Letters from the West

Gateway West power line runs through the lives of Westerners

Power poles located about nine miles south of Kuna off Swan Falls Road, running through the Morley Nelson-Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.
Power poles located about nine miles south of Kuna off Swan Falls Road, running through the Morley Nelson-Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. Shawn Raecke / Idaho Statesman

The Gateway West high-power transmission line, which would run east to west across southern Idaho to near Melba, is considered a national priority project. But you wouldn’t know it from all the delays and hang-ups the project has had since first proposed by Pacificorp and Idaho Power in 2007.

When it was first conceived, Gateway was going to share power from Wyoming’s considerable coal resources with Idaho and Oregon, where both utilities had considerable growing demand. But today Idaho Power is on a “glide path” away from coal, and Pacificorp’s Oregon market wants it to phase it out in that state, too.

Today, wind and other renewable energy drive the project, which would link wind plants spread from Glenwood, Wyo., west 1,000 miles to Melba, where eventually it is expected to link to customers all the way west to the Pacific. Making the 500-kilovolt project even more useful is Idaho Power’s announcement this month that it is joining the Western Energy Imbalance Market in 2018, allowing utilities to share and sell power in real-time basis across the region.

When federal land managers released a draft plan for two portions of the 1,500-megawatt transmission line that crosses public land in Southwest Idaho, there was little initial reaction pro or con.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s draft supplemental environmental impact statement is for the two segments of the Gateway West project would each span more than 125 miles. Eight segments have been approved, but the two that remain have seven pairs of possible route combinations.

The issue is that all of those possible routes cross the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. The contested routes south of Kuna try to stay off as much of the conservation area as possible, which means the towers and lines run through more of Owyhee County than local officials want. A local-consensus northern route that runs through the conservation area and is backed by the two electric utilities is also among alternatives.

It sounds complicated because it is. The BLM doesn’t make it easy to understand its true intentions, because it has two preferred alternatives with multiple options. But it’s kept all the possibilities on the table because all options have different opponents that can hold the project up if they want.

Environmentalists can go to court. The utilities can flex political muscle. Owyhee County officials have veto power under Idaho law.

President Barack Obama appointed a Rapid Response Transmission Team to help fast-track priority projects like Gateway, a team that may or may not have helped speed the approval of the project prior to this final stretch. But in November Obama issued a memo saying federal policy will either avoid or minimize impacts on natural resources like wildlife and ecosystems.

This appeared to add an extra hurdle to the mix. But it actually could help by attracting private-public partnerships to do restoration work, such as improving habitat for ground squirrels that are important food for the area’s raptors.

This process is mind-numbing at times. But remember, this transmission line will run through people’s farms and ranches as well as across important public lands. There are thousands of conflicts that will need to be resolved before it gets built — probably a decade from now.

But the BLM and the utilities have a chance to get some sort of consensus by listening to the Idahoans who have engaged in the process and learned what each side wants and needs. Join them at the meetings next week.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

Transmission line meetings next week

▪  Hagerman: Monday, 4-7 p.m, Hagerman Valley Community and Senior Center.

▪  Boise: Tuesday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., Best Western Vista Inn at the Airport, 2645 W Airport Way.

▪  Kuna: Tuesday, 4-7 p.m., Kuna Senior Center.

▪  Twin Falls: Wednesday, 4-7 p.m., Twin Falls BLM District Office.

▪  Murphy: Thursday, 4-7 p.m., Owyhee County Historical Society Museum.

▪  To comment: The Gateway West draft supplemental EIS is open for public comment through June 9. Visit IdahoStatesman.com to see the plan and how to comment.