by Judson Berger
The Obama administration is looking to consolidate control over the nation's power highway, pushing a proposal that would put one federal agency in the driver's seat when it comes to reviewing and approving power-line projects across the country.
The proposal has triggered a rush of complaints, pitting power companies and the federal government against concerned citizens and local lawmakers.
As the Energy Department reviews the immense feedback in the weeks ahead, the ordeal could help determine how and where the nation's power supply is routed.
At the heart of Washington's proposal is a desire to guide and speed up a process that can be slowed by local bureaucratic hurdles. The need for more transmission lines is apparent -- in the vast states where wind and other forms of renewable energy are produced, the energy is often hundreds of miles from where it would be consumed.
But new power lines are not exactly welcome guests.
"Siting transmission is extremely difficult, because no one wants it on their land," said Gene Fadness, with the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.
Still, he said, "We don't think (the process) takes so long that it's not workable."
The states, which along with local governments have long had authority over whether and where power lines get built, derided the plan as a move that would make it harder for local residents to weigh in.
"It turns the whole process on its head," said Robert Thormeyer, spokesman with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. He said the federal government would be "more inclined to build" than the states, if for no other reason than they probably wouldn't have as much interaction with citizens. A bureaucrat in Washington might not hear the not-in-my-backyard pleas as frequently as a bureaucrat in, say, Boise.
The proposed change has drawn the skepticism of at least one senator. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who helped write a 2005 law that initially expanded federal power over power lines, complained about the plan in a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
The chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said it appears the commission is trying to "rewrite" the language in the law. He said that's a decision for Congress, not the commission, to make.
The move, he wrote, "would pave the way for the commission to use the newly consolidated powers in ways never intended by Congress. . . "