Environmentalists Oppose Wind Power Line in Idaho, Wyoming

Published April 14, 2012

Idaho and Wyoming residents and environmental groups are expressing opposition to a proposed 1,100-mile long high-voltage power line designed to transmit 3,000 megawatts of mostly wind-generated electricity to fast-growing areas in the West. 

Sage Grouse, Pristine Lands

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is overseeing the project because most of the power line traverses federal land in Idaho and Wyoming. Officials at BLM are currently sifting through 2,600 public comments on the project.

Among the many issues that have been raised by residents and environmental groups are concerns about the power line’s effect on the habitat of the imperiled sage grouse. Residents and environmental groups have also expressed concern about the long power line disrupting wild and undeveloped land, infringing on private property rights, negatively impacting prime farmland, and destroying spectacular, pristine vistas. 

The Gateway West Transmission Line Project would run from Glenrock, Wyoming to approximately 30 miles south of Boise, Idaho. Proposed by two utilities, Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power, the project has been enthusiastically embraced by the Obama administration as a means of delivering wind power to metropolitan regions. If everything goes as scheduled, the project, which would be the first large-scale power line built during the past three decades, will be completed in 2018.

Environmentalists warn the project may be the deciding factor in pushing the sage grouse onto the federal Endangered Species List. The Interior Department’s Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) put the sage grouse on the “candidate species” list in 2010, which means that FWS will review the bird’s status every year. 

States Trying to Protect Land

State and local officials in Wyoming and Idaho are going to extraordinary lengths to preserve the sage grouse’s habitat lest the heavy hand of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) be brought down on their states. To that end, Wyoming has designated more than 15 million acres of mostly state and federal land as “core sage grouse areas” deemed critical to the bird’s survival. In neighboring Idaho, officials have drawn up 9 million acres of what they call “key habitats” for the bird.  

The prospect that Gateway West’s towers and transmission line could disturb the bird’s habitat, making it more likely to be protected under the ESA, has turned many state and local officials against the proposed power line. They have been joined by prominent environmental groups. The Wilderness Society, Audubon Wyoming, and the Idaho Conservation League have expressed doubts the power companies can design the project in such a way as to protect grouse habitat.

If the proposed power line pushes the sage grouse onto the Endangered Species List, energy production on oil-rich and natural gas-rich lands in the region could come to a grinding halt. 

BLM Caught in the MiddleBLM officials are hard at work on a draft environmental impact statement (EIS), which is expected to be released later this year. Caught between the administration’s push for renewable energy and environmentalists’ desire to conserve undisturbed lands and protect resident species, BLM’s task will not be an easy one.    

Environmentalists Change Position

“Gateway West is the perfect example of transmission lines as the ‘missing link’ in the evolution of renewable energy,” said Marita Noon, executive director of  Energy Makes America Great. “Because wind and solar are so land-intensive, commercial-scale installations must be built far from the populations that need the energy. This results in large-scale disruptions of wild lands and species habitats. Once this occurs, everyone in the region is forced to bear the burden of newly imposed land-use restrictions to compensate for the disruptive influence of the wind power land disruption.

“Environmental activists, once reliably supportive of renewables, are beginning to understand that electricity does not come in wi-fi form. Not only are the wind farms land-disruptive, but so are the necessary wind power transmission lines,” Noon explained. “So now many environmentalists are turning against wind power projects.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.