Threats to Nevada Wildlands, Cultural Sites, and Jobs Prompt Legal Challenge of Ruby Gas Pipeline

The proposed Ruby Pipeline could avoid major damage to wildlife habitat, open space and cultural sites if it were rerouted, claimed Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter and Great Basin Resource Watch in a legal challenge filed late Friday.

The groups filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), challenging the approval of the four-state-long pipeline without conducting a thorough environmental review of its potential harm to water, public and tribal lands, and wildlife.

“We are not opposed to a gas pipeline, but the route that Ruby Pipeline has chosen is wrong for Nevada,” said David von Seggern of the Sierra Club. “Damage could be greatly reduced and more jobs created closer to where they’re needed if they’d only move the pipeline to existing roads and developed corridors, maybe only 65 miles longer.”

For more than a year, tribes and conservation groups have opposed the proposed pipeline’s route, which spans from Wyoming to Oregon and would cut across nearly 360 miles of largely pristine and undeveloped lands in northern Nevada. If constructed, the pipeline would threaten some 800 cultural sites, numerous breeding areas for the imperiled sage grouse, cross nearly 1,100 water bodies, and clear a 115-foot-wide path with access roads through mostly undisturbed sagebrush steppe habitat in Nevada.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) hastily prepared the pipeline’s environmental study, called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), relying on incomplete and missing information in its review of the pipeline’s threats to wildlife, lands and waters. The sprawling pipeline also crosses over public lands managed by the BLM and affects threatened and endangered species and habitats managed by FWS, who both approved the pipeline despite incomplete environmental analysis.

Long after FERC released the pipeline’s final EIS, project developer Ruby Pipeline was still submitting important environmental and cultural documents to FERC that should have been included before even a draft study was issued.

“There is no excuse for the way this project has moved forward, running roughshod over our premiere environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a complete and ‘hard-look’ at the impacts of a project and the possible alternative routes,” said John Hadder, Director of Great Basin Resource Watch. “We see no alternative other than to take our complaints to court to prevent further impacts and discourage this kind of process in the future.”

The EIS was officially labeled “complete” in Jan. 2010 before FERC had finished its required consultation with tribes regarding potential damage to cultural sites or had conducted significant environmental analysis of the project. At that time, the EIS was also missing the expert biological opinion on threats to wildlife from the Fish and Wildlife Service as well as a compatibility determination for the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge and permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the pipeline’s water crossings.

Separately, the Fort Bidwell Indian Community in California recently filed a legal challenge to the pipeline project due to inadequate protections of cultural resources.

“We’ve got no problem with getting natural gas to the west coast market,” said Adam Kron, staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “But we do have a problem with the proposed route’s impacts to water, wildlife and important lands.  While it’s disappointing that the responsible federal agencies failed to protect these resources, they could make it right by fully considering alternative routes under required environmental laws and choosing the one that causes the least harm.”

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