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DOE requires more analysis on proposed MATL power line  

Some grain growers in northcentral Montana and Alberta, used to government bureaucracy and bad weather eroding their bottom line, are determined to get a fair shake from another adversary – big business – in the form of a Canadian company proposing to build a private or “merchant” transmission line across their cropland.

The federal and state/provincial governments on both sides of the border are set to approve or deny the permits for Montana Alberta Tie Ltd.’s three-year-old proposal by summer’s end for the American portion and in October for the Canadian portion.

Although MATL is a private company, it would have the right of eminent domain if negotiations with landowners in MATL’s path fail. MATL has signed with or is in active negotiations with 42.4 percent of the landowners along its preferred route in Alberta and has signed options with 68 percent of landowners along the route in Montana.

The grain growers along the right of way have met on several occasions with company officials and with the company’s advisory committees, and have attended intermittent public hearings in an effort to dissuade the company from using H-frame structures and from running the line diagonally across fields, among other things.

MATL is proposing to pay for a 45-foot easement based on whether the land is irrigated, pasture or dry cropland, pay a second fee for each pole, and, based on a scientific model, pay a third fee to offset the cost of farming around the poles.

The company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Tonbridge Power Inc. of Toronto, Ont., was formed in 2004 to develop, construct and operate a 230-kilovolt transmission line and substation between Lethbridge, Alta., and Great Falls. It would be the first direct connection between the Alberta and NorthWestern Energy electricity grids. The total length of the $120-million project would be 203 miles, with 126 miles in Montana.

Three wind-energy companies have reserved the line’s capacity, 300 megawatts in either direction, and plan to develop wind parks that have the potential to dot the landscape, mostly in Pondera, Toole and Glacier counties, with an estimated 400 wind turbines starting in 2008.

MATL plans to use conductors that could boost the line’s capacity to 450 to 500 megawatts or higher, but further permitting and approvals would be required.

The farmers’ concerns have had an impact on the federal and state regulatory process. The U.S. Department of Energy and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality had been working jointly to process MATL’s proposal, but a recent development has put the two agencies out of sync.

DOE on June 7, determined that its issuance of a Presidential Permit for the proposed project, (it is required because the line crosses into Canada) would constitute a major federal action that may have a significant effect upon the environment within the meaning of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA).

In March, DEQ and DOE jointly published a draft document that was DEQ’s draft environmental impact statement and DOE’s environmental assessment. DEQ was on a path to issue a final EIS and DOE would have issued a “finding of no significant impact,” in the normal course of events. However, based on public comments concerning land use and the potential effects on farming, DOE now intends to prepare an environmental impact statement, (the highest level of federal study to determine the impacts on the human environment) to address potential environmental impacts from the proposed action and the range of reasonable alternatives.

“It is a testament to the concerned landowners who took time and energy to prepare well-thought-out comments on the EIS/EA. The [agencies] are dotting all the ‘Is’ and crossing the ‘Ts’ before granting the Presidential Permit,” said Dutton area farmer Katrina Martin. She added that it gives agricultural producers another opportunity to make their case and provides that serious consideration be given to the routing and design.

DEQ’s draft EIS lists agricultural impacts (without giving any monetary figures) including loss of production due to structures and roads, increased risk of weed introduction and spread, a risk of equipment damage from hitting a structure and increased time to farm around poles.

The state’s draft EIS says that disruptions to farming practices would occur, but it adds that few recent studies exist that quantify the costs with agreed-upon accuracy.

All that has changed, according to DEQ Major Facility Siting Program Director Tom Ring, who, with DOE’s Ellen Russell, is working on responses to the comments. Ring said DEQ has signed a contract with a consulting firm to examine MATL’s scientific farming-cost model, and to look at two models received from grain growers during the comment period. Using those three models, the consultant has been asked to determine a reasonable range of the cost to farm in fields containing H-frames or monopoles placed in north-south or east-west directions or diagonally.

DEQ Environmental Management Bureau Chief Warren McCullough, in a recent interview, said that DEQ is preparing a supplemental EIS that would contain new material based on the comments, including the farming-impact costs, and would provide another round of public review and comment before issuing a final EIS. DOE has tentatively agreed to use DEQ’s supplemental EIS as its draft EIS, he added.

