Mindlesser and Mindlesser

Washington, DC -- I know. It's not a word. But it's definitely a concept.

Perhaps the greatest myth about the Bush Administration is that Karl Rove "takes care of the base." He does serve his paymasters -- those who fund the party -- but as for the Republican base, Rove consistently shows a perverted preference for betraying them. I've blogged about a number of examples of this betrayal: selectively defunding rural schools in counties where Bush was popular; deliberately exposing rural Republican voters to higher levels of toxic air pollutants; not to mention the unconscionable abandonment of even basic humanity in the treatment of the military community which has so heavily supported Bush and paid for his mistakes with their lives.

But the latest caper is perhaps the most politically mindless Bush policy initiative yet. The issue is the federal role in siting utility high-voltage corridors. Back in 2001 EPRI, the research arm of the public utilities, asked Vice President Cheney's Energy Task Force to reform federal regulations which are hampering modernization of the electrical grid. Enron, terrified that it couldn't make money gaming a really modern, nimble smart grid, opposed the proposal and suggested instead that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) simply override state and local authorities and site new transmission corridors for new power lines. EPRI strongly opposed Enron, saying such a step would create a civil war between the feds and the states, and hamper grid modernization. (Exactly, we now understand, what Enron intended.) Cheney sided with Enron, and in 2005 Congress gave DOE and FERC the power to identify "National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors," and, within those corridors, to use federal eminent domain powers to seize private property and override state and local land use and regulatory standards to locate new power lines.

This was bad enough. But DOE has now issued the regulations -- and instead of actually going through the exercise of figuring out which corridors are needed and identifying them, the Department proposes that the federal government have powers of eminent domain for private purposes in entire regions and states of the country.

According to DOE, "The proposed Mid-Atlantic Area National Corridor includes counties in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Virginia, and all of New Jersey, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. The proposed Southwest Area National Corridor includes counties in California, Arizona, and Nevada."

It's true, the three entire states over which the federal government would now become the land-use czar voted for John Kerry. But Arizona, Nevada and most of the counties in Southern California included in the Southwest corridor were solidly for Bush, as were West Virgina and Virginia, and most of the listed counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York. These kinds of transmission corridors can be lethal to the property values of rural landowners -- most of whom voted for Bush. And unless the line actually crosses your property, these folks won't get any financial compensation for their losses. So its the Republican base that gets screwed here. And already protests are beginning.

And who benefits? Well, the reason for the Mid-Atlantic corridor is to give preferential access to New York City and to the companies which own a group of old, polluting and outmoded coal-fired power plants that would otherwise be retired. And the Southwest corridor is to benefit a group of companies who have chosen to build power plants in Mexico, safely beyond the reach of US environmental standards, but who want to sell their power into Southern California and Las Vegas, even though the states don't want to allow those companies to undercut their domestic power producers.

Now, back in 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled that eminent domain could be used by state and local governments for private purposes like shopping malls -- and its ruling provoked a national firestorm. More than thirty state legislatures moved to ban the practice within their jurisdiction, even if allowed by the US Courts. A dozen others faced citizen ballot initiatives to protect private property from eminent domain takings for the benefit of other private purposes. The loudest voices against allowing such abuses of eminent domain? -- conservatives and libertarians.

But in Kelo v. New London, the Supreme Court was dealing with state and local use of eminent domain for local purposes -- and narrowly defined geographical areas. The DOE rulemaking creates an unprecedented intrusion of the federal govenrment into state and local land use decisions -- not for local benefit but for the benefit of a distant city or state, and designates a huge swath of the country as a national sacrifice zone for energy.

Imagine: Every landowner in a huge portion of the country is now at risk of having a distant and unelected federal bureaucracy allow an out-of-state utility company to seize his property and build a high-tension line -- or perhaps worse, seize his neighbor's property and build a high-tension line right right next to his property with no compensation.

A bipartisan Congressional coalition is already moving to block this stunningly ill-advised proposal. I suspect they will succeed faster than they can imagine. If they don't, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman may have started a new civil war. What was Karl Rove thinking, anyway? Did he ever look at the map to see what he was approving?