Sage Grouse Oversight Team Approves Mitigation Plans for Keystone XL Power Lines

The Keystone XL pipeline project seeks to construct an oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada to southern Nebraska, where it would link up with the existing Keystone pipeline system. The project has been the subject of numerous political contentions, including between presidents Obama and Trump, and has spurred heated debate within the many jurisdictions of state and local governments that the pipeline will impact. For nearly a decade, the Keystone Pipeline System has already been in operation, and claims to have already transported over 1.5 billion gallons of crude oil in Canada to refining centers in the US. The XL pipeline would augment this system with a new 36’’ diameter line.

In an effort to better understand the process of constructing a pipeline of this size in Montana, I wanted to look at the first entry point the Keystone XL will make into the United States. The pipeline enters the US in Phillips County, Montana, northeast of the small town of Malta. In addition to the pipeline itself, extensive electrical and motor vehicle infrastructure will accompany the construction effort. Just across the border, pump station number 9 will require additional 115KV transmission lines to keep the oil moving. Big Flat Electric Cooperative is proposing to construct this new transmission line in Phillips County, and it will service just one of six Keystone XL pump stations being constructed in Montana.

As for the administrative hurdles that remain for the XL portion of the Keystone pipeline as it passes through Montana:

[Sage Grouse sounds]

The Greater Sage Grouse is an iconic species that inhabits much of the sagebrush-grassland habitats in Montana, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has determined that the sage grouse species is warranted for listing as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Importantly, the listing of the sage grouse as ‘endangered’ could have significant adverse effects on the economy of the State of Montana, disallowing the State and its governing bodies from making decisions about oil and gas infrastructure outside the bounds of the Endangered Species Act. In other words, if the Greater Sage Grouse were to be listed, it would mean greater administrative burden for projects like Keystone XL, and might spell the end of oil and gas infrastructure throughout much of eastern and central Montana.

In order to avoid the endangered species listing of the Greater Sage Grouse, governor Steve Bullock implemented an executive order in 2015, creating the Sage Grouse Stewardship Act and the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team, as well as the Montana Sage Grouse Stewardship Fund. These actions, modeled on a similar act in Wyoming, demonstrate a good faith effort to the federal government that the State of Montana is protecting the Greater Sage Grouse, and forego an endangered species listing.

The Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team met in December 2018 to discuss the impact that the Keystone XL pump station transmission lines might have on the Greater Sage Grouse habitat in the areas where proposed construction would take place. Carolyn Sime is Program Manager of the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team.

[MSGOT 1]

Each of the six Montana pump stations proposed for the Keystone XL pipeline have these additional electrical transmission lines that Program Manager Carolyn Sime is discussing, and each must submit a mitigation plan to the Sage Grouse Team. The Big Flat mitigation plan, for pump station number 9 in Phillips county, is undergoing changes due to that 2015 executive order from the Governor, and the cost of the project will likely increase on account of the requirements to stay at least four miles from Sage grouse mating habitats, called leks. The Sage Grouse Oversight Team was asked to review two plans, although the so-called Alternative 3 seems to adhere to the requirements of the executive order.

[MSGOT 2]

After extensive discussion, the Big Flat Electric Cooperative’s mitigation plan for their 63 miles of transmission lines to the Keystone XL pump station was approved, clearing another hurdle for the billions of gallons of crude oil in Canada waiting to start flowing through our state and down to the main line in Nebraska.

Simply looking at one aspect of one pump station for this pipeline demonstrates the complexity of the issue, and raises the question: Did Governor Bullock implement so much oversight of the Greater Sage Grouse in order to protect the bird, or to keep the process for reviewing oil and gas infrastructure from becoming more burdensome than it already is? Facing the alternative of navigating the Endangered Species Act for every piece of infrastructure on the Montana grasslands, the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team’s four-hour meeting seems preferable.

If and when the Keystone XL project is implemented and the impacts on Sage Grouse habitat move from theoretical to observable, we’ll be better able to understand where the priorities of the State and Federal officials lie, and whether they seek to protect Montana’s economy, or to achieve the stated goal of protecting this bird.

For KBMF, I’m Clark Grant.