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

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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.