LINCOLN — A federal agency's recent decision involving the endangered American burying beetle could cause up to a year's delay in construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, if the project wins federal approval, an environmental group said Tuesday.
But a spokesman for pipeline developer TransCanada Inc., said that assessment was premature and that the company would be able to work around new rules concerning the beetle.
On Tuesday, an official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed the agency is not allowing researchers hired by pipeline TransCanada to trap and relocate the endangered beetles from the new path of the controversial crude-oil pipeline until the project receives federal approval.
That's a change of procedure. Researchers hired by TransCanada were allowed to move hundreds of beetles from the initially proposed path through Nebraska's Sand Hills in the name of research.
Mike George, state supervisor of the federal agency, said a lawsuit filed by anti-pipeline environmental groups last year prompted Fish and Wildlife attorneys to re-evaluate its practices.
Now, he said, research projects on endangered species that require disturbing the species will not be allowed before major construction projects, like the Keystone XL, gain a federal permit.
An official with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that sued the Fish and Wildlife Service last year, said the decision might delay construction of the pipeline by up to a year. That's because trapping and relocating American burying beetles can only be done in the spring and summer.
Noah Greenwald of the Tucson, Ariz., group said that the change is a “surprise victory” for the beetle because the lawsuit had to be dropped after the Obama administration rejected the initial permit application for the Keystone XL due to concerns about crossing the groundwater-rich Sand Hills.
Greenwald said that if TransCanada has to wait to relocate beetles in the new pipeline path, it could delay construction for an entire year.
But TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said the environmental group was “getting way too far ahead of themselves.”
It's unclear how many beetles might be in the pipeline's new route around the Sand Hills, Howard said. He added that construction of the Keystone XL is expected to take two years, and work could be adjusted to allow for removal of any beetles without affecting that timetable.
“There's a lot of ways to deal with this,” Howard said.
One of the nation's experts on American burying beetles, Wyatt Hoback of the University of Nebraska-Kearney, was hired by TransCanada to trap, document and relocate beetles in the path of the original pipeline. A wide strip of grass was mowed to discourage the beetles from returning.
The research found higher densities of the burying beetle — which buries dead rodents it finds to protect the food from other animals — than originally expected.
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