Under orders from Congress to move quickly, the Department of Energy and Bureau of Land Management will approve thousands of miles of new power line and pipeline corridors on federal lands across the West in the next 14 months. The energy easements are likely to cross national parks, forests and military bases as well as other public land.
Environmentalists and land managers worry about the risk of pipeline explosions and permanent scarring of habitat and scenery from pylons and trenches. Military officials have expressed concern that the installations could interfere with training.
But industry lobbyists and congressional policymakers said expedited approvals for new corridors were vital to ensuring that adequate power from coal beds, oil fields and wind farms in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho reached the booming population centers of the Southwest.
In California alone, officials predict they will need an additional 14,000 megawatts of electricity per year, over the current 57,000 megawatts, to serve an expected 13 million more people by 2014.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 01, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
State's electricity needs: An article in Section A on May 23 said California would need an additional 14,000 megawatts of electricity per year by 2014. The correct number is 1,400 megawatts.
ExxonMobil, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas and Electric and others have proposed corridors in the state across Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Lassen Volcanic national parks as well as the Mojave National Preserve, several military bases, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and seven national forests.
Elsewhere, routes near Moab, Utah, the Cascades and Rocky Mountains have been proposed, some up to five miles wide and 2,000 miles long.
"We are concerned about our lands," said Lee Dickinson, head of the National Park Service's special uses division, who is on a joint federal agency task force designed to resolve conflicting needs. "They know that we are not thrilled."
Department of Energy officials declined to provide an internal working map of which corridors were under consideration, saying it would be released only after environmental review. At that point, a map will be released showing possible routes, including those recommended by the department, and the public will have a chance to comment.
"We don't want to confuse the public," said David Meyer of the department's Office of Electricity Deliverability and Energy Reliability.
Not all routes being considered will be approved, and attempts are being made to avoid sensitive areas "unless there's a dire need," said Julia Souder, who is managing the project for the department.
Acting at the behest of the nation's largest utilities, Congress in its 2005 Energy Policy Act gave federal agencies until August 2007 to review and adopt major energy corridors across 11 states.
"That's warp speed," Scott Powers, a BLM official, said at a planning session last winter.
The legislation was designed to fast-track construction by requiring a single, overarching environmental review of the effect of dozens of energy corridors across federal land. The aim is to avoid time-consuming project-by-project reviews. Federal energy regulators were also given authority to designate power lines in the "national interest," which would allow them to overrule federal agencies or states or counties that withheld approval for segments of projects.
"They've taken away our sovereignty," said John Geesman, who sits on the California Energy Commission. "We're looking down the barrel of a gun."
Geesman said state officials were partly to blame for not designating more corridors sooner. But he said the law Congress passed went too far. As challenging as it is to find room for long corridors, Geesman said, they should not cross sensitive public lands.
Hotly contested proposals such as those across Anza-Borrego and the Cleveland and San Bernardino national forests could now be approved by federal officials if California said no.
Environmentalists say existing energy corridors on public land, most of them authorized before laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act were passed, present a cautionary tale. Fuel pipelines have exploded or leaked because of sabotage or natural disaster, said Bill Corcoran of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. In March 2005, a landslide in the Angeles National Forest broke a crude oil pipeline, dumping 126,000 gallons into Pyramid Lake, which supplies drinking water to Los Angeles.
Environmentalists and some federal scientists say the huge number of potential new corridors and accelerated timeline are a recipe for ecological devastation. They note that the government's hurried environmental review of the proposed corridors, to be completed by year's end, will miss key breeding seasons of affected fauna.
"That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. They want to get by with a lot of sloppy, dirty work," said Howard Wilshire, a retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist who for 20 years studied human effects on public lands.