An octopus wants to eat the West


What’s 3,500 feet wide, 6,055 miles long and 2.9 million acres big? That’s wider than Hoover Dam, bigger than Yellowstone National Park and almost three times as long as the Mississippi River. This behemoth goes by the name of the West-Wide Energy Corridor, and if you live in the West it could soon devour a landscape near you.

This huge new system of energy corridors was mandated by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. You remember 2005: That was when newly re-elected President Bush claimed a “mandate” and Congress was controlled by Republicans. The Energy Policy Act was a grab bag of tax breaks and incentives to various sectors of the energy industry that failed to raise vehicle mileage standards or take any other meaningful steps to reduce energy demand. Section 368 of the law directed the Secretaries of the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy and Interior to designate corridors on federal land in 11 Western states for oil, gas and hydrogen pipelines and electrical power lines. These agencies have now released the federal West-wide Energy Corridor Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, a three-volume document totaling well over 1,000 pages.

If its bureaucratic verbiage numbs the brain, its system maps should make anyone sit up and take notice. Check them out at They show a network of cracks spreading across the West, from Puget Sound to El Paso, and from San Diego to the Little Bighorn. On these maps, our beloved West looks like a shattered and poorly mended dinner plate. And that is an entirely accurate image.

These new energy corridors -- averaging two-thirds of a mile wide -- will fracture a landscape that is already a maze of hairline cracks -- the lines made by highways, railroads and the current, comparatively delicate energy rights-of-way. These existing corridors have been enough to severely fragment habitat in the West, interfering with the movements of pronghorn, elk and bison, denying undisturbed wild areas to wolves and grizzly bears, and weakening the ecological health of deserts, grasslands and forests.

The West-Wide Energy Corridor, if enacted, would be a death sentence for many wildlife populations. The corridors it outllnes would cross national wildlife refuges, national recreation areas, national monuments and national parks. One tentacle would split the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming; another would run the length of California’s Owens Valley between Sequoia and Death Valley national parks; another would cut from Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado to Bandelier National Monument near Santa Fe.

You have to wonder why the government didn’t simply use the existing system of energy corridors and rights of way. And here is the government’s answer: ”This option was considered but eliminated for a number of reasons. Many of the existing energy corridors and utility rights-of-way … are sized for relatively small transport systems (both in terms of capacity and distance) and could neither support added systems nor be expanded to accommodate additional energy transport facilities. These limitations make them too fragmentary or localized to serve the need for long-distance energy transport across the West.”

Well, many readers may think, fair enough. We do have to upgrade our energy delivery systems, don’t we? Isn’t this an example of the government being prudent and planning for the future?

Arising out of the political context of 2005, the Energy Policy Act did not entertain the possibility that energy use could actually be reduced through conservation, and it gave little consideration to local power generation by wind farms or solar arrays, for example, that would not require massive, long-distance energy corridors. In other words, the West-Wide Energy Corridor was never a prudent attempt to plan for the future: it simply takes a failed energy distribution model and makes it bigger.

Then there’s the contentious issue of property rights. On the maps, the lines representing the corridors are frequently interrupted, only to pick up again after a gap. Those gaps are private land; the map shows only the rights of way proposed for federal land. Obviously, those gaps must be filled in, and if you happen to be a landowner in the way, watch out!

The West-Wide Energy Corridor analysis is open for public comment until Feb. 14, and so far, what appears to be a land grab has received little media attention. If you value the integrity of our public lands and the sanctity of private property, you owe it to yourself to take a look at

To me, it looks like an octopus trying to devour the West.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a biologist and writer in Ashland, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Jan 23, 2008 11:22 AM

Hey Pepper, how are we supposed to get all that energy from renewable sources that you love to the consumer?  Do you think electricity is magically made when wind hits the turbine and distributes itself to all the homes around the nation?

Seriously.  We have zero infrastructure right now for renewable energy.  We don't even have enough infrastructure for traditional sources.  You give the typical knee-jerk anti-development rhetoric that gets us absolutely no where in a constructive discussion of energy.  I can't stand when environmentalists resist every and all development and don't even bother to pose a solution to real problems.  Pepper, please tell us how we are to implement an aggressive renewable energy campaign without infrastructure?  Your position baffles me.  I guess we are relegated to these options: 1) we produce very little domestic energy but instead rely solely on imported fossil fuels or 2) We all go live in caves.  Or maybe your solution is the other enviro sound bite: we’ll just conserve!  Please make room for me in that hole you live in. It sounds nice in there.


Jan 23, 2008 04:12 PM

If there is any "knee jerking" going on it's from the Anonymous poster. 

