Terrain.org Articles.
View Terrain.org Blog.





Planting Pipelines in National Parks: The West-wide Energy Corridor Project and the Future of Public Lands in the West
by Erin Podolak


Energy production and distribution is a problem in the United States.  To help solve the problem, the federal government has proposed the creation of energy corridors, areas of land where the infrastructure needed to move energy resources including hydrogen, oil, natural gas, and electricity will be constructed.  According to Nada Culver, senior counsel in the Wilderness Society’s Denver office, “Once designated, the corridors (averaging 3,500 feet wide but ranging up to five miles in width) will cover 6,000 miles and almost three million acres of public lands.  Areas within the designated corridors are essentially deemed appropriate for pipelines and power lines, with expedited construction applications and limited environmental review.”  The official goal of the proposed corridors is to improve the reliability and availability of energy resources specifically in the Western U.S.  Though the government’s proposal—called the West-wide Energy Corridor project—may help provide energy to the states where the corridors are proposed, the government intends to construct them in federally protected lands, launching a debate over whether the corridors can be created in such a way that they avoid protected areas while taking local concerns into account.

West-wide Energy Corridor project map.
  The West-wide Energy Corridor map (draft, November 2007). Click map for larger version with legend (PDF format).
Graphic courtesy U.S. Department of Energy.

The debate continues over the West-wide Energy Corridor project as two congressional subcommittees review plans for the proposed project from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and five other federal agencies. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 calls for the designation of energy corridors in eleven Western states.  Section 368 of the Act calls for the secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, and the Interior to define federal land sections to be used for developing pipelines for the transportation and distribution of oil and gas. States affected are Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. 

The House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands and the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources recently heard the proposed plans for the creation of the energy corridors.  The subcommittees also reviewed the current research on the affects the corridors will have on wildlife through the West-wide Energy Corridor Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS). While the PEIS gauges potential impacts associated with the designation of land as energy corridors, it does not review the actual development of the land as a staging place for energy distribution to the West.  “The PEIS should have and could have realistically assessed what effects the proposed corridors would have—but it did not,” says Culver.  “The document spends many pages cataloging all the different types of damage that could occur from building in the corridors, but does not make an effort to actually assess what will occur, and how to avoid it.”

The comment period for the DOE and other acting agencies to make amendments to the plan has now passed.  The evaluation period resulted in several suggested changes to the project.  There are significant concerns about the endangerment of unique public areas that include undisturbed wilderness, sensitive species habitat, national parks, national wildlife refuges, and national monuments.  “The Westwide Energy Corridors PEIS is focused on designating energy corridors for future infrastructure.  It does not approve the planning, siting, operation, or destruction of any infrastructure,” says LaVerne Kyriss, DOE PEIS project manager.  “Future environmental studies will be required for any proposed project.”

Wildflowers at Joshua Tree National Park.
Wildflowers at Joshua Tree National Park.
Photo by Nick Carver.

Conservationists are apprehensive that environmental impacts will not be examined until after the areas are approved as reasonable locations for the energy corridors.  The corridors, they say, are being selected without adequate information.  “The document only shows the segments on public land, without connecting the dots, and so the analysis can effectively ignore the effects on the environment when the corridors are actually completed,” says Culver.  “The document claims that the agencies can’t presume that the corridors will be used, so they are not predicting actual projects being built, even though there is a lot of discussion in the PEIS and elsewhere about how the designated corridors will be used and must be designated quickly—without taking the time for full consideration of possible destruction of land—because there is ostensibly such a need for them.”

Well-known areas such as California’s Joshua Tree National Park, New Mexico’s Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, and Nevada’s Desert National Wildlife Refuge fall within the boundaries of the energy corridors. With more than 6,000 miles of land through or near national parks and monuments designated for federal energy corridors, opposition has risen to what many deem a haphazard allocation of public land for energy infrastructure. 

There are also concerns about the amount of consideration given to protection of threatened and endangered species. The ability of the project to comply with the regulations in the Endangered Species Act is worrisome.  One of the commitments made when the plan was reviewed was to take special consideration for sensitive places and therefore impact them less.  Yet no plans have been made for specific corridors to be relocated, even if some of the corridors were narrowed from the standard width of 3,500 feet to help avoid sensitive areas, and some land has been reserved specifically for limited or underground electrical power—not oil or gas pipelines. The government insists, however, that it is acknowledging the need to take special steps to preserve the environment.  “The agencies have developed interagency operating procedures that apply best management practices to mitigate many of the potential impacts that would result from constructing, operating, maintaining, and decommissioning energy infrastructure facilities,” says Kyriss.  “These will be required as future projects to develop infrastructure are proposed.”

