Objections could impede first major power-line project in decades
The Bureau of Land Management received nearly 2,600 public comments on a draft evaluation of the proposed Gateway West Transmission Line Project, documenting a wide array of major policy issues that must be addressed before construction can begin on the first major power-line project in decades.
The comments were submitted last fall in response to BLM’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project and released last week. They raise significant concerns about everything from damage the line could cause to federally designated historic trails and raptor nests to the safety of Air Force flight training operations along the line’s 1,100-mile route across southern Wyoming and Idaho.
The vast majority of the comments on Gateway West are critical of one or more of the 10 proposed line segments, highlighting the immense challenge BLM faces in permitting the multistate high-tower transmission line across hundreds of miles of natural resources and human activities in both states.
The objections came from local residents and interest groups but also from other federal officials, including Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, National Park Service regional directors and Air Force officials
Various stakeholders groups have concerns about the proposed route alternatives for the Gateway West Transmission Line Project. If built, Gateway West would be the first large-scale power line in the region in three decades. Click image for larger version. Map courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.
But BLM officials insist the concerns are not a deal breaker for the Gateway West project proposed by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power, which would stretch from Glenrock, Wyo., to a substation 30 miles southwest of Boise, Idaho. If completed in 2018, the power line would carry up to 3,000 megawatts of mostly wind-generated electricity to power-hungry load centers across the West.
The Obama administration in October named Gateway West one of seven pilot transmission line projects that it plans to accelerate through the federal permitting process in an effort to generate jobs and bolster renewable energy production (Greenwire, Oct. 5, 2011).
In fact, one of the reasons Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cited for placing Gateway West and the six other projects on the pilot project list was local opposition.
“There wasn’t anything that popped up in the public comments that made anyone hit themselves on the forehead and say, ‘Gosh, I never thought of that,’” said Walt George, the BLM project manager for Gateway West. “These projects are complicated, and they take time. But everything was as expected and within the level of concern that we anticipated.”
George said BLM plans to formally respond to each of the major concerns raised in the thousands of public comments — which were contained in nearly 400 letters, emails and faxes — in the project’s final EIS, expected to be released by the end of the year.
Some minor revisions have already been made. Rocky Mountain Power announced last month that it would remove a controversial proposed section of power line in eastern Wyoming, in part because it was in high-quality habitat for the imperiled greater sage grouse and likely off-limits to major wind-power development.
“Listening to comments and refining line routes is all part of the process of getting a major energy infrastructure project like this built,” said Margaret Oler, a Rocky Mountain Power spokeswoman in Salt Lake City.
But the project faces some major obstacles, including avoiding effects to military training operations at Mountain Home Air Force Base in southwest Idaho.
The main concern is “potential safety issues” associated with placing 180-foot-tall transmission line towers near the borders of the base’s Jarbidge Military Operations Area and the adjoining Saylor Creek air-to-ground combat training area, both of which are used by the Air Force’s 366th Fighter Wing, wrote Byron Schmidt, the Mountain Home base’s airspace manager.
While the power line would not be routed in the training areas, it would cross into restricted military airspace and inside a region where military aircraft are authorized to fly as low as 100 feet off the ground, Schmidt wrote.
The Air Force has requested that BLM bury portions of the line underground in places and limit the height of towers to 100 feet in other areas. Schmidt also requested that BLM use tubular steel structures instead of lattice towers to reduce raptor nesting, “thus reducing the bird strike hazard in and around these airspace elements.”
In a separate letter to BLM, Ray Liercke, president of the Mountain Home Military Affairs Committee, which is made up of local business leaders and residents in nearby Mountain Home, Idaho, wrote that it is vital the power line does not interfere with the base’s training mission.
“We are aware that BLM and the Gateway West project have worked closely with Mountain Home Air Force Base and the Idaho National Guard to try to adhere to their request of their desire to protect their training areas,” Liercke wrote. “We strongly support their request and would oppose any changes that would cause an encroachment issue to either of the bases or military training areas in Idaho.”
George, the BLM project manager, acknowledged that the military’s concerns are serious. But he said a meeting last month with the base’s command staff was positive and that the agency will take steps such as painting the power-line wires a bright color so pilots can easily see them and placing special lighting on the transmission towers that does not interfere with night-vision technology.
