DOE approves Clean Line project, Congressional delegation says agency ‘overstepped its bounds’ (Updated)

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 374 views 

Editor’s note: Story updated with a statement from Golden Bridge, a group organized to oppose the Clean Line project, and a statement from the Sierra Club of Arkansas.

The U.S. Department of Energy on Friday (March 25) approved the controversial $2 billion Clean Line project that will build through Arkansas a large electric transmission network. Arkansas’ Congressional delegation issued a joint response, saying the approval is “unprecedented executive overreach.”

Energy Department (DOE) Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement that the project to be built by Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners would deliver wind and other clean energy to more than 1.5 million homes in the mid-South and southeast U.S.

“Moving remote and plentiful power to areas where electricity is in high demand is essential for building the grid of the future,” Secretary Moniz said in the statement. “Building modern transmission that delivers renewable energy to more homes and businesses will create jobs, cut carbon emissions, and enhance the reliability of our grid.”

The Plains & Eastern Clean Line is an approximately 700-mile-long direct current transmission line to deliver electricity from the Oklahoma panhandle to Arkansas, Tennessee and other states in the mid-South and southeast. In Arkansas, the 200-foot right-of-way enters in Crawford County north of Van Buren and travels below Alma and Dyer before dissecting Mulberry to follow a line with Interstate 40 through most of Franklin County. From there, the line travels through Johnson County, Pope County, northern Conway County, southern Van Buren County, southern Cleburne County, White County, Jackson County, Poinsett County, Cross County, and exiting Arkansas through Mississippi County north of Memphis. The line will also run through parts of Oklahoma and Tennessee. (Link here for detailed maps and route information.)

Opponents of the deal say Clean Line’s negotiated rate authority from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) will eventually be passed on to the backs of ratepayers. Critics also complain about a lack of transparency in presenting financials and plan details to potentially affected landowners. There’s also the eminent domain issue, which has property owners angry and confused.

The Clean Line decision marks the first use of Congressional authority conferred to the DOE under Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The intent was to allow the department greater flexibility in modernization energy transmission lines. Section 1222 gives Moniz the authority to “design, develop, construct, operate, own or participate with other entities in designing, developing, constructing, operating, maintaining or owning transmission projects.” Arkansas’ congressional delegation has countered that the decision regarding electric transmissions should be “appropriately left to elected officials at the state and local level, where they have resided for generations.”

Arkansas’ Congressional delegation has lobbied Moniz to reject the plan. In September, the delegation asked the Secretary to address their detailed concerns about the federal government’s possible unprecedented partnership with a third party to construct an electrical transmission project through Arkansas. That was followed by a Dec. 10 meeting between the delegation and Moniz.

Following is the statement issued Friday by U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro; French Hill, R-Little Rock; Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs; and Steve Womack, R-Rogers.

“Today marks a new page in an era of unprecedented executive overreach as the Department of Energy seeks to usurp the will of Arkansans and form a partnership with a private company – the same private company previously denied rights to operate in our state by the Arkansas Public Service Commission. Despite years of pushback on the local level and continuous communications between our delegation and Secretary Moniz, DOE has decided to forgo the will of the Natural State and hand over the historic ability of state-level transmission control through this announcement.

“We now will begin the process of careful review over DOE’s decision and will continue to address our concerns through any avenue necessary.  Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 establishes specific conditions that must be met before this authority is used, and we expect the Department to release all details of their review so that our staff and Congressional investigators will be able to continue the process of oversight.

“It is our firm belief that the DOE has overstepped its bounds and reversing this decision through the passage of the APPROVAL Act remains a top priority.”

Sen. Boozman and Rep. Womack in 2015 pushed the Assuring Private Property Rights Over Vast Access to Land (APPROVAL) Act (S. 485/H.R. 3062) that seeks to “restore states’ rights to approve or reject an electric transmission project prior to the federal government exercising its power to take private property.” The bill requires the DOE to get approval from a state governor and a state utility regulatory authority before approving a Section 1222 project.

Glen Hooks, director of the Sierra Club of Arkansas, praised the decision.

“The Sierra Club is celebrating today’s decision, which is a giant step toward bringing clean energy to our state and region. Putting thousands of megawatts of clean wind energy onto the grid – including 500 megawatts for Arkansas – will undoubtedly lead to less dirty coal and gas being burned for electricity.  We are on our way to cleaner air, healthier citizens, and a booming clean energy economy.”

Alison Millsaps, spokeswoman for a group of landowners opposing the project now calling themselves Golden Bridge, threatened possible legal action to halt the project.

“While we are disappointed with the decision, there are numerous legal, procedural, and meritorious questions, raised by multiple parties, we believe are still unanswered. We have long felt the fate of the Plains and Eastern project will not be decided by the DOE or Clean Line, but rather in a court of law,” Millsaps said. “Going forward, our focus will be educating landowners about their rights, the process, the powers, or lack thereof, that have been granted to Clean Line, as well as the legal options available to them as we evaluate the contents of the Record of Decision and other documents.”

Over the past two years, landowner opposition to the Clean Line project has birthed several grassroots groups in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri in the fight to keep the multi-billion renewable energy project from moving forward. Millsaps is also associated with the “BLOCK Plains & Eastern Clean Line: Arkansas & Oklahoma” opposition group that has also been a vocal opponent of the project. She said the newly formed Golden Bridge group is represented by Little Rock attorney Jordan Wimby of Gill, Ragon and Owen to handle legal issues involving the project.

Friday’s announcement concluded a DOE review process that began in 2010 and included 15 public meetings and a public comment period. Feedback from the process resulted in what the DOE called “protections for taxpayers, ratepayers and land owners.” The DOE statement listed the following as examples of the protections.
• The federal government will only exercise eminent domain as a last resort – after the project has met significant milestones to prove its viability – and the process will provide every opportunity for the land owner to maximize the value of their land in a transparent and fair manner;

• DOE will enter an agreement with Clean Line that ensures that all of DOE’s costs will be paid by Clean Line in advance and that Clean Line will contribute 2% of project revenues to offset the cost of federal hydropower infrastructure improvements;

• In response to public input, the Clean Line project will include a 500 megawatt converter station in Arkansas to ensure that consumers in the state can benefit from the renewable energy delivered by the project;

• Protections have been built into the participation agreement to ensure that no liability falls on the ratepayers if the project were ever to fail; and

• Clean Line will also make payments to counties in Arkansas and Oklahoma for land and assets owned by the federal government that would otherwise be taxable.