In a collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), NiSource Inc. is working on a blanket federal permit that would allow it to operate and maintain its nationwide natural gas pipeline system and bypass case-by-case reviews that fall under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Under its proposed Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), NiSource wants to obtain a federal incidental take permit (ITP), which would avoid triggering individual ESA reviews every time an endangered species or its habitat are encroached upon along the company's 15,500-mile gas pipe corridor. An approved ITP would give NiSource room to maintain its pipes along a mile-wide corridor of pipe system as long as it followed an approved HCP to mitigate the damage.

"It would be a lot more economical to have a blanket certificate," said NiSource spokesman Kelly Merritt.

HCPs are legally binding agreements between the Department of the Interior and either a private entity or a state that specify conservation measures to be implemented in exchange for allowing the incidental "take" of a threatened or endangered species. In the 1982 amendments to the ESA, Congress established a mechanism authorizing the FWS to issue to ITPs to nonfederal entities.

Complying with the ESA now, said NiSource, "imposes a significant budgetary and administrative impact on pipeline companies as well as the FWS and the state agencies responsible for endangered species conservation.'' The proposed multi-species, multi-state conservation effort would cover nearly 10 million acres in 17 states, including territory that includes more than 75 species of plants and animals, according to the FWS.

Approved ITP coverage would apply to all necessary pipeline work within a mile-wide corridor (generally one-half mile on either side of the centerline of the pipe or from the center point of any ancillary facility).

"Under federal law, there are now mandatory time frames for response when pipeline integrity issues are discovered," NiSource noted. "Through the HCP and permitting process, NiSource hopes to enhance its operational responsiveness and achieve economies of scale for future new construction, operation and maintenance of existing pipeline infrastructure. In turn, NiSource will provide resources to assist in the conservation of these species."

The company decided to develop an HCP because each year it undertakes "numerous projects across its system to repair, upgrade, replace and expand its natural gas infrastructure. These projects are often located in or near habitat that could trigger the provisions of the ESA." Over the years, NiSource said experience has shown that because of the linear nature of an interstate gas pipeline, "work in and around pipeline facilities has a temporary, and, for the most part, negligible impact on endangered species or their habitat."

An approved ITP would grant NiSource ESA clearances to perform day-to-day work on its pipelines. It would also apply to ESA clearances for new project work in an existing right-of-way or adjacent to the existing right-of-way, and give NiSource cover from "take" liability without additional filings with federal officials.

The FWS will base its decision on whether to issue the ITP once it reviews the HCP and the resulting impact quantification in National Environmental Protection Act documents. As part of this lengthy process, NiSource plans to develop and implement best management practices and a mitigation package to avoid, minimize and mitigate potential impacts to listed species.

AMEC plc last month was selected by the FWS to prepare a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the NiSource plan. Scoping meetings began earlier this month and will continue through Friday (Nov. 16). The DEIS could be issued by late next year, followed by a public comment period. NiSource hopes to have a final EIS available by early 2009, which could mean a decision to approve or disapprove the ITP could be made in about two years.

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