But these steps fall short of comprehensive protection of species, according to Culver.  “There have been improvements, but we need major renovations,” she says.  “During this process, we have seen an improvement in moving proposed corridors out of areas with important conservation values, such as national monuments, proposed wilderness, and national wildlife refuges.  However, there are still substantial corridors proposed in these areas in the draft PEIS.  Wildlife refuges and important wildlife habitat need to be identified and protected.”

Those following the project, such as the Wilderness Society and Climate Today, cite that there have been no studies into the effects the energy infrastructure will have on the land adjacent to the corridors.  In fact, the PEIS does not specifically list any methods for minimizing the damage to the environment. 

Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
  Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo by Ryan Hagerty.

Cooperation between agencies is also a problem; state and local governments were not required to help in the selection of the land for the energy corridors.  “The federal agencies worked with the eleven Western states to one degree or another during the development of the PEIS, as the states preferred.  Because Congress only authorized the agencies to designate corridors on federal land, the agencies fully recognize the need for future projects to work with state siting officials to develop project routes on non-federal lands” says Kyriss. The state governments were allowed to provide input on the project.  However, because the plan designates construction on federal land, there is little the states can do to significantly alter the project. 

The states will be effected whether they approve of the project or not.  “How this impacts the region is largely up to the people of the region, the folks they elect to office, and the people appointed to regulate energy and other development in the states,” says Kryss.  Congress only approved building the corridors on federal lands; no state wants to give up land for the corridors.  “The corridors on federal lands would be no different under a state-led proposal since the local federal officials were significantly involved in routing corridors,” Kyriss continues.  “These are the managers on the ground who know what the local issues and concerns are and what resource constraints are present on the lands they manage.”  The federal government has the most land available to designate as corridors, therefore the project will remain in federal hands under federal management. 

Although individual energy consumption might be an issue the public can control, it seems unlikely that the impacts of extensive construction on federal land will really depend on the actions of the population of each of the eleven Western states.  One of the improvements made because of the proposal’s comment period, however, was to incorporate interagency operating procedures, which would require compliance with other applicable laws and mitigate the damage to other resources.  This is a step in the right direction, but a mixed history of federal communications doesn’t necessarily spell interagency success.

Environmental organizations are concerned with both the construction and operation of energy infrastructure in the corridors.  Yet a federal analysis of the environmental consequences of developing the proposed public land will not occur until after the land has been designated as energy corridors.  “Without improvements to the PEIS and designations, I think the effect will be to essentially industrialize the areas that are designated, fundamentally changing their character,” says Culver.  

Those uneasy with the proposed corridor plan want more research on whether new pipelines and power lines are actually needed.  Is the government’s assessment of other ways to meet the energy needs of the West adequate?  Opponents of the legislation have argued that methods such as modernizing the existing infrastructure have not been fully considered.  Furthermore, there are no plans to incorporate renewable energy resources into the energy grids.  Instead, the energy corridors favor more traditional energy sources such as coal and oil and natural gas, which are neither renewable nor viable in the long term.

The agencies in charge of forming the plans for the creation of Western energy corridors will also be responsible for communicating with impacted Native American tribes. The agencies will tap into tribes as a source of information on the natural lands, sensitive species, and specific treaty rights to federal lands.  Only tribes that have expressed an interest in the PEIS will be given an agency point of contact to help expedite communication between groups.

Mexican wolf at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge.
Mexican wolf at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Kyriss’s perspective is slightly different.  “The federal agencies have engaged the tribes in the West in government-to-government consultation about the proposed energy corridors to the degree they desire,” she says.  “Some tribes want to wait until a specific project is proposed before entering into a consultation arrangement; others have engaged throughout the PEIS process. In all instances, the federal agencies have sought to understand and fairly weigh the issues of concern to tribes.” The government’s goal is to give the tribes enough opportunities to actively join in the discussion regarding planning and resource management.  While the Native American tribes also have an interest in keeping the federal reserves pristine, they hold the status of foreign governments—triggering a higher level of discourse with federal agencies.  Public interest groups like environmental organizations, however, are only collections of concerned citizens.  They are given less consideration.
The Department of Energy feels it has adequately examined and responded to concerns related to the West-wide Energy Corridors project, so the plan continues to move forward.   Though congressional subcommittees have convened, questions remain, and so far, no legislation has enabled the creation of the energy corridors.  Many continue to oppose the corridors, and will at least until adequate information on the environmental impacts of the corridors is available.  “Ongoing public involvement is critical to ensure that the agencies consider the actual impacts of these corridors and how to avoid them, such that corridors are designated to minimize impacts to sensitive resources and support renewable energy sources,” concludes Culver.


Erin Podolak is a senior at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with majors in journalism/science writing and English. She is a student member of the National Association of Science Writers, and is originally from Summit, New Jersey.

Print   :   Blog   :   Next   



West-wide Energy Corridor Programmatic EIS Information Center

The Wilderness Society




Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.