Thursday, December 1, 2011

Obama's power line team to visit B2H project

By JAYSON JACOBY Nov. 30, 2011

A team of federal officials that President Obama tasked with speeding up the permitting process for seven proposed power lines will conduct a site visit next week for an Idaho Power Company line that’s slated to bisect Baker County.

The president’s “Rapid Response Team for Transmission” will be in Boise on Dec. 6, and in Ontario on Dec. 7.

The team is not scheduled to travel to Baker County.

Mark Bennett, the county’s planning director, said he will attend some of the meetings. Bennett said Fred Warner Jr., chairman of the county’s three-member Board of Commissioners, might accompany him. 

Obama announced in early October that he wants to expedite permitting for seven power transmission lines, including Idaho Power’s Boardman-to-Hemingway project that was unveiled several years ago. Idaho Power has suggested several routes for the 300-mile, 500-kilovolt line, some of which — including one that would have run through Baker Valley between Baker City and the Elkhorn Mountains — were discarded.

The company’s current preferred route would run about one mile east of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City. That proposal has provoked opposition among some local residents, who formed a group called Move Idaho Power. Their chief complaint is that the 150-foot towers would mar the views from the Interpretive Center.

In response, Idaho Power has proposed an alternative route that would move the power line a few miles to the east. But that location creates conflicts with breeding sites for the sage grouse, a bird that is a candidate for the federal endangered species list.

The route issue remains unresolved. Idaho Power’s current timeline calls for the company to acquire rights-of-way from mid-2012 through mid-2014, with constructed scheduled from 2014 through mid-2016. In the meantime, the president announced his intention to accelerate permitting for Boardman-to-Hemingway (B2H) and six other projects.

“The president wants to get America working again,” Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, said in a press release in October. “Building a smarter electric grid will create thousands of American jobs and accelerate the growth of domestic clean energy industries translating into more energy choices and cost savings for American consumers.”

The purpose of the Dec. 6-7 site visit, according to the email invitation Bennett received last week, is to help the president’s Rapid Response Team “better understand the B2H project as the (team) works to expedite and improve the federal government’s evaluation of transmission applications.”

Members of the Rapid Response Team who are slated to attend include Bill Falsey, deputy chief of staff for the BLM; Laura Morton, renewable energy senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Energy; and Lucas Lucero, BLM’s rights-of-way branch chief.

According to the schedule, the portion of the meeting set aside for local government representatives — including Baker County officials — will start at noon PST on Dec. 7. The agenda doesn’t include a public comment period.

The Rapid Reponse Team wants to discuss a variety of topics, according to the invitation, including:
 • The history and current status of project review, including approach to public engagement
 • The list of permits required and the schedule and timelines for processing permit applications
 • The roles and authorities of each agency involved in the project review
 • The amount of non-federal land that the proposed project would affect and views and roles of non-federal land owners
 • Tribal consultation and interaction with State Historical Preservation Officers
 • Project need, including how and by whom it was identified, and whether the asserted need for the project is controversial
 • The established processes for data collection, data use, and record keeping
 • Reasonable and feasible alternative routes (including the use of previously designated corridors), particularly sensitive environmental resources, and potential mitigation measures (if presently known)
 • Whether approving the line would be inconsistent with any federal, state or local plans, and the processes by which those plans can be amended
 • Any potential “show stoppers” or fatal flaws
 • Strengths that have assisted you in making progress in the review process
 • Challenges and obstacles that you currently face, or expect to experience
 • Recommendations (including the means) to realize efficiencies in project review
 • Any assistance you may need dealing with obstacles and challenges that cannot be directly addressed on-site
 • Recommendations and lessons learned that may be applicable to other projects
 • Issues or concerns the RRTT can help address