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Feds move to compel power lines in N.Y., nine other states

After sweating through another summer without a major blackout, the Bush administration moved Tuesday to ensure nonstop electricity by designating large swaths of the Southwest and mid-Atlantic regions as critical to the nation’s energy grid.

The Energy Department announced two “national interest electric transmission corridors,” which encompass all or part of 10 states where officials say high-voltage lines can’t handle growing demand for electricity.

It is the first use of a new federal power to approve construction of electric lines in places where state officials have blocked them. Opponents argue that the corridors wrongly expand the use of federal power to seize land.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said in a statement that the corridors should prompt regional authorities to “identify solutions and take prompt action” to keep energy flowing.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said the plan would turn three-quarters of the counties in his state “into a superhighway of power lines and transmission towers.”

The mid-Atlantic power corridor runs from Virginia and Washington, D.C., north to include most of Maryland, all of New Jersey and Delaware and large parts of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The Rochester area is included.

The Southwest corridor includes seven counties in southern California and three in Arizona. The agency had wanted to include Las Vegas but said Tuesday that it had decided the needs there aren’t as pressing.

The corridors were designed to be wide enough to accommodate several possible paths for power lines. One proposed line running south from Utica toward New York City would be about 100 feet tall with a footprint about a quarter-mile wide, though dimensions would vary with the terrain.

Under a 2005 law, the federal government can approve transmission lines in the corridors if states and regional groups don’t. The law was passed partly in response to the 2003 blackout that rippled from Ohio to Canada and New York City.

The corridor designations may increase pressure on state regulators to give private industry permission for new lines. Utilities have complained that state authorities are reluctant to approve new lines, often because of local opposition.

If state authorities do not approve any construction after a year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission may approve a new line if it is deemed necessary to meet national needs. Approvals could include the use of eminent domain to force private owners to sell their property.

The FERC has had such authority for years in considering applications for gas lines, but this is the first time it will also be available for electricity transmission. The new law does not give the FERC power to take state or federal lands.

In New York, community activists, preservationists and environmentalists are fighting a proposal to run a power line nearly 200 miles from the center of the state toward populous New York City suburbs. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat from Hurley, Ulster County, opposes that line and called Tuesday’s decision “just ridiculous.”

“We’re going to fight them both in Congress and in the courts.” he said.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer expressed disappointment and is reviewing the state’s legal options.

Devlin Barrett
The Associated Press

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

3 October 2007