Congress to allow utility corridors across National Parks

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Under orders from Congress to move quickly, the Department of Energy and Bureau of Land Management will approve thousands of miles of new power line and pipeline corridors on federal lands across the West in the next 14 months.

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2006.

By Janet Wilson, Times Staff Writer

Under orders from Congress to move quickly, the Department of Energy and Bureau of Land Management will approve thousands of miles of new power line and pipeline corridors on federal lands across the West in the next 14 months. The energy easements are likely to cross national parks, forests and military bases as well as other public land.

Environmentalists and land managers worry about the risk of pipeline explosions and permanent scarring of habitat and scenery from pylons and trenches. Military officials have expressed concern that the installations could interfere with training.

WIDE OPEN: Mojave National Preserve is among the many federal wilderness holdings where power lines and pipelines could go. (L.K. Ho, LA Times)

But industry lobbyists and congressional policymakers said expedited approvals for new corridors were vital to ensuring that adequate power from coal beds, oil fields and wind farms in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho reached the booming population centers of the Southwest.

In California alone, officials predict they will need an additional 14,000 megawatts of electricity per year, over the current 57,000 megawatts, to serve an expected 13 million more people by 2014.

ExxonMobil, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas and Electric and others have proposed corridors in the state across Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Lassen Volcanic national parks as well as the Mojave National Preserve, several military bases, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and seven national forests.

Elsewhere, routes near Moab, Utah, the Cascades and Rocky Mountains have been proposed, some up to five miles wide and 2,000 miles long.

“We are concerned about our lands,” said Lee Dickinson, head of the National Park Service’s special uses division, who is on a joint federal agency task force designed to resolve conflicting needs. “They know that we are not thrilled.”

Department of Energy officials declined to provide an internal working map of which corridors were under consideration, saying it would be released only after environmental review. At that point, a map will be released showing possible routes, including those recommended by the department, and the public will have a chance to comment.

“We don’t want to confuse the public,” said David Meyer of the department’s Office of Electricity Deliverability and Energy Reliability.

Not all routes being considered will be approved, and attempts are being made to avoid sensitive areas “unless there’s a dire need,” said Julia Souder, who is managing the project for the department.

Acting at the behest of the nation’s largest utilities, Congress in its 2005 Energy Policy Act gave federal agencies until August 2007 to review and adopt major energy corridors across 11 states.

“That’s warp speed,” Scott Powers, a BLM official, said at a planning session last winter.

The legislation was designed to fast-track construction by requiring a single, overarching environmental review of the effect of dozens of energy corridors across federal land. The aim is to avoid time-consuming project-by-project reviews. Federal energy regulators were also given authority to designate power lines in the “national interest,” which would allow them to overrule federal agencies or states or counties that withheld approval for segments of projects.

“They’ve taken away our sovereignty,” said John Geesman, who sits on the California Energy Commission. “We’re looking down the barrel of a gun.”

Geesman said state officials were partly to blame for not designating more corridors sooner. But he said the law Congress passed went too far. As challenging as it is to find room for long corridors, Geesman said, they should not cross sensitive public lands.
Hotly contested proposals such as those across Anza-Borrego and the Cleveland and San Bernardino national forests could now be approved by federal officials if California said no.

Environmentalists say existing energy corridors on public land, most of them authorized before laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act were passed, present a cautionary tale. Fuel pipelines have exploded or leaked because of sabotage or natural disaster, said Bill Corcoran of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. In March 2005, a landslide in the Angeles National Forest broke a crude oil pipeline, dumping 126,000 gallons into Pyramid Lake, which supplies drinking water to Los Angeles.

Environmentalists and some federal scientists say the huge number of potential new corridors and accelerated timeline are a recipe for ecological devastation. They note that the government’s hurried environmental review of the proposed corridors, to be completed by year’s end, will miss key breeding seasons of affected fauna.

“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. They want to get by with a lot of sloppy, dirty work,” said Howard Wilshire, a retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist who for 20 years studied human effects on public lands.

