US trumps states over siting power lines

Designated as part of a national power 'corridor' Tuesday, Virginia could see transmission towers near Civil War sites.

Huge transmission lines could soon skirt Civil War battlegrounds, historic districts, and the Appalachian Trail following a federal order that designates national corridors in two key regions of the United States with fast-growing electricity needs.

The corridors are designed to make it easier for utilities to get approval for power lines in areas where the electric grid is congested. They allow the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) – not states – to be the final arbiter of where the lines are built. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the federal entity that will serve as arbiter.]

Tuesday's move is certain to spark a fresh round of lawsuits and inject vigor into congressional debates about new energy legislation, critics say, especially over provisions for the new eastern corridor. At stake is the reliability and cost of electric power in the Northeast, its embrace of green energy, and the ambience of hundreds of thousands of rural acres from New York to Virginia.

Arguing that the US badly needs new transmission lines to prevent future power shortages and possibly even blackouts, federal energy officials say newly designated "national interest electric corridors" in the Mid-Atlantic states and the Southwest are a much needed insurance policy.

"These National Corridors serve as an important indication by the federal government that significant transmission [power] constraint or congestion problems exist," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said in a statement. "The goal is simple – to keep reliable supplies of electric energy flowing to all Americans."

But opponents, including the governors of New York and Virginia, state regulators, and others, say it's anything but simple. The newly designated corridors hold potential to push power lines through some of the most scenic and historic areas of 11 states. They would also undermine Northeast states' bid to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by causing them to rely more on cheaper coal-fired power from the Midwest, rather than cleaner but higher cost electric generators fired by natural gas.

"I am deeply disappointed in the department's decision to go forward with this designation," says Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia. "It makes no sense and has the potential to destroy neighborhoods and desecrate huge swaths of historically significant land."

Under provisions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, FERC is allowed to preempt local and state zoning laws within a designated "national interest electric transmission corridor." It also permits the use of federal powers of eminent domain that would require landowners to sell their property. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the scope of FERC's powers.]

As reported by the Monitor in May, at least eight power lines stretching 2,000 miles through six eastern states at an estimated cost of more than $9 billion are under active consideration or have been formally proposed by power companies. But those plans, which make it possible to bring power from the Ohio Valley to the East Coast, face increasing opposition.

Indeed, the new corridors are not needed to boost reliability, say state officials and some grid-reliability experts. They say the corridors are aimed mainly at making it possible for large, deregulated utilities to profit from transmitting cheap coal-fired power from the Ohio Valley to the East Coast.

What raises suspicions for some is the sweeping scope of the corridor along the Eastern Seaboard. Transmission planners and engineers say upgrades to existing lines could address reliability without a need for most new lines. The two new corridors are not exactly narrow pathways for power lines, but encompass wide swaths of 11 states. The new Mid-Atlantic power corridor, for instance, encompasses 116,000 square miles.

"The FERC cited the Hudson Valley in New York as a bottleneck for power – but that's wrong," says George Loehr, a power engineer and executive committee member of the New York State Reliability Council. "It's just that independent generating companies in upstate New York would like to be able to move more power to New York City and Long Island. That's the highest priced market and would earn them more money there. But that's not a reliability issue."

But Dominion Resources, which has proposed a 65-mile power line through the Virginia countryside narrowly skirting battlefields, has said it expects state regulators to make a positive decision on its recent application. If the company doesn't like the decision, it may now apply to FERC for review of its power-line proposal.

Some of the most heated resistance is in Virginia where the new national corridor includes 11 historic districts, one national historic landmark, 19 state or national historic sites, seven Civil War battlefields, and the Appalachian Trail. Some of the most famous sites of the Civil War – Manassas, Antietem, and Gettysburg – lie within the Mid-Atlantic corridor.

Mark Brownstein, a managing director at Environmental Defense, a New York-based environmental group, says his group is examining the possibility of a lawsuit. The new corridor border divides Appalachian coal reserves and large urban populations on the East Coast. "It seems no accident these corridors are exactly along the borders of states that have committed to reducing greenhouse gases," he says.

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