The Obama administration is slowly taking the first steps to revise potentially large sections of a congressionally designated 6,000-mile-long energy corridor as mandated by a nearly 2-year-old legal settlement with environmental groups that claimed the original corridor unnecessarily tore through sensitive landscapes and fails to advance renewable energy development.
But it could be years before any substantive revisions are made to dozens of contested sections of the "West-wide Energy Corridor" that stretches across 11 Western states and nearly 3 million acres of public land, including federal wildlife refuges and key habitat for greater sage grouse. That's due mostly to a lack of federal funding that has prevented the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and the Department of Energy from even starting a base-line corridor study that was supposed to be completed in July.
The agencies are also waiting for Congress to allocate money for a more detailed, landscape-level review of the corridor -- a key provision of the 2012 legal settlement with conservation groups that is supposed to correct contested sections of the corridor that if left unchanged could allow transmission lines and oil, natural gas and hydrogen pipelines through sensitive areas such as along the border of Arches National Park in southern Utah.
BLM, the Forest Service and DOE likely will not meet a deadline this summer to submit the first round of recommended changes or deletions to sections of the corridor, as per the legal settlement, though federal officials say they are confident the corridor review study will begin this summer and that the first regional review will kick off this fall.
"We'd like to get started as soon as possible on the regional reviews, perhaps this fall," said Stephen Fusilier, BLM's transmission and energy corridor program lead in Washington, D.C. "Right now, we are working to lay out the foundation and get everything in line so can move when we get funding."
The study, when done, will only make recommended changes to the corridors. BLM and the Forest Service would need to conduct separate environmental reviews to amend land-use plans before making any changes. Depending on the size and extent of any proposed change, it could require conducting an environmental impact statement that is expensive and can take years to complete, said Fusilier, who's overseeing the corridor settlement issues for the agency.
In the meantime, BLM last month issued internal instructions to agency staff concerning how to address project proposals within the corridors, with an emphasis on trying to avoid projects in contested sections of the route.
"They are making progress," said Alex Daue, assistant director for renewable energy with the Wilderness Society in Denver. "It is a long process, but it is an important one. Establishing a corridor for energy development is important."
The West-wide Energy Corridor is viewed as critical to expanding and overhauling transmission capacity and an aging electrical grid system that has not kept up with growth in the West. The corridor is also meant to provide a designated thruway for new oil, natural gas and hydrogen pipelines.
Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 directed federal land managers to designate energy corridors to facilitate the development of electricity transmission and distribution facilities on federal public land in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. The West-wide Energy Corridor is the largest project conceived to date under the 2005 mandate.
"I think it's good to designate corridors so at least everyone knows where the transmission will be in the future, which is good whether it's renewable or traditional [energy] generation," said Josh Case, chief executive officer of Energy Capital Group LLC, a Provo, Utah-based renewable energy developer. "That certainty of where transmission will be in the future is important."
The corridor, however, can't fulfill its promise until the siting concerns raised by environmental groups are sufficiently addressed.
The Interior and Agriculture departments, which jointly manage much of the public lands in the West, formally adopted the corridor route into 92 BLM resource management plans and 38 Forest Service land management plans in January 2009, just before the George W. Bush administration left office.
But within weeks of the formal adoption the energy corridor, environmental groups including the Wilderness Society and Center for Biological Diversity began to notify the Interior, Agriculture and Energy departments that they would sue to stop development of the corridor, claiming the government failed to meet requirements under the Endangered Species Act to fully evaluate the effects of transmission lines on salmon, sage grouse and other threatened wildlife.
The resulting 2009 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California claimed that the federal agencies "created a sprawling, hopscotch network of 6,000 miles of rights of way" without considering environmental impacts, analyzing alternatives, weighing federal policies that support renewable energy, ensuring the corridors' consistency with federal and local land-use plans, and consulting other federal agencies or Western states and local governments.
The 15 plaintiffs -- which also included Defenders of Wildlife, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club -- also claimed the energy corridor plan perpetuates the use of coal-fired power in the West and, in many cases, ignores or underserves a number of areas with ample renewable energy resources (Greenwire, July 8, 2009).
The two sides settled in July 2012. Terms of the settlement, filed in federal court in San Francisco, require BLM, the Forest Service and DOE to revise the West-wide Energy Corridor to facilitate renewable energy in Arizona, Nevada and California, and prevent what the conservation groups describe as a web of poorly sited pipelines and power lines across the West (EnergyWire, July 5, 2012).
