The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ruled against a Roman Catholic group challenging the use of their land in connection with an interstate natural gas pipeline.  The Adorers of the Blood of Christ (“Adorers”) is “an ecclesial group of women living in community … whose religious practice includes protecting and preserving creation, which they believe is a revelation of God.”  They believe that “God calls humans to treasure land as a gift of beauty and sustenance that should not be used in an excessive or harmful way.”  The Adorers own land in Columbia, Pennsylvania used to sponsor the St. Anne’s Retirement Community and for growing crops by local farmers.  In February 2017, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) issued an order authorizing the construction and operation of 199.5 miles of new pipeline in Pennsylvania connecting to existing pipelines running to South Carolina.  The pipeline project will reportedly supply gas to more than 7 million American homes.  The Adorers’ land was to be included as part of the pipeline project, and FERC issued an order authorizing the taking of the Adorers’ property by eminent domain for the project, if necessary.

The Adorers sued FERC under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1 (“RFRA”).  They alleged that the pipeline project would interfere with their ability to use their land according to their religious beliefs, since the drilling and extraction of natural gas would cause methane leakage that would contribute to and accelerate global warming.  But the district court dismissed the Adorers’ RFRA claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  Under the Natural Gas Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 717-717z (“NGA”), an aggrieved person may sue FERC over the issuance of a certificate of public convenience and necessity to construct, operate, and maintain interstate natural gas pipeline projects.  The NGA provides that prior to suing in court, the aggrieved party must apply for a rehearing before FERC within 30 days following issuance of the certificate.  Without seeking a rehearing, judicial review is not possible.

The Adorers neither objected to the pipeline project during FERC’s review of the project nor sought a rehearing before FERC.  They also failed to file an answer or a responsive pleading in the condemnation action regarding the taking of their property interests for the pipeline project.  According to the Third Circuit, the Adorers could not sue in federal court under RFRA because they had failed to avail themselves of the administrative procedure (request for a rehearing), as required by the NGA, depriving the court of subject matter jurisdiction.

The Third Circuit’s decision in Adorers of the Blood of Christ v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (3d Cir. 2018) is available here.