Washington — The US Army Corps of Engineers will not remove oil pipelines from the next five-year authorization of its streamlined permitting program, despite opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline and historic preservation groups calling for more scrutiny in order to prevent spills.
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The agency released a final rule Thursday authorizing the program through March 2022.
More than 53,000 of the 54,000 comments the Corps received about the wide-ranging program dealt with Nationwide Permit 12, or NWP 12, a provision that allows oil pipelines to avoid much of the federal scrutiny that interstate natural gas pipelines undergo.
NWP 12 includes oil pipelines in its definition of utility lines that are eligible for streamlined federal permitting authorizing construction, maintenance and repair work in federally regulated waters. Some projects can begin work without prior approval from the Corps.
Other projects with certain characteristics -- including those that cross a navigable river or run more than 500 feet in a single water body and those that may affect sensitive cultural resources or endangered species -- must get pre-construction authorization from the Corps' regional office that oversees that area of the pipeline and comply with a number of general conditions.
The Corps decided not to make any major changes to the provision.
Dakota Access Pipeline opponents like the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota amplified calls to modify or eliminate NWP 12, which would have made it more difficult for companies to site oil pipelines.
Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault said NWP 12 was intended for projects with minimal effect on the environment.
"However, as events across the country have shown, spills from oil pipelines occur with great frequency, often with devastating environmental effects, particularly when they occur in the aquatic environment," Archambault said in comments on the rulemaking.
"The Corps should address this fundamental disconnect by expressly recognizing that oil pipelines in waters of the United States require individual permits and are not properly deemed to be utility lines within the meaning of NWP 12," he added.
Interstate gas pipelines must get permission from the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for construction and operation. During the review, FERC looks at environmental impacts, safety standards, market conditions and other factors. The process averages about 12 months for projects that begin a pre-filing process at least seven months before filing for a certificate application, according to a January study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
The Corps responded to some of the comments in the final rule, saying it does not regulate oil and gas pipelines per se. Rather its legal authority is limited to regulating discharges of dredged or fill material into federal waters and work done in navigable waters.
The Corps used the example of Enbridge's 600,000 b/d Flanagan South crude pipeline from Flanagan, Illinois, to Cushing, Oklahoma. It said the segments subject to the Corps' jurisdiction under NWP 12 amounted to just 2.3% of the total pipeline route.
The Corps said other agencies like the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard address pipeline operations and spills.
"We do not have the authority to regulate the operation of oil and gas pipelines, and we do not have the authority to address spills or leaks from oil and gas pipelines," the Corps said.
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