DOE has also invited comments or suggestions to assist in identifying significant environmental issues and in determining the appropriate scope of the EIS. The public scoping period ends July 9. Because of the previous public participation activities, DOE does not plan to conduct additional scoping meetings before issuing the revamped EIS with DEQ.

Although the agencies received “quite a few” comments concerning the cumulative effects of wind farms developing from MATL’s line, McCullough said that, under state law, DEQ is not required to include the effects.

“We have no permitting actions for wind farms and no authority for doing a consideration of cumulative effects,” he said. DEQ has no legal basis to gather the information on the specific engineering and impacts of wind parks because the state’s Major Facility Siting Program does not cover them. MATL, however, must acquire a certificate of compliance from DEQ before starting construction, hence the EIS process.

McCullough did not rule out that DOE might want to include more than a general discussion of wind-energy development in the new document. The bottom line, though, is that the two agencies would be working together and are back in sync with their regulatory processes, he said.

Meanwhile, opponents of the MATL line in Alberta have organized into at least two groups and hired attorneys to act on their behalf at Alberta Energy Utilities Board hearings required to be held for MATL’s approval. In Canada, the government reimburses the legal costs of the opponents, or “interveners.”

On June 11, the AEUB issued a notice saying that it had accepted the interveners’ arguments, (the affected farmers cannot get away from their farms at the height of summer,) and rescheduled the hearing for MATL’s facilities application to Oct. 16. A hearing for another regulatory document, a “needs” application, is set for July 24, to meet the timeline provided by legislation.

In its response to the Alberta-based Citizens for Responsible Power Transmission regarding pivot irrigation operations, MATL said its policy is to minimize the impact of the line, but where adverse impacts can reasonably be linked to the line, MATL will compensate the landowner fully for all such impacts on a case-by-case basis.

MATL stated that it has already taken steps to mitigate the effect of the line on irrigation operations by aligning the route to reduce or eliminate the diagonal crossing of cultivated fields and using monopoles on all irrigated lands, among other things. MATL noted it has signed options, with 60 per cent by length of line of those landowners who irrigate.

Bob Williams, MATL vice president for regulatory matters, said the company was generally aware of the possibility that DOE might want to issue an environmental impact statement, which depended on what issues were raised during the regulatory process. He said DEQ’s EIS is a very thorough, comprehensive document and he does not consider the delay to be an obstacle and/or a duplication of regulatory processes.

“We understand fully that different agencies all need to be involved in this process and we welcome it. The decision to change to an EIS is not unusual and MATL intends to cooperate fully with the DOE’s EIS process,” Williams said. DOE plans to hold a public comment period of at least 45 days from the date when the new draft EIS is available and to hold at least one public hearing. DOE may not issue a record of decision sooner than 90 days from when DEQ announces that the document is ready for review.

DOE will consider all comments received or postmarked by July 9, in defining the scope of the new EIS, but cautioned that mail sent via the U.S. Postal Service must undergo an examination for security reasons and suggested that mailed comments be sent well before that deadline.

Comments and suggestions on the scope of the document designated DOE/EIS-0399 should be addressed to Ellen Russell, Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (OE-20), U.S. Department of Energy, 1000 Independence Avenue, SW., Washington, DC 20585-0350; or by electronic mail at Ellen.Russell@hq.doe.gov.

The MATL Presidential Permit application and DEQ’s draft EIS are available on their respective Web sites.

In progress reports tailored for its shareholders, Tonbridge Power expressed the company’s belief that MATL will receive all of its permits before the EUB’s October hearing, with the EUB hearing being the last permit to be received. One report noted that “slippages” have been experienced on the overall schedule. “Despite developing its initial project plan with direct input from the various regulators, these bodies have proven unable to deliver against the timelines indicated to the corporation. At the same time, the corporation has received numerous assurances from regulators that nothing submitted to date would suggest that an ultimate refusal of permission to proceed is conceivable,” the report concluded.

By Nancy Thornton- Acantha reporter

Choteau Acantha

27 June 2007

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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