Casey opposes Bush administration power transmission plan

By The Associated Press, Tribune Review

WASHINGTON -- After sweating through another summer without a major blackout, the Bush administration has moved to ensure nonstop electricity by designating large swaths of the mid-Atlantic, including Pennsylvania, and Southwest as critical to the nation's energy grid.

The government on Tuesday announced two so-called "national interest electric transmission corridors," which encompass all or part of 10 states, where officials say aging high-voltage lines are not capable of handling growing power demand.

It is the first use of a new federal power to approve construction of electric lines in some places where state officials have stymied them. Some lawmakers and community groups argue the government corridors wrongly expand the potential use of eminent domain power.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said in a statement that the corridors should prompt regional authorities to "identify solutions and take prompt action" to keep energy flowing.

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey said the plan would turn three-quarters of the counties in the state "into a superhighway of power lines and transmission towers."

The mid-Atlantic power corridor runs from Virginia and Washington, D.C. north to include most of Maryland, all of New Jersey and Delaware and large sections of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The Southwest corridor is composed of seven counties in southern California and three in Arizona. The agency had originally sought to include Las Vegas, Nev., in that corridor, but said Tuesday it decided the needs in that county weren't as pressing.

The corridors were designed to be wide enough to accommodate several possible paths for power lines. One such proposed line in New York would be around 100 feet tall, with a footprint about a quarter-mile wide, though dimensions would vary with the terrain.

Under a 2005 law, the federal government can approve new power transmission towers within the corridors if states and regional groups fail to build such lines. The law was passed partly in response to the 2003 blackout that rippled from Ohio to Canada and New York City.

The corridor designations may increase pressure on state regulators to grant permits to private industry to build new lines. Utilities have complained that state authorities are reluctant to approve new lines, often because of local opposition.

If state authorities do not approve any construction after a year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, may intervene and approve a grid project if the new line is deemed necessary to satisfy national power needs. Such approvals could, in theory, include the use of eminent domain law to compel private owners to sell their property.

The FERC has had such authority for years in considering applications for gas lines, but this is the first time it will also be available for electricity transmission, officials said. The new law does not give the FERC eminent domain power over state or federal lands.

In New York, local community activists, preservationists, and environmentalists are fighting a proposal to run a power line nearly 200 miles from the center of the state toward populous New York City suburbs. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., who has lobbied against that line, called Tuesday's decision "just ridiculous."

"We're going to fight them both in Congress and in the courts." Hinchey said.

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer expressed disappointment and is reviewing the state's legal options.

Energy Dept. officials said they have not yet decided if they will designate more such corridors before a new president takes office in January 2009.

A report last year identified sections of New England, the Phoenix-Tucson area in Arizona, the Seattle-Portland area in the Pacific Northwest, and the San Francisco Bay area as potential corridors.