Martz pushing eminent domain for Otter Creek power lines

Billings Gazette State Bureau


BIG SKY, MT-- Western states need the federal government's help in declaring eminent domain along existing power line corridors so mining of the Otter Creek coal tracts in southeastern Montana can begin, Gov. Judy Martz said Tuesday at the Western Governors' Association meeting.

Martz said development of a new power plant and the new transmission lines, which are needed to move electricity from southeast Montana through the Pacific Northwest and into California, are too complex for states to coordinate on their own.

Martz's remarks favoring federal intervention contradict her previous statements -- and the Western Governors' Association philosophy -- favoring states' rights.

Under eminent domain, the government can take private property it deems essential for public projects such as highways and railroads. Landowners are paid for the taking of their land.

But Martz said her mind is changed as well as made up. She said development of the Otter Creek tracts will be a main focus of her last 16 months in office.

"I plan to push this as hard as I can push it," Martz said at the association's energy briefing Tuesday morning. "There is no other line out there that can do what the Otter Creek tracts can do."

Some said Martz is abandoning the philosophy of local control by calling for federal help with eminent domain.

"This is as far away from local control as you can get," said Clint McRae, a rancher near Colstrip and member of the Northern Plains Resource Council. "The last thing we need is the governor calling in the federal government to take private land."

The Otter Creek tracts were once federal coal tracts that were turned over to the state of Montana in April 2002. The state sought the tracts as financial compensation after the federal government bought out a proposed gold mine near Yellowstone National Park that would have created jobs in Montana.

Industry analysts predict that more than one billion tons of extractable coal lies in these tracts, which line the north Powder River Basin.

Development of the tracts would not only provide a new source of electricity for Montana, where natural gas rates have gone up 70 percent since December and electricity rates have risen 14 percent, the coal mined there would help stabilize the Western power grid strained by development.

"The big blackout (on the east coast and Canada) in August further convinced me we must act," Martz said.

But before investors get serious about sinking billions of dollars into the Otter Creek tracts, new transmission lines need to be approved, said Carlos Aguilar, managing director of Bechtel Enterprises. Bechtel is a potential investor in the Otter Creek project.

The transmission lines that currently run out of Colstrip and across Montana, Idaho and Washington and into California are not big enough to handle the 3,000 megawatts of electricity that the proposed plant would eventually produce.

If upgraded, the existing lines could handle the electricity produced by the plant's first phase of development, some 750 megawatts, Aguilar said. But investors -- and Martz -- want to see new lines and poles along the existing power line corridor to accommodate the power generated by the proposed coal-burning power plant.

An eminent domain provision would help secure land for those power lines.

"We need some certainty," Aguilar said. "That's why the transmission issue needs to be solved."

Transmission of energy remains a problem in Montana and the West, industry officials said. Miles upon miles of new line need to be strung in order to accommodate the growing needs of the increasingly populated West and to prevent cascading blackouts similar to the east coast and Canadian blackouts of last month.

New lines could also access cheaper energy sources, such as coal, or renewable energy sources, such as wind.

But McRae of the Northern Plains Resource Council said the market just doesn't exist for new energy, especially not the low-quality coal he said is buried in the Otter Creek tracts.

"I don't think the demand is there," he said.


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