Members of a new coalition formed by county commissions in Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon on Thursday have asked El Paso Corp. to release details of a $20 million contract between the company and some environmental groups that ostensibly will quell opposition to construction of the Ruby Pipeline.

El Paso, which has faced environmental protests over its planned natural gas pipeline from the Rockies to West Coast markets, agreed last month to pay $15 million over 10 years to form a sagebrush conservation fund through a nonprofit third-party fund that would be managed by the company, the Western Watershed Project (WWP) and a third party (see Daily GPI, Aug. 3). An additional $5 million is to be paid to the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

However, county commissioners across the West expressed concerns that provisions in the agreement could allow the funds to be used to purchase and retire grazing permits, which would decrease grazing on public lands.

Commissioners from 15 counties in the five states remain in support of Ruby Pipeline's construction, but they said in the best of worlds, they would like El Paso to back out of the WWP agreement. Short of that, they issued a statement requesting a full copy of the agreement. Nevada's Legislative Committee on Public Lands also agreed to send letters to its congressional delegation, the Secretary of the Interior and the governor opposing the agreement between El Paso and WWP.

El Paso early this month received final approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the 680-mile pipeline; the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a right-of-way permit in July (see Daily GPI, July 14). Service is scheduled to begin next spring.

Dave Eliason, who is president of the Utah Cattlemen's Association, said El Paso didn't make a deal with a conservation group. "They made a deal with the devil," he told reporters in Salt Lake City of the WWP.

Lincoln County, WY, may sue BLM to prevent El Paso from building the pipeline, said Kent Connelly, a county commissioner. He told reporters Thursday that the WWP wants "to change the West back into sagebrush...getting a secret agreement with El Paso is not upfront and has a serious socio-economic impact on our county."

The WWP has said the $15 million will be received over 10 years to buy and retire federal grazing permits that are voluntarily offered in the states affected. WWP's goal is to protect watersheds and wildlife. In April WWP had filed a request asking FERC for a rehearing on the Ruby project.

In its statement Thursday the coalition gave Lincoln County, WY, special rights to the El Paso/WWP documents as a cooperating agency, reserved the rights of individual counties to legally challenge the agreement after it's reviewed, or to join the county in pending litigation. The statement also allows coalition members to reconsider conditional-use permits based on the contents of the agreement.

El Paso in recent days also has offered to donate another $15 million to the Public Lands Council, which works to protect ranchers' rights to graze on public lands. Like the WWP agreement, the funds could not be used for litigation.

According to El Paso, the Ruby Pipeline will pump millions of dollars into the western states' economies, including $70 million in sales and use taxes and $280 million in property taxes in the first 10 years. At peak construction it estimated that Ruby would provide $3.6 million in daily wages to 5,000 workers.

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