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NiSource's Draft Habitat Conservation Plan Under Review

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on Wednesday opened for public comment an evaluation of NiSource Inc.'s draft Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), a major step in helping the company obtain a multi-species incidental "take" permit for 10 federally listed species that are found across its 14-state, 17,500-mile natural gas transmission network.

Four years ago NiSource, in collaboration with the FWS, began work on the blanket permit, which would allow the gas distribution company to operate and maintain its pipeline system and bypass case-by-case reviews that fall under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (see Daily GPI, Nov. 9, 2007). The ESA requires an approved HCP before an incidental take permit is granted.

An HCP is an agreement between a landowner and the FWS that allows the landowner to undertake otherwise lawful activities on its property that may result in the incidental death, injury or harassment of a listed species. The landowner agrees to conservation measures designed to minimize and mitigate the impact of those actions. NiSource's interstate system requires routine operation and maintenance activities that include repairing, upgrading, replacing and expanding pipelines and associated infrastructure. An approved permit would cover a suite of activities that the company uses to maintain and expand its pipelines along rights-of-way.

Lands covered by the HCP would encompass a one-mile-wide corridor surrounding NiSource's gas transmission pipelines and storage facilities in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Most (95%) of NiSource's estimated 400 projects a year usually occur within its existing right-of-way (typically 50 feet wide) and "result in little ground disturbance," the FWS said. However, because a portion of the annual activities "likely would deviate from the existing right-of-way," NiSource proposed the one-mile-wide corridor as the best approach for defining the "covered lands," which encompasses all of its transmission pipeline facilities and most of its existing storage fields.

The draft permit and HCP "cover about nine million acres of land in 14 states and capture roughly 95% of future NiSource natural gas transmission operation, maintenance and new construction projects," the FWS said. The FWS evaluated issuing a permit to NiSource for either 10 or 50 years, as well as ways to work with the company on a case-by-case basis.

According to the FWS, NiSource's plan addresses conservation needs for the 10 listed species, along with measures to avoid taking an additional 33 federally endangered, threatened or candidate species. Measures are included to avoid or reduce impacts on those species resulting from business activities, as well as mitigation practices such as protecting existing habitat, creating new habitat for protected species and identifying research to better understand endangered species.

In the FWS' draft environmental impact statement (DEIS), federal officials evaluated the possible environmental impacts of implementing NiSource's plan and the potential effects of granting the incidental take permit. Comments on the DEIS will be taken until Oct. 11.

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