FEDS, States Moving Ahead on Energy Transmission Corridors

May 9, 2007

In an effort to expedite development of major energy transmission lines that would help feed growing energy demand in the US, the federal government is pushing forward with multiple efforts to make the necessary lands available. However, the new processes through which the feds are designating potential corridors are raising many questions among key players, including federal agencies, members of Congress, state and local officials, utilities, industry, and concerned individuals.

In one federal effort, the Department of Energy announced April 26, 2007, its proposal for two "National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors." These sprawl over all or parts of 11 states and Washington, DC, in two regions - the Southwest (CA, AZ, and NV) and the Mid-Atlantic (DC, DE, MD, NJ, NY, OH, PA, VA, and WV). Authority for these National Corridors is derived from section 1221(a) of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. DoE: Rachael Beitler, 202-586-4940; release and National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors and Congestion Study.

The proposal identifies each broad corridor using county boundaries, and highlights existing transmission lines, as well as areas of greatest congestion. If approved, the corridor designations would set up a process that allows local governments, industries, individuals, and others to haggle over energy transmission corridors for a period of time, then allow the federal or state government to sanction the use of eminent domain if necessary to make sure the corridors work on county, city, and private lands. However, if the corridor that is finally agreed upon doesn't line up with a desired corridor on federal, state, or tribal lands, which aren't directly covered by this process, the applicant for the transmission line will still need to find a suitable alignment through those lands. An angle to keep in mind is the degree to which federal, state, or tribal agencies scrutinize their lands in any of these corridors, should they be instructed to expedite approvals "in the national interest."

The National Corridor designations don't necessarily mandate construction of new lines, since the process still allows for alternative means of reducing demand, such as conservation, increased energy efficiency, or siting additional generation close to customers.

DoE contends that no environmental assessment of these corridors is needed, since they are generalized and involve neither a proposal to build a specific line nor any siting decisions (though the agency acknowledges that an environmental assessment of some type would be needed at the time a specific line is proposed within a corridor).

There are no immediate plans to designate a National Corridor elsewhere in the country, Beitler says. Designation of any future National Corridor may be affected by lessons learned with the first two, and by findings of DoE's next annual report on this topic, expected in August 2007.

The public comment period on the two proposed National Corridors ends July 6, 2007, following publication of a May 7, 2007, notice in theFederal Register: PDF file or HTML page (loads faster). Public meetings are scheduled for May 15 in the Washington, D.C., area; May 17 in San Diego; and May 23 in New York City. Four June meetings are on tap in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, and Rochester, NY. Specific dates, times, and locations are expected to be announced by mid-May in the Federal Register.

In a separate process that overlaps with the designated Southwest National Corridor, five federal agencies, including DoE, are preparing a preliminary environmental impact statement (PEIS) for energy transmission corridors crisscrossing 11 western states (known as the West-wide Energy Corridor project, and authorized by Section 368 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005). Release of the PEIS continues to be pushed back, and is now expected around the end of June 2007. For more details, see TipSheet of Nov. 9, 2005.

These corridors - which likely will be relatively narrow corridors for each proposed line, maybe just hundreds of yards or a few miles wide, covering a range of energy sources, such as electricity, oil, natural gas, and hydrogen - technically affect just federal and state lands. DoE's Beitler says that no county, city, or private lands will be crossed by any of these corridors, but that should be confirmed when the PEIS is released. If county, city, or private lands are affected, it may again be up to the transmission line applicant to find a suitable route across these lands, but that also should be confirmed.

Along with Beitler, two people who may be able to provide some clarification as these processes unfold are DoE's Joann Wardrip (202-586-7936), and BLM's Heather Feeney, a spokeswoman for the West-wide Energy Corridor project (202-452-5031).

Parallel with these federal efforts are numerous state and local efforts that are moving along. In some cases, there may be conflicts with the federal efforts, though federal officials say they have been soliciting local feedback. In other cases, some players in the local efforts are saying the federal designations are unnecessary, since the corridors are being worked out already.

A few examples - sometimes involving the irony of providing additional transmission lines through relatively undisturbed land to service renewable energy sources such as wind and ethanol - include:

CALIFORNIA: Christian Science Monitor, April 24, 2007, by Daniel Wood.

CALIFORNIA/ARIZONA/NEVADA: California Energy Circuit, May 4, 2007, by Arthur O'Donnell.

MONTANA and ALBERTA: Great Falls (MT) Tribune, April 22, 2007, by Karl Puckett.

COLORADO AND KANSAS: Federal Register notice of Eastern Plains Transmission Project, Jan. 19, 2007 (includes information on participants, and public comments and meetings).

COLORADO: Sterling Journal-Advocate, April 14, 2007, by K.C. Mason (covers multifaceted legislation of the Colorado General Assembly, HB07-1150 (find it here), that includes provisions for transmission lines to aid development of wind and ethanol plants; as of May 7, 2007, expected to be signed by Gov. Bill Ritter).

DELAWARE (and other Mid-Atlantic states): Wilmington News Journal, April 29, 2007, by Aaron Nathans.

In addition, there is some media coverage of the use of local generation sources that may reduce the need for additional energy transmission from remote sources. One example: The Environment Report (Great Lakes Radio Consortium), April 30, 2007, by Lisa Ann Pinkerton.