HCCA protests plan to cross roadless areas
Despite protests from area environmental groups, a new natural gas pipeline that will traverse nearby roadless areas will go ahead, following a decision from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service.
In response, local environmental group High Country Citizens’ Alliance (HCCA) says it will file a lawsuit in federal court, protesting the decision.
The BLM and Forest Service released the formal decision on Tuesday, January 8, marking one of the final hurdles for the pipeline’s proponent, Houston-based SG Interests Ltd.
“We are very pleased to have the record of decision published,” says SG Interests vice-president Robbie Guinn. “It means that we can proceed with all necessary plans to construct the pipeline.”
As proposed, the Bull Mountain pipeline is a 25.5-mile-long underground steel pipeline that will transport natural gas from wells in the northwestern corner of Gunnison County into a national pipeline system.
Approximately eight miles of the pipeline will run through Gunnison County. Gunnison Energy Corporation also owns natural gas wells in the area and would be served by the Bull Mountain pipeline.
The pipeline would traverse two national forests through five Colorado counties—Gunnison, Delta, Mesa, Garfield and Pitkin—and would bisect the 120,000-acre Clear Fork Divide designated roadless area that connects the Grand and Battlement Mesas to the West Elk Mountains. Approximately eight miles of the pipeline will go through roadless areas, with a portion falling within an existing pipeline corridor.
According to a consortium of preservation advocates—including HCCA, Western Colorado Congress, Wilderness Workshop and Western Slope Environmental Resource Council, all Colorado-based environmental groups—the U.S. Forest Service has chosen the worst possible alternative for the pipeline route.
HCCA public lands director Dan Morse says his group is displeased with the Forest Service decision, although not surprised. “We’re disappointed that the Forest Service has opted to allow construction through roadless areas with such high quality wildlife habitat and valuable roadless characteristics,” he says and continues, “The Forest Service had a choice to make—they chose to go through the heart of roadless areas.”
Western Colorado Congress public lands director Mark Schofield agrees that his group anticipated the decision, noting that it mirrors the findings of the final Environmental Impact Statement released in November 2007. “It’s a disappointing but not surprising decision,” Schofield says.
In a press release dated January 8, the Forest Service and BLM outlined their decision, stating the proposal will have fewer environmental impacts than other alternative plans. “It disturbs the fewest acres; it installs the fewest miles of pipeline; and it involves the fewest miles of road construction,” the release states. “It also minimizes the negative effects to soils, wetlands, road corridors, and it meets the visual quality and air quality objectives for the area.”
In addition, the BLM and Forest Service note that the decisions require the developers to re-vegetate the pipeline corridor.
However, environmental groups say it’s unacceptable to have the pipeline, and its accompanying access-way, in inventoried roadless lands.
Morse contends that the access-way constitutes a roadway and is therefore illegal under the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, enacted under the Clinton Administration.
The U.S. Forest Service enacted the Roadless Rule in 2001 to protect the country’s roadless areas and create more uniform protective measures for the nation’s forests. Prior to the Roadless Rule, individual forest plans governed the use of roadless areas.
The rule, which was suspended under the Bush Administration, prohibits road building and timber harvesting on inventoried roadless areas of the nation’s national forests. The U.S. District Court in California essentially reenacted the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in September 2006.
Guinn says he’s aware of the environmental groups’ concerns but says the pipeline is legal. “If you look at the 2001 Clinton Roadless Rule, pipelines are legal in inventoried roadless areas under the plain language of the rule,” he says. “Evidently the Forest Service agrees.”
Morse says the ruling could mark an unsavory precedent by allowing industrial activities and road-building in roadless areas. “The Bull Mountain pipeline is the first test case of the 2001 roadless rule,” he says and continues, “Should this decision go through, it could set a terrible precedent for roadless areas across the country.”
Morse says HCCA has decided it will file a lawsuit in federal court. “We’re inclined to think that the federal court would be a more effective avenue for us,” he says.
Schofield says the Western Colorado Congress may join in the suit along with other environmental organizations. “We’re going to pursue all of the possible options,” he says.
Guinn says he’s aware of a possible lawsuit but is going ahead with a separate permit application for Gunnison County, which is now under way. If those permits are approved, Guinn says he anticipates starting construction on the $27 million pipeline in May with operations beginning in December.