NEPA requires that all EIS's investigate a range of alternatives.  Surely the existing grid can be upgraded to handle additional sources of electricity.

 The biggest issue with this proposal is how do Mr Bush's oil and gas cronies get their product to the market the cheapest or even at tax payers expense.  These companies have paid for their own easements and pipelines for a long time.  I think they can afford to keep doing it.

This  is not about lower prices at the gas pumps or getting electricity from the wind farms to the city, this is about more profits for the oil and gas industry.

Jan 24, 2008 12:25 PM

The West needs a Smart Grid - which can make renewables like solar and wind more effective by balancing out their intermittent nature and making the grid itself efficient enough to ease the demand strain and delay need for more generation or at least limit what's required. Smart Grid does this by providing real-time information about what power is available when, and where and when it is needed on the grid. Colorado Governor Ritter talked about need for smart grid to improve renewables during his testimony before Congress last year: "To create a large network of renewable resources, we need a large network of integrated transmission capable of managing these resources. We need a 'Smart Grid.'"  Of course grid upgrades like additional transmission lines will be required too, but a Smart Grid could likely knock a few tentacles off of the octopus.

Jan 26, 2008 02:54 PM

Pepper Trail is exactly right. We need less roads and highways; fences and transmission lines.     We are cutting the pie ( or cake ) into too many pieces to leave us any wildlife or landscape /viewshed!

Jan 28, 2008 11:01 AM

Anonymous poster #2:  The EIS analyzed a "No Action" alternative, which would mean no new corridors would be designated.  What exactly is your issue with the range of alternatives?

I am not a fan of many of the actions the Energy Bill calls for.  I am certainly not a fan of Bush's oil cronies and I do concede that the 2005 EB is a handout to big oil and gas.  But the position that we don’t need any more transmission corridors is ludicrous.  Domestic energy generation is growing.  Renewables are not growing fast enough for my tastes, but this might change soon.  The infrastructure is not large enough to handle the increases in supply.  We simply will not have the current capacity to handle it.  Do you deny these facts?

The majority of the corridors you see on the maps ARE EXISTING CORRIDORS. Of course, Pepper truncated that quote. Here’s what the last sentence says: “In fact, about 60 percent of the proposed corridors incorporate existing locally designated energy corridors and/or utility ROWs.” This is the idea.  Use the ones that are already out there!  The quote Pepper has above is explaining why we can’t ONLY go with existing corridors.  As the quote says, there’s simply not the capacity there currently. In a 100’ wide right-of-way, there is only so much room for pipes.  I would love for you to bring some facts to the table that prove otherwise.  I like Pepper’s statement about local power generation by wind farms or solar arrays, but this is not a realistic silver bullet solution.  We should move in that direction, for sure, but that still doesn’t mean we don’t need any new corridors.

I only want what is absolutely necessary for our energy independence. But to ignorantly dismiss any development at all is not helping the solution.  Why couldn’t Pepper make this argument instead of “corridors are bad. We don’t want any”?  Please do comment on the EIS.  But unlike Pepper’s and Anonymous poster #2’s, make them constructive.

Sincerely, Anonymous poster #1.


Jan 28, 2008 11:02 AM

Yes, I agree with the "smart grid" idea.  My home state, CO, for example, is the headwater for a huge population of humans and other creatures.  Destroy the ecosystem by cutting up the landscape and drilling for gas, etc., and we'll destroy the rivers and aquifers.  Water & air should be the first things protected before any other decisions are made.  The health of wildlife populations is in direct correlation to the health of the ecosystem humans depend on for health as well.  Who knows, maybe we're already too late, but I'd like to think there's still hope.


Beth Q

Hotchkiss, CO 

Jan 28, 2008 11:21 AM

Hey guys, I have a quote for you.  Read Ray Ring's campaign speech the West wants to hear?  Here's the first one:

"We've always been opposed to building unnecessary transmission lines.  But there's a ton of necessary transmission that needs to happen now.  If we are serious, as an environmental community, about the potential for renewable fuels to replace fossil fuels, we have to make this happen..."  Carl Zichella, Sierra Club regional director for California, Nevada and Hawaii.

I'm afraid Pepper and Anonymous poster #2 don't grasp this fact.  In fact, I think you might fall into the trap Ray described as "Some environmentalists will oppose almost any proposal."  This is exactly what I'm talking about. The way to counter Big Oil and Bush's propaganda and extremism isn't with more propaganda and extremism. It's by sticking with science and talking about realistic solutions.  We make them look like fools that way.