Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC.
Not for republication by Wyoming media.
The Bureau of Land Management has taken a major step toward approving what would become the largest electricity transmission line in decades, allowing for a dramatic expansion of wind power development in Wyoming and Idaho and providing the model for building large power lines across the West.
The Gateway West Transmission Line Project, proposed by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power, would stretch more than 1,100 miles from Glenrock, Wyo., to a substation 30 miles southwest of Boise, Idaho. The line would carry up to 3,000 megawatts of mostly wind-generated electricity to power-hungry load centers across the Intermountain West.
BLM last week released a voluminous draft environmental impact statement (EIS) analyzing in detail the transmission project’s impacts on everything from landscapes to cultural resources to dozens of sensitive plant and animal species. The draft EIS is open for public comment through Oct. 28.
Gateway West is the largest proposed power line project in years to move to the draft EIS stage, said Walt George, a BLM national project manager in Cheyenne, Wyo., who is overseeing the project.
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 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.
“It has taken a long time to get here, but we are very, very pleased that we are at this point,” said Margaret Oler, a Rocky Mountain Power spokeswoman, noting that the Gateway West project was first proposed in 2007. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we remain committed to working with BLM and the other stakeholders to get through the process.”
Senior state officials in Wyoming and Idaho hailed the project’s economic importance, noting that the line, when completed in 2018, will carry enough electricity to power 1.2 million homes and greatly improve an outdated and overburdened electricity grid in both states.
“We have an aging infrastructure as it relates to the transmission system, and this represents an extremely positive step in the right direction in recognizing we need to acquire more transmission capacity to deal with growth and promote future economic development in the region,” said Paul Kjellander, president of the Idaho Public Utilities Commission in Boise.
A long process
Proponents also expressed relief that the project is finally moving through the environmental review and permitting process after undergoing numerous revisions and setbacks over the past four years.
“We think this is a milestone, and we need to keep the process moving forward,” said Shawn Reese, policy director for Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R). “It’s a huge project, and this is an important step.”
But the Gateway West project must overcome a series of land-use and environmental challenges before the project can proceed, and BLM officials expect environmental groups to raise objections.
The steel lattice transmission towers, which could extend 190 feet high in places, would not conform with some BLM resource management plans (RMPs) along the proposed route, and those plans would have to be amended to accommodate the line, according to the draft EIS.
In addition, the proposed route crosses hundreds of miles of wildlife habitat, affecting sensitive species like greater sage grouse, pygmy rabbits, burrowing owls and raptors. The line’s path would also cross at least four national historic trails, George noted.
Project proponents have proposed a wide-ranging mitigation plan, composed of dozens of so-called “environmental protection measures” designed to soften the project’s impacts to wildlife habitat and treasured landscapes.
BLM did not state a “preferred alternative” route for Gateway West in its draft EIS. A final route will be selected with the release of a final EIS in late 2012, George said. Based on the volume and complexity of public comment so far, BLM could issue a record of decision authorizing the project by June 2013, he said.
As proposed, the Gateway West line would follow the federally designated West-Wide Energy Corridor as closely as possible. But that corridor crosses hundreds of miles of private and state lands over which BLM has little authority. In some cases, proposed routes through the corridor were abandoned because county leaders objected to the line’s crossing private property, George said.
The project would cross 505 miles of private land, 95 miles of state land, and 503 miles of mostly BLM and Forest Service lands, George said.
“On some of the proposed route sections, there are some pretty wide opinions on what the preferred alternative should be,” he said. “It’s possible we could look at a different route alternative in the final EIS that has not been analyzed based on the public comments. I don’t think there will be many of those, but it’s possible. We view this is a process and not as a decision at this point.”
Beefing up wind power
Among the biggest potential beneficiaries of the Gateway West transmission line are wind power developers. Though the project’s primary objective is to provide and maintain a safe supply of electricity regardless of how it is produced, the line would greatly benefit future wind farms planned in southern Wyoming and Idaho.
And Gateway West should have little trouble finding power suppliers interested in hooking up to the line, said Cheryl Riley, executive director of the Wyoming Power Producers Coalition, a Cheyenne, Wyo.-based trade group of independent wind developers.
“I’m thinking [the line] is going to get pretty full pretty fast, and we need to work to get the other lines built,” Riley said.
