Craig — The route for the TransWest Express transmission line — set to traverse Northwestern Colorado on its 725-mile path from Wyoming to Nevada — received a final stamp of federal approval last month from the Western Area Power Administration, on the heels of Bureau of Land Management approval in December.
The wind energy transmission project is expected to bring $600,000 to $900,000 in annual property tax revenue to Moffat County, according to TransWest, and up to 1,000 jobs at the peak of construction. Only 10 to 20 jobs will be created long-term for maintenance and operations.
Despite objections from conservationists regarding the route, the project has the support of county officials and underwent extensive environmental reviews to mitigate impacts on greater sage grouse.
Garry Miller, vice president of land and environmental affairs for TransWest Express, LLC, anticipates construction will begin in 2018, though the project still has extensive permitting, surveying and mitigation requirements to complete.
“We’re still in the process of doing a final review of the route and a process called micro-siting,” or identifying the precise placement of towers and lines, Miller said. “The next step is right-of-way acquisitions on non-federal lands, and that includes state lands and private lands.”
Of the 90 miles of transmission line that will pass through Moffat County, 70 percent of it will sit on federal land, 13 percent on state land and 17 percent — or 15 miles — on private land.
Approximately 20 landowners in Moffat County will be impacted by the transmission line crossing their land, Miller said. He expects to begin negotiations with landowners this year.
Landowner Lyn McCormick wants no part of the transmission line on her property and is working to re-route it around her land. She and her husband, Robert McCormick, purchased about 470 acres off Moffat County Road 10 in 2010 as part of their retirement plan.
“It was our dream to come home and retire to ranching,” McCormick said. “It’s devastating, because we’ve sunk basically our life savings into this to be our home. It just changes the whole picture for us … It’s hard to even explain how it feels.”
But there may be little recourse for private landowners in some cases. TransWest Express, LLC, a subsidiary of The Anschutz Corporation, is partnering on the project with WAPA, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy.
“There’s a strategic significance of TransWest having WAPA as a partner,” said Moffat County Natural Resources Director Jeff Comstock. “The strategic advantage is that Western (WAPA) is a federal agency that will have condemnation authority.”
There are some cases in which TransWest — which spent the past eight years permitting its route across federal lands — will not be able to reroute the line around particular pieces of private land.
“The line is set on BLM lands, and we have very little flexibility to move it on BLM lands,” Miller said. “We obviously have to connect those dots, so it really depends on what happens in between the BLM parcels.”
The intent is always to negotiate an agreement that satisfies landowners, Miller said. But there are cases in large public infrastructure projects such as these, Comstock explained, where a government agency must exercise the right of eminent domain. Also referred to as condemnation, it means the agency can take land from private landowners at fair market value if the landowner is unwilling to negotiate.
Nonetheless, the chosen route — which charts a course south along Seven Mile Ridge in central Moffat County before following U.S. Highway 40 west to the Utah border — was preferred by county officials precisely because it minimizes impact to private land, as well as sage grouse.
“Moffat County preferred the Seven Mile Ridge route, because it had less sage grouse and impacted less private landowners,” Comstock said. “More people, families and small acreage properties are along Highway 13, and if you’re doing a project to benefit the country, federal land should support those projects.”
The route was contested by many conservation groups, who wanted to see the route follow the previously designated utility corridor along Colorado Highway 13.
“The routes unnecessarily destroy wilderness-quality lands in Northwest Colorado and eastern Nevada, as well as greater sage grouse habitat. Readily available alternative routes could have minimized or eliminated these impacts by following highways and designated utility corridors,” according to a statement from Alex Daue, assistant director for energy and climate for the Wilderness Society.
The TransWest line impacts 28 miles of priority sage grouse habitat and 55 miles of general habitat in Colorado, according to the BLM’s Record of Decision. Though granted exemption from the BLM’s sweeping 2015 plan instituting new sage grouse protections, TransWest must meet similar mitigation requirements detailed in the ROD.
The company must minimize construction impacts during mating seasons, follow protocols to reduce bird mortality from collision with power lines and use various methods to minimize perching opportunities for predators, among many other things.
TransWest’s 3,000 megawatt-capacity, direct current line will effectively act as a super highway for wind power to reach markets in Nevada, California and Arizona from the largest proposed wind farm in the country, located in southern Wyoming.
It will be co-located with the Gateway South transmission line, which the BLM also approved in December. The two lines will travel the same route about 300 feet apart.
Gateway South will have similar economic impacts to Moffat County, according to Rod Fisher, Rocky Mountain Power Regional Business Manager for Gateway Transmission. It will employ nearly 900 people for the construction of the full line, which extends 400 miles from Wyoming to central Utah. Construction isn’t estimated to begin until 2020 to 2024, however.
From a landowner’s perspective, McCormick isn’t convinced the economic benefit is enough to balance out the impacts to wildlife and landowners.
Moffat County won’t see the tax revenues from either line until they are operational, according to Moffat County Assessor Chuck Cobb. Regardless, as the county’s coal, oil and gas industries continue to weather political and economic distress, Moffat County stands poised to take home a small slice of the economic pie from one of the nation’s largest renewable energy transmission projects to date.