Clearing a path for power
by Allison Gerfin
Plans for power lines and pipelines would make it easier to tap the West’s energy boom
This summer’s heat waves have strained power grids, causing rolling blackouts in California and prompting utility companies to beg their customers to conserve. The problems have focused new attention on the aging system that transports the West’s power to its people.
The nation’s transmission infrastructure has simply not kept pace with growth over the past 25 years. But the task of building new transmission routes is arduous. Just securing the rights of way for power lines and pipelines across the West’s vast tracts of federal, state and private land can take years.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 contains two provisions aimed at removing those roadblocks: Section 368 eases access across federal land for utility companies, and Section 1221 lets the federal government condemn land to clear the way for power lines. Combined, the provisions will make it easier to build thousands of miles of transmission lines to tap into the West’s energy boom.
A consortium of federal agencies, led by the Bureau of Land Management and Department of Energy, is working this summer to map out new corridors for distributing oil, gas, hydrogen and electricity. These energy superhighways can be thousands of miles long and several miles wide. By conducting a West-wide environmental review and amending land-use plans for affected federal lands, the agencies hope to hasten, by months or even years, the environmental review process.
But the plan has raised some concerns. Geary Hund of The Wilderness Society acknowledges the value of updating the grid. However, he says, the ramped-up schedule — with maps of corridor locations to be completed by 2007 — means that the environmental impact statement will be done in a window of time too small to adequately evaluate seasonal variations in wildlife migrations and vegetation along the corridors.
Scott Powers, who is leading the process for the BLM, brushes away those concerns, saying most of the proposed public-land corridors have already been through the environmental review process because they follow existing rights of way. He adds that designated wilderness and wilderness study areas have been protected under the current plan, and that, after the National Park Service balked, some corridors were rerouted around parks and monuments.
Environmentalists and state and tribal officials, however, still have doubts: They point out that preliminary maps showing the corridors provide so little detail that pinpointing their location on the ground is virtually impossible. According to The Wilderness Society’s interpretation of the maps, corridors appear to blast through or along wildlife refuges, historical and scenic sites and roadless areas. More detailed maps are due to be released this fall, but Hund worries that, by then, it will be more difficult to make changes.
A danger to sovereignty
Western public lands are not the only thing threatened by the new energy routes. Critics warn that a little-known clause of the Energy Policy Act may punch a hole through state and tribal sovereignty. Section 1221 allows the secretary of Energy to designate "national interest" electric corridors. The criteria for these are as wide-open as the Western range itself: The secretary simply needs to determine that new transmission lines are needed to deliver cheaper energy, to foster economic development, to enhance energy independence or to "further national energy policy."
"You could drive a truck through these criteria," says Doug Larson of the Western Interstate Energy Board, the energy arm of the Western Governors’ Association, which generally supports the expansion of the Western power grid, but is concerned about the potential for abuse of new federal powers.
Within the "national interest" corridors, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can override state authority in siting electrical transmission lines and can push through projects if a state delays permitting. Tribes and states fear that they will be powerless to stop electric towers and lines from marching across their land. "To realize Montana’s environmental and energy development objectives," wrote Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D, in comments to the Department of Energy, "we need the collaboration, not the pre-emption of the federal government." The act also gives the federal government condemnation power over private land for electricity corridors, worrying landowners.
The first national interest corridors are likely to be designated within months. In August, the Department of Energy released a report identifying Southern California as a critical congestion area. The Phoenix-Tucson, Seattle-Portland, and San Francisco Bay areas also made the list. Transmission routes that link the energy-producing areas of the Interior West with these clusters of customers will probably be designated as national corridors following a comment period that ends in October.
Even some energy companies in the West are worried: Anadarko Petroleum Corp., which owns mineral rights to more than 8 million acres in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, frets about the possibility of a power line precluding energy development on some portion of that land.
But most power producers welcome the new energy highways as cheaper, more efficient avenues to fulfill ever-increasing consumer demand. And the additional transmission capacity will make it easier for utilities to develop new generation sources — whether wind, coal, natural gas or nuclear — further harnessing the nation’s energy workhorse: the rural West.
The draft Environmental Impact Statement for the West-wide Energy Corridor Process is due out this fall.
The author is an HCN intern.
© High Country News
West-wide Energy Corridor Programmatic EIS Information Center http://corridoreis.anl.gov/