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U.S. Energy Corridors Could Disrupt Climate Change Research

Conservation groups challenge Bush-era "energy corridors" that threaten wilderness areas, including a long-term ecological study site



RENEE BROWN

On Tuesday, fourteen conservation groups and a Colorado county sued the federal government, alleging that it violated environmental, property and energy laws in designating "energy corridors" along 6,000 miles (9,650 kilometers) of public land and wilderness areas in the U.S. West.

Such corridors refer to land that utilities can use to run pipelines, transmission cables and other energy-related structures. The Bush administration originally touted these right-of-ways in 2005 as a means to link solar, wind and other renewable energy sources, but proposals officials approved before leaving office in January have them connecting existing coal-fired power plants and natural gas facilities.

A long-term climate change study site in New Mexico would be one of many areas affected by the 3,500-foot- (915-meter-) wide corridors. "Depending on where they are planning to put this thing, it could interfere with some of our long-term research," says ecologist Scott Collins of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Conservation groups allege that the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Department of Energy failed to consider the spirit of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and also violated the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

Nada Culver senior counsel for The Wilderness Society, one of the groups that opposes the corridors, says that the government "never considered how they affect wildlife" and failed to consult the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.  "The reason we are challenging the corridors is to get them fixed," she says, "We want to designate the right places on public land for transmission."

To add irony to injury, one of the proposed pathways goes smack through Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, where Collins runs a project that is part of the National Science Foundation's Long Term Ecological Research Network.

Collins's research looks at how desert ecosystems respond to climate variability, and he also has experiments simulating droughts that are predicted under global warming. He calls the plans "preposterous" and says the corridors could disrupt wildlife and the reserve's pristine ecosystem. There is already one old pipeline road on the reserve that the team steers clear of, but it has a far smaller footprint than the proposed passage.

And that's not the only gripe Collins has had with the energy alleys. His neighborhood in Placitas, like many communities, recently managed to fight off a proposed corridor running next to their homes.

Collins has seen first-hand how excavations can damage the landscape. "There's a beautiful open-space area just to the north that I can see from my house," he says, "They came through and excavated a pipeline, and there's still this long skinny scar that goes across the landscape. Arid ecosystems don't recover that quickly."

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