WASHINGTON – President Bush's energy task force plans to propose legislation allowing the seizure of private property to accelerate the construction of electrical power lines, three administration officials said Tuesday.
The recommendation is contained in the final draft of a broad energy blueprint to be unveiled by President Bush next week, the officials said. The "eminent domain" authority allows the government to appropriate private property for public use; the property owners are usually compensated.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission already has eminent domain authority over the siting of natural gas pipelines, but has no such power over long-distance electricity transmission lines. The lack of authority often requires electrical companies to get approval from several states and numerous local jurisdictions.
Federal authority to locate transmission lines would quicken the approval process, supporters of the provision contend. The shortage of transmission lines has been cited by officials as one reason for bottlenecks in the electric grids and a shortage of power in areas of high demand.
New lines also are expected to be needed to connect new power plants to the grid.
Vice President Dick Cheney said on CNN Tuesday that the energy task force he heads will include a recommendation on eminent domain for power lines.
"The issue is whether or not we should have the same authority on electrical transmission lines" as the government has on gas lines, Cheney said. "That's never been granted previously."
He did not say what the recommendation would be.
But the administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the report would ask Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to draw up legislation allowing utilities to obtain right of ways for transmission lines, presumably through FERC.
The energy strategy report is going to the printers in stages this week. Officials said there was no talk of taking out the eminent domain provision, though they could not rule out that remote possibility.
Utilities, not the government, would own the property, one official said.
Earlier this year, a draft of a Republican energy bill in the Senate had included giving FERC eminent domain authority on transmission power lines. But that provision later was deleted when it was introduced by Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska.
The electric utility industry for some time has been lobbying for a federal role in siting electric power lines, which now must go through a maze of overlapping local jurisdictions and state agencies for approval.
"If FERC has the eminent siting authority, that will help facilitate siting of electric power transmission lines," said Jim Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities
It especially would help in getting interstate transmission rights of way approved, he said.
"But it's still not a silver bullet because ... it can still be a cumbersome process," said Owen. Some natural gas pipeline cases before FERC have taken years to resolve, he said.
Critics have questioned whether Cheney's task force will emphasize power production and transmission over conservation.
Cheney said the report would use tax breaks to encourage conservation.
"Most of the financial incentives that we recommend in the report go for conservation or renewables, for increased efficiencies," Cheney said.
The task force will likely recommend tax incentives for purchase of "hybrid" ultra-efficient automobiles that run on gasoline and electricity, one administration official said. A similar provision was included in Bush's budget sent to Congress earlier this year.
The report will also call for a new tax credit for builders of certain new power plants.