BLM again grapples with massive project’s path in Idaho

Source: Scott Streater, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Bureau of Land Management’s yearslong odyssey to approve the final two sections of a massive Wyoming-to-Idaho power line project is taking another complicated twist.

BLM published in today’s Federal Register a formal notice of intent to prepare an environmental assessment (EA) that will evaluate the impacts of altering the final two sections in Idaho of the nearly 1,000-mile-long Gateway West Transmission Line Project to run inside a federal raptor sanctuary.

The EA is now open for a 30-day public scoping period through Sept. 27 to gather input on what should be included in the assessment.

BLM originally approved the Idaho segments in the final days of the Obama administration, which made the Gateway West project a top priority, in large part because it is projected to carry up to 1,500 megawatts of mostly wind-generated electricity in Wyoming and Idaho to power-hungry load centers from Utah to Washington state (Greenwire, Jan. 20).

But Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R) and other state and local government leaders objected that the approved route mostly avoided the BLM-managed Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area (NCA) in favor of private lands and greater sage grouse habitat.

To avoid almost-certain litigation, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) last spring introduced H.R. 2104, which mandated that BLM route the final two sections of the power line through portions of the Birds of Prey NCA. The bill, co-sponsored by fellow Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador (R), also required BLM to formally offer Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power Co. rights of way grants inside the NCA within 90 days of the legislation becoming law.

Simpson’s bill — which allows the line to cross about 2,600 acres previously within the Birds of Prey NCA that will now be managed for multiple use — was included in the huge fiscal 2017 omnibus spending package in May approved by Congress and signed into law by President Trump.

As required by the legislation, BLM last month offered the right of way grants through the Birds of Prey NCA to Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power.

The issue now is that BLM must formally approve reconfiguring the sections of the line to connect with the segments authorized by Simpson’s bill.

The EA is being launched to find those routes, “and only route alternatives that would feasibly connect with the portions of these segments” will be considered, said Heather Feeney, a BLM spokeswoman in Boise, Idaho.

The EA will also need to analyze seven amendments to three current resource management plans. Those amendments are needed to run sections of the line outside existing utility corridors and to comply with visual resource management requirements mandated in the RMPs.

Feeney said BLM is confident it can issue a final EA and a “finding of no new significant impact” approving the routes through the Birds of Prey NCA by next spring.

“Completing the EA will give all interested parties the opportunity to participate fully as the BLM processes the remaining portion of the right of way application for the project,” she said.