Third environmental group received funds to drop litigation against Ruby Pipeline

Oct 22, 2010

In August, activity along the Ruby natural gas pipeline route rumbled to life within hours of the project’s final approval. Across Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming, a daily cavalcade of pick-ups now lines the right-of-way along the pipeline. Work crews swarm like ants, blasting, digging, and furiously laying pipe.

No gas is on tap yet. But the money is flowing.

Jobs are available. Local businesses have profited. And several environmental organizations have cashed in handsomely thanks to the project’s very generous checkbook.

In July, Ruby Pipeline LLC’s Texas-based parent company, El Paso Corporation, revealed it gave $22 million to the Western Watersheds Project (WWP) and the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) in exchange for their dropping litigation against the $3 billion pipeline. The two conservation funds Ruby set up in cooperation with WWP and ONDA amounted to $15 million and $7 million respectively. To the outrage of ranchers, these mitigation funds are largely available for the buyout of grazing permits.

Wrangling between livestock grazing organization the Public Lands Council and Ruby continues in an effort to nail down the particulars of an endowment fund intended to offset damage to public lands ranchers caused by Ruby’s generously bankrolling groups with a clear anti-grazing agenda. And although negotiations are proceeding favorably, an unexpected twist in this tale has emerged. WWP and ONDA aren’t the only groups to benefit from Ruby’s largess.

Oregon environmental group Oregon Wild has confirmed that in exchange for dropping litigation against the Ruby Pipeline Project, they received just under a million dollars from El Paso Corp. in early May 2010.

According to information on Oregon Wild’s website, the Fremont-Winema Mitigation Fund is the result of yet another cash-for-no-litigation swap. The site explains that: "Oregon Wild and Ruby Pipeline, LLC have reached a mutually agreeable settlement by which Oregon Wild agrees to withdraw its objections to Ruby’s natural gas pipeline, and Ruby agrees to fund some additional forest and watershed mitigation projects under the direction of Oregon Wild in Oregon’s Klamath Basin."

According to Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild, the fund amounts to approximately $900,000.

Regarding the choice to cut a deal with Ruby, Pedery explains, "We would prefer that the pipeline not be built, but given the realities of how difficult it is to fight something like this [pipeline, which is] a large multi-state effort that’s already moving forward, we felt like it made more sense to sit down with the project developers to see if we could work out a mitigation plan that made sense. And to the pipeline-developers’ credit, they were amenable to that."

An on-line "Request for Proposals" solicits the public to submit environmental project proposals to utilize Fremont-Winema Mitigation Fund resources in the Upper Klamath Lake basin. Various types of proposals are suggested: "Potentially suitable projects may include but are not limited to: land acquisition, water right acquisition, grazing permit retirement, conservation easements, high priority conservation research, and/or physical restoration of process, structure and function of existing forests and watersheds."

Pedery clarified that both financially and in terms of objectives, the Fremont-Winema Fund is entirely separate and independent from the ONDA and WWP funds.

Says Pedery, "Their concern was over impacts to rangelands, grasslands, high desert areas, and for us, the issue is really just the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Our interest and the fund’s purpose is strictly in Oregon."

The forest comprises 2.3 million acres in Klamath and Lake counties, stretching from the eastern slopes of the Cascades to the western-most reaches of the Great Basin.

Pedery also indicated that the management structure of the Oregon Wild fund is different from either the WWP or ONDA funds.

Unlike the two larger funds, Oregon Wild will manage the Fremont-Winema Mitigation Fund internally, and may spend the resources at its discretion. The ONDA and WWP funds are each managed by a three-person board, consisting of a representative from the respective environmental group, a Ruby representative, and a third unspecified party.

Currently, Oregon Wild is in the process of evaluating the proposals that have flowed in as a response to its proposal solicitation. The submission deadline was Aug. 30. Although grazing permit buyouts were included in the list of possible projects, Pedery emphasized that Oregon Wild is primarily interested in pursuing on-the-ground conservation projects.

Pedery explained, "Grazing was an example. In this part of Oregon, [grazing is] certainly a consideration, but things like wetlands destruction and just razing down stream banks without having fencing to keep the cows out of a stream would probably be a bigger concern, and would probably get bigger consideration."

On-the-ground projects like forest thinning, wetlands restoration, and riparian restoration are more likely to be selected as the winning proposal, according to Pedery, who is not on the project selection team.

"What we’re really hoping to do is both mitigate some of the harm the pipeline’s causing and to work with the forest service and local land owners who have ideas of things they’d like to see done in their watersheds."

Proposals that have been submitted by ranchers "certainly would be welcome."

News of which project or projects are ultimately selected is still over a month away.

"We’re in the process now of just starting to review the proposals that have come in," said Pedery. "We probably won’t be having the first evaluation meetings for another several weeks. I’m hopeful we’ll have some announcements to make late fall, early winter." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent