BLM holds off on Southwest Idaho power line

An unpopular route in the state's eastern and southern regions is still part of the plan.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comNovember 13, 2013 

The Obama administration put off indefinitely a final decision on two routes for the 990-mile Gateway West Transmission Line through Kuna and Owyhee County in a decision released Tuesday.

The Bureau of Land Management approved the route through Wyoming and Eastern Idaho and the segment that crosses Jerome, Twin Falls and Cassia County. But the agency said it has more time to seek consensus for a route through the southwest corner of Idaho.

"Gateway West is a high-priority project of the president's power infrastructure initiative - a common-sense approach that is speeding job creation in the near term while spurring the economy and increasing the nation's competitiveness in the long term," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

The 500-kilovolt power lines with towers 150 to 180 feet high would stretch from Glenrock, Wyo., to Murphy and be built by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power. Most of the route is on rangeland and along interstates, but the route also includes farmland in Cassia and Power counties, where it is bitterly opposed.

The two deferred routes between Jerome to the Hemingway substation near Melba run through farms and even the city of Kuna.

COUNTIES DISAPPOINTED

Cassia and Power had proposed an alternative route through their counties, but that proposal ran across high-quality habitat for the sage grouse, which the federal government is reviewing for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. After the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes vetoed a route across the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, the BLM had few legal options.

"There just isn't another place we can feasibly put it," said Heather Feeney, a BLM spokeswoman in Boise.

The decision sets up a clash between the counties, which under Idaho law have final authority on energy infrastructure decisions, and the federal government. Doug Balfour, a Pocatello attorney who represents the two counties, said the BLM chose the route because it's the easiest way for the agency to meet its internal guidelines.

The agency recently selected Gov. Otter's Idaho Sage Grouse Management Plan and its own plan as its two preferred alternatives for sage grouse management.

But for the Gateway decision, the agency relied on interim regulations that do not allow it to approve development on prime sagebrush habitat. The county alternative would skirt the edge of the habitat - and under the Otter plan, would miss the habitat altogether.

"Our preferred route would be allowed under the Idaho Sage Grouse Plan," Balfour said.

The BLM has 60 days to reconsider its decision. The agency is taking public comments.

Part of the reason the decision on Magic Valley counties was not delayed is because the two utilities want to begin work on those segments by 2017.

MORE TIME FOR KUNA

The BLM earlier approved two alternative routes across the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey Area south of Kuna, which had been negotiated by Idaho Power, Ada and Owyhee counties, and others, avoiding much of the private land conflicts in the western edge.

But as the BLM completed its guidelines for managing National Landscape Conservation Areas - a designation put into law in 2009 by Congress - it discovered it was required to "enhance" the resources for raptors that the Birds of Prey area was designated to protect, BLM officials said. Power lines could not be justified under that criteria.

Because the BLM decided it did not have time to reopen negotiations, it chose two routes through mostly private land in Kuna and Melba and mostly public land in Owyhee County. But that move angered residents and local and state officials who had participated in the negotiations with the BLM.

State and Idaho Power officials have continued to meet with BLM officials in Washington seeking a way to route the lines.

Gateway West is one of seven projects the Obama administration made a priority in 2009 and put on the fast track to help tap into wind energy resources under development in southern Wyoming, make the system more reliable and save customers money. A separate project pushed by Idaho Power would connect Gateway from near Melba to transmission lines in Boardman, Ore.

"The line will strengthen the Western grid, bringing a diversified portfolio of renewable and conventional energy to meet the region's projected growth in electricity demand," Jewell said.

Once completed, the new transmission lines would carry 1,500 megawatts of electricity across the West, between the Pacific Coast and the edge of the Great Plains. With the cost of a transmission line ranging from $1.5 million to $2.5 million per mile, according to Public Utilities Commission President Paul Kjellander, Gateway West's costs could be in the billions.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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