Judge Declines to Block Construction of Disputed Texas Pipeline

The Obama-appointed judge wrote that the Sierra Club came close to winning a preliminary injunction against the project but fell just short.

A natural gas pipeline. (Photo via David Mark/Pixabay)

(CN) — A federal judge on Friday refused to halt construction of a disputed natural gas pipeline through Central Texas, despite claims from opponents that the project’s environmental impacts were never properly examined and that its federal permits should be thrown out.

The 430-mile Permian Highway Pipeline has drawn multiple lawsuits since it was first announced by Houston-based Kinder Morgan in 2018.

The project is aimed at moving natural gas from the fossil fuel-rich Permian Basin of West Texas to markets on the Gulf Coast, but the environmental group Sierra Club argued in court that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should not have given the company permission to cross certain rivers and waterways without more thorough environmental reviews.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin rejected the Sierra Club’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have blocked the pipeline’s construction, concluding that the group had failed to show that its members would face “irreparable harm” if the project moved forward.

Arguing on behalf of landowners whose property lies within or near the pipeline’s path, the Sierra Club claimed in part that previously documented incidents of drilling fluid spilling and seeping up from the ground along the route proved that the project continued to pose environmental threats. The first incident, which occurred in March while crews were drilling underneath the Blanco River, prompted Kinder Morgan to reroute the pipeline around the river.

While the judge concluded the concern about future spills was not enough to warrant an injunction, he suggested his decision was a close call.

“Although Sierra Club’s concerns are genuine and the court finds they are credible, the court finds that the degree of speculation combined with the ambiguity of Sierra Club’s alleged harm approaches a showing of irreparable harm but falls just shy of it,” wrote Pitman, a Barack Obama appointee.

The judge also wrote that the group’s claims “come close” and that opponents had “marshaled a great deal of evidence that demonstrates harm to the environment.”

In an interview, Sierra Club attorney Josh Smith acknowledged that the ruling means the pipeline is likely to be finished before the environmental group can bring any further attempts to block it. According to Kinder Morgan, the pipeline is now more than 90% complete and is set to be in service early next year.

Smith said the group is evaluating whether it will continue the court fight.

“I think most importantly, the court didn’t say anything about the merits of our claims, so that means we still have an opportunity to go forward,” Smith said. “As a practical matter, that presents some difficulties if the pipeline has already been constructed.”

The Army Corps did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

Friday’s ruling comes as the city of Austin and other landowners are also fighting the pipeline company in federal court, a case that the same judge is overseeing. The Sierra Club and the opponents in the other case have argued more broadly that the Texas pipeline should have been blocked after a judge in Montana overturned a key nationwide permit for such pipelines in a separate fight over the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

That issue has since become tied up in higher courts, with the Army Corps continuing to argue in the Ninth Circuit that the Keystone ruling should be reversed.

“We remain committed to the continued safe construction of the Permian Highway Pipeline, and we look forward to the completion of this vital energy infrastructure project,” Kinder Morgan spokesperson Katherine Hill said in a statement.

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