House bill would expand FERC’s authority to site power lines

Source: Hannah Northey • E&E • Posted: Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A House Republican has reintroduced legislation to grant the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission greater authority to overrule state opposition and ensure the construction of power lines.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin introduced H.R. 3280, the “Powering America for Tomorrow Act,” which would lay out a process for regional transmission planning and expand FERC’s “backstop authority” over contested projects.

The measure would amend the Federal Power Act to allow FERC to overrule a state’s denial to site a power line within one year. States would, however, retain exclusive authority to site transmission lines that replace or update facilities or are deemed crucial to the regional economy or reliability.

Sensenbrenner’s bill would also repeal the Energy Department’s authority to designate transmission corridors and expand FERC’s backstop authority nationwide.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act allows DOE to designate “national interest energy transmission corridors” where overloaded power lines threaten the grid’s reliability. Utilities in those regions can seek fast-track approval for permits to build new power lines by asking FERC to use its backstop authority to permit power lines for which states have withheld approval for more than a year.

An identical bill last year failed to make it out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Sensenbrenner said in a statement that the new legislation, which was referred to Energy and Commerce, would eliminate the “politicization of the [national interest electric transmission corridors] process that has beleaguered the current backstop authority.”

Rob Thormeyer, a spokesman for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, said his group opposes the legislation. “It takes the local element out of siting, shutting out consumers and landowners,” he said in an email. “It would create a larger federal bureaucracy likely resulting in the unnecessary and inefficient building of transmission.”

The legislation arrives on the heels of Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s decision not to transfer DOE’s siting authority to FERC to designate the corridors and instead increase coordination between the two agencies (E&ENews PM, Oct. 11).

Chu said he would not delegate DOE’s authority to FERC to solely designate congestion corridors under Section 216 of the Federal Power Act but said the agencies will work closely together to review both the corridors and proposed projects.

Chu had circulated the proposal to address a February decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that ordered DOE to rewrite its national congestion study and corridor designations (Greenwire, Feb. 2).

States opposed the plan, saying it would stifle development, trigger lawsuits and damage states’ relationships with the federal government (Greenwire, Sept. 9).