In aim to expand power grid, Biden faces push back from conservation allies

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WASHINGTON – The Cardinal Hickory Creek power line is supposed to deliver electricity 102 miles from wind farms in Iowa to the fast-growing city of Madison, Wis., the leading edge of President Joe Biden’s effort to expand the power grid to move renewable energy generated in rural areas to cities.

But the project hit a wall late last year when a federal judge ordered the developer, a conglomerate that includes Wisconsin’s largest power utility, to cease development on sections of the transmission line running through a picturesque section of the Mississippi River valley after a local conservation group argued it would irreparably harm the wilderness.

The case is part of a wave of legal actions by conservation groups that is blocking transmission projects from Maine to California and thwarting a decade-long effort to expand and modernize the U.S. grid. Even as environmentalists push to renewables to fight climate change, they frequently oppose the construction of transmission lines in wilderness areas, which the long-distance projects inevitably tend to cross.

“It’s a problem. The challenges these conservation groups are bringing adds significantly to the cost and time of building these projects,” said Emily Fisher, senior vice president of clean energy at the Edison Electric Institute, an industry group. “Any assessment of what we as a country need to do involves a significant build -out of the transmission system over the next decade. I don’t see how we do that given where we are right now.”

A recent study by scientists at Princeton University estimated that for the United States to meet its climate goal under the Paris agreement, its power grid would need to grow 60 percent in size by 2030 and potentially triple by 2050.

But for years, efforts to do so have been been repeatedly thwarted by a coalition that includes landowners, state officials, competing energy companies and Democratic allies in the environmental community. In 2020, fewer than than 900 miles of transmission lines were built in the United States, a more than 60 percent decline from 2015, according to data from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The log jam presents a dilemma for some environmental groups, which have long lobbied the federal government to address climate change by expanding clean energy, which requires new transmission projects.

“Most folks in the environmental community understand that in order to get a fully renewable grid, it’s going to require more transmission, but that’s different from pre-judging the support they will give to any particular project,” said Mark Brownstein, an attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund. “You need to proceed thoughtfully. You need to proceed with the idea you’re going to minimize impacts to ecosystems.”

But so far, transmission developers and conservation groups show little sign of finding common ground.

Plans by the Spanish power developer Iberdrola to build a 103-mile transmission line into New England from hydroelectric dams in Canada have hit a wall after conservation groups objected to construction in Maine’s northern woods. A referendum opposing the $1 billion project in Maine’s November election passed with 60 percent of the vote.

Likewise, a more than 700-mile transmission project delivering electricity from wind farms in southern Wyoming to cities in California, Nevada and Arizona has been delayed for 13 years, after a Colorado conservation group and the federal government placed a conservation easement on a 16,000 acre tract in the Rocky Mountains across which the project needed to cross.

For those who live and work near the areas through which these projects run, the idea of seeing woods and mountains scarred by transmission towers reaching more than 150-feet in height is too much to bear.

“We’re not in the business of challenging every transmission line. Don’t put us it in that box,” said Howard Learner, an attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, which sued to block the transmission project in Wisconsin. “This transmission line would cut through some of the most scenic landscape in the Midwest. This is the upper Mississippi River, with rolling hillsides where the glaciers missed when they retreated. It’s not flat like rest of Midwest.”

Bipartisan agreement

The holdup in transmission projects has rankled politicians on both sides of the aisle.

At a recent hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee, Democrats and Republicans alike lamented the slow pace of construction, in particular on federal lands — but not without recrimination. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., pointedly blamed Democrats, arguing that the wave of litigation around transmission lines drew inspiration from Democrats’ opposition to natural gas pipelines.

“Now with Joe Biden’s ambitious climate goals, Democrats are realizing allowing activist groups to sue over every infrastructure project might not have been their smartest idea,” he said. “You are lying in the bed you made. It did not have to be this way.”

The Biden administration is hoping to speed up transmission projects by overhauling federal permitting regulations. The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in November gives the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the authority to overrule states that choose to block projects.

But similar reform efforts have been undertaken before with little success. In a 2005 bid to speed up transmission construction, Congress gave FERC authority to approve projects that had been denied by state commissions. But when FERC moved to do so, they were sued by state utility commissions and environmental groups and blocked by a federal appellate court.

Even if the measure withstood legal challenges from states, there’s widespread skepticism that FERC commissioners would risk the public blow back from overruling states’ authority on how to use their land.

“I don’t know how you do that in today’s political climate,” said Cullen Howe, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group. “I don’t think there’s any easy answers to this, but we need to make the process better than it is right now, and right now it doesn’t work very well.”

In the meantime, federal agencies are doing what they can to speed permitting. At the Department of Interior, officials are meeting with potential opponents to transmission projects running through federal lands before projects have even begun to try to head off conflict before it ends up in the courts.

“We’ve learned a lot from the projects that don’t succeed,” said an official from the Interior Department. “There’s not enough capacity for the commitments we’re all making to transition to a clean energy economy. It’s something were going to have to keep talking about.”

But in the end, local communities and officials who represent them are likely to have the final say on whether a transmission line gets built under a federal system that leaves states ultimate authority. If citizens and their representatives don’t believe it’s in the best interest of their communities, other political leaders must convince them that the benefit for the planet outweighs their local concerns, Brownstein said.

“Developers need to do their homework,” he said, “but governors and presidents and other officials are going to need to lean into this a little bit.”

james.osborne@chron.com