A settlement between environmental groups and El Paso Corp. over the Ruby Pipeline Project has caused "worry, concern and anger," the president of El Paso Western Pipeline Group told Elko County Commissioners Wednesday.
About 30 people attended the commission meeting and heard about two-and-a-half hours of discussion about the Ruby Pipeline Project and, particularly, El Paso Corp.'s agreement with Western Watersheds Project and the Oregon Natural Desert Association.
El Paso Corp. didn't expect "the firestorm that has erupted over this deal," said Jim Cleary, president of El Paso Western Pipeline Group.
"You guys went into bed with the worst there is," Commissioner John Ellison told El Paso Corp. representatives, referring to the company's $20 million agreement finalized last month with the two groups.
Money will go into the Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Fund over a 10-year period and will be used for habitat protection. In exchange, the environmental groups will drop litigation opposing the pipeline project.
"Negotiating with Western Watersheds Project damages your reputation," Commission Chairman Charlie Myers told company representatives.
Myers said representatives from El Paso Corp. thought it would be easier to fight individual counties than Western Watersheds Project.
"Well, I am the president of Ruby Pipeline and that statement is not true at all," Cleary said.
Commissioner Warren Russell said the majority of commissioners probably wouldn't support the project today.
El Paso Corp. started work on the Ruby Pipeline this week after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued the order to proceed Friday.
The 680-mile natural gas pipeline, which Cleary said is an approximately $3 billion project, will go through Elko County in its span from Wyoming to Oregon.
At its peak, the Ruby Pipeline project will employ up to 5,000 workers, Cleary said, and about $1.4 billion has been spent on the project to date.
There will be a permanent construction office in Elko that will employ seven people, he said.
El Paso Corp. expects to pay "substantial property tax revenues" of about $70 million to Elko County over a 10-year period and "tax payments will continue for decades to come," Cleary said.
Commissioner Sheri Eklund-Brown said commissioners stood in support of the project when El Paso Corp. first approached the county because the project will be a huge economic boon to the county and will provide jobs at a time when, nationwide, jobs are "valued, treasured and rare."
"Our vision is to be a good neighbor," Cleary said.
Jeff Williams, a member of Elko County's Natural Resources Management Advisory Commission, said a neighbor "who offends another makes a proper restitution."
"My question is just how sorry is El Paso Corp. for the problems they've caused?" he said, referring to the corporation's agreement with environmental groups.
Williams said Elko County has shown a great amount of "western hospitality" to El Paso Corp., but should have also taught them "country ethics."
"I want the gas line to go through, but wouldn't want to put up with someone who is a friend one day and stabs you in the back the next day," he said.
Elko County Planner Randy Brown said his staff was directed to help El Paso Corp. 28 months ago when the project was proposed. They have spent many hours helping the corporation acquire easements since then.
"We feel very slapped in the face," he said about the agreement.
Gary Weisbart, manager of the Winecup Gamble Ranch, said he was approached by Ruby Pipeline representatives asking for an easement and then wanting to buy water rights.
"This would have been all well and good," he said, but added that he felt pressured to sell water rights because El Paso Corp. representatives said they'd have to drill a well otherwise.
William Healy, vice president of Ruby Pipeline Engineering, said no one was hoodwinked and representatives "told him what they knew at the time," long before the deal was made with environmental groups.
Bill Wilkerson of Elko said he came to the meeting to get educated on the issues surrounding the Ruby Pipeline project.
"This isn't right," he said about the closed-door deal between El Paso Corp. and the environmental groups. He said he wants the agreement document to be made public.
"I want to know what's going on," he said.
Others said they also wanted to see a copy of the agreement between El Paso Corp. and the environmental groups. El Paso representatives said Friday the agreement is confidential.
Commissioner Demar Dahl asked if El Paso Corp. could get out of the agreement with the environmental groups.
Cleary said El Paso Corp. has a binding contract with the groups and the corporation is "not about breaching contracts," but is working to find solutions.
"It's not in the interest of counties (for El Paso Corp.) to write a big check to Western Watersheds Project," he said.
Cleary told commissioners the settlement will allow the project to proceed without litigation.
He said there are narrow seasonal construction windows and "the prospect of a delay would be very, very costly."
Cleary said Western Watersheds Project has its own agenda and the fund won't be "a treasure trove that's available to Western Watersheds Project."
"The fund is narrowly drawn and not one penny goes to Western Watersheds for their purposes," he said.
In order for the fund to be successful, Cleary said he wants "input from a diverse array of interests."
Cleary said the fund won't be used to outbid grazing permit licensees who are renewing their permits.
It's also not the intent of El Paso Corp. to amend the Taylor Grazing Act, he said.
Ellison said El Paso will be held accountable for the agreement with the environmental groups. He said it's the commission's job to protect the way of life for ranchers and "if there's no pipeline, then so be it."
Cleary said the purpose of the fund "is not to put ranchers out of business."
County commissioners in the counties affected by the Ruby Pipeline project will meet Aug. 12 in Salt Lake City to talk about the agreement, as well as grazing permits.
Elko County Commissioners unanimously voted Wednesday to approve a resolution to present at the meeting. Several commissioners plan to attend the meeting, but can't take formal action in Utah due to Nevada Open Meeting Law.
Commissioners also unanimously voted to not take action on a legal action by Ruby Pipeline LLC to condemn .76 acres of land managed by the Elko County treasurer's trust.
There's only $106 of taxes owed on the property and the owners are no longer alive, said Kristin McQueary, Elko County chief civil deputy district attorney.
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