By Ken Ward Jr.
Staff Writer

The energy company NiSource wants a federal permit to legally kill endangered species or damage their habitat along a mile-wide corridor along 15,500 miles of natural gas pipelines in 17 states.

NiSource is writing a plan for the permit, and federal regulators are beginning the process of studying the company's proposal.

The project is unprecedented in the scale and scope, according to a contractor hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to study the matter.

If approved, the permit would allow NiSource to avoid case-by-case review of the impacts of pipeline operations and maintenance on endangered species.

Instead, one "incidental take permit" would allow the company to harm endangered species as long as it followed a "habitat conservation plan" meant to minimize destruction or mitigate the damage.

Fish and Wildlife officials said NiSource is seeking to more efficiently address its Endangered Species Act obligations "while also maximizing the conservation and mitigation that they undertake."

But endangered species watchdogs are concerned about the size and potential scope of the Merrillville, Ind.-based company's proposal.

The NiSource proposal covers nearly 10 million acres, and stretches from the Louisiana Gulf Coast to New England, according to government documents.

More than 75 species of plants and animals would be affected — everything from the Cheat mountain salamander and the Nashville crayfish to running buffalo clover and leafy prairie clover to Indiana bats and the Louisiana black bear, according to a list published in the Federal Register last month.

"The number of species, states and acres affected is immense," said Kiernan Suckling, policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz.-based advocacy group. "It looks to me like NiSource is taking the kitchen sink approach to insulate their entire company against compliance with the ESA by getting approval for extremely vague planning."