NATURAL GAS:

Wetland, wildlife concerns sink Puerto Rican pipeline project

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority announced the withdrawal today of its bid to build a 92-mile liquefied natural gas pipeline on the island, to cheers from activists who have protested the project's impact on wetlands and wildlife.

"The people of Puerto Rico came together in full force against this project, recognizing the potentially devastating impacts it would have on the island's natural resources and local communities," said Jaclyn Lopez, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Vía Verde, or Green Way, project was strongly backed by Republican Gov. Luis Fortuño, who touted it as a way to slash electricity prices, which in Puerto Rico are nearly three times the national average. The island primarily generates electricity by burning imported oil.

But the $450 million pipeline would have traversed wetlands and other wildlife habitat as it ran north from Peñuelas, across mountains to the coast and then east to San Juan. Environmental groups have protested the potential ecological destruction and what they call a rushed process that left little room for public oversight.

In 2010, Fortuño declared an energy "emergency" due to high electricity prices. The declaration allowed him to speed up approvals by Puerto Rican government agencies.

The pipeline was originally scheduled to be completed last December, but the government still needed a Clean Water Act Section 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers for work in wetlands. The corps prepared a draft environmental assessment last November, but activists pushed hard for a more deliberative look at the plan.

As the corps worked toward finalizing its environmental assessment, Fortuño appointed a committee to study measures that were needed to comply with U.S. EPA air emission standards. The committee recommended that the government explore alternatives to the pipeline.

"The corps suggested that considering alternatives would require a modification of the original application, and the applicant withdrew the application while they consider alternatives," Army Corps spokeswoman Nancy Sticht said in an email this morning.

Local activists, who have been protesting against the pipeline for years, celebrated the announcement but also expressed skepticism about whether the government would keep its promises.

"This is a major victory because it allowed a process of learning and education for the people," an activist with Casa Pueblo, a top opposition group, told El Nuevo Dia newspaper. "Victory teaches us that we can change things, no matter how powerful our adversary is."

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who has Puerto Rican roots, also welcomed the decision. He has been active in helping groups mobilize against the pipeline and advocating against it on Capitol Hill.

"When an embattled politician wraps up so much of his political ambition in a massive public works project, it can be harder to kill than a vampire," Gutiérrez said of the Puerto Rican governor, who is up for re-election this year. "But this is the final stake through the heart."

Today's news was not entirely unexpected. Staffers at the governor's mansion had begun speaking against the "gasoducto" after receiving reports about its regulatory and economic viability.

And the governor, after meeting with federal regulators in Washington, D.C., along with Resident Commissioner Rep. Pedro Pierluisi (D), began touting other options like a natural gas terminal near power plants in the north.

"With new federal rules, the challenges are much greater. It's no longer just an effort to lower the cost of power," said Fortuño, who is close with GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. "I continue my promise to help lower the cost of power for Puerto Ricans and also protecting the environment."

José Ortiz, president of the government board for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, told El Nuevo Dia, "With this we close the chapter called Vía Verde."

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