At the energy crossroads
Feds approve controversial power superhighways

SideStory: Colorado's 'green collar' future

Energy’s past and future stand in contrast in a downtown neighborhood. Newly approved energy corridors, one of which will pass Durango, may hinder the future of alternative energy./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Will Sands

A new series of energy superhighways has gotten the green light, and one of these electricity and pipeline corridors is slated to pass right by Durango before cutting through Southwest Colorado. However, the new energy network may already be dated and is drawing heat for catering to yesterday’s industry and hamstringing the transition to renewable energy.

Last week, a consortium of federal agencies released its approval of 6,000 miles of proposed energy transport corridors covering 3 million acres of public land in 11 Western states. The dozens of access strips would open public lands to future electricity lines and oil, gas and hydrogen pipelines. The agencies allege that the corridors will address growing national energy demands while “protecting the environment.”

“From the beginning, we were committed to avoiding the many unique areas and sensitive resources found on Western public lands, wherever possible,” said Assistant Secretary of the Interior C. Stephen Allred.

One of these energy corridors is slated for the Durango area and will cut north from New Mexico between the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute Indian reservations before following the Trans-Colorado pipeline hundreds of miles northwest on its way to Wyoming. The proposed corridor will contain transmissions lines and/or pipelines, be sited on the San Juan National Forest and cut a swath up to a 3,500 feet wide.

Contrary to Allred’s claim, the 3/4-mile-wide corridors promise to impact public and private lands in the region. For the Four Corners, the transmission lines will encroach on areas like the Old Spanish Trail, the West San Miguel Wilderness, Arches National Park and Behind the Rocks, site of the 24 Hours of Moab race. Tom Darin, attorney with Western Resource Advocates, noted that the Southwest will be home to several corridors and experience several blows.

“Corridors negatively impacting Arches National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and important wildlife habitat need to be re-examined and possibly eliminated,” Darin said.

On the flip side, the Colorado Energy Forum, an industry research organization, argues that sacrifices must be made. The group released a recent study finding that upgrades to high-voltage transmission lines are long overdue.

“Colorado faces a true crisis if we don’t see significant expansion of the state’s high-voltage transmission grid,” said Bruce Smith, executive director of the Forum.

In addition, lack of infrastructure could threaten growing power needs and derail renewable energy efforts, Smith added. With this in mind, he argued in favor of streamlining the energy corridor process and bringing new transmission online quickly.

“Not only will we hamstring our ability to meet policymakers’ goals of deploying the state’s huge renewable energy resources, but we also may fall short of being able to get new power delivered to where it is needed,” he said.

However, the major issue has nothing to do with on-the-ground impacts, Darin argued. Courtesy of the incoming Obama administration, the call is going out from Washington for major development of wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable energy resources. However, these resources have been effectively ignored in the 11-state energy corridor proposal, according to Western Resource Advocates. Darin noted that the plan is little more than a thinly veiled play to the coal-fired power industry.

“What’s really driving this whole thing is the huge increase in power demand and the need for new electric power,” he said. “When you overlay maps, those energy corridors line up almost perfectly with proposals for new coal-fired power plants in the region. That’s the missing story here.”

Western Resource Advocates does respect the need for new power transmission, according to Darin. However, the group countered that the government should be considering alternatives to coal-fired power plants.

“The incoming administration is very focused on renewables and the need to provide transmission lines for renewables,” Darin said. “And yet we have no proposal that shows how we’re going to connect to and meet future demand for alternative energy.”

Western Resource Advocates is no stranger to renewable energy transmission. The group has been working on the ground in Nevada to design a transmission system to deliver more than 11,000 megawatts of geothermal, wind and solar resources. New Mexico’s abundant wind and solar resources could also be tapped, but the transmission infrastructure is lacking.

However, last week’s approval of the western energy corridors may mean delays for a new energy policy. Nonetheless, Western Resource Advocates and other energy watchdogs are placing much of their faith in the new administration with the hope that the view of energy and energy transmission will be broadened.

“We’re really just asking the federal government to think big and move us into what the public is asking for – a forward-thinking energy policy,” Darin said.



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