Environmental groups settle energy corridor lawsuit against feds

Conservation organizations reached a landmark settlement with federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Department of Energy, requiring the agencies to revise a Bush-era plan creating energy corridors in the West, said The Wilderness Society in a July 3 statement.

The agreement, filed July 3 in federal court in San Francisco in settlement of a July 2009 lawsuit, 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.

“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.”

The corridors were planned by the George W. Bush Administration, using streamlined environmental reviews under the 2005 Energy Policy Act. The plan, 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, the society said. Its web of corridors threatened wildlife habitat, wilderness areas and national parks, the settling groups said.

Section 368 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy and Interior, in consultation with FERC, other governments, industries, and other interested parties, to designate energy corridors on federal lands. The agencies are required to complete any environmental reviews and incorporate the corridors into existing land use plans as part of the designation process, the environmental groups noted. Section 368 also requires that the agencies establish procedures to ensure that additional corridors are designated promptly and to expedite applications for construction of pipelines and facilities within the designated corridors. Corridors were first designated in 11 western states. A process to designate corridors in the remaining states has also commenced.

“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.”

New corridor review process to take into account renewables

The agreement, which now awaits approval at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, 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. BLM 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 DOE, 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.”

Plaintiffs in the case also include 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, Sierra Club and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, as well as the county of San Miguel, Colo.

New guidelines would require bypass of sensitive areas

“New, environmentally responsible transmission is needed to achieve the goals of the Department of the Interior and the direction of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 for rapid, responsible development of the West’s renewable energy resources,” said a settlement fact sheet from the environmental groups. “Further, energy corridors should be designated to limit impacts to wildlands and wildlife habitat from pipelines and powerlines. The West-wide Energy Corridors, currently designated for oil, gas, and hydrogen pipelines and powerlines on federal lands, should be a powerful tool in achieving those goals. Unfortunately, the designated corridors moved us backward, not forward, in our efforts to create a smart western grid that will help lead us to a cleaner, safer energy future.”

The settlement, said the fact sheet, ensures that:

  • access to renewable energy, in cooperation with state, regional and local efforts, is provided;
  • new pipelines or powerlines are actually needed (i.e., energy needs cannot be met by increased efficiency, conservation, distributed generation or other means);
  • special or sensitive public lands are avoided altogether;
  • risks and opportunities on federal and other affected lands are realistically and thoroughly assessed, so that they can then be avoided or minimized and opportunities for better transmission are not missed; and
  • once appropriate locations are identified, projects on federal lands are presumptively limited to those corridors.
About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.