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Fed Plan to Consolidate Power Over Nation's Power Highway Has States Nervous

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In this Aug. 28 file photo, a utility worker makes repairs on power lines in Nags Head, N.C. (AP)

The Obama administration is looking to consolidate control over the nation's power highway, pushing a proposal that would put one federal agency in the driver's seat when it comes to reviewing and approving power-line projects across the country. 

The proposal has triggered a rush of complaints, pitting power companies and the federal government against concerned citizens and local lawmakers. 

As the Energy Department reviews the immense feedback in the weeks ahead, the ordeal could help determine how and where the nation's power supply is routed. 

At the heart of Washington's proposal is a desire to guide and speed up a process that can be slowed by local bureaucratic hurdles. The need for more transmission lines is apparent -- in the vast states where wind and other forms of renewable energy are produced, the energy is often hundreds of miles from where it would be consumed. 

But new power lines are not exactly welcome guests. 

"Siting transmission is extremely difficult, because no one wants it on their land," said Gene Fadness, with the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. 

Still, he said, "We don't think (the process) takes so long that it's not workable." 

The states, which along with local governments have long had authority over whether and where power lines get built, derided the plan as a move that would make it harder for local residents to weigh in. 

"It turns the whole process on its head," said Robert Thormeyer, spokesman with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. He said the federal government would be "more inclined to build" than the states, if for no other reason than they probably wouldn't have as much interaction with citizens. A bureaucrat in Washington might not hear the not-in-my-backyard pleas as frequently as a bureaucrat in, say, Boise. 

The proposed change has drawn the skepticism of at least one senator. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who helped write a 2005 law that initially expanded federal power over power lines, complained about the plan in a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu. 

The chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said it appears the commission is trying to "rewrite" the language in the law. He said that's a decision for Congress, not the commission, to make. 

The move, he wrote, "would pave the way for the commission to use the newly consolidated powers in ways never intended by Congress." 

On paper, the federal government has had expanded authority over transmission lines since 2005, when the Energy Policy Act set up a process that split federal oversight between two agencies -- the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. 

Under the law, the Department of Energy was tasked with studying where transmission lines were needed most. Then the FERC was given the power to grant construction permits in those areas under certain circumstances, including if a state withheld approval for more than a year. 

Successful court challenges, though, have since blocked the federal government from exercising that authority. 

In the latest proposal, the FERC suggested shifting things around -- so that the Department of Energy would let the FERC effectively do all the work. The FERC would have the authority to figure out where power lines are needed most, and then have authority over permits for specific projects. 

"This may lead to a 'build, build' mentality," the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners warned in a Sept. 8 letter to Chu. The group said giving FERC all that power could lead to "the construction of unnecessary and expensive transmission projects." 

They warned that the federal role makes local participation "less accessible, more expensive and therefore less likely." 

In one of the earlier court cases challenging Washington's power-line power, a New York community group complained that the federal commission would not require power companies to review the effect a project could have on property values. 

Idaho Commissioner Marsha Smith agreed that state and local governments have a better sense of how a project would affect residents -- like whether a transmission tower would "impair" farmland. 

"Federal agencies don't have the historical, social, cultural and physical information that deals with the local areas," she said. 

The FERC said it's not proposing to expand federal power. The proposal, the agency said, "will simplify and consolidate in a single forum federal actions mandated by Congress." 

They also said the plan would allow for an "expedited" process and, in the long run, "help satisfy the need for a modern and efficient transmission grid in the United States, with increased access to the most cost-effective renewable resources." 

FERC spokesman Craig Cano said the proposal is not final; the Department of Energy still has to review comments. 

"They're looking at options for how to move forward given the court decision on the last try," he said. "It's one idea." 

The idea has support from the industry and some environmentalists. The Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in a memo last month that the plan would spur "needed new clean, renewable energy generation while ensuring that land and wildlife values are protected."