Concerns about Gateway West route could lead to smaller project

Posted: Apr 29, 2013

Written by

Scott Streater, Greenwire
Proposed route

The Bureau of Land Management this week plans to unveil the final environmental review of the nearly 1,000-mile-long Gateway West Transmission Line Project, a regulatory milestone for a project the Obama administration has made a top priority.

But the final environmental impact statement (EIS) set to be published tomorrow in the Federal Register will contain a new wrinkle: the possibility that siting concerns could prompt BLM to reject sections of the Wyoming-to-Idaho line that have sparked opposition in southwest Idaho.

The concern is the westernmost section of the 990-mile-long power line and its impacts on a national conservation area and private landowners. While BLM is moving toward an expected record of decision this fall approving the project, it is considering granting right-of-way permits to construct only segments of the line across southern Wyoming and southeast Idaho, while federal and state agencies and the project proponents do more work to find a route in southwest Idaho that satisfies all parties involved.

If a resolution cannot be found, the agency might be forced to permanently defer the westernmost section of the power line at any number of substations in central Idaho, said Mary Wilson, a BLM spokeswoman in Wyoming, and Heather Feeney, a BLM spokeswoman in Idaho.

The biggest problem is a relatively small segment of line that would run near BLM's Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, which covers 485,000 acres along the Snake River in southwest Idaho.

BLM's preferred route for the line, which would stretch from Glenrock, Wyo., to a substation 30 miles southwest of Boise, Idaho, would stay north of the conservation area. But routing the high-tower power line outside the conservation area means it would pass through the towns of Kuna and Melba, Idaho, state officials have complained.

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R) last fall wrote a letter to then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar protesting this line segment and its impacts to private property. In choosing that route, Otter wrote, "BLM headquarters ignored two years of collaborative effort" with local officials, and he asked Salazar to instruct BLM officials and other agency decisionmakers to come to Idaho and revisit the issue (Greenwire, Jan. 28).

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is firmly behind the permitting and construction of what would be the first major multistate high-tower power-line project in decades.

The project proposed by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power could carry up to 3,000 megawatts of what BLM says will be mostly wind-generated electricity to power-hungry load centers from Utah to Washington.

"The transmission line, if approved, would help support a clean energy economy by bringing a diversified portfolio of renewable and conventional energy to the grid," BLM Wyoming State Director Don Simpson said in a statement.

While impressive on its own merits, Gateway West is just one piece of a proposed $6 billion Energy Gateway development project spearheaded by Rocky Mountain Power's parent company, PacifiCorp, that would add roughly 2,000 miles of transmission lines capable of carrying 4,500 MW of electricity through Utah, Wyoming and Idaho. The other projects are the similarly named Gateway South and Gateway Central transmission lines.

Publication of the final EIS in the Federal Register tomorrow will kick off a 60-day public review and comment period running through June 28. It also initiates a 30-day protest period on a series of proposed amendments to BLM and Forest Service land-use plans needed to build the transmission line. The protest period ends May 27.

BLM has scheduled 13 public hearings on the final EIS in Wyoming and Idaho during the first two weeks of May.

Six years of controversy

The power line's route has been dogged by concerns from environmentalists, local government leaders and private landowners since the line was first proposed six years ago.

Roughly half the line's route is through federal land, including 200 miles in Idaho and 300 miles in Wyoming. In the checkerboard pattern of public and private land ownership, however, BLM cannot route the line entirely on BLM or Forest Service land.

BLM released a draft EIS for the project in 2011 with no preferred alternative. Idaho officials say they had worked closely with BLM and the project proponents to come up with a preferred route that they say ran partly through the Birds of Prey conservation area.

But BLM last fall released a preferred alternative that, among other things, avoided the conservation area and routed more of the line on private and local land (Greenwire, Oct. 8, 2012).

PacifiCorp officials say they are not worried. They know they must negotiate rights of way with landowners and must obtain a slew of state or county permits, and they have built other projects in segments.

Margaret Oler, a spokeswoman for Rocky Mountain Power in Salt Lake City, said the company has had an ongoing and open dialogue with state and local leaders and property owners along the proposed line's route for years.

"We've been talking with a lot of these people already," Oler said. "The project will be sited working with the individual property owners along the project route."

Oler said the company is very happy the project has reached the final EIS stage.

"We are pleased to reach this milestone. We've worked for a number of years now to get to this point, and we're very, very pleased," Oler said.

Though she said the company doesn't have a construction start date, the Gateway West project website set up by Rocky Mountain Power, Idaho Power and BLM estimates segments of the line will be completed between 2016 and 2021.

"We recognize the project will not be completed all at once," Oler said. "It's something that because of the very nature and size of the project will need to be completed and permitted in segments."

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