The Next Battle in the Fight to Stop Dirty Pipelines

Earthjustice and its clients won a huge victory when a federal judge shut down the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana; a federal appeals court will decide what comes next.

Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman tours the Atchafalaya Basin with clients, seeing the impacts of oil pipelines to the area.
Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman tours the Atchafalaya Basin with clients, seeing the impacts of oil pipelines to the area. (Adrienne Bloch / Earthjustice)

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Recently, a federal district judge found that a 162-mile long crude oil pipeline known as the Bayou Bridge would “irreparably harm” the Atchafalaya Basin—one of the nation’s cultural and ecological crown jewels—and temporarily shut it down. The decision came after Earthjustice and its clients argued that allowing the pipeline’s construction to go forward could destroy this priceless ecosystem—and the livelihoods of those who depend on it.

The preliminary injunction gave the basin a fighting chance and prevented the company—Energy Transfer Partners, the same company that brought us the Dakota Access pipeline—from finishing the project before our lawsuit to stop Bayou Bridge permanently could be fully heard.

Though a divided panel of the Fifth Circuit provisionally lifted the injunction a few weeks later, construction has not resumed due to high waters that likely won’t recede for months. The larger question over whether the pipeline should have been approved in the first place will be argued by Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman in Houston at the end of April.

Hasselman has reason to hope for a positive outcome in the case. As an attorney who’s been fighting short-sighted, dangerous proposals to lock our country into decades more of fossil fuel use, he’s seen first-hand how the larger cultural and economic tide is turning against dirty energy. More and more, nontraditional allies like the Atchafalaya crawfishermen in the Bayou Bridge case are joining the fight as people realize that dirty energy companies are bad for communities and bad for the sustainable, living wage jobs like those in the basin.

As Hasselman prepares to defend the bayou and the people whose livelihoods depend on it in court later next month, he answers some questions about why stopping the pipeline—which connects the Dakota Access pipeline to refineries and export terminals on the Louisiana coast—is so important.

Why is the Bayou Bridge pipeline especially egregious?

The Atchafalaya Basin in southern Louisiana, where the pipeline is proposed, is a special place. It’s the largest swamp in the country. And as a key source for the state’s crawfish industry, it provides subsistence for the Cajun people and helps supply the rest of the U.S. with crawfish.

The basin is a crown jewel, a priceless component of our national ecological and cultural heritage. It is not the right place for an oil pipeline, especially one as massive as this one, and especially one run by a company with a reputation for carelessness like Energy Transfer Partners.

How is this pipeline different than others in the area?

This is an absolutely massive pipeline, far bigger than any others in the basin. A spill or leak from this project is different. The company, Energy Transfer Partners, likes to tout that 99.96 percent of the oil sent over its pipelines makes it safely to destination. That sounds like a nice number, but if you apply that to the Bayou Bridge pipeline, which carries about a half a million barrels of oil per day, it means that by the company’s own admission it would be losing more than 8,000 gallons of oil each day. Multiply by 365 days and you get three million gallons of oil per year spilled into the environment. In an aquatic environment like the Atchafalaya, which is underwater for much of the year, that’s a disaster waiting to happen.

There’s also the historic impact. Past pipeline construction has damaged the basin. In the past, when a company put in a pipeline, they would dig up a canal, drop in a pipeline and then leave the spoil (basically, dirt and plant debris) in a bank next to the canal. They don’t put it all back, which interrupts the water flow and negatively impacts the water quality, killing off the crawfish. It’s the No. 1 ecological threat to the basin. So there’s this history of treating this place like a garbage dump, and we’re drawing a line and saying it’s not okay anymore.

How did this project get permitted in the first place?

The Army Corps of Engineers permitted this pipeline without an environmental impact review. The idea of permitting a 162-mile pipeline of that size and volume in a place as special as the Atchafalaya is completely nuts. We do environmental assessments on shopping malls and drinking water pipelines. How can we not do one on a massive crude oil pipeline through a sensitive aquatic environment? A full environmental review would allow some transparency and accountability for a project like this—an honest acknowledgement of its risks and benefits, as well as consideration of alternatives. That process never happened here.

You’ve worked in communities across the Pacific Northwest to stop fossil fuel projects. Is the work in Louisiana similar?

In the Pacific Northwest cases, communities learned of all the risks and impacts of proposed fossil fuel projects and ultimately said “no.” The information came to light through a process required under environmental review laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Part of that process includes giving members of the public a chance to voice their views. When all of the risks and benefits are balanced in a transparent way, these projects look terrible and decision makers have said no to them.

The problem with the Bayou Bridge is none of that transparent balancing of risks and benefits ever took place.

(Side note: For nearly 50 years, NEPA has empowered communities to defend themselves and their environment from dangerous, rushed or poorly planned federal or industry projects. But it’s under attack. Find out more.)

Tell me about Energy Transfer Partners. What kind of company are we dealing with?

We’re dealing with a company with an abysmal safety and compliance record. Energy Transfer leads the industry in spills, leaks and other disasters. It’s been shut down in multiple states. And its record of compliance with legal standards is so poor that recently the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) stated that Energy Transfer couldn’t be trusted to comply with environmental regulations. I’ve never seen anything like that.

So with Energy Transfer there is a toxic combo of incompetence and greed, and the people of the Atchafalaya Basin shouldn’t be forced to bear the risks of that.

The company has already filed an appeal of the preliminary injunction.

So many types of people have come out against this pipeline, including indigenous groups, environmental justice communities and crawfishermen. What do you attribute this to?

There is a growing awareness that the price of fossil fuel development has been too high. For decades, the industry has treated the environment and the people of Louisiana as an afterthought. The effects of that have piled up over the years, and they’re devastating. For example, crawfishing, which has sustained families in the Basin for generations, is in dire jeopardy as the basin goes into ecological freefall.

This is a place where different communities have drawn a line in the sand to say: “Enough.” Unless we can start dealing with these legacy problems and repairing this precious resource, we can’t allow yet another set of insults.

What’s next?

Even though the appeals court temporarily lifted the injunction, the water is too high right now for Energy Transfers to resume the pipeline’s construction. That’s good news, because as a previous judge declared in February, pipeline construction could do “irreparable harm” to this ecological treasure while Earthjustice’s lawsuit over the pipeline’s threats to the environment plays out. Hopefully the high water keeps work from happening until the court decides whether the government’s decision to approve the pipeline was illegal and should be reversed.

In the meantime, the battle against fossil fuels continues to grow in places like the Pacific Northwest, where grassroots activists recently
stopped the largest oil-by-rail project proposal in North America. That resolve to stop Big Oil from buying and bullying its way into America’s hometowns and ecological treasures will continue regardless of what happens in any one particular lawsuit.

Jan Hasselman is a senior attorney with Earthjustice's Northwest office in Seattle, WA, which he joined in 1998. Since that time, he has successfully litigated a number of regional and national issues including listings of salmon under the Endangered Species Act, stormwater pollution, coal fired power plants, and coal and crude oil terminals.

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.

Earthjustice’s Fossil Fuels Program is taking on the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to pursue new paths to profit that not only accelerate the climate crisis, but also continue to cause harm to marginalized communities.

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.