Friday, August 6, 2010

El Paso, Public Lands Council work on deal

El Paso Corp. and the Public Lands Council are hammering out an agreement that could help resolve the energy company's conflict with the ranching industry and counties along the Ruby Pipeline route.

"It's a very positive first step," Public Lands Council President Skye Krebs of Ione, Ore., said Thursday. "It's a real substantial step forward."

He said the details were still being worked out, after a meeting Thursday in Salt Lake City.

National Cattlemen's Beef Association Federal Lands Committee representatives and other industry representatives also attended the meeting, Krebs said.

The conflict is over El Paso Corp.'s $20 million agreement with Western Watersheds Project and the Oregon Natural Desert Association that establishes two conservation funds. The organizations stated one of their goals would be the purchase and retirement of grazing permits.

"We feel grazing has been taken care of," Krebs said.

"We're pretty excited," Elko County Commissioner John Ellison said Thursday, a day after the county grilled El Paso Corp. representatives over the Western Watersheds agreement.

Western Watersheds and the Oregon organization agreed to the conservation funds in exchange for dropping their protests against the 680-mile pipeline that will extend from Wyoming to Oregon.

That agreement led to county commissioners along the pipeline route setting up an Aug. 12 meeting in Salt Lake City, and the Legislative Committee on Public Lands heard testimony on the issue July 30 in Ely.

Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, chairman of the Legislative Committee on Public Lands and the Nevada representative and past chairman of the Public Lands Council, said Thursday he had heard only a little about the proposed agreement.

"I understand it is in the millions (of dollars)," said Rhoads, who added he expected the Public Lands Council to set up a conference call soon to talk about the proposal.

He said he is still "a little bit leery" about the possibility of Western Watersheds using conservation fund money to lobby Congress to change the Taylor Grazing Act to allow retirement of grazing permits.

The grazing act currently doesn't allow retirement of grazing permits. They must be kept active.

The Legislative Committee on Public Lands voted to send letters to Nevada's congressional delegation, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and Gov. Jim Gibbons against the Western Watersheds agreement and urging the delegation to oppose any attempts to change the Taylor Grazing Act.

Rhoads said El Paso assured the committee it didn't intend to lobby Congress to amend the Taylor Grazing Act, but "El Paso admitted that at least a percentage of the money could be used for lobbying, and El Paso also admitted that, if the law was changed, the money might also be used to retire grazing rights."

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and U.S. Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., also weighed in against the potential for retiring grazing permits, which ranchers contended would severely damage their industry.

"Senator Reid has been very critical of the agreement that El Paso reached with Western Watersheds. It is important that the company find a way to make things right with the ranchers and the counties," Reid spokesman Tom Brede said Thursday.

"The initial reports of an agreement between El Paso and the Public Lands Council have been positive. We look forward to seeing more details," he said.

Ensign said Thursday, "I'm pleased that El Paso recognized how important it was to support the livestock industry and their way of life. The pipeline is an important project that will create jobs, help with energy independence, and add to the tax base and I'm happy that an agreement has been reached."

Ensign and Heller have sent letters to the legislative panel stating their concerns about El Paso's agreement with Western Watersheds.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued the order to proceed for the pipeline July 30, and El Paso officially started work on Saturday.

Ginna Reyes, president of El Aero Services, said she hoped El Paso and ranchers and counties could come to "an amicable solution," because the pipeline project is important to El Aero and many businesses along the pipeline route.

"We're very happy to see it's proceeding. We have an aviation contract for fixed wing and helicopters," she said.

Reyes said El Aero's Elko and Carson City locations will benefit from the project.

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