Wyoming has some of the best wind power potential in the country, but development has been limited in part by a lack of sufficient transmission to get the power to market, said Reese, the governor’s policy director.
“I think that the future of Wyoming’s wind energy is tied to the success of getting transmission lines built,” he said. “And [Gateway West] is one of those foundational lines that are so incredibly important.”
The Gateway West draft EIS also comes as Wyoming finds itself for the first time among the top 10 states for total installed wind power capacity, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Wyoming has more than doubled its installed wind power capacity since 2008, and wind farms there now produce 1,412 MW of electricity, according to NREL. There are also major wind power projects under development in the state, including the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre proposal in southeast Wyoming, which would produce up to 3,000 MW of power, marking it as the largest wind farm in North America.
Idaho’s wind power potential is also significant, though the state ranks 22nd nationwide in total installed wind power capacity, with a modest 353 MW, according to NREL.
Still, as in Wyoming, a number of significant wind power projects are under development in Idaho. Among them: the China Mountain Wind Project, which would cover more than 30,000 acres of mostly federal land in southeast Idaho and northern Nevada and could produce up to 425 MW of electricity — enough to power about 170,000 homes.
“It does not matter much what the favorite energy resource of the moment is, be it wind power or something else, because you need transmission capacity to make it happen,” said Kjellander, the Idaho PUC president. “And we need more transmission capacity in Idaho to make it happen.”
Sage grouse, other obstacles
But mitigating some environmental impacts, including to greater sage grouse, could prove problematic.
Wyoming is home to more than half of the world’s the remaining greater sage grouse, and state leaders there and in Idaho have been working hard to devise conservation measures designed to protect the bird’s habitat and prevent it from being listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The Fish and Wildlife Service last year concluded that the bird warrants federal protection, placing it on a list of “candidate species” whose status is reviewed every year. Any sudden change in population counts would move the bird toward the federal endangered species list — a possibility state leaders say would damage ranching and agricultural interests, as well as the oil and natural gas industries.
The state of 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, according to the draft EIS.
The proposed Gateway West transmission line route through Wyoming closely follows a transmission corridor devised by the state last year that is designed to guide transmission lines through the sensitive grouse habitat. And in both Wyoming and Idaho, the proposed route keeps the power line more than a half-mile away from known grouse breeding grounds, called “leks.”
However, the line could cross as much as 235 miles of “both Wyoming’s core and Idaho’s key habitat” areas, according to the draft EIS.
In some cases, rerouting the transmission line route to avoid grouse habitat would result in the line’s disturbing an active raptor nest, or causing more impacts to visual resources, George said.
“Everyone would agree sage grouse is a very important issue, but it’s not the only important issue,” he said. “Sage grouse did not trump everything else.”
Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power have proposed a mitigation plan that would include purchasing conservation easements to protect existing grouse habitat outside of the project area, and BLM would forbid construction work during the critical spring breeding and nesting season.
BLM says more study is needed. But as it stands, the proposed project “is likely to contribute to a trend toward federal listing or loss of viability for the greater sage-grouse,” according to the draft EIS.
George said the sage grouse issue is “an evolving management and policy situation,” adding that he’s confident BLM and the project proponents will work out a suitable plan that protects the grouse.
“I know there are folks out there that would like every impact to be mitigated, and that’s a laudable goal,” he said. “But from my perspective, that’s almost impossible to achieve. We’ve tried to analyze everything thoroughly. Not everyone will like the choices we made, and they may not feel everything has been sufficiently mitigated. But I will feel that this part of the process has been a success if people feel we’ve done a thorough analysis of the impacts.”
Walt Gasson, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation in Cheyenne, said he believes BLM is making a sincere effort to do that.
But Gasson added he’s concerned about the cumulative impacts that Gateway West and other development proposals could have on important sage grouse habitat, ultimately pushing the bird closer to an ESA listing.
“I think there are people out there who believe that the federal government won’t list this bird. I’m not one of those,” he said. “I think that unless we demonstrate we are doing absolutely everything in our power as a people to keep this bird on firm ground, we’re going to be faced with a listing, and I think a listing for sage grouse is absolute devastation for the West.
“That’s not to say that Gateway West is a bad project; it’s an important project,” he added. “But boy, I’m nervous as a cat about anything that’s relevant to the survival of the sage grouse right now.”
Click here to read the Gateway West draft EIS.
— Scott Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.