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Army Corps Suspends Blanket Permit for Utility Projects Amid Environmental Concerns

FILE - A depot used to store pipes for Transcanada Corp.'s planned Keystone XL oil pipeline is seen in Gascoyne, N.D., Jan. 25, 2017.
FILE - A depot used to store pipes for Transcanada Corp.'s planned Keystone XL oil pipeline is seen in Gascoyne, N.D., Jan. 25, 2017.

After last week's court ruling brought to light potential environmental concerns, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended a nationwide program meant to approve utility work, despite industry representatives' warnings it could stop important infrastructure projects.

Nationwide Permit 12, a blanket permit used by utility companies to build gas and oil pipelines, powerlines and other infrastructure across wetlands and streams, was ruled illegal by U.S. District Judge Brian Morris concerning the Keystone XL pipeline's use of the permit for water crossings without the Army Corps' proper consideration of endangered wildlife.

From there, the judge's findings were expanded to include any projects using Nationwide Permit 12.

The Trump administration likely will counter the court's ruling, seeing as the original lawsuit was over the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, a project Trump supported.

Currently, 360 requests are pending from companies seeking approval to use the permit, according to Army Corps spokesman Doug Garman.

Though no further details were released on the nature of these projects and their locations, industry representatives say the suspension's potential longevity could affect thousands of separate projects.

Critics see minimal review

To many environmentalists' dismay, Nationwide Permit 12 is often used by the Army Corps, which has control over U.S. waterways, to approve utility projects after minimal environmental review. Since the permit's last renewal in 2017, it has been used more than 37,000 times.

Utility companies counter that this is because projects are timely and expansive, often spanning multiple states and hundreds of waterways. Therefore, it would be counterproductive and unnecessarily expensive to inspect each crossing.

Labor and industry groups American Petroleum Institute and Interstate Natural Gas Association of America said the permit was "critical to the responsible and efficient development and maintenance of energy and other vital infrastructure."

"The fact that this case involves the Keystone pipeline will almost certainly elevate its profile within the administration," said Ben Cowan, an attorney representing energy companies. He expects government attorneys to file an appeal or request with Morris to clarify his ruling.