SALT LAKE CITY — As an energy renaissance grips the nation with an unprecedented oil boom and renewable energy projects coming online, the federal government is looking to shore up key corridors to keep the lights turned on and furnaces firing.
It is not an easy prospect. The challenges include litigation over damage to the environment and sensitive species, access for renewable energy power generators, updates to an aging infrastructure and a labyrinth of new pipelines to convey oil and natural gas.
The federal government is engaged in a comprehensive review and beginning a wholesale revisit of corridors in 11 Western states, including Utah.
More than 130 corridors were designated in 2009, covering 6,000 miles and an estimated 3 million acres of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands.
Environmental groups that same year challenged the West-wide Energy Corridor Plan, launching concerns over the so-called Section 368 corridors because routes traversed sensitive or iconic landscapes or posed risks to threatened or endangered species.
In Utah, groups said routes were too close to the boundary of Arches National Park and uncomfortably close to the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area.
The routes, too, failed to provide sufficient consideration for renewable energy, such as wind and solar resources, according to the legal challenges.
A subsequent settlement agreement brought the Forest Service, BLM and U.S. Department of Energy to the table again to seek the public's input on ensuring the appropriate designations for the most effective but least damaging corridors.
"One of the primary objectives is to consolidate the impacts," said Stephen Fusilier, transmission and energy corridor project lead with the Bureau of Land Management. "Large projects create large impacts. If there are five transmission lines going in five different directions but they all end up at the same spot, we can guide these projects to use the same corridors."
Fusilier said the corridors were designated in 2009 based on a study released the year before drawing on information compiled in late 2005 and 2006.
In the ensuing years, the large-scale renewable energy market began to transform, and escalating concerns over impacts to species such as the sage grouse prompted a new look.
"All these large-scale solar plants and wind farms that have developed over the last few years were in the beginning stages, if they were anywhere at all," Fusilier said. "We put the corridors in where we thought they were going to be built. The intent is to look at if those have been developed where we thought they would and if they maintain connectivity."
Such corridor designations have important implications in key energy and transmission projects planned for Utah, including TransWest Express' 725-mile, 600-kilovolt line and Energy Capital Group's 300-megawatt solar field near Delta.
Josh Case, chief executive officer of Energy Capital Group, said it is important that energy corridors are designated to provide assurances to energy projects.
"Large-scale renewables and transmission have long development cycle investments, so having a level of certainty where access to transmission will be in the future allows for the proper siting of a project," Case said. "Finding the right balance between environmental impact and the need for power generation in relation to transmission is vital."
The settlement agreement called for additional review of three specific regions in the West-wide corridor plan, including western Utah as part of one block and northeastern Utah as part of another block.
In this latest call for information on the corridor designations, the federal agencies are specifically looking for information that may be new as a result of geographic information system mapping and if there are additional factors that should come into play for the regulation, siting and permitting of energy or transmission projects.
The agencies, too, want to know if the focus of the energy corridors should be broadened. Initially, the corridors were envisioned to accommodate 100 kV and larger transmission projects, and oil, gas and hydrogen pipelines 10 inches or more in diameter.
BLM officials said important regional considerations will come into play in the formulation of a new study that, among other things, will look at the overuse or underutilization of corridors and how useful they may or may not be regarding the proliferation of rights-of-way across federal lands.
"One of the challenges we had in that lawsuit is that we did not involve the public enough, and so we are trying to begin that involvement," Fusilier said. "We want to make sure we have robust outreach in regards to any potential modifications."
Public comment is being accepted until May 27. Comments may be sent to 368corridors@BLM.gov.
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