Montana transmission lines draw opposition from all sides
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."
NorthWestern's proposal has reopened debate about corporate use of eminent domain to condemn the property of unwilling landowners and energized the argument over whether transmission lines are best sited on public or private land. These days, it's all framed against the backdrop of renewable energy development.
Similar conflicts -- spawned by the nation's first major transmission build-out since the 1980s -- are popping up across the West, where much of the nation's wind energy lies untapped, waiting for construction of a grid that can get it to market.
Western Grid Group, a policy advocacy outfit formed to facilitate wind energy transmission, identifies 20 major interstate transmission lines on Western drawing boards. WestConnect, a regional transmission planning organization, reports that more than $20 billion worth of projects are in some stage of development in nine Western states, including the High Plains Express from Wyoming to Arizona, the Centennial West Clean Line from New Mexico to Southern California, and the TransWest Express between Wyoming and southern Nevada.
One already under construction was just stopped in its tracks by a Montana landowner. The 214-mile, 230-kV Montana Alberta Tie Ltd., or MATL, aims to cross northern Montana to connect substations in Lethbridge, Alberta, and Great Falls, Mont. MATL's developers -- a Canadian company and its U.S. subsidiary -- want to go through Shirley Salois' land, near Cut Bank, where the family says there are wetlands and historic teepee rings that they want to protect. MATL sued Salois in state court, seeking to condemn an easement through her land. District Court Judge Laurie McKinnon sided with Salois in December, ruling that Montana's eminent domain laws give no specific authority to companies building "merchant lines." (Merchant lines, built and operated independent of the power generation that feeds them, are a new enterprise in Montana, allowed by the Legislature's deregulation of many aspects of energy in 1997, long after Montana's eminent domain laws were written.)
Bozeman attorney Hertha Lund, another property-rights stalwart, represented the Salois family, arguing, among other things, that MATL hadn't adequately complied with Montana's Major Facilities Siting Act -- another law more typically used by environmentalists to ward off industrial impacts. "I'm making their arguments," says Lund. "It's a scary day when I have to use the environmental statutes to protect property rights."
The judge's ruling could prevent NorthWestern Energy from using eminent domain against uncooperative landowners. And according to NorthWestern lobbyist John Fitzpatrick, "If a utility does not have access to such authority ... it will be impossible for us to build utility infrastructure."
Montana Republicans are torn, with their pro-development and personal-liberty platforms colliding in this legislative session, which runs until April. Billings Republican Rep. Ken Peterson is pushing a bill that would retroactively extend eminent domain authority to merchant lines, effectively voiding the ruling and holding the gate wide open for MSTI. Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Kelly Flynn -- representing Townsend, where NorthWestern wants to build a substation on at least 50 acres at MSTI's head -- is pushing a bill to require projects to demonstrate 90-percent approval from affected landowners before condemnation authority kicks in.
In heavily Republican Wyoming, eminent domain has long been a sore spot; it's been exploited for coalbed methane development for years. Now, Wyoming ranks No. 1 in the West for wind resources and faces the prospect of a spaghetti network of feeder lines bringing dozens of proposed windfarms online. Last year, then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, persuaded the Legislature to impose a one-year moratorium on using eminent domain for small feeder-line transmission, so the Legislature could fine-tune state laws. Lawmakers seem likely to extend the moratorium for another two years, as interest groups argue over what to do.
Freudenthal also urged the federal government to be more cooperative in siting transmission lines on federal land. He noted controversial plans to route a portion of the Gateway West Transmission Line (a 1,150-mile project of Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power) through scenic private land instead of federal land.
In Colorado last year, reclusive hedge fund billionaire and conservationist Louis Moore Bacon fought to prevent a proposed Xcel Energy line -- promoted as green -- from crossing his 171,400-acre Trinchera Ranch in the scenic San Luis Valley. Bacon, an avowed hunter and outdoorsman, is the single largest financial supporter of Robert Kennedy Jr.'s Waterkeeper Alliance. He purchased Trinchera Ranch from Malcolm Forbes, who had permanently retired development rights on almost half the property. Opponents of Xcel's line stress eminent domain's threat to neighboring landowners, and see it as a clear choice between aesthetic values and unnecessary industrialization. But local county commissioners and a Boulder-based environmental group, Western Resource Advocates, favor the project.