He said that with an environmental study of the arid Southwest scheduled for the hot summer months, many species would not be documented because plants will have died back and animals will be underground. Wilshire said his studies and others on the effects of roads, power lines and other linear development across the Mojave found that endangered species such as the desert tortoise were killed during construction, and that the projects permanently fragmented and eroded critical habitat.

Although power lines appear to sail through the air, every 160-foot-tall pylon is built on a concrete pad with a spur road connecting to a longer maintenance road, creating an artificial barrier across the fragile desert floor. Wilshire said bulldozing trenches for pipelines had similar effects.

“We’re talking about millennia, if ever, for recovery of an ecosystem,” he said.

Heath Nero of the Wilderness Society said that although it was good to study cumulative impacts, each project should also be examined.

“There potentially is greatness to this if we can get them to keep the corridors relatively narrow and placed in appropriate areas, which … are along already disturbed areas like freeways,” he said. “There’s two things that could go wrong…. One is to inappropriately site them in national parks…. Problem No. 2 is the categorical exclusion of specific projects from full environmental review.”

Military officials have different concerns.

“Although I have yet to see a full map, the small-scale map I did see appeared to show the corridors running through military training grounds,” wrote Army official Stephen Hart of Ft. Lewis, Wash., in public comments to energy task force staff.

Project staffers said they were trying to bundle most projected lines near existing power lines and freeways, and said they would use data from agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM to protect species and habitat. Energy officials did not return calls for comment about military concerns.

Dickinson of the National Park Service said energy officials were trying to address her agency’s concerns and that Lassen, Death Valley and Joshua Tree had been spared “at this moment.” The Mojave preserve is still on the map, she said, as are Canyonlands National Park in Utah and Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Las Vegas. Corridors may also be designated on federal land next to parks that would affect visitors’ views, she said.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who wants corridors built in his state, said he didn’t like the federal government usurping state authority. He said western states had worked for years to map future lines.

He said he would sue if necessary, depending on which corridors were picked.

“I’d rather not have to get to lawyering, but we may have to,” he said. “Washington, D.C., is seldom helpful for those of us who live in the West, and this is another example…. The good news is their reach is so inefficient, they may never get it done.”

But energy lobbyists and policymakers said that because the White House and Congress imposed a tight deadline, federal agencies were moving with unprecedented speed.

A bipartisan majority headed by Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the power corridor legislation.

“We’re very encouraged,” said Meg Hunt, lobbyist for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents utilities in the U.S. serving 71% of all consumers. She said designating corridors regionally had been in the works for 20 years but had repeatedly stalled when field staff in federal or state agencies didn’t like particular projects.

“Shortly after President George W. Bush came into office, there was a renewed recognition that there was going to need to be a major build-out in transmission infrastructure to meet western needs,” she said. “I do think the time constraint Congress imposed was the genesis.”

California state parks officials are separately considering dozens of development proposals of all kinds, including toll roads and power lines.

Geesman said it was unclear who would ultimately pay for the new utility lines, and the public might have to pay the tab, through construction subsidies or bill increases. Utilities prefer public land because access across it is free or cheap, requiring modest lease payments at most, and poses fewer problems than securing rights from multiple private properties, he said.

Marny Funk, spokeswoman for Republicans on the Senate energy committee, noted that three-quarters of some western states were public land.

Corridor width is also an issue. Southern California Edison wants a mile-wide corridor across the Mojave, for example. Hunt of the Edison Electric Institute said bundling many lines close together could jeopardize safety and reliability. But she said energy companies would be willing to share corridors if exempted from full environmental review on specific projects.

Funk of the Senate energy committee, which oversaw the bill, said that was one of the law’s main thrusts.

“Environmentalists use these reviews as a way to stall projects for years to keep them from ever being built,” she said.

Others said that although it was difficult to balance competing needs on increasingly scarce public land, that was no excuse for shortcuts.

“It’s a rushed process with little opportunity for the public to comment on or even know what highly public lands are at risk for development,” said Corcoran of the Sierra Club. “The federal government should not make our public lands legacy a dumping ground for industry.”

Once the western lands project is complete, Congress ordered it to be replicated across the rest of the contiguous U.S. by 2009.