The settlement also outlines specific sections of the corridor route -- termed "corridors of concern" -- in all 11 states that the conservation groups identified "as having specific environmental issues." Those include sections of the energy corridor crossing core habitat for greater sage grouse in Wyoming, as well as the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Nevada and the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in south-central New Mexico, according to the settlement.
Focus on making progress
Though the conservation groups are eager to see improvements to the West-wide Energy Corridor, they are not complaining about the timeline, noting that BLM in particular has made concerted efforts to comply with the mandates in the settlement agreement.
"It is challenging that funding is a limitation for them, but we have seen progress and a commitment from BLM to moving forward," Daue said. "We think it's important they maintain a focus on moving forward and developing recommendations."
On that front, BLM and the Forest Service in March opened a 60-day request for information seeking public input on what issues should be addressed in the corridor study, as well as what changes should be made to the corridors in the regional reviews.
The public comment period ended this week.
BLM, the Forest Service and DOE, as required by the settlement, last year signed a memorandum of understanding and formed an interagency working group that will oversee the corridor study and the periodic regional reviews.
The Interior Department's proposed fiscal 2015 budget includes a requested $5 million increase to BLM's Cadastral, Lands and Realty Management program, a portion of which will go toward "revising energy corridors," including funding the regional reviews.
And BLM last month issued an instruction memorandum directing agency employees on how to handle project proposals within the corridors, particularly the corridors of concern.
The memorandum directs land managers to instruct project proponents in writing that if they apply to build a project in corridor of concern that it could involve "significant environmental impacts," may require "extensive mitigation measures" and could be challenged.
The Forest Service is working to adopt a nearly identical interim directive to its employees concerning projects and development within the corridor, said Tiffany Holloway, an agency spokeswoman in D.C.
Another idea that is being discussed privately among the federal agencies, and is specifically mentioned in the legal settlement, is amending some of the contested corridor sections as part of ongoing BLM efforts to revise resource management plans across the West to incorporate greater sage grouse protections.
Fusilier, the BLM transmission and energy corridor program lead, said some specific changes are being discussed.
"There are some proposals out there," he said. "But they are all in the administrative draft stage and have not been publicly released."
Few experts deny that the nation's electricity grid needs a major overhaul.
Congress, in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, required land management agencies like BLM to begin designating energy corridors to facilitate the expansion of the power grid. Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's first secretarial order in March 2009 was to make the production and delivery of renewable energy a top priority, with a key piece being the securing of rights of way for new transmission in the West.
So far, portions of several proposed large-scale transmission lines would be routed in the West-wide Energy Corridor. Those projects include the nearly 1,000-mile-long Gateway West project traversing southern Wyoming and Idaho, and the 725-mile-long TransWest Express project.
Daue said the West-wide Energy Corridor represents "smart planning for all energy development" and that the goal of the environmental groups' 2009 lawsuit "was not to eliminate all of the corridors, but rather help create a responsible network of corridors that supports renewable energy while avoiding sensitive wildlands."
Critics say one of the shortcomings of the corridor plan -- studied in a detailed programmatic environmental impact statement completed in 2008 and adopted in January 2009 -- is that BLM, the Forest Service and DOE did not really evaluate impacts to the many private and state lands that dot the corridor route.
But BLM has considered nonfederal lands in other energy projects, most notably in Arizona with the Restoration Design Energy Project in which the agency designated 192,100 acres of renewable energy development areas on BLM land.
"That same type of analysis would be good on these transmission corridors," said Ian Dowdy, the Sonoran Institute's sun corridor program director in Phoenix.
The Sonoran Institute participates in a solar working group that includes electricity utilities in the state like Tucson Electric Power, solar energy developers such as First Solar Inc., and other conservation groups liked the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club.
"The West-wide Energy Corridor is one of the main topics on our agenda the last few years," Dowdy said. "We've come up with some really great solutions."
One would be to alter the route of the corridor in Arizona to follow the proposed Interstate 11 highway that's planned to connect Phoenix and Las Vegas.
The working group of Arizona officials has identified tens of thousands of acres in the Restoration Design Energy Project area that are within 20 miles of the proposed I-11, meaning solar development in these zones would be relatively near the transmission lines in the West-wide Energy Corridor, Dowdy said.
"People have not wanted to see power lines between cities on highways," he said. "But that's got to be one of the better ideas."
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