SUMMARY: Energy corridor proposal must not sacrifice one half of the state for the other.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s current proposal to set aside some federal lands in 11 western states for oil, gas and electricity pipelines probably qualifies for the short list of all-time bad ideas.
Carve a 3,500-foot-wide path through millions of acres of irreplaceable national parks and wildlife refuges? And for what?
It’s certainly true that the nation needs to enhance its energy infrastructure. The construction of new transmission lines has not matched the growth of energy consumption for some time, primarily because it’s an incredibly expensive and time-consuming process.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was an attempt to pave the way – almost literally – for energy companies to take advantage of pre-approved corridors that cut through public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. The problem is that much of the land that would be pre-approved is in sensitive wildlife habitat and cherished wildlands. Routes were chosen more with an eye to economic efficiencies than environmental impacts, and the result is a plan that is blatantly skewed to favor the interests of the energy companies over the interests of the general public.
But that didn’t stop its supporters in the U.S. Congress from trying to ram it through. Fortunately, it was shoved back to the planning stages following a vigorous outcry over the lack of public involvement.
The new version of the plan is a little better than the original, but still far from palatable.
And that’s a shame, especially for Montana.
Montana is an energy-rich state that has long struggled to find adequate ways of transporting its energy. If any state were poised to embrace a new interstate energy pipelines, it would be Montana. Unfortunately, the current proposal asks Montana to give up much more than it would gain, so Montana must join the fight against it.
Meanwhile, the Treasure State must continue to build new transmission lines capable of taking its energy products to the larger market. Though the state is rich in energy resources, its transmission infrastructure is aging and already far from sufficient to meet the rising level of demand – or production.
More transmission capacity would undoubtedly encourage the state’s energy producers to step up production – and perhaps promote the production of alternative energy sources. After all, new energy sources are difficult, if not impossible, to finance without a reasonable expectation that they will ever reach their markets.
At the moment, the state’s most powerful interstate route is two 500-kilovolt lines from Colstrip to Spokane. Another 500-kilovolt line runs west of Hot Springs. Of course, a handful of new transmission projects are in the works.
NorthWestern Energy is behind one of the largest, an $800 million effort that will probably take another three years, at least, just to plan and permit. The idea is to build a 350- to 400-mile electricity transmission line linking southwestern Montana with southeastern Idaho to help ease the bottleneck behind the line that’s already present. While potential sites are still under review, the new 500-kilovolt line would likely begin near Townsend or Garrison.
It’s likely that, by the time this line is actually completed, demand will have outpaced Montana’s ability to transport its energy once again. The state is simply not building enough transmission lines fast enough.
The last state Legislature took note of this. In fact, during a special session, legislators passed two bills intended to increase Montana’s capacity for transporting its energy to new and growing markets. One of these bills specifically addressed the need to build more pipelines to handle the upswing in energy production from renewable resources. The other created a new Energy Infrastructure and Promotion Division within the Department of Commerce dedicating to enhancing the state’s energy transmission system.
That division will have to work closely with federal regulators – including the Department of Energy – to coordinate any new interstate agreements. Both state and federal officials are facing enormous pressure to provide more energy at a lower cost, and fighting a losing battle as the nation’s population continues to consume more energy. Indeed, indications are that we are heading for an energy crisis of unprecedented proportions.
Montana is capable of being a big part of the solution. However, it needn’t sacrifice its unique natural character to do so.
The state’s economy has traditionally relied on the extraction of natural resources. However, a new and growing economic sector depends on the preservation of Montana’s natural resources as amenities. Yes, these amenities are crucial for attracting tourists, but they’re also the reason so many people want to buy homes here. They provide the sort of recreational perks for employees that few companies can match, and they lure entrepreneurs willing to start a new business in a land that’s rich in opportunity, if not in wages.
While mining and oil production boom in the eastern half of Montana, it’s clear that the westernmost portion of the state is handling all the population growth – and causing an economic boom of its own.
We shouldn’t sacrifice one half of the state for the other. It’s entirely possible to make the building of new and bigger transmission lines easier for energy companies without allowing them to trample all over the resources that prop up other industries.
The energy-corridor proposal for the West must be sent back to the drawing board repeatedly, if need be, until the Department of Energy comes up with a plan that reflects this fact.
The Energy Department recently released a draft of its Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and will be accepting public comment on the statement until mid-February. It plans to hold a public meeting in Helena on Jan. 29, but you can provide your comments now by going to its Web site at corridoreis.anl.gov.
We hope Montanans from all over the state will take the opportunity to firmly oppose the plan as it’s currently proposed, because it will take all of Montana to sink this awful idea.
16 December 2007
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