Lawmaker drops bill to expand FERC’s ability to site power lines 

Source: Hannah Northey and Emily Holden, E&E reporters • Posted: Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sen. Martin Heinrich unveiled legislation today that would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the ability to override a state’s opposition to specific power lines.

The New Mexico Democrat’s bill would amend the Federal Power Act to give FERC the authority to approve a project if a state fails to greenlight construction or routing of the projects within a year of a company’s seeking the state’s approval. FERC’s authority may also apply if the state denies the project or doesn’t have the authority to approve the transmission line, or if approval is accompanied by contingencies that “unreasonably interfere” with construction.

FERC could invoke the authority only for “high-priority” projects selected for cost allocation as part of a regional planning process under the agency’s Order No. 1000.

Heinrich said in a statement that allowing FERC to step in will unleash the country’s clean energy potential and allow the nation to evolve along with the energy markets.

“Our system of power transmission and federal regulation were designed for an era that no longer exists. An era where energy flowed in one direction, from central generation thru transmission and distribution lines to homes and businesses where it was consumed,” he said. “Now, customers are generators, and the industry has new responsibilities to provide advanced technologies and improve security.”

The bill would require FERC to conduct public hearings and coordinate environmental review processes with any involved state, multi-state entity or Indian tribe. That could take some time, and the measure calls on FERC to establish a coordinated project plan and lay out a timeline for required federal authorizations.

Heinrich has been talking with stakeholders around the country and is working to build political support for the legislation within the Senate. The senator is slated to keynote an event in Washington, D.C., today for the group WIRES, which advocates new transmission projects.

Heinrich earlier this year said that if states and stakeholders know FERC could site projects if they don’t make decisions on their own, they might be “less willing in those circumstances to just try to be the impediment” (ClimateWire, April 2). A spokesman for FERC declined to comment on the legislation.

It’s not clear whether the language has support in the House.

The push to authorize FERC to serve as a backstop authority has surfaced in the past — on Capitol Hill and in the courts — and triggered pushback among state regulators who have historically opposed the idea.

In 2011, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) drafted a bill to allow FERC to overrule a state’s denial to site a power line within one year.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave FERC authority to issue permits under certain circumstances, including if a state “withheld approval” for more than a year for projects within the Energy Department’s designated “national interest electric transmission corridors.”

FERC interpreted that to give the agency backstop authority if a state had not acted on an application or if a state had rejected an application, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned FERC’s definition.

In 2007, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also vacated DOE’s designation of two corridors — in the Southwest and the Mid-Atlantic.

As an alternative to giving FERC more authority, DOE and FERC have been conducting transmission congestion studies to determine how to move forward, issuing a draft for public comment in August.

Heinrich has signaled that he hopes the bill could potentially become part of comprehensive energy legislation that Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee leaders are preparing, but has acknowledged that his measure may have a tough time moving through Congress.