Already-completed Ruby Pipeline project to undergo additional BLM analysis

Posted: May 6, 2013

Written by

Scott Streater, E&E News PM
Ruby pipeline

The Bureau of Land Management is revising its formal environmental review of an already-built natural gas pipeline project in the wake of a federal appeals court ruling that was highly critical of BLM's and the Fish and Wildlife Service's analysis of the project's impacts.

BLM announced today in the Federal Register that it will supplement its final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the 678-mile-long Ruby Pipeline project with a deeper analysis of the project's cumulative impacts on the sagebrush steppe habitat that a variety of species, including the imperiled greater sage grouse, depend on for survival.

BLM is doing so after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last fall that Fish and Wildlife needed to take another look at the project's potential impacts on endangered species outlined in a biological opinion (Greenwire, Oct. 23, 2012).

The three-judge panel also required BLM to prepare a new analysis of the pipeline's cumulative effects on sensitive sagebrush steppe. The supplement to the final EIS will "correct the deficiencies identified by the court," according to the Federal Register notice.

BLM's 2010 record of decision authorizing the project, which was based in part on the final EIS, was challenged by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and others.

Amy Atwood, a CBD senior attorney in Portland, Ore., said BLM's analysis of the Ruby Pipeline project had a laundry list of flaws. The pipeline project "destroyed over 9,000 acres of some of the only intact sagebrush habitat left," she said in an emailed statement.

BLM, she said, "has a chance to address this" through the supplement to the EIS. "The agency must correct this problem, including by imposing additional mitigation measures and enforcing Ruby's promises to restore affected areas."

BLM expects to issue a draft supplement to the EIS in June, then a revised record of decision by late November that could include additional mitigation measures that Kinder Morgan Inc., the project proponent, must complete to restore sagebrush steppe in areas along the path of the pipeline, said Mark Mackiewicz, a BLM national project manager overseeing the Ruby project.

Fish and Wildlife is expected to finish its revised biological opinion this summer, Mackiewicz added.

Kinder Morgan's Ruby pipeline has been in operation since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2011 authorized the company to begin using the recently completed $3.6 billion pipeline, which crosses Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Oregon.

The appeals court, however, ruled that the fact the pipeline is up and running is irrelevant, as it would still be possible to mitigate the line's environmental impact.

"This [new] document will thoroughly analyze all the cumulative impacts out there," Mackiewicz said, adding that the document will be "fairly short" because it will be tightly focused. "Then a decision will be made whether to require additional mitigation."

The Interior Department for years has been under fire for its analysis of the pipeline, which is designed to transport 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day -- enough to serve more than 5.4 million homes for a year -- from gas fields in the Rocky Mountains to customers in the Pacific Northwest.

CBD argued the pipeline cuts across hundreds of streams in Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Oregon, directly affecting the endangered Lahontan cutthroat trout, Warner sucker, Lost River sucker, shortnose sucker and Modoc sucker. In addition, by pumping more than 300 million gallons of water for use in dust abatement and "hydrostatic testing," CBD argued, the pipeline also affected four other endangered fish species: the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, razorback sucker and bonytail chub.

The three-judge appeals court panel last fall ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service needed to revise its biological opinion of the project after finding that the original study did not take into account various factors affecting, among other things, the nine endangered fish species.

The appeals panel also concluded that Interior relied too much on voluntary measures not required in the biological opinion and thus not enforceable.

Kinder Morgan's predecessor on the project, El Paso Corp., committed to pay $22 million to fund two conservation partnerships to help restore millions of acres of sagebrush steppe along the Ruby Pipeline route.

That agreement was made directly with the Western Watersheds Project and the Oregon Natural Desert Association, in exchange for the groups agreeing not to file lawsuits or take other legal actions to slow construction of the pipeline.

Richard Wheatley, a spokesman for Kinder Morgan in Houston, defended the company's efforts to address sagebrush steppe concerns.

Wheatley noted in an emailed response to questions that the final EIS contained "numerous required sensitive habitat, cultural and environmental protection conditions and actions," and that the company undertook additional "good stewardship actions with state and federal agencies and other groups aimed at protecting the sagebrush steppe and other forms of the natural habitat."

"In addition, Ruby worked with the BLM and state wildlife agencies to help fund projects in the sagebrush steppe areas affected that would help sustain and potentially improve that habitat," he said. "These efforts were documented in the Ruby Project Cooperative Conservation Agreement for the Greater Sage Grouse and Pygmy Rabbit, which was included with the [EIS] developed by the FERC and BLM for the project."

Mackiewicz, the BLM national project manager, said he believes the Interior Department agencies adequately reviewed the project and its impacts to the environment.

"I think the fact that it went through extensive litigation and this is the only thing the court found to be a little deficient is a testament to a well-written environmental impact statement," he said.

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