Federal agencies issue report on use of Western energy corridors

Use of corridors in the West designated for power transmission, pipelines and other facilities has been heavy in some areas and sparse in other areas from 2009 through most of 2014, with different reasons for the variation, a May 20 report from three federal agencies concluded.

The report from the Department of Energy (DOE), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) will be used for upcoming regional reviews to assess the need for greater public input and more collaboration among federal, state, local and tribal stakeholders about the use of transmission corridors in the region.

The regional reviews will begin with “priority corridors” in the southern parts of California and Nevada and western Arizona, the three agencies said in a May 20 statement.

The “West-Wide” energy corridors were designated by BLM and USFS in 2009 under Section 368(a) of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, with 6,000 miles on federal lands identified for use by oil, natural gas and hydrogen pipelines and electricity transmission and distribution facilities, according to the report.

The report examines the use of the corridors from January 2009 to October 2014 and evaluates whether the corridors are achieving their purpose of promoting environmentally responsible corridor siting decisions and reducing the proliferation of dispersed rights-of-way (ROWs) crossing federal lands.

With the aim of encouraging more efficient and effective use of the corridors, the report establishes baseline data and presents opportunities and challenges for further consideration during the periodic regional reviews that BLM and USFS will conduct, the three agencies said in the May 20 statement.

The Section 368 corridor report followed a settlement among the agencies and several non-profit organizations that filed a lawsuit challenging the designation of the corridors, and it complies with a 2012 executive order and 2013 memorandum from President Barack Obama. It covers 11 states and lists numerous electricity transmission projects that have sought to use all or portions of the corridors.

The upcoming regional reviews, which the report said would be “completed subject to availability of appropriated funds,” will lead to recommendations for any revisions, deletions or additions to the existing corridors and they should focus on identifying overutilization and underutilization of corridors and addressing siting conflicts.

On-the-ground field inspections and examinations of corridor capacity should be considered during the regional reviews, the report said. “It is anticipated that local expertise and a closer vantage point to the regional landscape may avail more opportunities to improve processes to address congestion within Section 368 corridors, to implement corridor modifications through land use planning amendments and revisions, and to incorporate [interagency operating procedures] into project authorizations,” the report said.

During the study period, some BLM offices granted multiple ROW permits within Section 368 corridors, while other BLM offices have had little or no interest from industry in the corridors, the report said. The reasons for the overutilization or underutilization vary among the BLM offices and regions.

The report listed factors affecting overutilization, including expedited permitting, avoidance of potential resource issues, favorable topography for siting and co-locating facilities, reduced costs, most direct path to intended destination, ease of project planning and the establishment of areas where utilities can cross federal lands.

Some corridors have been actively pursued and may lead to overcrowding limitations, with eight sections of various widths listed among six states – two in California, two in Nevada and one each in Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Most of the development is due to transmission lines, with one pipeline and one renewable energy project mentioned within those corridors.

During the regional reviews, those corridors may require analysis to determine if they can be modified to mitigate some of the spacing issues, the report said.

For corridors that have been underutilized, the report noted that many project developers focus on fulfilling the objectives of their projects rather than aligning them with a Section 368 corridor even when a corridor is nearby a project route.

Among the reasons listed are:

  • Some Section 368 corridor paths – to avoid tribal lands – result in less-direct routes that require crossing additional land or inefficient corridor alignment
  • Gaps in some corridors that force applicants to consider alternate routes not within the corridors
  • Terrain and topography issues
  • Space limitations preventing additional ROWs being located within a corridor
  • Lack of coordination among federal agencies and conflicts between BLM and state and local landowners, particularly for large-scale projects that involve many BLM offices and local jurisdictions.

Addressing the lack of coordination among federal agencies, the report said that the issue can result in a corridor that is designated by one agency but not another, with a corridor that is non-contiguous and potentially less desirable or unusable for project developers.

Such issues should be examined in the regional reviews, the report said.

The report was prepared for the three agencies by DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.