The Mountain States Transmission Intertie is a major concern for Madison County Commissioners and they’ve decided to hire private consultants to help them address the project as it moves forward.
At their regular Sept. 21 meeting, the commissioners approved a contract with the Western Environmental Law Center out of Helena to be a consultant for the county on MSTI, as well as help them with broader questions about dealing with energy transmission lines through the county.
MSTI is a proposed 500-kilovolt transmission line between Townsend and southern Idaho. The project is being proposed by NorthWestern Energy and being analyzed by the state of Montana and the federal government through the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Bureau of Land Management.
This spring, Jefferson County Commissioners filed a lawsuit against Montana DEQ because they wanted more input on evaluation of the project. Last month District Court Judge Loren Tucker sided with Jefferson County, but a final decision is still being hammered out.
At this point a draft environmental impact statement has yet to be released. However a preliminary draft EIS was released and showed that the preferred route for the transmission lines was through the Jefferson River Valley near the Madison County communities of Silver Star and Twin Bridges.
Initially, Madison County Commissioners believed the lines would be routed along Interstates 90 and 15 and not through the county.
None of the commissioners are experts on electric transmission lines or how such large projects are evaluated, said Madison County Commissioner Marilyn Ross. That’s why they looked to WELC for help.
“Basically what we were looking for is an independent group that could give us some data on a variety of things … to help us prepare a comment on the EIS when it comes out,” Ross said.
The contract with WELC will be for $7,500 and will include four different tasks, said Monique DiGiorgio, conservation strategist with the company.
One task will be a siting analysis for transmission lines through Madison County. This will basically look at the economic costs of transmission lines in the county to public health and land values. It will also look at the various costs of different types of transmission lines as well as analyze the environmental costs of transmission lines in the county and region.
The idea being that if MSTI is going to be built, this information would enable the county to say with some authority what locations would be more appropriate, DiGiorgio said.
Another task in the contract will be to prepare the comments for the county on the MSTI draft EIS.
The scope of work in the contract also asks WELC to reach out to other counties in southwest Montana to work on similar studies.
Lastly, WELC will provide the county with a royalty and revenue assessment of potential transmission lines.
The fact of the matter is that MSTI signifies a trend in the West of massive transmission lines geared toward transmitting renewable energy around the region, said DiGiorgio. It’s important for Madison County Commissioners not only to understand the impacts of MSTI, but also position themselves to better address other projects that could be proposed.
To help on the project, WELC is going to bring on board a slate of experts including economists, scientists and lawyers, she said.
In other states, like Nevada, counties have not only been able to position themselves to influence where transmission lines are built, but to receive royalties from the electric companies, DiGiorgio said.
But energy transmission is very complex and involves a lot of players from the federal and state governments to large private companies. It’s easy for counties to be overwhelmed by the process.
Basically, Madison County Commissioners are saying they want to determine their own fate when it comes to transmission lines, DiGiorgio said.
“To me that’s a bold move and an important one,” she said. “They basically said we want more information on what we should be doing here… It’s a complicated issue.”
For Ross, just saying no to MSTI isn’t the best thing the county can do. It needs facts and information to back up whatever position they develop on the project.
“Just to say it’s icky and we don’t like it, while that might be true, it’s really not an effective response,” Ross said. “We’ve hired professionals to give us the data and the scientific information that we need to responsibly respond to the EIS, whenever it comes.”
Commissioner Dave Schulz agrees and he’s open about the fact he’s got a lot to learn about MSTI.
“I’ve seen a map and I’ve heard a lot of opinion,” Schulz said. “I have to admit I learned a long time ago that if you’re going to take a stand and make a statement about something, you’d better be able to do more than say ‘hell no.’”
WELC is just beginning to work on the project and is still looking for an economist and siting expert to help them with their work.
Public involvement in the process will be important and DiGiorgio said WELC would be willing to meet with interested groups about their work with the county.
“What we’re trying to do is empower the county and the community to say what we want out of this process,” she said.
To contact DiGiorgio, call 451-0051 or email her at email@example.com.