Environmental and conservation groups have brought or are preparing to bring lawsuits in federal court challenging the Department of Energy's (DOE) designation of areas in the Southwest and Mid-Atlantic regions as corridors to build power transmission lines.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit group involved in species and habitat protection, filed a lawsuit last Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to block the DOE's October designation of 45 million acres in southern California and western Arizona as the Southwest National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor.

The center's lawsuit comes as the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and Piedmont Environmental Council are preparing to challenge the DOE's designation of the Mid-Atlantic National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor on environmental grounds.

The groups are bringing legal action even though DOE in December said it would reconsider its designation of the transmission corridors in the Southwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, a decision that had been protested by several states. The department said at the time that it would review all requests to reconsider its decision.

"The Energy Department cannot turn southern California and western Arizona into an energy farm for Los Angeles and San Diego without taking a hard look at the environmental impacts of doing so," said Amy Atwood, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. Designation of the Southwest Corridor, which was called for under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct), allows for "fast-track" approval of utility and power line projects within the corridor, with little review of the environmental impacts, the center noted.

The DOE "must ensure that the environmental impacts of creating such an expansive electric transmission corridor are closely analyzed and documented before any designation takes place," said Megan Anderson of the Western Environmental Law Center, lead attorney in the case.

The 45-million-acre transmission corridor includes three million acres of national parks and national wildlife refuges such as the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, Sonoran Desert National Monument, Joshua Tree National Park and Carrizo Plain National Monument; the 21-million-acre California Desert Conservation Area; 750,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management national monuments; and a portion of the Las Californias, an internationally recognized biodiversity hotspot that is home to hundreds of protected or rare species, the center said. It estimated that there are at least 95 species that are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act within the corridor.

With respect to the Mid-Atlantic region, the transmission corridor includes certain counties in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Virginia and all of New Jersey, Delaware and the District of Columbia.

The corridor designations announced in October built on a congestion study conducted by DOE, which identified the populous Southwest and Mid-Atlantic as two regions that are beset by growing electricity congestion problems.

EPAct authorizes the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue, under certain circumstances, permits for new transmission facilities within a national corridor. Generally, if an applicant does not receive approval from a state to site a proposed new transmission project within a national corridor within a year, FERC may consider whether to issue a permit and to authorize construction of the project.

In 2006, FERC issued regulations that stipulate that only those transmission projects within a national corridor that would significantly reduce congestion into or within the congestion area would be eligible for a FERC permit (see NGI, June 19, 2006).

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