Federal regulators are recommending approval of two natural gas pipelines that could sharply increase fuel shipments from the Rockies to population centers in the Midwest and on the West Coast.
The Rockies hold an estimated 375 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or almost as much as the Gulf of Mexico.
The fuel has been promoted as a less-polluting alternative to coal because it emits less greenhouse gas. Yet moves to crank open the spigot in the Rockies are getting pushback from environmentalists worried about the growing number of pipelines crisscrossing the West.
Combined, the two latest proposals would move almost 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day — enough to fuel about 9 million homes. That would amount to a roughly 25 percent increase over current gas exports from Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to make final decisions on the Bison and Ruby pipelines in the next two to three months, said agency spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen. Construction could begin by spring.
Building the pipelines — each hundreds of miles long — would entail crossing more than 1,200 streams and other bodies of water and disturbing thousands of acres of undeveloped land, according to recent environmental studies by the commission's staff.
TransCanada's $610 million, 310-mile Bison pipeline would run from Gillette, Wyo., through southeastern Montana to Morton County, N.D. From there, the line would feed into other pipelines serving the Midwest.
El Paso Corp.'s $3 billion Ruby pipeline would run from Opal, Wyo., to Malin, Ore., passing through Utah and Nevada along a 675-mile route.
Environmentalists have singled out the Ruby pipeline as particularly damaging because of its route through the remote wilds of northern Nevada. Also, horse advocates claim the project is prompting the removal of wild mustang herds along the proposed route by the Bureau of Land Management.
But commission staff concluded the environmental effects would be outweighed by the economic benefits of the pipelines, including roughly $30 million in annual property taxes. They also said the routes chosen minimized harm to the environment.
In Wyoming, where a history of limited pipeline capacity has dampened exploration and forced companies to sell fuel at a discount, officials have pushed hard for the projects. In December, they approved a state investment in Ruby of up to $300 million.
New pipelines could break the cycle of gas production outpacing pipeline construction in the Rockies, said Brian Jeffries, of the Wyoming Pipeline Authority. A third major pipeline from the region, Rockies Express, became fully operational in November.
"This time we might be out in front of it a little bit," Jeffries said.
The Ruby project is intended to fill a gas supply gap on the West Coast as imports from Canada taper off, while Bison would give energy producers in Wyoming's remote Powder River Basin new access to markets, company officials said.
That could give producers across the Rockies opportunities to get better prices for their fuel.
"It will afford them a more or less straight shot to new markets in the West," El Paso spokesman Richard Wheatley said of Ruby.
Environmentalists still hope to block the El Paso proposal.
More than 330 million gallons of groundwater from aquifers would be used during construction of the pipeline. That's an immense volume for an arid part of the West and almost five times the amount earlier detailed by El Paso.
"How can they allow so great a miscalculation on something as crucial as water in Nevada, the driest state in the nation?" asked Katie Fite with the Western Watersheds Project, one of several groups lining up against the pipeline.
Fite said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission appeared to be "rubber stamping" the pipeline and she accused El Paso of misrepresenting the project.
She said it would make more sense to build farther south, along Nevada's Interstate 80 corridor. El Paso's Wheatley said that entailed a costly 150-mile detour and would disturb even more land.
He added that the volumes of groundwater needed for the project had changed after El Paso dropped an earlier plan to use surface water supplies in streams and lakes. The company is now working with the states along the pipeline route to make sure groundwater supplies are adequate.
"The water is available. We just have to go through the process of getting the appropriations," Wheatley said.