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Midwest could face ‘brownouts’ due to federal environmental regulators

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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The Midwest may see booming oil and natural gas production, but a lack of power lines taking electricity to where it needs to go is making it harder for utilities to satisfy the country’s growing appetite for power.

To complicate things, federal environmental regulators have been unwilling to allow power providers to build transmission lines across portions of federal lands. The oil and gas boom in the Bakken shale region of the U.S., including Montana and North Dakota, has fueled a 6 percent growth in power demand in the region. The problem is that power companies may not be able to keep up with the demand growth in the near future.

“Very soon, and even next year,” Montana Public Service Commissioner Travis Kavulla told Marks Group Broadcasting. “It’s not necessarily even the lack of generation from [Basin Electric Power Cooperative], because that they’ve been able to build fairly easily-it’s been the lack of transmission lines.”

“So for instance, the US Forest Service at the moment is holding a Basin line from being built across the grasslands in North Dakota,” Kavulla add. “If that line is not in place by 2015 then you may see what we call involuntary loadshedding, brownouts.”

“It’s just very hard for utilities to keep up building infrastructure, especially infrastructure that needs easements over federal lands in that kind of environment,” Kavulla added. “And the feds, for what it’s worth, have just not I think realized the gravity of the situation. They certainly will if there starts to be brownouts, especially during winter months.”

The situation in the Bakken could be amplified by coal plant shutdowns coming in the next couple of years due to federal environmental regulations. According to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, more than 330 coal-fired generators have been closed or will be shut down in the coming years. Most retirements will occur before 2016 when coal plants are expected to comply with federal mercury emissions rules.

But proposed Environmental Protection Agency limits on carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants would effectively prevent any new plants from being built in the U.S. unless they utilize costly emissions control technology.

The coal industry worries that this rule will prevent coal-fired power from being expanded and will drive up the cost of generating electricity from coal — which many states in the Bakken shale region rely on.

With the power industry being forced to shut down so many coal plants, worries persist that there may not be enough backup capacity on power grids to keep the lights and heat on during the winter time.

“In January of next year, it is anticipated that they will finalize a rule from EPA that will make it impossible to build a new coal-powered plant in America,” said Kentucky Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield. “That is hard to believe that that can be the situation in our great country, particularly since 40 percent of our electricity comes from coal.”

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