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Feds settle Western energy corridor lawsuit

Parts of a plan for designating thousands of miles of energy corridors in 11 Western states will be revamped under a settlement reached by federal land managers, more than a dozen environmental groups and one Colorado county.

The settlement was filed Tuesday in federal court in San Francisco and must be approved by a judge.

At issue are more than 6,000 miles of corridors for power lines; oil, natural gas and hydrogen pipelines; and other energy distribution systems that were carved out by the Bush administration as part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act. The corridors were finalized in 2008, and environmentalists sued in 2009 over concerns that more than half of the corridors passed through sensitive areas from Washington south to New Mexico.

Colorado’s San Miguel County was also among the plaintiffs.

“The amount of no-go corridors tells you how badly this opportunity was missed the first time and what an important opportunity we have now,” said Nada Culver, senior director of agency policy and planning at The Wilderness Society.

The corridors were developed by the Bureau of Land Management and the departments of Energy, Agriculture, Commerce and Defense in an effort to address the West’s growing energy demands. Officials have said the goal was to minimize the disturbance to the landscape and keep transmission lines and pipelines bundled to prevent them from being scattered across the region.

The agencies incorporated existing road and utility rights of way _ many of which link coal plants and other infrastructure _ into the plan where possible.

The environmental groups identified areas in each of the 11 states where wildlife habitat, historic properties and trails could be affected. The settlement puts agencies on notice that projects in those areas could be challenged.

For example, one corridor in Washington crosses the Pacific Crest Trail. In California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming, sage-grouse habitat was a concern. In Arizona, a population of desert tortoise stood to be affected.

The map also had one corridor crossing the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge and other conservation areas in New Mexico.

Other corridors were in Montana and Utah.

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service will be required under the settlement to re-evaluate corridors in sensitive areas.

Amy Atwood, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said aside from protecting certain areas, the settlement also encourages renewable energy development in places that make sense.

“Public lands are going to be incredibly important as we move forward and the effects of climate change continue to intensify,” she said. “The fact is there are some renewable energy resources on public lands and where they don’t present a conflict with wildlife or other sensitive environmental resources, we want to see them developed.”

The settlement gives the federal government a year to set up an interagency review system for determining whether corridors should be revised, removed or added to the region-wide plan.

The agencies must also consider the results of studies being done by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council and the Western Governors’ Association on transmission needs and renewable energy potential in the West.

Any changes to the corridor plan must be part of an open process that gives American Indian tribes, states, local governments and other interested parties an opportunity to weigh in, according to the settlement.

Culver said the agreement offers a chance to create “the right system.”

“I think the last thing that many of the plaintiffs want to do is work on fighting lines,” she said. “In the best of all worlds, we identify the right places for energy corridors to go and we will have fewer fights.”