Agencies will review Western energy corridors with wildlands and clean energy in mind

A revision of energy corridors can help guide electric transmission lines away from scenic wild lands like the borders of Arches National Park.

flickr, Tobias

Federal agencies will be reviewing plans for energy transmission lines, assessing their impact on wild lands.

Federal agencies are reviewing plans for energy transmission lines, assessing their impact on wild lands.

The electrical grid is made up of a complex system of transmission lines that move electricity from where it’s produced to the homes and businesses that need it. As our country’s energy demand increases and energy sources shift to clean energy, modernizing and improving the electrical grid is a necessity. But if not developed responsibly, these large transmission lines could harm wildlife habitat and our natural resources.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), along with the Forest Service and Department of Energy continue their efforts to re-evaluate “corridors” for transmission lines and pipelines across the West, including developing new guidance for their field staff, requesting input from the public, and focusing on the desert southwest as a priority region for review.

We are pleased to see progress on this important effort to find low-conflict energy corridors that prioritize connecting renewable energy to the grid. Doing so will allow our country to harness clean energy while protecting important wildlands.

Why the energy corridors need remodeling

The Bush Administration attempted to plan for an expanded grid in 2009 by designating 6,000 miles of ‘West Wide Energy Corridors’ across 11 states and nearly 3 million acres of public land. Unfortunately the routes identified for future transmission lines adversely affected a number of national parks, wildlife refuges and national monuments.

For example, one proposed corridor bisects three Wild and Scenic River segments in the Mt. Hood National Forest, as well as the popular Pacific Crest Trail. The building of transmission lines in that corridor could destroy old growth forests set aside years ago to protect the threatened northern spotted owl.

The corridors identified in 2009 also favored transmission from coal and other fossil fuel plants instead of creating pathways to carry electricity from wind and solar projects.

photo credit: flickr, WesternArea Power (Ron Burbridge)

The solution: edit, delete or add corridors

These problems with poorly sited corridors led the Wilderness Society and other conservation groups and a Colorado county to file a lawsuit challenging the routes chosen. We believe in smart planning for all energy development, including transmission lines, so our goal was not to eliminate all of the corridors, but rather help create a responsible network of energy corridors that supports renewable energy while avoiding sensitive wildlands. In July of 2012 we reached a settlement with federal agencies requiring the BLM to re-evaluate the corridors and improve them.

Since then, the Obama Administration has seized the opportunity to revise corridors in the West that will help reduce carbon pollution by facilitating clean energy and protect wildlands by avoiding special or sensitive areas all together.

In addition to the efforts mentioned above, BLM recently proposed changes in the Las Vegas Draft Resource Management Plan for southern Nevada to improve the corridors, which we are currently analyzing. In general, The Wilderness Society is recommending:

  • Prioritizing the review of corridors in regions with high wind and solar potential where renewable energy development is increasing. This includes the desert southwest in western Arizona, southern Nevada and southern California. The BLM recently selected this region as their first priority for review.
  • Deleting or adjusting of corridors to avoid sensitive wildlands. For example, we will recommend deleting a corridor which runs along the border of Arches National Park through some of the most spectacular scenic vistas in Southern Utah.
  • Consideration of whether new corridors are needed in appropriate places to access areas with high renewable energy potential such as BLM’s Solar Energy Zones.
  • Improving best management practices for projects in corridors. Even in appropriate places, large transmission lines will have impacts, so it is important to take steps to reduce or off-set those impacts. For example, developers could avoid building access roads in key places by installing transmission towers by helicopter.

BLM has requested funding from Congress to begin the first regional review of corridors in the desert southwest in 2015.  Given the rapid increase in renewable energy on public lands in the West, it is important that agencies maintain focus on quickly and thoughtfully reevaluating the corridors.

See also:

BLM’s web page on transmission projects and energy corridors

BLM’s web page on the West-wide Energy Corridors