BLM approves ‘long overdue’ Northwest-Intermountain West line

Source: Scott Streater, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 20, 2017

The Trump administration has approved a 300-mile power line project that should dramatically improve electric transmission from the Pacific Northwest to the Intermountain West.

The Bureau of Land Management published a Federal Register notice today announcing a record of decision (ROD) approving Idaho Power Co.’s proposed Boardman-to-Hemingway transmission line project after a decadelong review.

The 500-kilovolt high-tower line — which would travel from a proposed substation to be built by the Bonneville Power Administration near Boardman, Ore., to an existing substation near Melba, Idaho, about 20 miles southwest of Boise — will have the capacity to transport 1,000 megawatts of electricity.

Construction of the estimated $1 billion project is scheduled to begin in 2021 and take about three years to complete, the Interior Department said.

The power line, which was first proposed in 2007, is a “national-level priority” and an “important component” of President Trump’s “all-of the-above-energy strategy that includes encouraging projects that help to strengthen America’s energy infrastructure,” Interior said.

The increase in transmission capacity “will allow greater use of intermittent sources of renewable energy, such as wind and solar, to connect to the grid,” the agency said.

The Boardman-to-Hemingway project — commonly referred to as the B2H project — was also a top priority of the Obama administration, in part because it is projected to create a potential route for electricity generated from planned wind power projects in the region, including Wyoming.

Obama’s Interagency Rapid Response Team for Transmission named it one of seven priority projects that it said in 2011 it would work to quickly move through the permitting process (Greenwire, Oct. 5, 2011).

But more than six years later, the project review has only now been completed.

“The Boardman to Hemingway Project is a Trump Administration priority focusing on infrastructure needs that support America’s energy independence,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement. “Today’s decision is the result of extensive public involvement and will support the environmentally responsible development of resources to meet the needs of communities in Idaho, Oregon, and the surrounding region.”

Issuance of the ROD drew widespread praise from congressional and state leaders, including Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R), who hinted at his frustration with the long permitting process in a statement today.

“It’s great to finally have an administration that recognizes the importance of working with states like Idaho to get important things done,” Otter said. “I’m pleased that our federal partners are moving toward making this important infrastructure upgrade a reality.”

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo (R) echoed Otter, saying in a statement, “BLM’s approval of this interstate transmission line is a long overdue decision.”

Review began 9 years ago

Though the Boardman-to-Hemingway project has been a priority of the Obama and Trump administrations and has been viewed as critical to upgrading an aging electricity grid, it’s not uncommon for multistate projects to become ensnared in a web of siting and permitting issues.

BLM first began an environmental impact statement for the Oregon-to-Idaho project in 2008, and the project proponents have revised the project at least twice, in 2011 and 2012.

President Trump has pledged to build up U.S. infrastructure, in part, by streamlining the review process.

Shortly after taking office, he signed an executive order that called on the White House Council on Environmental Quality to coordinate expedited permitting for infrastructure proposals from states and other government entities (Greenwire, Jan. 26).

The projects, according to the order, could include those aimed at “improving the U.S. electric grid.”

One of the biggest obstacles for the B2H project was finding a route that caused the least impact to private property and environmentally sensitive landscapes.

An example is the greater sage grouse.

Though BLM has reopened Obama-era federal conservation plans for the sage grouse and has taken steps to dismantle them, segments of the B2H project are carefully routed to avoid intersecting areas identified in those plans as priority grouse habitat.

What’s more, large sections of the line in Oregon would cross private land, and some farmers in the state pushed back against plans to route the line across their properties.

Only about 100 miles of the line’s route is on federal land managed by BLM, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation. Conversely, the line would cross about 190 miles of private lands and about 3 miles of state lands.

BLM, the project proponents, the states of Oregon and Idaho, and a siting committee composed of stakeholders worked to develop a route that follows existing energy corridors where possible.

BLM worked closely 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.

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

BLM agreed to reduce the width of the right of way for the power line to 90 feet from 250 feet for a 7-mile section “within and parallel to” the eastern boundary of the weapons testing facility, the ROD says.

The ROD also approves amending two BLM resource management plans covering about 94 acres to conform to visual resource management requirements.

The payoff is gaining the extra electricity capacity, which “will help stabilize the power grid in the Northwest,” said Katharine MacGregor, Interior’s acting assistant secretary for land and minerals management.