By MATTHEW BROWN
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A U.S. judge on Monday revised a recent court ruling that threatened to hold up thousands of utility projects crossing streams and wetlands, but left in place a requirement calling for new oil and gas pipelines to undergo further environmental review.
The ruling from U.S. District Judge Brian Morris means the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can again use a disputed permitting program to approve electrical lines and other utility work planned to go through streams and wetlands. Maintenance and repair work on existing pipelines also would be allowed, but not the construction of new pipelines.
“We got what we asked for, so from our position this is great,” said the attorney Jared Margolis with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Constructing pipelines through rivers, streams and wetlands without analyzing the impacts on imperiled species is unconscionable.”
The Army Corps program, known as Nationwide Permit 12, was blocked by Morris last month. In a lawsuit over the Keystone XL pipeline, the judge sided with environmentalists who argued companies were using the program to skirt water-protection laws and ignore the cumulative harm caused by thousands of stream and wetlands crossings.
Attorneys for utility industries and the government said Morris’ original ruling had hampered thousands of construction projects throughout the U.S. They urged him to reconsider.
In response, Morris agreed to limit the scope of his ruling but stopped short of issuing a full reversal. He said the Army Corps had “committed serious error” in failing to adequately consult wildlife agencies before reauthorizing the permitting program in 2017.
“To allow the Corps to continue to authorize new oil and gas pipeline construction could seriously injure protected species and critical habitat,” Morris wrote.
A spokeswoman for the gas industry said the ruling would be appealed quickly.
“Arbitrarily singling out certain new projects only prolongs the highly disruptive nature of this order,” said Amy Conway of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.
She said the permit program allowed projects to be reviewed efficiently “with minimal environmental impacts.”
The Army Corps has broad jurisdiction over U.S. waterways. It uses the blanket permit to approve qualifying pipelines and other utility projects following minimal environmental reviews.
Since Nationwide Permit 12 was renewed three years ago, it has been used roughly 38,000 times, according to federal officials. Doug Garmin, an Army Corps spokesman, referred questions about the permit to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.
Industry supporters describe the program as essential for making timely decisions on projects that can stretch across multiple states and cross hundreds of bodies of water. Analyzing each of those crossings would be costly and is unnecessary because most of these sorts of projects involve little disturbance of land or water, they said.