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Last October, President Obama signed a "memorandum of understanding" with nine federal agencies, ostensibly aimed at streamlining siting approval on federal land. But all it really does is ask the various agencies to play nice with each other and designate a single lead federal agency and bundle environmental reviews for projects that cross multiple jurisdictions.
MSTI's preferred route would use public land—primarily road rights of way—for 80 percent of its length, according to Fitzpatrick. The other 20 percent amounts to 86 miles over private land, much of it in Jefferson County, where Hanneman lives. Tim Bozorth, who's evaluating the proposal for the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), says the new federal memorandum impact on the ground has been "basically nothing." All the agencies still have their own mandates and management plans. An MSTI route through BLM and Forest Service land would quickly run aground on sage grouse protections, NEPA review, and the virtual certainty of environmental lawsuits.
"It becomes apparent to me," Bozorth deadpans, "why there isn't a major north-south line out of Montana already."
Tom Ring of Montana's Department of Environmental Quality is also hearing demands to move MSTI onto public lands or into corridors identified by the West-wide Energy Corridor initiative, another result of the 2005 Energy Policy Act. And he also sees problems: An existing federal corridor is too narrow to accommodate the new line, and some roadless national forest probably can't be crossed. And so on.
If it's hard to tell who's in charge, that's because nobody really is. Transmission lines, like rivers, are regional entities crossing purely political boundaries, and they inevitably generate cross-boundary conflicts. Groups like the Western Electricity Industry Leaders and the Western Governors' Association try to influence planning but exercise no overarching authority.
As a last resort, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can designate a transmission "congestion area" and then, if the states fail to dissolve the clog with new lines within a year, the project can be pushed through using the quasi-federal Western Area Power Administration or Bonneville Power Authority.
John Vincent, a Democrat, is one of five members of Montana's Public Service Commission, which oversees many utility-related issues. He has no direct influence on routing merchant lines like MSTI, but his district encompasses all five counties in MSTI's path, and he's taken a personal interest in opposing the project.
Montana contributes to climate change by burning and exporting coal and is planning to increase coal development, Vincent points out. In his view, building the MSTI line to encourage wind power won't make enough difference to justify the condemnation of private land.
"I'm a big advocate for wind," he says, "but I don't believe that all wind and all transmission is created equal." The institutional environmental community, he says, isn't making those distinctions. "All you have to do is say 'wind' and that takes care of it, nothing else matters. It's wind, therefore it's good."
Vincent and Jim Jensen, the head of one of the state's leading environmental groups, the Montana Environmental Information Center, are longtime friends, but they're on opposite sides of the MSTI divide. Their difference limns the larger debate about renewable energy development.
"In the 1960s and '70s," Jensen says, "this country made that choice to go down what [energy analyst] Amory Lovins calls 'the hard path,' where you [have] large, central generating stations transporting electricity over power lines to the load centers. We can't undo that. What we have to do is make the best out of the situation we're in, and that is to increase the amount of renewable energy in the total mix in the West. And you do that by making it where the wind blows and transporting it to where it's needed."