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Vampire wires

The federal energy corridors are coming



A chill ran through the Governor’s Energy Symposium last week when the first speaker, from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), smiled a vampire’s hungry smile and called Montana “a resource-rich state.” She then went on to explain how the recently passed Energy Policy Act of 2005 would bring Montana “gas pipelines headed east from the Rockies…and new transmission lines going to the west coast.” As if tossing in a pre-Halloween scare, she then added: “And if the state won’t site them, the federal government will.”

Only days afterward, as if to give frightful credence to what we’d heard at the energy conference, Montanans received notice of Department of Energy (DOE) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) scoping meetings to gather information on the oil, gas and hydrogen pipelines and electricity transmission and distribution facilities that will be sited in the new energy corridors proposed for 11 Western states.

Under the provisions of Section 368 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy and the Interior must designate “Energy Right-of-Way Corridors” on federal land within two years of when President Bush signed the Act into law (Aug. 8, 2005). Meanwhile, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is also granted the right to designate “National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors” under Section 1221, just as FERC’s speaker promised/threatened.

The federal agencies have determined that these new energy corridors are likely to have significant impacts and are preparing a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement that identifies four alternatives to the Energy Right-of-Way Corridors that will be crisscrossing the Big Sky’s vistas: the “No Action” alternative, which is meaningless because the corridors are mandated by the Energy Act; Increased Utilization of Existing Corridors; New Corridors; and a category called “Optimization Criteria,” which combines increased utilization of existing corridors and new corridors.

Likewise, the categories of potential environmental impacts on which the federal agencies will take public comment at the scoping hearings have already been determined. They are: socioeconomic and recreational impacts of development of the land tracts and subsequent uses; impacts on protected, threatened, endangered or sensitive species of animals or plants or their critical habitats; impacts on floodplains and wetlands; impacts on archaeological, cultural, or historic resources; impacts on human health and safety; impacts on existing and future land uses; visual impacts, and; environmental justice considerations of disproportionately high and adverse impacts on minority and low-income populations.

Giving us a glimpse into what kind of rush job we can expect from a federal government totally dominated by energy interests, the sole Montana hearing on the energy corridors will be held in Helena the same day this column hits print, Oct. 27—exactly one week after the scoping hearings were first announced in the press.

Considering the potential impacts such massive energy projects will have on Montana, those who want to keep track of the federal government’s determined effort to suck Montana’s energy resources dry will find the information they need on the website for the Energy Corridor PEIS at While the available maps have no energy corridors drawn on them yet, the Western states and the federal lands available for siting the corridors illustrate the scope of what we will be facing in the next couple of years.

Given the governor’s recent obsession with fueling the entire nation with Montana coal, these developments should come as no surprise. As anyone who was there can tell you, the recent Energy Symposium was focused on turning coal into gas, coal into liquid, and coal into liquid, gas and electricity. It should also come as no surprise that a convention primarily sponsored by energy supply companies didn’t spend a lot of time on conservation, alternative energy or sustainable energy. After all, these companies are in business to sell us more energy—not to tell us how we can use less.

The consequences of the combined efforts of the federal government and a compliant state administration are enormous. The energy production facilities, which will be sited near eastern Montana coal reserves, will require strip mines, roads, new transmission and pipelines, and water.

For years, Montana’s ranchers have fought to keep energy companies from bisecting their ranches and disrupting or diminishing their precious groundwater supplies with mining. Today, that struggle is largely characterized by the ongoing debate over pumping out huge amounts of groundwater to capture coal bed methane. Add the potential of new strip mines and generating facilities—as well as federal pipelines to carry the methane to out-of-state markets—and it looks like a tough struggle ahead for our neighbors to the east.

Western Montanans will have problems, too. Energy corridors—whether for electric transmission or gas pipelines—tend to run in straight lines. Even a slight deviation from the “shortest distance between two points” can add millions of dollars in additional construction costs. And given the Bush administration’s general disdain for environmental protection, it is highly unlikely that we will see anything other than “straight line” construction in the future.

But nature rarely runs in straight lines. We have majestic mountain ranges that provide sanctuary to abundant wildlife; clear, world-famous rivers that wind through beautiful and productive valleys; and private ranches and homes interspersed with federal lands all across the state. All of these will soon be crossed by straight-line transmission corridors devised by federal energy bureaucrats in Washington, D.C with the power of federal eminent domain.

Even worse, none of this is likely to bring Montanans any relief on the cost of the energy we use in-state. No, under the new federal plan, Montana’s energy future is all about sucking our state dry for the benefit of energy hogs—and the energy companies that supply them—on both coasts. Meanwhile, as our reward for compliantly accepting these federal mandates, we’ll get to watch our precious natural landscapes destroyed by the new energy corridors, their pipelines, and the giant sucking sound of their vampire wires.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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