More surprises flow from Ruby Pipeline
Last month the HCN magazine ran a story on the furor over a conservation deal meant to keep two environmental groups from suing to stop construction of the Ruby Pipeline, a 675-mile-long natural gas pipe stretching from Opal, Wyo., to Malin, Ore. Western Watersheds Project and the Oregon Natural Desert Association opposed fragmentation and destruction of sagebrush habitat that would be caused by the project. Concerned that lawsuits would lead to expensive delays, the pipeline company, El Paso Corp., proposed two conservation funds totaling $22 million to protect habitat from another destructive force, cattle grazing. In exchange the conservation groups promised not to sue. Then, to El Paso's surprise, rural counties that had supported the pipeline for the jobs it would bring turned hostile, infuriated that El Paso was in cahoots with Western Watersheds, whose mission is to end public lands grazing.
Now pipeline construction is underway in seven simultaneous "spreads" along its length, and despite efforts to avoid litigation, lawsuits are stacking up. "If you want to learn how to do it wrong, follow their procedure," says John Hadder, one litigant, about the Bureau of Land Management's approved pipeline right-of-way. Hadder is director of Nevada's Great Basin Resource Watch, one of at least six different groups who've filed complaints this summer. He says El Paso pushed the BLM to hurry the environmental impact analysis too much. "For Ruby I presume it's the shortest path and less expensive," he says. "It's good on the engineering side, but not on the social or environmental side."
Here's a roundup of the existing litigation surrounding the Ruby Pipeline:
The Center for Biological Diversity kicked things off in late July with a petition for review of the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee's approval of the pipeline, followed by a lawsuit against the BLM approved right-of-way. They argue that the pipeline will to harm nine endangered species of fish when it gouges through hundreds of streams. They also filed for an injunction on August 19 to have construction stopped while their case works it way through court, but the motion was denied in early September.
Next, on August 18, southwest Wyoming's Coalition of Local Governments, which includes Lincoln, Sweetwater, Uinta, and Sublette counties, sued over the BLM's approval of the right-of-way for the pipeline, saying the agency hadn't adequately analyzed the environmental and social impacts that will come from retirement of grazing permits under the conservation settlements. They expect other counties to join their appeal.
Meanwhile, soon after the conservation settlement was announced, the Public Lands Council – which represents livestock ranchers – approached El Paso to voice its opposition to the agreement, citing it's potentially detrimental effect on ranching. In response, El Paso offered a $15 million trust to defend public lands grazing from the conservation funds. The Public Lands Council members have yet to vote on whether to accept this offer.
And last week, commissioners from all nine of the counties the pipeline passes through met in Salt Lake City and formalized an ad hoc group they call the Pipeline Coalition. They plan to send a delegation to El Paso headquarters to urge the company to retract its agreement with WWP and ONDA. Kent Connelly, county commissioner from Lincoln County, Wyo., vice chair of the Pipeline Coalition and chair of Wyoming's Coalition of Local Governments, calls both the conservation agreements and El Paso's proposed trust with the Public Lands Council "blackmail."
For more than two years the Northern Paiute including Nevada's Fort McDermot and Summit Lake Paiute tribes and the California's Fort Bidwell tribe have lobbied to divert the pipeline around their traditional lands in northwest Nevada. Dean Barlese, a cultural and spiritual guide at the Summit Lake Reservation, says, "We're not against the pipeline. It's just the route has taken it through some of the most pristine areas still left in Nevada." He says the BLM and other federal agencies conducted inadequate consultations with the tribes.
Aaron Townsend, vice chair of the Fort Bidwell tribal council, says a pipeline man camp has gone up just south of an area where the pipeline will bisect "house rings, burials, prayer sites – you name it, we've got everything – obsidian quarries, petroglyphs." He describes looting of cultural sites as people hear about archaeological resources along the pipeline corridor. The Fort Bidwell tribe recently filed a petition for review over the BLM's approved right-of-way for the pipeline.
And on Friday, September 10, three more groups – Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter in Nevada, and Great Basin Resource Watch – sued the BLM, Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Forest Service arguing that the right-of-way will negatively affect over 800 cultural sites, breeding ground for sage grouse, over 1,000 waterways, and many miles of undeveloped land. They propose an alternate route that is about 65 miles longer than the approved route and which follows existing energy corridors identified in the West-Wide Energy Corridor record of decision published last year, skirting south and west of northwest Nevada and cutting into California.
Mark Mackiewicz is overseeing the Ruby Pipeline project for the BLM. He's been getting a new lawsuit or petition for review on his desk every few days and can hardly keep track of it all. Regardless, he believes environmental resources on Western federal lands will come out ahead after construction of the pipeline because of the conservation settlements. "I'd rather see funding put on the ground to benefit resources than lawsuits," he says.
Emilene Ostlind is a High Country News intern.