TWIN FALLS — It was a milestone they had waited years to meet.
First proposed in 2007, the developers of the 430-mile Mountain States Transmission Intertie power line were scheduled to release a draft of how the line’s route would impact the surrounding environment by this September.
The line is set to sprawl across southeastern Montana to southeastern Idaho, ending at a substation near Jerome. Project leaders say the line will convey 500 kilovolts of electricity, costing a hefty $1 billion price tag by the time it’s complete.
But even with the $14 million already spent on the line, it only took one bird to cause a serious blow to the project’s progress.
“We received a notice from the (U.S. Bureau of Land Management) in June that requires us to find all additional routes and each of those routes would have to avoid core sage grouse habitat,” said Claudia Rapkoch, spokeswoman for the MSTI project. “By our estimates, this will push back our project by nine months. We don’t know how long the BLM thinks this will take.”
MSTI’s challenges with sage grouse are a growing trend of energy developers struggling to find a way to provide the West with enough electricity that also doesn’t conflict with habitat slotted for sage grouse conservation efforts.
In 2010, federal officials declared that the grouse warranted endangered species protection but held off from making a final decision. A year later, a federal district judge ruled that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must make a final listing decision on the bird by 2015.
Since the majority of sage grouse habitat is on public land, the BLM is leading a national effort to improve its management strategy for a sustainable population of the bird.
The strategy included federal officials mapping out priority habitat locations for sage grouse in western states including Idaho. Out of the 15 million acres of sage grouse habitat in Idaho, 10 million acres — including federal, state and private land — was designated as essential to keep the bird from being listed.
Also tucked inside the agency’s strategy is permission for the BLM to delay making final decisions on permits needed to move transmission line or large wind projects forward until a final decision is made on the grouse’s fate.
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The 170-turbine China Mountain Wind Project already experienced a potentially crippling setback in May when the BLM announced it would delay approving permits for two years. China Mountain developers had anticipated the grouse’s needs with a proposal to make up for the project’s effects, but the best wind needed for the project to thrive was still in pristine sage grouse habitat.
It’s difficult to determine if future projects will fate the same fate as China Mountain. By law, the BLM is prohibited from speculating in advance if a permit will be approved, said Heather Feeney, spokeswoman for the BLM
The responsibility is on the developers to determine if a project is worth moving forward, she said. And for a multi-state energy proposal, the amount of time needed for federal officials to review and approve the project can take years and millions of dollars. Developers must apply for a number of permits and undergo vigorous environmental studies before they can start production.
“By the time someone goes to apply for a permit, the presumption is that they’ve done some work with their own estimate and they feel it’s worth going through with this,” Feeney said.
Many local large-scale energy projects currently in the permitting process were first proposed before the threat of a potential sage grouse listing. When Idaho Power Co. and Rocky Mountain Power first proposed the 1,100-mile Gateway West Transmission Line project in 2007, the BLM wasn’t as focused on grouse habitat as it is today. The agency’s change in priorities alters the production timeline for projects like Gateway West.
“We are delaying making some decisions on permits until we know more about a final sage grouse listing,” Feeney said.
With sage grouse conservation efforts in the limelight across the West, the agency has seen a drop in applications for large-scale energy projects nationwide.
In 2009, the BLM received 18 applications for high-voltage transmission lines. In 2011, the agency received two applications. For solar and wind projects, applicants submitted 16 proposed projects in 2009. In 2011, the agency received six.
In Idaho, state officials have been advised that development must stop in priority grouse areas. Earlier this year, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s sage grouse task force agreed on recommendations that suggested prohibiting any future energy development in priority habitat.
According to the proposal, developers would have to prove an exceptional need for a project if a permit was to be issued in a priority area.
Many wildlife and state officials agree that if the sage grouse is listed under the Endangered Species Act, the consequences would be great for the multiple activities currently allowed on public lands.
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Idaho’s need for energy isn’t dropping.
From 1990-2009, Idaho’s energy consumption increased 1.2 percent annually, according to the Idaho Governor’s Office of Energy Resources. By comparison, national energy consumption grew 0.6 percent each year over the same time period.
“Human beings have an insatiable appetite for electricity and it’s not slowing down,” said John Audley, deputy director for the Renewable Northwest Project. The Seattle-based renewable advocacy group has helped push for multiple wind, solar and geothermal projects in southern Idaho.
Audley referenced an assessment from the National Renewable Energy Lab that claimed Idaho’s wind resource could provide up to 200 percent of the state’s current electricity needs. The point, he said, is Idaho has the potential to produce energy from a diverse amount of resources and should fight to find a way take advantage of it.
“Americans are saying they want homegrown power and that’s going to be in the production of more renewable projects,” he said. “Land use issues are a challenge but if we work with state officials, we will find a solution.”
As state and federal habitat decisions trickle down to the counties, local officials find their roles limited.
Twin Falls County Planning and Zoning Director Bill Crafton said if a county zoning permit was to be denied for reasons relating to sage grouse issues, that decision wouldn’t be made by a county official. Twin Falls has no energy permits waiting for approval at the county level right now.
“Power is complicated,” Crafton said. “It’s a huge undertaking and takes a long time to study. I think that’s a good thing, what you’re putting up will be there for forever.”
Planning and zoning officials in Twin Falls, Blaine and Jerome counties have all received the critical sage grouse habitat maps from the BLM, but have yet to see those maps drastically impact what they do.
“We’re pretty limited in what we do but we still have to know how to ask the right questions when presented with a permit,” Crafton said. “Idaho has a lot of potential for renewable energy and I think we should develop that but you need to let the process work.”