Ignoring opposition from states, environmentalists, and private property owners, in October 2007 the Department of Energy designated a vast, 45-million-acre area in southern California and western Arizona as the Southwest National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor. Designated under the auspices of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 — a Bush administration giveaway to its corporate allies in the various energy-industry sectors — the Southwest Energy Corridor allows project proponents to bypass the scrutiny of state or local utility commissions when they want to build new transmission lines and facilities within their jurisdictions. In other words, companies can gain approval to site electric transmission lines and facilities where they may not have been able to before — and without considering the environmental consequences.

Because of the designation, if a state public utility commission denies an application to site an electric transmission line or facility inside the vast Southwest Energy Corridor, fails to grant a permit within one year, or conditions its approval in such a way that it’s federally deemed "not economically feasible" — for example, because it includes environmental protection or mitigation measures — the project proponent can appeal directly to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Commission must then grant the requested permit and coordinate completion of all necessary environmental reviews within one year, and if it fails to do so, the project proponent may appeal directly to the president for federal authorization. The president must then grant or deny the requested permit within 90 days.

Fundamentally altering the process through which transmission lines and facilities have traditionally been sited, the Southwest Energy Corridor designation allows private interests to detract from the public good. For example, the state of Arizona has been reluctant to site within its borders long-distance transmission lines that would ultimately benefit California ratepayers at the expense of Arizona's natural resources — but now, projects like Sunrise Powerlink could go forward without the state’s OK. By altering the regulatory scheme for transmission-line siting approval, the new designation also affects the interests of citizen groups like the Center — such as ensuring that the impacts of transmission lines to the environment are minimized.

For these reasons, the Center has challenged the Department of Energy's Southwest Energy Corridor designation in federal court, where we’re asserting violations of federal environmental laws in connection with the designation. Whatever the outcome of our case, the Center will be waiting to challenge the effects of the designation at every turn, holding the federal government accountable to its citizens and securing better energy policies in connection with transmission projects like Sunrise Powerlink.

Photo by thomashawk/Flickr.