By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007
The federal government said yesterday that it would give power companies special rights to build their lines in the Washington region and some other parts of the country, permitting the companies to bypass state authority if necessary in the interest of bolstering the nation's electrical grid.
The change could give Dominion Virginia Power greater authority to build a controversial line through Northern Virginia. The company says it has no plans to bypass the state's authority but won't rule it out.
During an afternoon briefing, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman announced that the networks of high-voltage power lines in two regions -- the Southwest and the mid-Atlantic -- are so inadequate that fixing them is a national priority.
As a result, he said, he has named the areas "national interest" corridors. That means that if state officials deny or delay power line projects, companies can appeal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which can overrule states and force the projects through. The department will finalize the corridors after two months of public hearings and discussions.
The move will "set us on the path to modernize our constrained and congested electric power infrastructure," Bodman said in a statement. "I am confident the department's actions will help facilitate the infrastructure growth necessary to meet the demands of our growing economy."
Some energy specialists lauded Bodman's announcement, saying that power line construction nationwide has been slow in the past few decades, partly because of local opposition. That has left the grid vulnerable to the kind of blackout that occurred in New York in 2003, they say.
The mid-Atlantic region identified by Bodman would include parts of Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York and all of New Jersey, Delaware and the District.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who has opposed Dominion's effort to build a 500,000-volt transmission line, said the decision intrudes on the rights of states to decide what is best for their residents.
"Shouldn't a state have a say instead of being run roughshod over?" spokesman Dan Scandling said. "That's the crux of the issue. While there may be a need in New England, does that mean the pristine areas of Virginia should be destroyed for the sake of New York City?"
Wolf and U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) support a bill that would do away with the "national interest" designations, which were called for by the 2005 Energy Policy Act. They have penned a second bill that at least would require the federal government to consider the impact on private property, historical sites and other factors before designating a national interest corridor.
Scandling said he thinks the bills will gain traction with yesterday's announcement.
Energy officials will hold public meetings on the subject over the next two months, including one in Arlington County on May 15, before finalizing the decision, perhaps later in the year.
But opponents of the power line proposed for Northern Virginia are alarmed. They say that Bodman's plan threatens open space, private property and historical sites that could be ruined with the introduction of cables and steel towers.
Dominion officials say the line, which would wind through Rappahannock, Fauquier, Prince William and Loudoun counties, is necessary to avoid blackouts in Northern Virginia in the next five years.
For now, Dominion has backed away from a more controversial proposal that would have cut through some Civil War and environmentally sensitive sites. Instead, power company officials said, the line would wind along existing power line corridors in those areas, a plan that still does not please critics.
Company officials said they hope to gain swift approval from the Virginia State Corporation Commission and complete the project by 2011.
"We've determined the best avenue for us to take is to go through the state process," Dominion spokeswoman Le-Ha Anderson said. "It's proven, we know that it works, and we know it's very fair."
The state has approved every power line ever proposed by Dominion, Anderson said.
Opponents of Dominion's project say they will redouble their efforts to stop it in the wake of yesterday's announcement.
Robert W. Lazaro Jr., spokesman for the slow-growth Piedmont Environmental Council, said the federal government would be less sensitive to Virginia's plight than the state.
"Now, the state -- which knows its social, natural and cultural resources better than anyone -- can be bypassed," Lazaro said. "If the SCC agrees with us and says the line is not needed, Dominion can turn around and say: 'Well, we don't like that answer. We're going to go ask someone else.' "
Another issue is eminent domain. The new label would allow power companies in "national interest" areas to have greater rights to condemn private property.
Lazaro's group says that Dominion's purpose is to serve lucrative markets in New York and New Jersey. Virginia regulators might be swayed by that argument, but it might not have much influence with national regulators, who are seeking to coordinate the grid across state lines.