Environmentalist shakedown?

Author: Damien M. Schiff

El Paso Corporation is one of America's largest natural gas companies.  The company has been trying for some time to gain governmental approval of a natural gas pipeline that would run from Wyoming to Oregon.  Approval of the project, known as the Ruby Pipeline, was recently challenged by lawsuits from two environmental organizations, Western Watersheds Project and Oregon Natural Desert Association.  Those groups had challenged the federal government's approval of right-of-ways on federally owned lands to allow for the passage of the pipeline.  But, in an agreement recently announced, the environmental groups have given their approval of the project in exchange for El Paso's payment of some $20 million into a fund that will be used to "retire" cattle grazing permits on federal land through which the pipe line would run.

Western Watersheds et al. take the view that keeping cattle off of federal lands is a goal worth trading a lawsuit for.  ONDA's executive director stated, "Protecting the area around Hart Mountain and Sheldon Refuges is critical to ensuring the survival of high desert species like sage grouse and pronghorn antelope," and that money from the settlement "will be used to protect sage grouse habitat and the mule deer population in Wyoming."

In contrast, David Sparks of AgInfo.net, critized the agreement:

Ah…saving the earth and wilderness. The great earth watcher from Sun Valley, Jon Marvel [of Western Watersheds Project], who has filed a billion lawsuits to prevent beef producers from grazing on public land has reached an intriguing agreement with the El Paso Corporation. . . .

Marvel and WWP are on a legal crusade to stop the devastion of our public lands by cattlemen (who incidentally have been stewards of the land for over a century) but it’s OK to deal with oil and gas companies and let them have at the land. Gulf oil spill and the like…no big deal with $20 million in your hypocritical pocket.

Arguably, the agreement is just an attempt by El Paso to buy off the project's critics; to that extent, one could ascribe the decision to the cost of doing business.  Putting aside questions of fairness and equity (such as whether El Paso has forsaken the cattlemen), one wonders whether the deal will really provide what El Paso is looking for.  After all, what's to stop other environmental groups from suing?

In fact, the Center for Biological Diversity has done just that, filing suit challenging the Ruby Pipeline on for its impacts on endangered species.  CBD biologist Noah Greenwald observed at the complaint's filing,

Although the El Paso Corporation has taken steps to reduce some of the tremendous impacts of the Ruby Pipeline on the environment, serious concerns remain.  More needs to be done to ensure the pipeline doesn’t drive endangered fish to extinction.

Looks like even $20 million won't buy security.