Federal Judge's Ruling Leads To Suspension Of Blanket Permit For U.S. Pipeline Projects

Apr 24, 2020

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has suspended a nationwide program used to approve oil and gas pipelines, power lines and other utility work, spurred by a court ruling that industry representatives warn could slow or halt numerous infrastructure projects over environmental concerns

The directive from Army Corps headquarters, detailed in emails obtained by The Associated Press, comes after a federal court last week threw out a blanket permit that companies and public utilities have used for decades to build projects across streams and wetlands.

The Trump administration is expected to challenge the ruling in coming days. For now, officials have put on hold about 360 pending notifications to entities approving their use of the permit, Army Corps spokesman Doug Garman said Thursday.

The agency did not provide further details on types of projects or their locations.

Pipeline and electric utility industry representatives said the effects could be widespread if the suspension lasts, affecting both construction and maintenance on potentially thousands of projects. That includes major pipelines like TC Energy’s Keystone XL crude oil line from Canada to the U.S. Midwest, the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline in Virginia and power lines from wind turbines and generating stations in many parts of the U.S.

“The economic consequences to individual projects are hard to overstate,” said Ben Cowan, a Houston-based attorney with Locke Lord LLP who represents pipeline and wind energy companies. “It could be fatal to a number of projects under construction if they are forced to stop work for an extended period in order to obtain individual permits.”

The Army Corps has broad jurisdiction over U.S. waterways. It uses the blanket permit to approve qualifying pipelines and other utility projects after only minimal environmental review. That’s a longstanding sore point for environmentalists who say it amounts to a loophole in water protection laws and ignores the cumulative harm caused by thousands of stream and wetlands crossings

Industry supporters describe the program as crucial for timely decisions on projects that can stretch across multiple states and cross hundreds of water bodies. Analyzing each of those crossings would be costly and is unnecessary because most involve little disturbance of land or water, they said.

Since the blanket permit in question, known as Nationwide Permit 12, was last renewed in March 2017, it has been used more than 37,000 times, Army Corps spokesman Garman said. To qualify, projects must not cause the loss of more than a half-acre of water or wetlands.The Trump administration is expected to challenge the ruling in coming days. For now, officials have put on hold about 360 pending notifications to entities approving their use of the permit, Army Corps spokesman Doug Garman said Thursday.

The agency did not provide further details on types of projects or their locations.

Pipeline and electric utility industry representatives said the effects could be widespread if the suspension lasts, affecting both construction and maintenance on potentially thousands of projects. That includes major pipelines like TC Energy’s Keystone XL crude oil line from Canada to the U.S. Midwest, the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline in Virginia and power lines from wind turbines and generating stations in many parts of the U.S.

“The economic consequences to individual projects are hard to overstate,” said Ben Cowan, a Houston-based attorney with Locke Lord LLP who represents pipeline and wind energy companies. “It could be fatal to a number of projects under construction if they are forced to stop work for an extended period in order to obtain individual permits.”

The Army Corps has broad jurisdiction over U.S. waterways. It uses the blanket permit to approve qualifying pipelines and other utility projects after only minimal environmental review. That’s a longstanding sore point for environmentalists who say it amounts to a loophole in water protection laws and ignores the cumulative harm caused by thousands of stream and wetlands crossings

Industry supporters describe the program as crucial for timely decisions on projects that can stretch across multiple states and cross hundreds of water bodies. Analyzing each of those crossings would be costly and is unnecessary because most involve little disturbance of land or water, they said.

Since the blanket permit in question, known as Nationwide Permit 12, was last renewed in March 2017, it has been used more than 37,000 times, Army Corps spokesman Garman said. To qualify, projects must not cause the loss of more than a half-acre of water or wetlands.