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Power lines to cross public lands, parks

Under orders from Congress to move quickly, the Department of Energy and the Bureau of Land Management will approve thousands of miles of new power line and pipeline corridors on federal lands across the West in the next 14 months. The energy corridors are likely to cross national parks, forests and military bases as well as other public land.

Environmentalists and land managers worry about the risk of pipeline explosions and permanent scarring of habitat and scenery from pylons and trenches. Military officials have expressed concern that the installations could interfere with wartime training.

But energy industry lobbyists and congressional policymakers said quick approvals for new corridors are vital to moving adequate power from coal beds, oil fields and wind farms in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to the booming population centers of the Southwest.

In California, ExxonMobil, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas and Electric and others have proposed corridors across Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Lassen Volcanic national parks as well as the Mojave National Preserve, several military bases, Anza Borrego Desert State Park and seven national forests.

Corridors also are proposed for Canyonlands National Park in Utah and Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Las Vegas. Routes near the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains also have been proposed, some up to 5 miles wide and 2,000 miles long.

Once the western lands project is complete, Congress has ordered it to be replicated across the rest of the contiguous U.S. by 2009.

“We are concerned about our lands,” said Lee Dickinson, head of the National Park Service’s special uses division. “They know that we are not thrilled.”

Department of Energy officials declined to provide an internal working map of which corridors are under consideration, saying it will be released only after environmental review.

“We don’t want to confuse the public,” said David Meyer of the department’s Office of Electricity Deliverability and Energy Reliability.

Acting at the behest of the U.S.’s largest utilities, Congress in its 2005 Energy Policy Act gave federal agencies until August 2007 to review and adopt major energy corridors across 11 states.

“That’s warp speed,” said Scott Powers, a BLM official, at a planning session this winter.

The legislation was designed to fast-track construction by requiring a single, overarching environmental review of the impact of dozens of energy corridors across federal land. The aim is to avoid time-consuming project-by-project reviews. Federal energy regulators were also given authority to designate power lines in the “national interest,” which would allow them to overrule federal agencies or states or counties that withhold approval for segments of projects.

“They’ve taken away our sovereignty,” said John Geesman, who sits on the California Energy Commission. “We’re looking down the barrel of a gun.”

Geesman said state officials were partly to blame for not designating more corridors sooner. But he said the law Congress passed goes too far. Challenging as it is to find room for long corridors, Geesman said, they should not cross sensitive public lands.

Hotly contested projects such as those proposed across Anza Borrego and the Cleveland and San Bernardino national forests could now be approved by federal officials if California says no.

Environmentalists say existing energy corridors on public land, most of them authorized before laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act were passed, present a cautionary tale. Fuel pipelines have exploded or leaked because of sabotage or natural disaster, said Bill Corcoran of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. In March 2005, a landslide in the Angeles National Forest broke a crude oil pipeline, dumping 126,000 gallons into Pyramid Lake, which supplies drinking water to Los Angeles.

Environmentalists and some federal scientists say the huge number of potential new corridors and accelerated timeline are a recipe for ecological devastation. .

“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. They want to get by with a lot of sloppy, dirty work,” said Howard Wilshire, a retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist who studied human impacts on public lands for 20 years.

He said his studies and others’ on the effects of roads, power lines and linear development across the Mojave found that endangered species such as the desert tortoise were killed during construction, and that the projects permanently fragmented and eroded critical habitat.

While power lines appear to sail through the air, every 160-foot-tall pylon is built on a concrete pad with a spur road connecting to a longer maintenance road, creating an artificial barrier across the fragile desert floor. He said bulldozing trenches for pipelines had similar effects.

“We’re talking about millennia, if ever, for recovery of an ecosystem,” he said.

Military officials have different concerns.

“Although I have yet to see a full map, the small-scale map I did see appeared to show the corridors running through military training grounds,” wrote Army official Stephen Hart of Fort Lewis, Wash., in public comments to energy task force staff.

Energy officials did not return calls for comment about military concerns.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who wants new corridors built in his state, doesn’t like the federal government usurping state authority. He said western states had worked for years to map future lines. He threatened to sue if necessary, depending on which corridors are picked.

“Washington, D.C., is seldom helpful for those of us who live in the West, and this is another example …,” he said. “The good news is their reach is so inefficient, they may never get it done.”

But energy lobbyists and policymakers said that because the White House and Congress imposed a tight deadline, federal agencies are moving with unprecedented speed.

A bipartisan majority headed by Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the power corridor legislation.

“We’re very encouraged,” said Meg Hunt, lobbyist for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents utilities in the U.S. serving 71 percent of all consumers. She said designating corridors regionally had been in the works for 20 years but had repeatedly stalled when field staff in federal or state agencies didn’t like particular projects.

Geesman said it was unclear who would ultimately pay for the new utility lines, and the public might have to pay the tab, either through construction subsidies or utility bill increases. Energy companies prefer public land because access across it is free or cheap, requiring modest lease payments at most, and poses fewer problems than securing the rights from multiple private properties, he said.

Corridor width is also an issue. Southern California Edison wants a mile-wide corridor across the Mojave, for example. Hunt of the Edison Electric Institute said that bundling many lines close together can jeopardize safety and reliability. But she said energy companies would be willing to share corridors if given exemptions from full environmental review on specific projects.

Marny Funk, spokeswoman for Republicans on the Senate energy committee, which oversaw the bill, said that was one of the law’s main thrusts.

“Environmentalists use these reviews as a way to stall projects for years to keep them from ever being built,” she said.

Others said that while it is difficult to balance competing needs on increasingly scarce public land, that was no excuse for shortcuts.

“It’s a rushed process with little opportunity for the public to comment on or even know what highly public lands are at risk for development,” said Corcoran of the Sierra Club. “The federal government should not make our public lands legacy a dumping ground for industry.”