Energy & Environment

Transmission Blues

In energy-rich states, the federal government's response to the energy crunch is looking more than a little ominous.
by | December 2005

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal has been through the energy boom and bust before. As state planning director in the 1970s, Freudenthal sat in on discussions about President Gerald Ford's Project Independence and President Jimmy Carter's Energy Mobilization Board. In those days, Western governors worried that the White House intended to convert the Rocky Mountains into an "energy colony" by commandeering the region's coal, oil shale and other reserves to replace embargoed foreign oil. Crude oil prices dropped just in time, and the West was spared.

Now energy markets are in turmoil again, and the country once more is searching for fuels to keep cars on the road and safeguard California and the Northeast from blackouts. Rising oil and gas prices are persuading oil companies and electric utilities to dust off blueprints for tapping the West's wind, geothermal, coalbed methane and cleaner burning coal, along with conventional petroleum reserves. Energy companies also plan to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from overseas fields in super-chilled tankers to supplement tight supplies for the populous Atlantic and Pacific coasts. "The days of cheap energy are over," Freudenthal told a Montana energy conference this fall. "This is not your grandfather's boom."

In Cheyenne and state capitals around the country, the federal government's response to the energy crunch once again is looking more than a little ominous. Since the 1970s, states have put tougher environmental standards in place and set up mechanisms for deciding where development is acceptable. But the federal government is now prepared to override state pollution-control rules and bypass local land use planning prerogatives.

To carry fuel or electric power a thousand or more miles from the Rockies to populated industrial centers, new pipelines and high- voltage transmission lines must be built. A new federal energy law enacted this year orders the U.S. Department of Energy to designate corridors crossing state lines for regional high-voltage transmission lines. If state and local authorities don't go along, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has the power to step in after one year and order that construction proceed.

The law also gives FERC exclusive authority to decide where port facilities should be built to deliver imported LNG to pipelines. The LNG language cut the legal ground out from under a California Public Utility Commission lawsuit contesting FERC's authority to approve an LNG terminal just outside Los Angeles. Across the continent, Connecticut officials also object that the law hamstrings the state's authority to deal with impacts from a proposed LNG facility just across the New York State line and a natural gas pipeline crossing Long Island Sound.

"A lot of states are concerned about this concentration of power with FERC," says Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's attorney general. Blumenthal is also challenging on constitutional grounds a separate provision that allows the pipeline's backers to appeal directly to federal judges. "This illegally straitjackets states and forces approval of unacceptable and unreasonable projects," Blumenthal says.

Doug Larson, the Western Interstate Energy Board director in Denver, sees "a creeping centralization of authority" at work in congressional energy legislation. FERC advisers and industry lobbyists contend that's justified because state and local officials listen too readily to not-in-my-backyard sentiments that stall essential projects. But states have not been dragging their heels on transmission line construction. Last April, Freudenthal and three other governors agreed on building a 1,300 mile high-voltage line from Wyoming and Utah that could power 12 million homes in Nevada and California.

The Western Governors Association also has drafted plans for wind, geothermal, clean-burning coal and other facilities to generate 30,000 megawatts of Rocky Mountain energy. Wyoming has created a state infrastructure authority, beefed up its pollution-control agency and set energy revenues aside for protecting wildlife habitat.

There's a national interest in diversifying power supplies to benefit the entire nation. But officials in Washington frittered away the past 25 years in inconclusive debates, while governors such as Freudenthal got to work on regional strategies. There's no need for Congress to surrender environmental quality, much less ride roughshod over the federal system. State and local governments will be ready to do their part to supply energy for all--without sacrificing sizable sections of the country.


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