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Feds push forward with power line plan for mid-Atlantic, Southwest states

Mar 6, 2008 - By Devlin Barrett - The Associated Press

New power line construction is more likely in the mid-Atlantic states and the Southwest after the government on Thursday said it was pushing ahead with a plan to expand and modernize the electric grid in those areas.

The U.S. Department of Energy formally denied requests for a rehearing of a previous decision making it easier to build power lines in the designated areas, saying challenges by those who oppose new line construction were meritless.

The Energy Department has designated two "National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors" over the objections of many local and state officials.

Local groups often resist such proposed lines in their communities, saying they are ugly and unnecessary and diminish the quality of life. Advocates for the corridor law say it's necessary to avoid future blackouts. The nation's energy grid, they say, is aging too rapidly to meet the rising demand for electricity.

The federal government's 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 consists of seven counties in Southern California and three in Arizona.

In deciding to go forward with the two corridors, the department issued a statement Thursday saying the findings of energy congestion in the areas "are well-founded and based on data and studies."

Under a 2005 energy law passed by Congress, the federal government can approve new power transmission lines within the corridors if states and regional groups fail to build such lines. The law was passed partly in response to the 2003 blackout left 50 million people in southern Ontario and parts of the northeastern United States without power.

In that event, a failure on transmission lines in Ohio set off a chain reaction that knocked the Canadian province of Ontario off the power grid, along with parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

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 line nearly 200 miles from the center of the state toward populous New York City suburbs. Local lawmakers have vowed to fight the plan in Congress and in the courts.


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