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PATH power line hearings delayed -- again

Read the PSC order here.

 CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia state regulators on Friday granted developers of the PATH power line another seven-month delay in hearings on the project, as arguments mount that the $2 billion project might not be needed.

The state Public Service Commission agreed to a request from American Electric Power and Allegheny Energy to delay formal evidentiary hearings until October and a final decision date until February 2012.

Commissioners had scheduled the hearings to start on March 11 and set a deadline for a final decision by July.

AEP and Allegheny had said a delay would allow more study of new electrical need forecasts in the region, and that they were confident such a review would not show PATH was unnecessary.

However, critics of the project -- including the PSC's own staff and the agency's Consumer Advocate Division -- have argued that PATH "may no longer be needed on an imminent basis" and that the commission should focus on less costly and environmentally damaging alternatives.

In early December, the PSC's staff had urged commissioners to throw out the project's application altogether, saying it was "ludicrous" for the agency not to consider alternative ways to improve electrical reliability in the region.

Commissioners, in a 12-page order issued late Friday afternoon, said they were "attracted by the simplicity" of the staff recommendation, but felt it was not the best way to proceed.

"Dismissing this case at present would accomplish little besides increasing the cost of this already expensive and time-consuming litigation, particularly where, as here, the Joint Applicants have presented a concrete plan for moving forward," the commissioners said.

Commissioners indicated they would not look favorably on any further delays in the proceeding, saying the PSC "intends to complete the case within the revised deadline adopted herein."

AEP and Allegheny are seeking PSC approval for the West Virginia portions of the 765-kilovolt line, called the Potomac Appalachian Highline, or PATH. It would start at the John Amos power plant in Putnam County and run more than 275 miles into Maryland.

Power company officials say the project is needed to shore up the nation's ailing grid and, as proposed, "minimizes the effect on the natural and human environment."

The project faces strong opposition, though, in part because PSC approval would allow the power company to use eminent domain to obtain rights of way from landowners. Other critics argue that PATH, like the already approved TrAIL power line, is little more than a huge extension cord to allow more pollution-causing coal-fired power to be sent from Appalachia and the Ohio Valley to East Coast population centers.

Also, in recent months, opponents of PATH have increasingly pointed to questions about whether the nation's utility grid managers -- at a private company called PJM -- are fully considering alternatives when they back projects like the PATH line.

PSC staff members, in their motion last month, noted the recent decision by Dominion Energy to rebuild its aging Mt. Storm-Doubs power line, concerns about which were among the justifications for TrAIL and even more so for PATH. Staff members also noted the plans for the new Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway in Maryland.

The PSC's consumer advocates have said they remain concerned about the potential costs of PATH and the impact those costs might have on consumers. The consumer advocate also noted that the Mt. Storm-Doubs project is part of a proposal that Dominion submitted to PJM as a potential -- and much cheaper -- alternative to PATH.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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