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Congress wants fast approval of power, pipeline corridors

Installations to cross federal lands in West

LOS ANGELES -- Under orders from Congress to move quickly, the Department of Energy and the Bureau of Land Management will approve thousands of miles of new power line and pipeline corridors on federal lands across the West in the next 14 months. The energy corridors are likely to cross national parks, forests, and military bases, as well as other public land.

Environmentalists and land managers are concerned about the risk of pipeline explosions and permanent scarring of habitat and scenery from pylons and trenches. Military officials have expressed concern that the installations could interfere with wartime training.

But energy industry lobbyists and congressional policy makers said quick approvals for new corridors are vital to moving adequate power from coal beds, oil fields, and wind farms in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho to the booming population centers of the Southwest.

In California, ExxonMobil, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric Co., and others have proposed corridors across the Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and Lassen Volcanic national parks, as well as the Mojave National Preserve, several military bases, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, and seven national forests.

Corridors also are proposed for Canyonlands National Park in Utah and Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Las Vegas. Routes near the Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains also have been proposed, some up to 5 miles wide and 2,000 miles long.

Congress has ordered that once the Western lands project is complete, it should be replicated across the rest of the contiguous United States by 2009.

``We are concerned about our lands," said Lee Dickinson, head of the National Park Service's special uses division. ``They know that we are not thrilled."

Department of Energy officials declined to provide an internal working map of which corridors are under consideration, saying it will be released only after environmental review.

``We don't want to confuse the public," said David Meyer of the department's Office of Electricity Deliverability and Energy Reliability.

Acting at the behest of the country's largest utilities, Congress in its 2005 Energy Policy Act gave federal agencies until August 2007 to review and adopt major energy corridors across 11 states.

The legislation was designed to fast-track construction by requiring a single, overarching environmental review of the impact of dozens of energy corridors across federal land. The aim is to avoid time-consuming project-by-project reviews. Federal energy regulators were also given the authority to designate power lines in the ``national interest," which would allow them to overrule federal agencies or states or counties that withhold approval for segments of projects.

``They've taken away our sovereignty," said John Geesman, who sits on the California Energy Commission. ``We're looking down the barrel of a gun."

Geesman said state officials were partly to blame for not designating more corridors sooner, but he said the law Congress passed goes too far. Challenging as it is to find room for long corridors, Geesman said, they should not cross sensitive public lands.

Hotly contested projects such as those proposed across Anza Borrego and the Cleveland and San Bernardino national forests could be approved by federal officials if California says no.

Environmentalists say existing energy corridors on public land, most of them authorized before laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act were passed, present a cautionary tale. Fuel pipelines have exploded or leaked because of sabotage or natural disaster, said Bill Corcoran of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. In March 2005, a landslide in the Angeles National Forest broke a crude oil pipeline, dumping 126,000 gallons into Pyramid Lake, which supplies drinking water to Los Angeles.

Environmentalists and some federal scientists say the huge number of potential new corridors and the accelerated timeline are a recipe for ecological devastation.

``That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. They want to get by with a lot of sloppy, dirty work," said Howard Wilshire, a retired US Geological Survey scientist who studied human impacts on public lands for 20 years.

He said his studies and others' on the effects of roads, power lines, and linear development across the Mojave found that endangered species such as the desert tortoise were killed during construction and that the projects permanently fragmented and eroded critical habitat.

Power lines appear to sail through the air, but every 160-foot-tall pylon is built on a concrete pad with a spur road connecting to a longer maintenance road, creating an artificial barrier across the fragile desert floor. He said bulldozing trenches for pipelines had similar effects.

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