Interior OKs partial Gateway West route amid siting concerns

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Interior Department today announced its final approval of the nearly 1,000-mile-long Gateway West Transmission Line Project that the Obama administration has made a top priority but that has been dogged by concerns it would damage sensitive wildlife habitat and view sheds.

Secretary Sally Jewell’s announcement of the completed record of decision (ROD) — signed by Don Simpson, the Bureau of Land Management’s Wyoming state director — acknowledged those siting concerns by leaving open the possibility that BLM could reject sections of the Wyoming-to-Idaho power line in southwest Idaho.

The concern is the westernmost section of the 990-mile-long power line and its impacts on a national conservation area and private landowners. The ROD approves eight of the 10 segments of the power line, allowing BLM to grant right-of-way permits to begin constructing segments across southern Wyoming and southeast Idaho, while federal and state agencies and the project proponents do more work to find a route in southwest Idaho that satisfies all parties involved.

If a resolution cannot be found, the agency might be forced to permanently defer the westernmost section of the power line at any number of substations in central Idaho.

“The BLM is committed to responsible siting of transmission projects to support a clean energy future for America,” Neil Kornze, BLM’s principal deputy director, said today in a statement

Still, the ROD marks a milestone for what would be the first major multistate high-tower power line project in decades.

The ROD will be published in tomorrow’s Federal Register, said Jessica Kershaw, an Interior spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.

The project proposed by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power Co. could carry up to 1,500 megawatts of what BLM says will be mostly wind-generated electricity to power-hungry load centers from Utah to Washington state.

While impressive on its own merits, Gateway West is just one piece of a proposed $6 billion Energy Gateway development project spearheaded by Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company, PacifiCorp, that would add roughly 2,000 miles of transmission lines capable of carrying 4,500 MW of electricity through Utah, Wyoming and Idaho. The other projects are the similarly named 400-mile-long Gateway South and 235-mile Gateway Central transmission lines.

Rocky Mountain Power completed the Gateway Central line in May.

“Gateway West is a high priority project of the president’s power infrastructure initiative — a common-sense approach that is speeding job creation in the near-term while spurring the economy and increasing the nation’s competitiveness in the long-term,” Jewell said today in a statement. “The line will strengthen the Western grid, bringing a diversified portfolio of renewable and conventional energy to meet the region’s projected growth in electricity demand.”

Unresolved issues

But the entire length of the Gateway West high-tower transmission line might never be built.

The biggest problem is a relatively small segment of line that would run near BLM’s Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, which covers 485,000 acres along the Snake River in southwest Idaho.

BLM’s preferred route for the line, which would stretch from Glenrock, Wyo., to a substation 30 miles southwest of Boise, Idaho, would stay north of the conservation area. But routing the high-tower power line outside the conservation area means it would pass through the towns of Kuna and Melba, Idaho, state officials have complained.

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R) late last year wrote a letter to then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar protesting that line segment and its impacts on private property. In choosing that route, Otter wrote, “BLM headquarters ignored two years of collaborative effort” with local officials, and he asked Salazar to instruct BLM officials and other agency decisionmakers to come to Idaho and revisit the issue (Greenwire, Jan. 28).

The power line project and its route have been dogged by concerns from environmentalists, local government leaders and private landowners since it was proposed about seven years ago.

Roughly half the line’s route is through federal land, including 200 miles in Idaho and 300 miles in Wyoming. In the checkerboard pattern of public and private land ownership, however, BLM cannot route the line entirely on BLM or Forest Service land.

BLM released a draft environmental impact statement for the project in 2011 with no preferred alternative. Idaho officials say they had worked closely with BLM and the project proponents to come up with a preferred route that they say ran partly through the Birds of Prey conservation area.

But BLM late last year released a preferred alternative that, among other things, avoided the conservation area and routed more of the line on private and local land (Greenwire, Oct. 8, 2012).

BLM received nearly 2,600 public comments on the draft EIS, most of them critical of one or more of the 10 proposed line segments. The comments raised significant concerns about everything from damage the line could cause to federally designated historic trails and raptor nests to the safety of Air Force flight training operations along the line’s route, though most of those issues have since been resolved (Greenwire, March 6, 2012).

PacifiCorp officials have said they are not worried. They know they must negotiate rights of way with landowners and must obtain a slew of state or county permits, and they have built other projects in segments.

Margaret Oler, a spokeswoman for Rocky Mountain Power in Salt Lake City, could not be reached for comment by publication time.

But Oler has said the company has had an ongoing and open dialogue with state and local leaders and property owners along the proposed line’s route for years.

The Gateway West project proponents and BLM have estimated that segments of the line will be completed between 2016 and 2021.