommittee for twenty years. During this time for both groups he was frequently involved in the review and drafting comments on both regulations and bills impacting the Outer Continental Shelf.”
“Because of your father’s leadership position within the American Petroleum Institute, would you need to recuse yourself from any case in which the American Petroleum Institute was an interested party?” Whitehouse asked Barrett in written questions.
Barrett declined to commit to recusing in her response, saying only that she would consult with other justices and declaring that “it would not be appropriate for me to offer an opinion on abstract legal issues or hypotheticals.”
The API-backed case, however, is hardly a hypothetical — justices will decide whether to hear the case and are right now awaiting input from the Trump administration.
API frequently presses Supreme Court justices. Last year, the group filed three amicus briefs on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. The group noted in one of the filings that its job is “representing its members’ interests in all administrative and legal proceedings that affect the natural gas supply and delivery chain.”
While Barrett has automatically recused from Shell cases during her tenure on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, she has not indicated whether she plans to recuse from Shell cases on the Supreme Court. (Democrats also never specifically asked her to.)
“As the Senate rushes headlong to get (Barrett’s) confirmation done before the election, we are left to wonder whether she will recuse herself in matters involving Shell subsidiaries, or the American Petroleum Institute, once in a court with no code of ethics; particularly where her evasions on climate change aligned with industry propaganda,” Whitehouse said in a statement to the Daily Poster.