BLM advances massive Ore.-to-Idaho line for boosting Northwest capacity 

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, December 19, 2014

The Obama administration is advancing a 300-mile-long electricity transmission line project that it says is a priority for upgrading an aging and inadequate electrical grid in the Pacific Northwest but that carries concerns about potential impacts to sensitive wildlife and a Navy weapons testing center.

The Bureau of Land Management today announced it has completed a draft environmental impact statement for Idaho Power Co.’s proposed Boardman to Hemingway Transmission Line Project. The 500-kilovolt high-tower transmission line would travel from a proposed substation near Boardman, Ore., to an existing substation near Melba, Idaho, about 20 miles southwest of Boise.

The power line will connect at the Hemingway substation near Melba to the proposed nearly 1,000-mile-long Gateway West Power Line Project that stretches into southern Wyoming, creating a potential route for electricity generated from planned wind power projects in Wyoming to be transported to major load centers in the Pacific Northwest.

Only about 100 miles of the proposed Boardman-to-Hemingway transmission line would be routed on BLM, Forest Service or Bureau of Reclamation managed lands, with two-thirds of the project routed on private or state lands.

The draft EIS, which will be open for a 90-day public comment period ending March 19 when a public notice is formally published tomorrow in the Federal Register, analyzes the entire 300-mile route, but BLM will issue a right-of-way authorization only for the portion of the proposed power line project on federal lands.

Oregon and Idaho are conducting separate, concurrent reviews of the power line for both states.

“By conducting concurrent state and federal reviews, we can move these types of critical infrastructure projects forward in a more efficient manner that trims months, if not years, off the time it takes to complete the necessary reviews,” BLM Oregon/Washington State Director Jerry Perez said today in a statement. “We will continue to ensure that vital infrastructure is designed, built and maintained in a way that protects public health, safety and the environment, while creating jobs and expediting economic growth.”

BLM plans to issue a final EIS in early 2016 and Idaho Power plans to start construction the next year. Construction would not be completed and the line placed into service until at least 2020.

The project is a priority of the Obama administrations administration Interagency Rapid Response Team for Transmission. It was one of seven priority projects the Obama administration said in 2011 it would work to quickly move through the permitting process (Greenwire, Oct. 5, 2011).

But more than three years later, it’s not clear whether that pilot process succeeded.

Though the Boardman-to-Hemingway project is viewed as critical to upgrading an aging electricity grid, it’s easy for multistate projects to become ensnared in a web of siting and permitting issues. The Oregon-to-Idaho project has been under federal review since 2007, and the project proponents have revised the project at least twice, in 2011 and 2012, according to an advance notice in today’s Federal Register.

One of the biggest obstacles to the Boardman-to-Hemingway project is finding a route that causes the least impact to private property and environmentally sensitive landscapes — particularly to greater sage grouse and the Washington ground squirrel, both of which are candidates for Endangered Species Act protection. What’s more, large sections of the line in Oregon would cross private lands, and some farmers in the state have pushed back against plans to route the line across their properties.

BLM, the project proponents, the states of Oregon and Idaho, and a siting committee composed of stakeholders worked to develop a route that follows as closely as possible existing energy corridors, particularly the congressionally designated 6,000-mile-long West-wide Energy Corridor that stretches across 11 Western states and nearly 3 million acres of public land.

Roughly 47 percent of BLM’s preferred alternative in the draft EIS “is within or adjacent to designated corridors,” according to the advance notice.

“That was the goal, certainly,” said Tamara Gertsch, a BLM national project manager overseeing the Boardman-to-Hemingway transmission line project. “When the routes were designed and studied and laid out in the siting report, we tried to follow existing corridors where we could. On the northern end of the project, there’s a lot more private land, so it’s a little more challenging.”

But the proposed route would require amending the resource and land-use plans for BLM and Forest Service lands. These would be needed to address visual impacts at sites including the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. And an amendment would likely be needed for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Oregon to remove “trees larger than or equal to 21 inches in diameter” from the pathway of the proposed power line.

Gertsch said Idaho Power, working with the Fish and Wildlife Service and other cooperating agencies, is developing a sage grouse habitat mitigation plan. In addition, a Biological Resources Task Group comprised of project stakeholders developed a sage grouse “mitigation blueprint” and a draft compensatory habitat mitigation framework to guide the development of the habitat mitigation plan, according to BLM.

BLM and the project proponents are also working with the Navy, which is a cooperating agency, to ensure the power line project does not interfere with the Naval Weapons Systems Training Facility in Boardman, she said.

The 47,000-acre weapons testing facility is used by Navy and Oregon National Guard aircraft for aerial gunnery practice.

“Their concerns are with the tower heights, but they have been working with us,” Gertsch said.

Paul Kjellander, an Idaho Public Utility commissioner, said the power line project is important to the state.

Kjellander, a former administrator of the Idaho Office of Energy Resources, has followed the project for years and has been frustrated by the slow permitting process to get power line projects like the Boardman-to-Hemingway project approved.

“I’m glad to hear that it’s moving,” he said. “A major transmission line like this has the ability to make the [existing transmission] system more robust and move more power as we come out of the recession and see more opportunity for growth and development.”