SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Elected officials from Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Oregon are warning a pipeline company not to contribute to environmental causes to protect sagebrush habitat. The officials are demanding that El Paso Corp. drop an agreement it made with environmental groups that clears away objections to a 680-mile natural gas pipeline from Opal, Wyo. to Malin, Ore. County commissioners from the four western states huddled in Salt Lake City on Thursday and said they are threatening to withhold local approvals for construction of the pipeline. They are upset over $22 million that Houston-based El Paso paid into a fund that would buy conservation easements, land and grazing permits from willing sellers along the pipeline route. “It’s not the agenda of the fund to stop grazing on public lands,” El Paso representative Jim Cleary told the group. El Paso has received approval from the federal Bureau of Land Management and Federal Energy Resource Commission to build the pipeline. The company’s agreement with Western Watersheds Project and the Oregon Natural Desert Association was characterized by county officials as a “payoff.” “They want to change the West back into sagebrush,” said Kent Connelly, a commissioner from Lincoln County, Wyo. “Getting a secret agreement with El Paso is not upfront and has a serious socio-economic impact on our county.” The deal doesn’t allow El Paso’s money to be used for litigation, said Debra Ellers, the Idaho director for Western Watershed, who will administer the conservation fund. “We’re always accused of litigating,” Ellers said. “Now we’re trying to find a different way, and we’re criticized anyway.” El Paso plans to open a construction office in Elko, Nev., as part of the $3 billion project. Cleary said the project will employ 5,000 workers. The Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity has filed a lawsuit to block the project. It says the Ruby Pipeline will cross more than 1,000 rivers and streams, harming species such as the Lahontan cutthroat trout, Warner Creek sucker, Lost River sucker and Colorado pikeminnow. The lawsuit was filed last month against the BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court in San Francisco. El Paso hoped to start operating the Ruby Pipeline by March.
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