The controversial Keystone XL pipeline continued to be a lightning rod this week, drawing heavy interest for an issue that operator TransCanada said is not yet a concern.
An official with environmental group the Center for Biological Diversity told the Omaha World-Herald that a decision this week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would delay the pipeline construction by up to a year.
TransCanada spokesman James Prescott, however, told me Thursday that it is far too early to know whether the government ruling will affect the project.
“Whatever the law is, we'll comply with it. But it's premature at this point to claim that this project could be delayed in some fashion. We're just not there yet,” Prescott said.
The issue centers on the American Burying Beetle, an endangered insect that has been causing heartburn for oil and gas companies in Oklahoma for more than a decade.
Because the insect spends most of its time underground, activity such as drilling, pipeline laying, road building, mining and timber work all pose potential harm to the beetle.
To ensure the insect's safety, environmental regulations require companies to hire biologists and survey areas for the beetles before they dig in areas where the insects may be found. If any of the species are found in an area, biologists must trap or bait them away.
Previous rules allowed companies in some cases to begin trapping and moving the burying bugs before they had completed the federal permitting process.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week, however, reversed its rules after the Center for Biological Diversity sued.
A small delay in relocating the beetle could set back the project by many months because the insects can be trapped and moved only during the spring and summer.
But TransCanada said the ruling is not yet an issue because the company still has not finalized its route through Nebraska. Until the route is determined, it is unclear if or how much it would affect the endangered insect.
“It's going to take several more months and into next year to finish the permitting,” Prescott said. “The groups making these claims are getting ahead of themselves with this issue. There's more time to work on getting the permits and to deal with this issue along the way.”
The American Burying Beetle has been listed as an endangered species since 1989, but regulations were expanded in 2002 when it was discovered that drilling and pipeline operations can harm the species by disturbing larvae even though the adult beetle is only active from May to September.
Unlike most endangered species, the burying beetle is not limited to a specific habitat. The bug once thrived in 35 states and three Canadian provinces, but decades of development have driven the species to near extinction, conservationists say.
Today, the beetle is known to live only in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arkansas and Rhode Island, with much smaller populations in South Dakota and Kansas, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.