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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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.