Path cleared for Wyo.-to-Nev. line seen as spur to wind development

By Scott Streater | 05/01/2015 01:13 PM EDT

The Obama administration is close to granting final approval to a multi-state power line project that would allow wind-generated electricity in Wyoming to power homes and businesses from Las Vegas to San Diego, Calif., but that still has some environmentalists concerned about potential impacts to greater sage grouse.

The Bureau of Land Management published in today’s Federal Register a voluminous final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the 727-mile-long TransWest Express transmission line project, which has been under federal review since 2007. The Obama administration named the Wyoming-to-Nevada line one of seven pilot projects that it targeted to "quickly advance" through the federal permitting process.

The TransWest Express line would carry as much as 3,000 megawatts of electricity — including wind-generated power from planned wind farms in Wyoming — from a substation in Sinclair, Wyo., in the south-central part of the state across portions of Colorado and Utah to a substation in southern Nevada, about 25 miles south of Las Vegas. Once placed into service in 2018, the project would have the capacity to transmit enough electricity to power about 1.8 million homes.

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Publication of the final EIS in today’s Register kicks off a 30-day review and public protest period running through June 1 concerning a number of BLM and Forest Service land-use plan amendments that are needed along the line’s route in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. BLM as early as next month could then issue a record of decision authorizing TransWest Express LLC, a subsidiary of Denver-based Anschutz Corp., to begin construction as early as next year, said Kara Choquette, a company spokeswoman.

BLM partnered on the final EIS with the Energy Department’s Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), which is jointly funding the TransWest Express project and is considering becoming a co-owner of the power line when it is completed.

BLM and WAPA will issue separate records of decision.

The power line advances President Obama’s plan to combat climate change, in which he challenged the Interior Department to approve 20,000 MW of renewable energy projects on public lands by 2020. BLM estimates that by carrying up to 3,000 MW of mostly wind-generated electricity, the project would avoid the emission of 4.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, or the equivalent of removing 890,000 cars from the nation’s highways.

"This final EIS is a major step forward in facilitating utility-scale renewable energy generation in Wyoming and providing clean energy to markets in the Desert Southwest," acting BLM Wyoming State Director Mary Jo Rugwell said in a statement.

Indeed, one of the chief objectives of the TransWest Express line is to help spur development to tap into the abundant wind energy resources in southern Wyoming by providing the transmission to move electricity to power-hungry load centers across the desert Southwest, into major load centers in Nevada and California.

Among other things, the transmission line is projected to carry electricity generated from the massive 3,000-MW Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project — also proposed by Anschutz — which BLM has already approved in south-central Wyoming and would be the largest wind farm in North America.

Bill Miller, TransWest’s president and CEO, called the completion of the final EIS "an important milestone" for the project, "while furthering national goals to create access to high-capacity renewable energy resources."

Wyoming has 1,410 MW of installed wind-generated capacity, enough to rank 15th nationwide, according to the American Wind Energy Association. But the south-central Wyoming region has the nation’s highest-capacity onshore wind energy resources, according to National Renewable Energy Lab statistics cited by TransWest Express, meaning measured wind speeds in the area are very high.

"We are here to help strengthen the energy highway by connecting communities with reliable power and clean generation," Mark Gabriel, WAPA’s administrator and CEO, said in a statement.

Sage grouse concerns

The $3 billion TransWest Express line, like so many other transmission projects planned across the West, had to be routed across a mixture of federal, state and private lands, carefully avoiding natural resource and permitting conflicts to the greatest extent possible.

While environmental groups like Defenders of Wildlife have praised the project proponents in the past for reaching out to them in an effort to avoid conflicts, the group was not pleased with the preferred route of the power line in the final EIS.

Defenders issued a statement today saying the route would have harmful impacts on greater sage grouse, desert tortoises and other wildlife, and it criticized BLM for rejecting what it called "less destructive alternative routes that could have been built on already disturbed lands and along existing corridors," such as state highways and roads.

"The BLM is undermining its own national greater sage grouse conservation planning process," Mark Salvo, Defenders’ director of federal lands conservation, said today in an email.

BLM is currently finalizing amendments to dozens of resource management plans and Forest Service land-use plans across the sage grouse’s 11-state Western range. The Fish and Wildlife Service is set to decide by Sept. 30 whether to propose listing the bird for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

"The TransWest route they’ve chosen slices right through the heart of the last best sage-grouse habitat in northwestern Colorado," Salvo added. "This area is considered a stronghold for the species. This decision is simply irresponsible, especially given the availability of other viable routes for the line."

BLM acknowledges that the TransWest Express project could affect sage grouse habitat, but says the project proponents have routed the line carefully and that any negative impacts are expected to be limited to habitat loss and fragmentation, rather than mortality.

BLM and WAPA divided the 727-mile project route into four regions for analysis and have identified a preferred route within each of the four regions.

BLM, WAPA and the project proponents say they believe they have sited the power line — which would require a 250-foot-wide right of way within a 2-mile-wide transmission corridor along the entire length of the project — to avoid Native American cultural sites, at least two national forests, and other historic sites and trails.

The proposed route of the line follows as closely as possible already designated utility corridors, including the West-wide Energy Corridor, which covers 6,000 miles of public lands in 11 Western states.

Most of the TransWest Express power line’s pathway, or nearly 490 miles, would run across lands managed by BLM, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Forest Service, including sections of the Uinta and Manti-La Sal national forests in Utah. A total of 185 miles of the line’s project route would cross private property, and 55 miles would cross state lands.

BLM rejected earlier proposed routes that would have routed the line through some tribal lands and a small portion of National Park Service lands, including a section of Dinosaur National Monument in northwest Colorado.

BLM also rejected a route that would have taken the line across the agency-managed Sunrise Mountain Instant Study Area east of Las Vegas. The 10,240-acre ISA is a popular hiking destination and includes Gypsum Cave, which BLM says holds some of the earliest evidence of human inhabitation in the western United States.

The project would require the Forest Service and BLM to amend a number of resource management and land-use plans along the line’s route in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada, mostly to add utility corridors for the line’s route, according to the final EIS.

Gabriel, the WAPA administrator, said they worked closely with BLM "on this comprehensive review of the environmental impacts" of the line, and that there are strong mitigation measures in place that "will guide our future decision making."

Miller, the TransWest official, also defended the project, saying they have developed a route that "reflects environmental balance, economic viability and extensive public input."

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