“I think we all walked away with the feeling we have some specific engineering issues to be resolved, but the military will do that with Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power,” he said.
BLM and Rocky Mountain Power, he said, will not be able to bury sections of the line, or lower the height of the towers to 100 feet. But BLM is considering the request to use a tubular steel structure to reduce raptor nests.
“I’m certain we will come up with a final design that will address all their concerns,” he said.
Sage grouse trouble
A much more problematic concern is the power line’s potential impacts to hundreds of miles of greater sage grouse habitat along the proposed pathway.
The problem is particularly acute in Wyoming, which is home to more than half the world’s remaining greater sage grouse. State leaders in Wyoming and Idaho are desperately working to protect the bird’s habitat to prevent it from being listed under the Endangered Species Act.
FWS in 2010 concluded that the bird warrants federal protection, placing it on a list of “candidate species” whose status is reviewed every year.
Wyoming has designated more than 15 million acres of mostly state and federal land as “core sage grouse areas” that are critical to the bird’s survival and where development is discouraged. And Idaho has carefully mapped out about 9 million acres of what it deems “key habitats” for grouse in the state.
But the Gateway West line could cross as much as 235 miles of “both Wyoming’s core and Idaho’s key habitat” areas, according to the draft EIS. And BLM concluded in the draft EIS that the Gateway West line as proposed “is likely to contribute to a trend toward federal listing or loss of viability for the greater sage-grouse” (Land Letter, Aug. 4, 2011).
FWS submitted lengthy comments to BLM criticizing some of the agency’s basic conclusions in the draft EIS, including the proponents’ goal of a quarter-mile setback from all sage grouse breeding areas, called “leks.”
Lynn Gemlo, an FWS biologist in Wyoming, wrote that a quarter-mile is not good enough, and she noted that Wyoming’s core sage grouse strategy stipulates that a new transmission line project “must demonstrate that it will not cause declines in sage-grouse populations. How will you demonstrate that?”
A coalition of environmental groups that includes the Wilderness Society, Audubon Wyoming and the Idaho Conservation League questioned whether BLM could design the project in a way that protects grouse habitat. The groups requested that BLM wait to make a final decision on the Gateway West project until after the agency has finished developing a national sage grouse planning strategy in 2013.
“The proposed transmission line, if it moves forward ahead of the National Strategy, will likely further fragment and degrade remaining sage-grouse habitat and populations and bring the species closer to [an ESA] listing decision,” they wrote.
George said delaying the project another year to wait for the national sage grouse strategy is not an option, considering BLM has issued interim guidance to field offices on how to handle grouse issues.
“It wouldn’t be practical for us to wait until BLM establishes a finite [sage grouse] policy,” he said.
Protecting trails, other resources
But just as impacts to grouse are likely unavoidable, so, too, are project impacts to historic and cultural resources, which the draft EIS notes could be significant.
Most of the known cultural and historical resource impacts involve the line’s path alongside and across at least four federally designated National Historic Trails.
John Wessels, director of the National Park Service’s Intermountain Region in Denver, wrote BLM that the line’s southern route in Idaho would parallel or cross 30 miles of National Historic Trails, including the California Trail and the Mormon Battalion Trail.
“Towers may exceed 180 feet in height, and the cables required to transmit high voltage will be substantial,” Wessels wrote. “In short, the location and presence of large, dominating infrastructure in an otherwise pristine area will have major impacts that can only be partially and likely minimally mitigated.”
Lesley Wischmann, a founding board member of the Alliance for Historic Wyoming, wrote in a separate letter to BLM that she believes the agency has done a poor job evaluating the impacts to the trails, particularly the cumulative impacts that could impede the visitor’s experience.
“When the BLM talks about ‘areas of potential effect’ or ‘cumulative impact areas,’ they usually define this as beginning and ending within the boundaries of any given project,” Wischmann wrote. “Unfortunately for this particular resource — and those people who love it — this is a very cramped way of understanding the historic emigrant trails.”
But Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R), in formal comments submitted last October, said he remains positive about the project’s chances for success.
“I am convinced there exists an alignment for this project through our state that has a relatively high level of public acceptance as well as little impact to the natural resources valued by our citizens,” Mead wrote.