NorthWestern puts review of MSTI project on hold

The Mountain State Transmission Intertie project is currently on hold as officials from NorthWestern Energy, which is the potential developer for the project, have asked the federal agencies reviewing the project to stop their work.

The request for the federal agencies to stop the review came after the Bureau of Land Management told NorthWestern they would need to develop another alternative route for the MSTI project that would avoid sage grouse habitat in Idaho.

“They said there will be a delay but they haven’t told us what time frame will be associated with that delay,” said Claudia Rapkoch, spokeswoman for NorthWestern Energy.

The MSTI project has generated controversy during the past two years in both Madison and Jefferson Counties as county officials and local residents have been concerned about where the transmission project would be sited.

The MSTI project is a proposed set of 500-kilovolt transmission lines that would run from Townsend to Jerome, Idaho. NorthWestern has said that the goal behind the lines is to carry renewable power, such as that generated from wind farms, to customers in the Southwest.

Last year Madison County teamed up with officials from Beaverhead and Jefferson Counties along with citizens and officials from potentially impacted counties and communities in Idaho to help advise a MSTI review project. The MSTI review project was a collaborative effort between five Montana-based organizations and Madison and Jefferson Counties. The goal of the project was to analyze the potential impacts of the line and community values involved in siting the potential transmission lines.

However, the big step that had yet to be accomplished was a draft Environmental Impact Statement on the siting proposal for the transmission line. This draft EIS was to be jointly issued by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the BLM, which was the lead federal agency on the project.

NorthWestern Energy filed the siting application for the MSTI project in 2007, Rapkoch said. There was a delay as Jefferson County filed a lawsuit against Montana DEQ asking for more involvement in the analysis of the project, but still the process is taking too long with no end in sight, she said.

“To date we’ve spend about $14 million on the review process,” Rapkoch said. “It just keeps pushing out and pushing out and we’re just asking them to come back to us with some understanding of the scope and what we can expect going forward.”

With projects like MSTI, the company proposing the project enters into a reimbursement agreement with the agencies analyzing the project. This agreement reimburses the agencies for money spent on the analysis.

BLM spokesman Rick Hotaling, who is the BLM’s western Montana district manager, understands NorthWestern’s frustration, but many of the early delays were associated with the lawsuit and not the federal review of the project.

The scope of the MSTI project is large and so the review is naturally going to take time.

“You’re going from mountainous terrain to urban areas to sage brush flats, prairie type stuff,” he said. “When you go through all that you’re going to run into several different issues.”

Hotaling estimates that developing a route to avoid sage grouse habitat and then analyzing the route would add an additional three months to the review.

Right now no work is being done on the project at the BLM. Hotaling is waiting for direction from NorthWestern. In fact people who were assigned to the MSTI analysis have been re-assigned to other projects.

“We’re on hold until NorthWestern Energy tells us they would like us to start working on the project again,” Hotaling said. “We’re not working on the project at all.”

The delays have created uncertainty around the project, which has made it difficult to get customers to commit to contracts for power from the transmission lines, Rapkoch said. And the fact the company is still waiting on the draft EIS is frustrating.

“Just to get the draft EIS could be another year to two years and that’s just the draft,” she said.

To move forward, NorthWestern needs a timeframe everyone involved can agree on, Rapkoch said. But right now it’s still uncertain when work on reviewing the project will begin again.

 

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