A coalition of conservation organizations and a western Colorado county reached a landmark settlement agreement with federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and Department of Energy, requiring the agencies to revise a Bush-era plan creating energy corridors in the West.
The agreement, filed in federal court in San Francisco, requires the agencies to revise a “West-wide Energy Corridors” plan to facilitate renewable energy, avoid environmentally sensitive areas and prevent webs of pipelines and power lines across the West–an action that while protecting lands from coal projects, will accelerate pressures to develop formerly protected public lands for wind and solar projects.
“This settlement puts federal agencies and potential developers on notice that certain corridors are no-go areas for environmental reasons,” said Nada Culver, senior director of agency policy and planning at The Wilderness Society. “We should guide power lines and pipelines to the right places, along with advancing better priorities such as supporting renewable energy.”
But not everyone is pleased by the decision.
Terry Weiner at Solar Done Right observed that the settlement does not go far enough to protect public lands from the environmental destruction now being caused by massive renewable energy corridors. “This is one good step in the direction of pushing back on the feds on their plan to grid the country with new transmission lines,” she said. But she added,”Unfortunately it does not address the problem of remote industrial solar and wind projects and the fact that they create a need for transmission lines, but this should give the feds pause.”
The corridors were planned by the Bush administration, using streamlined environmental reviews under the 2005 Energy Policy Act. The plan, which was announced in 2008, connects coal and other fossil-fuel power plants to the West’s electric grid while often overlooking areas with solar, wind and geothermal potential. Its web of corridors threatened wildlife habitat, wilderness areas and national parks.
“This landmark agreement could make a world of difference to renewable energy development – and at the same time, minimize messy energy corridors on our public lands to avoid harm to wildlife, parks and wilderness,” said Amy Atwood, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Obama administration needs to seize the opportunity created by this settlement to do right by both nature and our energy future.”
The agreement, which now awaits court approval, creates a process for the agencies to periodically review corridors and assess whether to revise, delete or add corridors on a region-by-region basis. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, which have siting authority over transmission and pipeline rights-of-way for transmission lines and pipelines on public lands, must also reevaluate corridors located in sensitive areas or corridors that would not carry renewable energy.
“The Bush-era energy corridors would have continued our destructive dependence on fossil fuels. This settlement helps move us away from our dirty energy past and toward a more stable and renewable clean energy future,” said Jim Angell, an Earthjustice attorney who represented the plaintiffs.
An interagency workgroup will oversee the new corridor analysis. The settlement requires that it consider studies by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council and Western Governors’ Association, expertise provided by the Energy Department, and public feedback to ensure that corridors are thoughtfully sited to provide maximum utility with minimum environmental impact.
“Awe-inspiring views at Arches National Park, known for its famous sandstone arches in Utah’s red rock desert, will be better protected from transmission lines running alongside the park,” said Kristen Brengel of National Parks Conservation Association. “We are pleased the Interior and Energy departments agreed to consider removing a transmission corridor on the northern outskirts of Las Vegas through a scientifically significant Ice Age fossil site known as Tule Springs – this area is worthy of a national park designation.”
“We are delighted with this win-win outcome,” said Elizabeth Merritt of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “We support the concept of steering pipelines and power lines toward certain corridors, but not at the expense of our culturally and historically significant public lands. By working harder to avoid these sensitive areas, a good idea just got better.”
Plaintiffs in the case are The Wilderness Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Bark, Defenders of Wildlife, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, National Parks Conservation Association, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oregon Natural Desert Association, Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Western Resource Advocates and Western Watersheds Project, as well as the county of San Miguel, Colo.
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