Last year, when Idaho Power proposed a 299-mile 500-kV line connecting an Oregon substation near Boardman to another near Melba, Idaho, rural landowners and farmers started two groups, Stop Idaho Power and Protect Canyon County, and persuaded the company to redraw the route largely over federal land. "Our message all along," Protect Canyon County's Todd Lakey told Boise Weekly, "has been this is a public utility, and a public utility should be located on public land."
It's rarely that simple.
The federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 and many local government resolutions and ordinances encourage siting agencies to look first to federal lands. Montana's Major Facilities Siting Act has a similar preference for siting on federal lands, when and where it's "practical" to do so at a speed and cost comparable to private-land alternatives. But federal lands are saddled with overlapping protections and prohibitions. Routing lines across big chunks of federal land is seldom practically comparable to buying private easements and wielding eminent domain against holdouts.
Last October, President Obama signed a "memorandum of understanding" with nine federal agencies, ostensibly aimed at streamlining siting approval on federal land. But all it really does is ask the various agencies to play nice with each other and designate a single lead federal agency and bundle environmental reviews for projects that cross multiple jurisdictions.
MSTI's preferred route would use public land -- primarily road rights of way -- for 80 percent of its length, according to Fitzpatrick. The other 20 percent amounts to 86 miles over private land, much of it in Jefferson County, where Hanneman lives. Tim Bozorth, who's evaluating the proposal for the federal Bureau of Land Management, says the new federal memorandum impact on the ground has been "basically nothing." All the agencies still have their own mandates and management plans. An MSTI route through BLM and Forest Service land would quickly run aground on sage grouse protections, NEPA review, and the virtual certainty of environmental lawsuits.
"It becomes apparent to me," Bozorth deadpans, "why there isn't a major north-south line out of Montana already."
Tom Ring of Montana's Department of Environmental Quality is also hearing demands to move MSTI onto public lands or into corridors identified by the West-wide Energy Corridor initiative, another result of the 2005 Energy Policy Act. And he also sees problems: An existing federal corridor is too narrow to accommodate the new line, and some roadless national forest probably can't be crossed. And so on.
If it's hard to tell who's in charge, that's because nobody really is. Transmission lines, like rivers, are regional entities crossing purely political boundaries, and they inevitably generate cross-boundary conflicts. Groups like the Western Electricity Industry Leaders and the Western Governors' Association try to influence planning but exercise no overarching authority.
As a last resort, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can designate a transmission "congestion area" and then, if the states fail to dissolve the clog with new lines within a year, the project can be pushed through using the quasi-federal Western Area Power Administration or Bonneville Power Authority.
John Vincent, a Democrat, is one of five members of Montana's Public Service Commission, which oversees many utility-related issues. He has no direct influence on routing merchant lines like MSTI, but his district encompasses all five counties in MSTI's path, and he's taken a personal interest in opposing the project.
Montana contributes to climate change by burning and exporting coal and is planning to increase coal development, Vincent points out. In his view, building the MSTI line to encourage wind power won't make enough difference to justify the condemnation of private land. "I'm a big advocate for wind," he says, "but I don't believe that all wind and all transmission is created equal." The institutional environmental community, he says, isn't making those distinctions. "All you have to do is say 'wind' and that takes care of it, nothing else matters. It's wind, therefore it's good."
Vincent and Jim Jensen, the head of one of the state's leading environmental groups, the Montana Environmental Information Center, are longtime friends, but they're on opposite sides of the MSTI divide. Their difference limns the larger debate about renewable energy development. "In the 1960s and '70s," Jensen says, "this country made that choice to go down what (energy analyst) Amory Lovins calls 'the hard path,' where you (have) large, central generating stations transporting electricity over power lines to the load centers. We can't undo that. What we have to do is make the best out of the situation we're in, and that is to increase the amount of renewable energy in the total mix in the West. And you do that by making it where the wind blows and transporting it to where it's needed."
