As he walked out the door for the last time Thursday, Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze signed a record of decision authorizing the two final routes for the Gateway West transmission line project that would run from central Wyoming to near Melba.
The two routes through Southern Idaho avoid private land and minimize impacts to sage-grouse habitat and the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. But the proposed routes were opposed by the Owyhee County Commission, the state of Idaho, Idaho Power, and Idaho environmental groups who preferred routes largely following existing lines across the conservation area.
The route Kornze authorized places the two lines next to each other and crosses the Birds of Prey area in just two short spots. The route runs along the Owyhee Front on other federal land, including areas that are arguably far more scenic than much of the cheatgrass-covered, burned-over national conservation area that already has transmission lines running through it.
The project would link wind plants from Glenwood, Wyo., west 1,000 miles to Melba, from where the line is expected to eventually link to customers all the way west to the Pacific. When built, it could deliver up to 1,500 megawatts of transmission capacity in southern Wyoming and Southern Idaho – enough to power 975,000 homes.
“Gateway West has been an administration priority project to transform our electric power grid and spur development of renewable energy,” said Kornze.
The decision grants rights of way to Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power to build and operate 321 miles of 500-kilovolt transmission lines on BLM-managed public lands in Gooding, Elmore, Owyhee, Cassia and Twin Falls counties in Idaho.
The lines will cross 17.6 miles of public land in the Birds of Prey Area — 8.8 miles per line, separated by 250 feet in a 500-foot-wide right of way. The route avoids all priority habitat management areas for sage grouse.
The decision would implement a new mitigation policy put in place under the Obama administration.
Mitigation is required for any act that affects the resources of the Birds of Prey Area. Such mitigation must result in “enhancement” of those resources — meaning that any changes to sage grouse habitat must result in a net conservation gain for the species. Mitigation is required for important, scarce, or sensitive resources — such as the Oregon-California National Historic Trail, visual resources and habitat for migratory birds — that results in a minimum of no net loss or a net benefit, depending on the circumstances.
Because Kornze signed the decision, and not a higher Interior official, it can be appealed to the Interior Board of Land Appeals instead of federal court. The appeal must come within 30 days.
But the project still faces barriers. Idaho law gives Owyhee County veto power over transmission line siting. Already, Power and Cassia counties have balked at the routes that run through their counties.
At the end of the process, the Idaho Public Utilities Commission will determine if ratepayers will shoulder the burden of paying for the transmission line construction. The Gateway project may be approved, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on studies and plans, and still never get built.