Opponents of a 300-mile transmission line in Eastern Oregon claim the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s approval of the route across its property violated federal laws.
The Stop B2H Coalition — which is challenging the high-voltage power line between Boardman, Ore., and the Hemingway substation in Idaho — is asking a federal judge to overturn BLM’s permission for the project.
Among the transmission line’s critics, the agriculture industry has raised concerns about the project taking prime farmland out of production and impeding farm practices.
The agency didn’t comply with the National Environmental Policy Act by selecting a preferred route and a variant in 2017 that were different than what it had analyzed in a draft environmental study, according to the coalition.
The newly chosen route is problematic because it’s only a half-mile from La Grande, runs across an intact portion of the Oregon Trail, and passes near ecologically sensitive areas, critics say.
“The public had no way to anticipate the two new routes that would run through that area. It deprived residents of La Grande and Union County of the right to weigh in on disproportionately adverse effects,” said David Becker, attorney for the coalition, during Feb. 22 oral arguments.
The coalition also argues that BLM didn’t properly evaluate the transmission line’s “synergistic” effects with livestock grazing, which the group argues will have cumulative impacts on the sage grouse in the region.
The BLM and Idaho Power, the utility company that would construct the project, are defending an inadequate NEPA analysis of the transmission line’s effects, Becker said. “They really are trying to piece together and point the court in 25 different directions and say, ‘We deserve deference.’”
The BLM countered that its preferred route was a permissible “logical outgrowth” of alternatives examined in a draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, and doesn’t require a supplemental NEPA study.
The agency wasn’t required to study burying a section of the power line and it sufficiently evaluated the implications of grazing while examining the route’s effects on vegetation, said Krystal-Rose Perez, attorney for the BLM.
“The EIS is not organized in the way plaintiffs want, but it’s up to BLM’s discretion how to disclose that information,” she said.
Similarly, the agency doesn’t have to arrive at the conclusions preferred by the opponents, Perez said. “I don’t think there’s any question NEPA does not mandate particular results.”
Beth Ginsberg, an attorney for Idaho Power, said that both the Obama and Trump administrations have recognized the transmission line as a critical connection between the electrical grids of the Pacific West and Intermountain West.
“The importance of a project like this cannot be overstated,” Ginsberg said. “No shortcuts were taken. Every I was dotted, every T was crossed.”
The BLM conducted the necessary analysis of the project’s impacts on sage grouse populations, but this information doesn’t need to be isolated in a special “cumulative impacts” section, she said.
“This is a ‘gotcha,’” Ginsberg said. “This is another example of trying to weaponize NEPA.”