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Friday, March 14, 2008

Bush Administration Intends to Override Local Authority Over Power Line Corridors in Anza-Borrego State Park and elsewhere in So-Cal

By Keith Darcé


March 7, 2008

The U.S. Department of Energy said yesterday that it was moving forward with a plan that could give federal regulators the final say on whether to build power lines in Southern California despite opposition from state utility regulators and others.

The department turned down multiple requests to reconsider its designation in October of a “National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor” covering 10 counties in Southern California and western Arizona.

The designation makes it easier for utilities to build transmission lines in San Diego County and other areas covered by the corridor. A second corridor covering portions of eight northeastern states drew similar opposition.

The California Public Utilities Commission and several others argued for reconsideration of the Southwestern corridor designation, saying the 65,000-square-mile area covers too much space, isn't needed and usurps the state's authority to oversee the electricity grid within its own border.

The Energy Department, however, said that the complaints against both corridors were “without merit” and that power lines in both regions had experienced congestion that raised the possibility of blackouts.

Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is authorized to override local and state opposition to new transmission lines within designated corridors if the agency deems the lines necessary to eliminate power-grid bottlenecks.

Creation of the corridors marked a major shift away from traditional policy that gave states the final say on the construction of power lines. The wires, which typically hang high overhead from large towers, often face challenges from local communities that claim the lines are unsightly and diminish the quality of life.

The Southwestern corridor designation could come into play in the fight over the Sunrise Powerlink, a 150-mile, $1.3 billion power line proposed by San Diego Gas & Electric that would cross Imperial County, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and several communities in San Diego County.

Plans for the Sunrise line drew stiff opposition during a recent series of public hearings held by the PUC. State regulators could decide as soon as August whether to let SDG&E build the line. If the answer is no, the corridor designation would let FERC override that decision.

Utility officials applauded yesterday's decision by the Energy Department. “Once again the U.S. Department of Energy has come to the same conclusion . . . that our region has a dangerous shortage of transmission, and action clearly needs to be taken immediately to upgrade the electric grid before it's too late,” SDG&E spokeswoman Jennifer Briscoe said.

While yesterday's decision cleared the final administrative hurdle facing the corridors, opponents still can challenge the designations in federal court.

It wasn't clear whether any of the parties that sought reconsideration of the Southwestern corridor would seek a legal appeal. A spokeswoman for the PUC said the agency was reviewing the Energy Department's announcement.

Meanwhile, some members of Congress have said lawmakers should consider revoking the portion of the Energy Policy Act that made the corridors possible. A vote on the matter isn't likely before 2009, said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers' Action Network in San Diego, which opposes the Sunrise line.

Shames said yesterday's outcome had been widely expected. “Both the petitions for reconsideration and the requests for rehearing were all preludes to the inevitable lawsuits and congressional wrangling over the issue.”

Even if FERC receives a request via the corridor designation to approve the Sunrise line, the agency likely would postpone a decision while challenges to the corridor are pending in court and on Capitol Hill, he said.

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