San Diego Union-Tribune

August 7, 2001

Governors, feds clash on siting power lines
   Bush energy chief wants Washington to have that right

By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The nation's governors voiced strong bipartisan opposition yesterday to allowing the federal government to dictate where power lines should go, despite Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's assurances the authority would be invoked only "as a last resort."

State governments have jurisdiction over power line siting. But President Bush's energy policy proposes letting federal officials obtain transmission rights of way, as is the case with oil and natural gas pipelines.

The issue has major implications for California as it tries to work its way out of a power crisis that has been aggravated by bottlenecks in electricity transmission.

"We are still in an emergency in California. I do not believe the federal government should be messing around with our power lines until that emergency abates, and that's likely to be at least another year," said California Gov. Gray Davis, who is attending the National Governors' Association's annual conference here.

The Energy Department is moving forward with plans to have private companies upgrade a major transmission corridor in California's Central Valley known as Path 15, despite Davis' cool reception to the idea. Bottlenecks along the corridor have limited the flow of power between northern and Southern California and contributed to blackouts.

The Bush administration is also interested in expanding the transmission grid along the U.S.-Mexico border so that more power can be imported from plants in places such as Baja California.

In the sweeping energy policy he proposed in May, Bush directed Abraham to develop legislation, in consultation with state and local officials, that would give the federal government siting authority. The policy report said the nation's power grid was not adequate to handle growing demand.

Local opposition often stymies plans to build power lines, and the report said state decisions "often do not recognize the importance of proposed transmission facilities to the interstate grid."

Some energy industry officials support federal efforts because an improved grid would let them move electricity more easily as markets become deregulated.

Abraham came here to try to sell the idea to the nation's governors, promising them that the administration would not ride roughshod over the states.

"We view that as a last resort," he said of federal siting during an appearance before the association's Committee on Natural Resources.

"It's always been our view that those decisions should first be ones the state makes," he told reporters later. "Now, if somebody refuses to, and we have a national interest involved that's significant, it would seem to me and our administration that that's where a federal role might be necessary."

But Davis, a Democrat, and some other governors remained wary.

"That's his polite way of telling the governors to do their job. I think governors would rather not see it in law," Davis said.

Indeed, the governors' committee recommended that the association adopt an energy policy that opposes "pre-emption of traditional state and local authority over siting of electricity transmission networks."

It was one of the few firm statements in a document that avoided addressing some of the most controversial energy issues facing the nation -- including oil drilling in a section of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- because there was no consensus among the governors on them.

"To have the (power line siting) issue taken away from us and given solely to the federal government, most of the governors would find offensive," said Republican Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, vice chairman of the committee.

But Keating said the governors are willing to work with the Bush
administration.

Abraham said a national study should be done to identify transmission needs.

He mentioned the Path 15 problem and the inability to move large amounts of power between the United States and Mexico.

Abraham said he met with Mexican officials in March and "they felt that by this fall they could significantly increase the amount of electricity they could export to California.

"The problem was, when I got back to Washington, I discovered that on our side of the border we only had the capacity to take about 408 megawatts from the border to San Diego," he said.