Las Vegas Sun

April 24, 2014

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ENERGY:

Critics: Power line routes favor coal

And, they say, feds failed to adequately account for effects on wildlife

Federal officials failed to resolve year-old concerns about effects on wildlife and renewable energy development before designating routes for new power lines and pipelines in Nevada, environmentalists say.

The Bureau of Land Management, together with the Energy Department and electric utilities, selected the preferred routes for power lines across public lands in the West. Having designated corridors makes it easier for utilities to get permits to build lines within the designated routes. It should also result in fewer lines crisscrossing the state because the routes consolidate the lines into a few areas.

The BLM finalized the routes last week. One of the corridors runs down the eastern side of Nevada and across a sliver of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. The Nevada Wilderness Project says power line construction in the refuge will harm big game, including bighorn sheep.

The Wilderness Project’s Nick Dobric said the final route avoids most of the wildlife refuge, although it passes through the sensitive area at one point north of Las Vegas near Coyote Springs.

“The overwhelming majority of the comments from Las Vegas were to keep the refuge intact, and they didn’t fully respond to that,” Dobric said. “That’s a really important boundary. As Las Vegas grows there has to be a place that’s for wildlife” where development can’t encroach.

The refuge is an important habitat not only for sheep but also for mule deer and migratory birds.

The BLM’s chosen routes avoid the middle of Nevada altogether, which critics say would be a hardship for renewable developers seeking to tap the geothermal resources in the center of the state. An environmental group, Western Resource Advocates, says the routes instead favor two coal plants that are proposed along them.

Dobric also said the BLM didn’t present many alternative routes for critics to consider.

The BLM has said it was restricted in its choices because the routes could cross only federally owned lands.

As for the refuge, Jackie Gratton of the Nevada BLM office said any utility that wants to build a power line through there will need the approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in addition to the BLM environmental reviews and approvals that are required for all power lines built in the corridors.

According to the BLM, 82 percent of the 5,000 miles of corridors in the West are on bureau land. Another 16 percent are on Forest Service land, and the rest are on Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service or Defense Department land.

Tom Darin of Western Resource Advocates said the route maps didn’t change much from a year ago, when the BLM held public comments meetings in Las Vegas and across the West.

Darin said local efforts to identify renewable energy hot spots in the Western states should have played a role in where the routes were located.

“When you have that many miles of corridors — and our maps show (the corridors) link up every proposed coal plant in the West — by accident you’re going to pass through some renewable energy country,” Darin said. “But what’s missing is an alternative that shows what the plan would look like if renewable energy were the primary driver.”

Darin also said power lines built in the corridors should be required to carry a certain percentage of renewable energy, a mandate not included in the BLM’s environmental review.

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