Texas Planning Commission Joins Fight Against Tar Sands Pipeline

     OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) - A Texas planning commission joined the legal fight against a 485-mile leg of the 1,400-mile Keystone Pipeline, claiming the Army Corps of Engineers is cheating by "piecemealing" approvals of the giant project to bring tar sands crude oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
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     The Sierra Club, Clean Energy Future Oklahoma and the East Texas Subregional Planning Commission sued the Army Corps of Engineers in Federal Court, claiming it greenlighted the southern leg of the Keystone Pipeline without assessing its environmental impact on more than 1,000 U.S. water crossings and hundreds of acres of forested wetlands.
     The plaintiffs claim the Corps of Engineers issued a nationwide permit (NWP 12) for the project without assessing "minimal environmental effects," as required by federal law.
     They claim the Corps relies on district engineers to determine environmental effects on a case-by-case basis and denies the public the opportunity to comment on the decisions.
     "The result of NWP 12 is to allow the Corps to 'piecemeal' large interstate pipeline projects like the Keystone Pipeline Gulf Coast Project (the 'project') into several hundred ½-acre 'projects' so as to avoid the individual permit process under section 404 of the CWA [Clean Water Act], which would require public notice and comment and an analysis of the overall project's impacts and alternatives pursuant to NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] and the CWA," the complaint states. "Under NWP 12, a major utility line would almost never require a comprehensive environmental review of the project's impacts."
     The southern leg of the Keystone Pipeline is a proposed 485-mile tar sands crude oil pipeline that would run from Cushing, Okla. to the Texas Gulf Coast. It is one of three sections of the 1,384-mile pipeline designed to transport heavy crude oil from Canadian tar sands to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.
     The U.S. Department of State in November 2011 delayed a final decision on the Keystone Pipeline pending further review of the project's environmental impacts.
     After President Obama denied the permit for the pipeline in December, TransCanada, the project proponent, broke the project into two parts, to avoid environmental review of its southern leg, according to the complaint.
     The environmentalists claim the nationwide permit authorizes activities that will have more than "minimal adverse environmental effects."
     They claim the project will hurt their members, who own property close to the affected water bodies and depend on them for clean water.
     They say the permit may be used repeatedly for the same utility line, to the detriment of the environment.
     "There is no limit to the number of times a utility line can use NWP 12, nor is there a limit to the total number of acres of wetlands that a utility line can destroy," according to the complaint.
     The plaintiffs claim the Corps of Engineers "failed to take the required hard look at the environmental impacts of NWP 12," and partially authorized the project without public notice or proper environmental review.
     TransCanada applied for authorization in three Corps of Engineers districts, two of which approved the project, according to the complaint.
     The plaintiffs claim TransCanada ducked the individual permit process of the Clean Water Act, which involves environmental scrutiny and public participation.
     An alternative to individual permits, nationwide permits can be granted for utility lines and other activities involving discharges of dredged or fill material in water bodies, but only if the activities are determined to have a minimal adverse effect on the environment.
     But the environmentalists claim "the project's construction and operation would have significant adverse effects to the environment along the pipeline route," including the destruction of wetlands and other water bodies.
     They claim the pipeline is at high risk for leaks and spills, which, due to the viscosity of tar sands oil, are harder to clean up.
     The plaintiffs say the permit violates the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
     They want the permit revoked and the Corps of Engineers enjoined from approving any section of the pipeline.
     They are represented by Steven Stidham with Sneed Lang Herrold of Tulsa.