Montana transmission lines draw opposition from all sides

  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine
  • Looking east to the Pioneer Mountains from the Beaverhead Valley north of Dillon, Montana, where all proposed routes for MSTI converge. The preferred route would cross five rivers -- the Missouri, Boulder, Big Hole, Beaverhead and Red Rock -- plus about a dozen streams in Montana.

    David Nolt
  • Montana residents are fighting a proposed plan by NorthWestern Energy to install a new power transmission line, with towers taller than those on existing lines, starting in Townsend. Their signs read "Concerned Citizen" and "A Clean Sweep: No substation; no transmission lines."

    Eliza Wiley, Independent Record

Whitehall, Montana
Geologist Debra Hanneman lives with her husband, geophysicist Chuck Wideman, in a modest, rambling house on the outskirts of town, a mile or so off Interstate 90. On a blustery morning in mid-January, the view through her glassed front door takes in an expanse of private and federal land, with dun-colored foothills rising toward Bull Mountain. Most of Whitehall's 1,044 residents snuggle against the interstate, and the only other signs of human life are scattered ranches and recreational properties along two rivers.

The view is unencumbered by urban standards, but if you look closely, you can see a power line sneaking across a fold of the landscape. It may soon have company. South Dakota-based NorthWestern Energy, which delivers electricity and natural gas to customers in Montana, plans to build a $1 billion extra-high-voltage 500-kV electrical transmission mainline that would run some 430 miles from Townsend, Mont., to Midpoint, Idaho, near Twin Falls. The transmission towers, spaced approximately six per mile, would stand 125 to 185 feet tall -- much higher than the existing towers. The new line -- called the Mountain States Transmission Intertie (MSTI) -- would cross five rivers and about a dozen streams in Montana; the company's preferred route would also slash across predominantly private property in Beaverhead and Jefferson counties, following I-90 right through Whitehall, about 600 feet from Hanneman's acreage and even closer to some neighbors' houses.

NorthWestern says the line will bring jobs, property tax revenue and improved regional grid reliability, and enable development of Montana's still-nascent wind resources.

Hanneman would rather it didn't. According to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the line would be built primarily by out-of-state workers, she points out. She says that it would industrialize the rural valley and "destroy the local economy." And lines designed purely to export Montana's wind energy to California and the Southwest aren't her idea of renewable energy.

"If it has to be built," Hanneman says, "then we'd want to move it to public lands. If we want to do this as a nation, then let's all share in the burden of it."

Three people have joined her in the living room to talk strategy and eat tuna salad sandwiches off a table cluttered with binders, photocopies and maps. They're all members of Concerned Citizens Montana, an umbrella for community groups that emerged last year to "maintain Montana's unique and important lifestyle" in five counties that lie in MSTI's path. Concerned Citizens, which claims to have about 3,000 supporters, has spruced up a website, placed full-page newspaper ads, and hired Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falen to run interference on NorthWestern's plans, likely employing the National Environmental Policy Act as an angle of attack. They anticipate that the line's impacts will not be evaluated properly.

Budd-Falen, a well-known property-rights specialist more used to chipping holes in NEPA than wielding it as a weapon, makes a strange partner for the group's self-described environmentalists, but transmission lines are no respecters of ideology.

"You'll see today," says Hanneman, the group's secretary. She's referring to an upcoming Montana Legislature hearing on eminent domain -- the power wielded by government and utilities to condemn private land on behalf of "beneficial" public and private projects, including roads, railroads, pipelines and transmission lines. "I think there will be a lot of Tea Party people there, too, standing up for private-property rights. Two years ago I would have said, 'Man, no way do I want anything to do with them.' But, there are areas where we do cross over and agree. It's made this whole thing really odd politically."

Katherine Ord
Katherine Ord
Mar 07, 2011 11:50 AM
This reader doesn't understand why MSTI is even taken seriously. There are no contracts for the power. Northwestern Energy didn't allow small wind providers on the line when seeking proposals (now going on three years of open season for proposals). In fact, NWE had to buy Judith Gap to justify the wind/green claims. MSTI will connect to all of Montana's coal and natural gas sources and wind will be a very small part of the line. What's most disturbing is CO2 emissions will actually increase as a result of the line. This is about profits, pure and simple. Sad thing is Montanans will pay the cost of the infrastructure in higher rates to make NWE's out-of-state investors wealthy.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Mar 12, 2011 10:19 AM
On the caption for the David Nolt photo -- I could well be wrong because it's been over 20 years since I was last in the Dillon or on the Beaverhead river, but it seems to me that from the Beaverhead you'd be looking west towards the East Pioneers....
Ray Ring
Ray Ring Subscriber
Mar 14, 2011 09:42 AM
I think you're right, Tim -- thanks for the head's up.
Penelope Blair
Penelope Blair Subscriber
Mar 23, 2011 10:56 AM
I am really getting fedup with the "Not in my backyard" syndrome. We all use electricity and enjoy the freedom and standard of living that it brings to us. I grew up and lived most of my life in rural New Mexico. Coal and nuclear power is king, along with oil and gas. It was something that was just part of life, but now people do not want power lines or coal mines, but neither do they want radioactive dumps in their backyards, so how are we going to produce enough energy in this country and get it to the people who need it? Scrubbers can be developed for coal fired plants, but windmills are killing bats and birds, radiation cannot be contolled and technology has a long way to go before really clean energy can be produced. This country is full of greedy corporations that will not do what is good for the country, if they cannot profit from it. Technology can always clean up the current energy makers if only they would.
I find it amusing that ranchers who in the past have exploited the environment are now standing with environmentalist on this issue. I do not eat beef and do not see a need for cattle in this country. I would rather see the land used for crops. So see, we all have our own point of view! Suck it up and do your share like the rest of us have.