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ELKO, Nev. — A multicounty coalition is demanding that El Paso Corp. back out of an agreement the natural-gas giant struck with two environmental organizations regarding a pipeline proposed to run across four western states.

The company last month promised $20 million in conservation funds for Western Watersheds Project, based in Hailey, and the Oregon Natural Desert Association, in return for their pledge not to block the 680-mile Ruby Pipeline, which would run from Wyoming to Oregon.

But the agreement with Western Watersheds — long known for its attempts to unseat ranchers from grazing on public lands — has stirred emotions along the pipeline’s predominantly rural route.

Elko County, Nev., Commissioner Demar Dahl is now the chairman of a coalition of a dozen counties that met in Salt Lake City on Thursday to air their objections to the deal.

One county’s already gone one step further. Dahl and fellow Elko County Commissioner Sheri Eklund-Brown said after Thursday’s meeting that Lincoln County, Wyo., officials announced they are appealing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s rights-of-way decision for the pipeline.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Lincoln County Commissioner Kent Connelly said the county will sue the BLM in federal court to block the pipeline, and he invited other counties to join the action.

In effect, a deal struck to preserve the momentum on a project that’s now under construction instead threatens to delay or derail the work.

The funds, including $15 million for Western Watersheds over 10 years, will be administered by three-member boards with diverse representatives. The groups won’t receive any funds directly.

Western Watersheds Executive Director Jon Marvel said last month that he expects the money to eventually be used to buy grazing permits from willing ranchers and retire them. But during an Aug. 4 Elko County Commission meeting that lasted 2 1/2 hours, Jim Cleary, president of El Paso Western Pipeline Group, said the fund won’t be “a treasure trove that’s available to Western Watersheds Project,” and will not be used to outbid grazing permit licensees who are renewing their permits, among other assurances.

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Cleary said his company didn’t expect the “firestorm” of criticism lit by the binding contract, and various Elko County officials laid into El Paso for its actions. Cleary did say his company is “not about breaching (its) contracts.”

“You guys went into bed with the worst there is,” Commissioner John Ellison said.

At Thursday’s meeting, Eklund-Brown said, the various counties agreed that the agreement is precedent-setting and could have longer-lasting impacts than the economic benefits of the pipeline.

“It’s opening a Pandora’s box for other environmental groups, including WWP, to continually file suit and be rewarded with the expectation of a financial buyout,” she said.

The counties also asked El Paso to provide a full copy of the agreement — the company maintains it is private — and reserved the right to reconsider permits granted for the pipeline, based on a review of the agreement.

Dahl said the counties decided “to drive along with our concerns” despite news of another $15 million pending agreement between El Paso and the Public Lands Council, a group representing livestock ranchers across the West.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Aug. 2 gave its approval for construction to start on the pipeline. The project is already being challenged by the Sierra Club, which announced on Aug. 6 an appeal of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s approved rights-of-way.

This report combines several recent Daily Free Press articles.

 

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