Appeals court to review halt in Louisiana pipeline work

A federal appeals court has scheduled a hearing next week to review a judge's order that halted construction of a crude oil pipeline in a Louisiana swamp.

Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for an "emergency stay" that would lift the suspension of construction work while it appeals the judge's ruling.

A three-judge panel from the court is scheduled to hear to arguments on that request next Tuesday.

On Feb. 23, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick sided with environmental groups and issued a preliminary injunction stopping all Bayou Bridge pipeline construction work in the Atchafalaya Basin until the groups' lawsuit is resolved.

In a court filing last Friday, company attorneys claimed Dick's ruling "fails the basic requirements" for issuing such an order.

Dick concluded the project's irreversible environmental damage outweighs the economic harm that a delay brings to the company. Her order only applies to the basin and doesn't prevent the company from working elsewhere along the pipeline's 162-mile-long (261-kilometer) path from Lake Charles to St. James Parish.

Sierra Club and other environmental groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in January, saying it violated the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws when it approved a permit for the project.

The groups and Bayou Bridge disagree on whether the company could immediately resume construction in the basin if the 5th Circuit lifts the preliminary injunction.

The groups' attorneys claim Bayou Bridge couldn't, because the Corps' permit prohibits the work when water levels reach a certain height.

"That height has already been reached, and river levels will likely remain high for months," they wrote in a court filing Monday.

But the company's lawyers say they would have at least a few weeks to make "significant uninterrupted construction progress" before rising water levels disrupt work in the basin.

Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman said the 5th Circuit's ruling will be a "very important decision."

"If they get the stay, construction could be completed before the appeal is resolved," he said.

The company said the work stoppage will cost it up to $500,000 per day in construction-related expenses and $6 million per month in lost revenue. The judge has said the company's estimated losses aren't supported by the "underlying data."

The judge said the project potentially threatens the hydrology of the basin and "poses the threat of destruction of already diminishing wetlands." She also agreed with environmental groups that centuries-old "legacy" trees can't be replaced once they're cut down.

Bayou Bridge lawyers claimed the sudden halt in construction work creates its own environmental risks. The company said Dick's order prevents it from implementing erosion-control measures to prevent rising waters from washing away mounts of dirt from the digging it has done.

Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC is a joint venture of Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66. Energy Transfer Partners built the Dakota Access pipeline, a project that sparked a string of violent clashes between protesters and police in North Dakota in 2016 and 2017. The Bayou Bridge pipeline is the last link in a pipeline network connecting the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota with Louisiana refineries and export terminals.