A federal judge refused Tuesday to order a temporary halt to construction of a crude oil pipeline through a river swamp in south Louisiana, a setback for environmental groups challenging the project.
U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick denied the groups' request for a temporary restraining order that would have suspended pipeline construction in the environmentally fragile Atchafalaya Basin pending a hearing next week.
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Environmental groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Jan. 11. The lawsuit accuses the Corps of violating the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws when it approved a permit for the Bayou Bridge pipeline project in December.
The Corps completed an environmental assessment for the project before issuing the permit. The groups' lawsuit claims that review was "plainly inadequate" and ultimately wants the court to vacate the permit.
Judge Dick, however, said she reviewed the Corps' 92-page environmental assessment and "cannot find that the Corps was arbitrary and capricious" in its review.
"Simply having an opposing opinion, or disagreeing with the mitigation plans imposed, is insufficient to establish a substantial likelihood of success on the merits, especially in light of the high deference that the law requires the Court to afford the Corps," she wrote.
Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners plans to build the 162-mile-long (261-kilometer), 24-inch-wide (60-centimeter-wide) pipeline from Lake Charles to St. James Parish, a path that crosses the basin.
Dick scheduled a Feb. 8 hearing for environmental groups' request for a preliminary injunction that would block construction of the pipeline through the basin until their lawsuit can be resolved. In the meantime, the groups had asked for a "short-term delay in construction." The groups didn't ask the court to suspend pipeline work outside the basin.
Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman said the judge's ruling is "not at all the final word" in the case.
"We look forward to meeting the judge in person and being able to demonstrate that this is the wrong project for the people of the Atchafalaya Basin," he said.
Dick said the plaintiffs correctly noted that they didn't have to "win the case" at this stage. But the judge said she couldn't justify the "extraordinary remedy" of a temporary restraining order because she isn't convinced it's "substantially likely" the groups will "prevail on the merits" of the case.
Energy Transfer Partners spokeswoman Alexis Daniel said in an email Tuesday that "construction activities" began in the basin earlier this month.
"Currently, we are in the primary stages, and are clearing and grading," she wrote.
The basin is the nation's largest river swamp and includes roughly 880,000 acres (356,000 hectares) of forested wetlands, according to the groups' lawsuit. In a court filing Monday, their lawyers described it as "one of the nation's ecological crown jewels" and "an economic powerhouse, providing rich opportunities for commercial and sport fishing, recreation, and tourism."
"But the Basin is under siege, with numerous threats including poor management of water and sediment, construction of barriers, and the 'death by a thousand cuts' of habitat loss," they wrote. "Leading this charge is the oil and gas industry, whose activities have irrevocably degraded the Basin."
Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC, a joint venture of Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66, wasn't named as a defendant in the federal lawsuit. But the judge has allowed the company to intervene and participate in the case.
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 Louisiana pipeline is designed to have a maximum capacity of 480,000 barrels, or roughly 20 million gallons (75 million liters), of crude a day. The groups' lawsuit says it "in essence" would be the final segment of a pipeline network connecting the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota with Louisiana refineries and export terminals.
Earthjustice attorneys filed the suit on behalf of Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Gulf Restoration Network, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West.