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Massive energy transmission lines that cross Utah are up for public review

Published: Monday, July 15 2013 6:48 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Two massive energy projects that have impacts in Utah are under review by federal agencies, with studies that spell out the consequences to wildlife, sagebrush landscapes and landmarks such as the Mountain Meadows National Historic Site.

One "project," strangely enough, is already in the ground, with natural gas that has been flowing through the Ruby Pipeline for nearly two years.

A 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision forced both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management to take another look at the pipeline's biological effects and right-of-way implications, specifically ordering a more intensive analysis of the cumulative impacts that the project adds to the four states that host its route.

The other project, the TransWest Express transmission line, would be the nation's second largest direct current transmission line, powering up 3,000 megawatts of renewable power from the winds of Wyoming — enough for more than 1.8 million households.

TransWest Express and the U.S. Department of Energy's Western Area Power Administration inked a development agreement on the feasibility of the project, which has also received fast-track approval from the Obama administration.

The 725-mile, 600-kilovolt line begins near Sinclair, Wyo., and crosses into Utah before ending in Nevada. It is scheduled to be operational in 2016 or 2017, subject to final approval following consideration of the environmental impact statement.

The $3 billion direct-current line would deliver power to the growing desert Southwest and follow 393 miles of already federally designated utility corridor lines. Part of its route was adjusted at various locations, including southern Utah, to avoid impacts to the Mountain Meadows National Historic Site.

More than a dozen meetings, the majority of them in Utah, are slated for August and September to provide residents in impacted areas such as Juab, Millard, Carbon and Washington counties a chance to learn more about the project, its route variations and the study's analysis.

Comments, which are due Sept. 30, may be submitted at the meetings or emailed to TransWest_WYMail@blm.gov.

The "second look" ordered by the court's ruling in the Ruby Pipeline case is also up for review, leading to questions about a pipeline that has already been functioning for close to two years.

For the BLM, its decision that is being revisited is the granting of right of way for the 42-inch pipeline that stretches 678 miles. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife was asked for a do-over on its "biological opinion," which the BLM based its analysis on.

The legally ordered retrospectives put the BLM in a strange legal quandary because while it could revoke the right of way, it has no authority to remove the pipeline. Agency officials are looking to see if any post-construction mitigation activities should be required, especially in light of the dog-pile effects of all the energy projects that have happened or are slated to happen in area of the pipeline's route.

According to the draft supplemental report probing those cumulative environmental impacts, other issues that had to be documented in the pipeline's area include grazing and wild horse herds, mining and mineral exploration, invasive species and wildfires.

The document notes that historically, mining and energy projects have had a role to play in the decline of what is called sagebrush steppe habitat in the impacted states, but it is dramatically eclipsed by the effects of wildfire.

"In total, the Ruby Pipeline Project and other energy and mining actions would affect about 0.26 percent of the existing 19.3 million acres of sagebrush steppe vegetation and habitat in the cumulative impact area," the document reads.

The analysis notes that in the past three years, about 1.4 million acres of sagebrush steppe have burned in the cumulative project area.

"This is more than 28 times the amount that would be lost in the foreseeable future due to energy development and mining."

Ruby is required to provide up to $22.9 million in funding for restoration and habitat improvement projects as well as habitat studies in the vicinity of the pipeline.

The pipeline owner and operator, Kinder-Morgan, has spent $1.6 million in preventative, fire-rehabilitation costs and is spending a total of $22.9 million in 42 restoration and habitat improvement projects to benefit more than 90,300 acres — more than 10 times the footprint of its direct impact area, according to the BLM.

Ultimately, the BLM will determine if more is left to be done, said the agency's Mark Mackiewicz, the senior national project manager for the Ruby Pipeline.

"I think right now we are going to have to see what happens with the public comment on the analysis," he said.

Comments on the project are due Aug. 19. They may be submitted by mail at Ruby Pipeline, Bureau of Land Management, 125 S. 600 West, Price, UT, 84501, or via email at blmruby@blm.gov.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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