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Senate Committee Questions Utility Corridors Ruling

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee plans to hold an oversight hearing on the Department of Energy's (DOE) implementation of the transmission corridor program, which permits the federal government to overrule state concerns in siting transmission lines. The hearings were prompted by a bipartisan coalition of 14 senators who say DOE has exceeded its authority in establishing high-priority transmission areas and has infringed on state rights.

DOE received widespread criticism after issuing a final rule last October that designated large swaths of land in the Mid-Atlantic and Southwest as corridors, cases our conservation defense team have been following closely.

Many conservation and environmental organizations joined together to sue DOE in an effort to reform implementation of these transmission corridors.  These organizations include the Natural Lands Trust, the Brandywine Conservancy, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Pennsylvania Association of Land Trusts and the Piedmont Environment Council.

 

The threat to Pennsylvania and neighboring states is unprecedented. The condemnation zone encompasses 52 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties as well as 7 other states. Already there are proposals for four new high-voltage transmission lines in Pennsylvania. Each of these proposals could circumvent local and state laws designed to protect the public interest and prevent the unbridled use of eminent domain. There is nothing to stop the federal government from fast-tracking even more lines in the future.

Land trusts recognize the necessity of the occasional well-considered condemnation. Organizations recognize that reliable electricity is important and that there will be a compelling public interest in condemning a property. However, whether for transmission lines, highways or any other public purpose, there should be a high bar in considering use of condemnation. Federal eminent domain should be a last resort, rather than the centerpiece of energy policy.

Problems with the NIETC

The National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor (NIETC) provisions, and the manner in which DOE has implemented them, represent a sweeping disregard for federal, state, and local authorities, laws, and programs, an unprecedented extension of federal eminent domain to electric utilities, and a commitment to irresponsible energy and climate policy decades into the future. 

Irresponsible Energy and Climate Policy

At a time when the nation must focus on increasing our energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, NIETC designation is an enormous step backwards.   The National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency states that efficiency and conservation programs can be deployed for 2-3¢ per kilowatt hour and can effectively reduce overall demand on the electricity grid. Comments submitted to DOE by many experts indicate that there are a range of highly cost-effective and sound alternatives to avoid potential future congestion. DOE did not take into consideration widely used Demand Side Management tools (large scale demand response and conservation). DOE did not consider any of these alternatives before designating NIETC’s.

Many of the Corridor states with established plans to reduce energy consumption and increase efficiency have registered concern that NIETC designation is in direct conflict with those programs. In designating the Corridors without consultation with the states, DOE has circumvented the progressive efforts of states, cities, and regional entities to institute responsible energy/climate policies.  In addition to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, expanding “old” coal-fired generation into the regional power market makes investment in cleaner alternatives, efficiency and demand/response technologies less economically viable. Responsible state energy management objectives, clean air programs, and the goals of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative will all be undercut by the dramatic increase in coal-fired generation into the Mid-Atlantic Region.  

DOE’s Mid-Atlantic NIETC designation is based on an assumption of need that has not been independently verified, but rather is based on models and data analysis prepared by the private entities that have a great deal to gain from expanded transmission.  The interstate transmission lines approved by PJM Interconnection and submitted to DOE for inclusion within the Mid-Atlantic corridor will transmit coal-fired generation from Ohio River Valley plants built prior to 1972. These plants produce more than 120 million tons of CO2 per year. Many of these plants have been the subject of litigation over prior decades due to air quality and public health concerns. Utilities already have plans for ratepayers to finance over $9 billion in costs for transmission lines to these plants, locking the nation into increased carbon emissions counter to future federal climate policy.  

Violation of National Environmental Laws

In finalizing the first NIETC’s, DOE refused to conduct an environmental impact statement as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. DOE failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife as required by the Endangered Species Act. DOE failed to conduct proper reviews as required by the National Historic Preservation Act.

Misuse of Federal Eminent Domain

In an unprecedented reversal of existing policy and law, FERC may confer federal eminent domain authority to the private transmission company to condemn private or public lands for placement of towers and broad rights-of-way.  FERC is now authorized to review a transmission project application that a state utility commission has rejected, modified, or not acted upon within one year.

Public Lands and Private Property at Risk

Transmission is a high impact solution. Millions of acres of irreplaceable environmental, historic, and scenic resources, conserved lands, protected watersheds, and other sensitive areas within the Corridors are threatened. Taxpayer dollars have been used to conserve, protect, and maintain national heritage and historic sites, parks, wildlife habitats, scenic areas and other lands that are now at risk from this misguided action by DOE.

Conflicts with State/Local Authorities

DOE failed to consult with affected states. Given that the 10 states included in the designated Corridors were not consulted by DOE, it is not surprising that many conflicts will ensue from transmission expansion and FERC approval of projects. Such actions will counter existing state laws and programs pertaining to transmission siting, land use, transportation, conservation, agriculture, water supply, environmental quality, and energy efficiency.

Things you can do now!

  • Contact Rob Marmet with any questions about how you can help. Rob is with Piedmont Environmental Council. His e-mail is rmarmet@pecva.org and phone number is (540) 347-2334.
  • Sign Senator Casey’s petition. Senator Casey (D-PA) has taken the lead against this policy in Congress. He has launched a national petition on his website against the Department of Energy’s implementation of this program. Please visit Senator Casey’s website for more information. All US citizens are encouraged to sign the petition. http://casey.senate.gov/actions/
  • Contact Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee Members on the NIETC Hearing. 15 Senators (1/6th of the Senate) have sent a letter to Senator Bingaman (D-NM) asking him to hold a full committee hearing on NIETC policy in Energy & Natural Resources committee. Senator Bingaman is the E&NR chair. Although there is indication that E&NR will hold a hearing to address these concerns, a stand alone full committee hearing has not been secured. If your Senator is on the committee, tell him or her about this issue. Most importantly, contact Senator Bingaman and ask him to hold a stand alone hearing on NIETC. Senator Bingaman can be reached in Washington DC at (202)224-5521. Ask to speak to the Energy staffer.

Other members of the E&NR committee:

  • Akaka (HI)
  • Dorgan (ND)
  • Wyden (OR)
  • Johnson (SD)
  • Landrieu (LA)
  • Cantwell (WA)
  • Salazar (CO)
  • Menendez (NJ)
  • Tester (MT)
  • Lincoln (AR)
  • Domenici (Ranking Member) (NM)
  • Craig (ID)
  • Murkowski (AK)
  • Burr (NC)
  • DeMint (SC)
  • Corker (TN)
  • Sessions (AL)
  • Bunning (KY)
  • Smith (OR)
  • Martinez (FL)
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