Geologist Debra Hanneman lives with her husband, geophysicist Chuck Wideman, in a modest, rambling house on the outskirts of Whitehall, a mile or so off Interstate 90. On a blustery morning in mid-January, the view through her glassed front door takes in an expanse of private and federal land, with dun-colored foothills rising toward Bull Mountain. Most of Whitehall's 1,044 residents snuggle against the interstate, and the only other signs of human life are scattered ranches and recreational properties along two rivers.
The view is unencumbered by urban standards, but if you look closely, you can see a power line sneaking across a fold of the landscape. It may soon have company. South Dakota-based NorthWestern Energy, which delivers electricity and natural gas to customers in Montana, plans to build a $1 billion extra-high-voltage 500-kV electrical transmission mainline that would run some 430 miles from Townsend, Mont., to Midpoint, Idaho, near Twin Falls. The transmission towers, spaced approximately six per mile, would stand 125 to 185 feet tall—much higher than the existing towers. The new line—called the Mountain States Transmission Intertie (MSTI)—would cross five rivers and about a dozen streams in Montana; the company's preferred route would also slash across predominantly private property in Beaverhead and Jefferson counties, following I-90 right through Whitehall, about 600 feet from Hanneman's acreage and even closer to some neighbors' houses.
NorthWestern says the line will bring jobs, property tax revenue and improved regional grid reliability, and enable development of Montana's still-nascent wind resources.
Hanneman would rather it didn't. According to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the line would be built primarily by out-of-state workers, she points out. She says that it would industrialize the rural valley and "destroy the local economy." And lines designed purely to export Montana's wind energy to California and the Southwest aren't her idea of renewable energy.
"If it has to be built," Hanneman says, "then we'd want to move it to public lands. If we want to do this as a nation, then let's all share in the burden of it."
Three people have joined her in the living room to talk strategy and eat tuna salad sandwiches off a table cluttered with binders, photocopies and maps. They're all members of Concerned Citizens Montana, an umbrella for community groups that emerged last year to "maintain Montana's unique and important lifestyle" in five counties that lie in MSTI's path. Concerned Citizens, which claims to have about 3,000 supporters, has spruced up a website, placed full-page newspaper ads, and hired Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falen to run interference on NorthWestern's plans, likely employing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as an angle of attack. They anticipate that the line's impacts will not be evaluated properly.
Budd-Falen, a well-known property-rights specialist more used to chipping holes in NEPA than wielding it as a weapon, makes a strange partner for the group's self-described environmentalists, but transmission lines are no respecters of ideology.
"You'll see today," says Hanneman, the group's secretary. She's referring to an upcoming Montana Legislature hearing on eminent domain—the power wielded by government and utilities to condemn private land on behalf of "beneficial" public and private projects, including roads, railroads, pipelines and transmission lines. "I think there will be a lot of Tea Party people there, too, standing up for private-property rights. Two years ago I would have said, 'Man, no way do I want anything to do with them.' But, there are areas where we do cross over and agree. It's made this whole thing really odd politically."
NorthWestern's proposal has reopened debate about corporate use of eminent domain to condemn the property of unwilling landowners and energized the argument over whether transmission lines are best sited on public or private land. These days, it's all framed against the backdrop of renewable energy development.
Similar conflicts—spawned by the nation's first major transmission build-out since the 1980s—are popping up across the West, where much of the nation's wind energy lies untapped, waiting for construction of a grid that can get it to market.