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Court Lifts Injunction on Colorado Pipeline Construction

A federal appeals court has lifted a temporary injunction it issued to halt construction of a natural gas pipeline in western Colorado. In the June 18 order the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals said only that it was dissolving the injunction and "an opinion on the merits will follow in due course."

Earlier this month the court issued the injunction to halt until last week's hearing construction of the 25.5-mile Bull Mountain Pipeline by SG Interests. The pipeline and a decision by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to allow its construction are being challenged by a coalition of conservation groups (see NGI, June 16).

"We don't know the rationale and we don't know how far-reaching the ruling itself is at this point," Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of coalition member the Wilderness Workshop, told NGI. "But they're indicating that they're going to give the lower court some direction."

The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado in Denver is still expected to rule on the coalition's lawsuit. No scheduling order has been issued; a status conference is scheduled to be held on Aug. 11.

When the coalition filed the lawsuit it said the BLM decision had violated the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule (RACR) and could open millions of forested acres to development (see NGI, March 10). In the lawsuit the conservation groups challenged the federal regulators' authorization in January of the pipeline, contending that construction of the pipeline would include a 100-foot-wide "construction corridor" for use by heavy trucks and equipment in violation of the RACR. In the Bull Mountain decision the Forest Service and BLM said the "construction corridor" was not a road and therefore could be built without violating the RACR.

To protect Forest Service roadless areas and restrict great swaths of land from development the Clinton administration enacted the RACR, which created de facto wilderness by prohibiting road building, logging and other development activities -- such as oil and natural gas drilling -- on about one-third of Forest Service lands. The rule was enacted in 66 Code of Federal Regulations 3244 in early 2001.

In 2005 the Bush administration finalized the RACR, adding language that allowed individual states to petition the Forest Service regarding the nature of development to occur on inventoried roadless areas, a necessary prerequisite for energy development and other commercial activities. That move faced a barrage of legal challenges. In response to one lawsuit filed by four states and about 20 groups, a federal judge in San Francisco in 2006 voided the Bush administration's petition process and restored the Clinton-era RACR (see NGI, Sept. 25, 2006).

If the BLM decision is upheld, new roads could be allowed in close to 60 million acres of currently protected forest land, the conservation groups said. The underlying goal of the lawsuit is to reinforce RACR as the law of the land.

The plaintiffs in the case are the Wilderness Workshop, Western Colorado Congress, Western Slope Environmental Resource Council, High Country Citizens Alliance, and Center for Biological Diversity. Pitkin County, CO, is also a plaintiff.

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