Traditionally, Montana's economy was built around exporting its resources: copper and timber and cattle. But Montana, like much of the West, is no longer primarily an industrial economy. Power lines are now often seen as an intrusion on what Larry Swanson, director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, calls the "landscape economy" -- which is as dependent on amenities like viewsheds as the old economy was on resource extraction.
Former Montana Public Service Commissioner Bob Anderson, who's now with the Western Grid Group, a clean energy advocate that is neutral on MSTI, sympathizes. MSTI opponents "care a lot about their places, and my heart goes out to them," he says. "But if we really are serious about addressing climate change, then we've got to reduce carbon emissions by about 80 percent by the year 2050. That's what the scientific community says. To do that, we have to retire coal plants -- most of them. And we can't reduce energy demand and retire coal by doing efficiency. You have to have renewables, and that means transmission to deliver that energy."
California's huge state-legislated green market has encouraged wind development in Montana and other Western states, but lately that's also become unsettled. California established its renewable portfolio -- that portion of the state's energy purchases that must come from renewable sources -- in 2002, and expanded it in 2006 to a target of 33 percent by 2020. But on Jan. 13, California's Public Utilities Commission decided that 75 percent of the renewable portfolio must come from in-state sources, to encourage home-grown development of wind and solar. Vincent and others now think that California might be able to fulfill its renewable requirements without importing energy from states like Montana and Wyoming.
California's decision "certainly changes market dynamics in the West," Van Jamison, who's with Gaelectric, a Montana wind developer, told the Montana Standard. NorthWestern spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch says that the company is "obviously aware" of "continuing market confusion," but California's turnaround, for the moment, "isn't really affecting us. Siting is our more immediate issue."
The uncertainty about MSTI includes the fact that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is tied up in court; Jefferson County sued for and won input into MSTI's siting, and the department has appealed to the state Supreme Court. The project appears hamstrung by legal process and public opposition.
Back in Whitehall, Hanneman and her compatriots climb into her Honda Insight hybrid. They drive 60 miles north to Helena, Montana's capital, to attend a hearing on Rep. Peterson's bill extending eminent domain. The standing-room-only crowd overflows into the hall.
A spokesman for the Montana Alberta Tie Ltd. power line, a construction lobbyist, four chambers of commerce and development councils, and NorthWestern Energy's Fitzpatrick speak in favor of extending eminent domain rights to merchant lines. Hanneman's contingent joins about 50 other vehement opponents, including at least one self-identified Tea Partier. Speakers for two unlikely allies -- the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Northern Plains Resource Council, a ranchers' environmental group -- also oppose the bill. The sometimes-heated testimony goes on for more than two hours.
So many want to speak that the committee chairman lets only the first half-dozen or so deliver full testimony. After that, each person is limited to saying whether or not the bill should be passed. Hanneman steps up to the mic and says she opposes the bill; later, she submits her testimony by e-mail, saying she wants "Montanans (to) retain their state and federal constitutional rights to private property."
Within a few days, the Montana House, dominated by Republicans, passes the bill anyway. Opponents will now work to defeat it in the state Senate. The odds are against them: "It's greased to slide right on through," Hanneman says. Several other Republican bills being considered in the Legislature would weaken the Montana Environmental Policy Act, making power lines easier to build and denying counties input. Rep. Flynn's bill supporting landowners has less traction but is still alive.
Hanneman worries that if MSTI is built, the route will become "a default energy corridor" for other new lines. A Gaelectric line that would complete the circuit between MATL and MSTI is already on the horizon. If new wind farms sprout as the developers and renewable energy advocates hope, each will have to shoot feeder lines to the main grid. As more wind energy comes online, even if it eventually replaces coal-fired power plants, Montana's landscape is likely to just get griddier. "We'll keep fighting anyway," Hanneman says.
This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.
Brad Tyer, former editor of the Missoula Independent and managing editor of the Texas Observer, writes from a cabin near Montana’s Georgetown Lake.