Letters From the West

Utilities try to clear Gateway West power line logjam

Executives from Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power have made several trips to Washington D.C. lately in efforts to resolve the pinch point for the Gateway West Transmission line at the Morley Nelson Birds of Prey area.

The Bureau of Land Management announced last month it had delayed the release of its final environmental impact statement until its acting director Mike Pool comes to Idaho to meet with Idaho Gov. Butch Otter. Last fall it tossed out routes through the conservation area south of Kuna and recommended the original routes across private land, angering residents and local officials.

BLM officials said they made that decision because the law establishing the Birds of Prey area requires that any major action within the area enhance raptor habitat. So while power lines do enhance raptor habitat, the roads and other disturbances of construction don’t.

So the utilities would have to pay additional money to mitigate these impacts, a bitter pill since the lines themselves enhance the habitat. But state officials say the utilities are willing to pay so there is chance the logjam may be cleared.

Similar steps are not being taken to meet the concerns of Power and Cassia County officials who are unhappy the route across private land there.

Rocky Mountain Power officials won’t tell me how much they’ve already spent on the 1100-mile 500 kilovolt line that is planned to run from Glenrock, Wyo. to near Melba. But they acknowledge the costs have grown as permitting has taken longer.

“One of things that is very frustrating is the amount of delay we had in this process,” said Margaret Oler a Rocky Mountain Power spokeswoman.

But with the economy tanking in 2007 when the line was first announced, the demand for electricity has dropped. The delays actually may end up helping the utilities make the case for ratepayers to pay the expected high price because the completion, which now maybe closer to 2021 than 2016, will come when the power is needed.

They still don’t know exactly how many miles the line will cover and how many physical obstacles they must overcome, Oler said. However, the estimate of Idaho officials of between $1.5 million and $2.5 million per mile is accurate for ball park cost estimates, Oler said.

So The Gateway West cost is in the ballpark of $1.6 billion to $2.8 billion.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

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