Clean Line officials protest U.S. Rep. Womack’s bill to halt controversial $2 billion power project

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 305 views 

Houston-based Plains & Eastern Clean Line expressed disappointment with the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources’ approval on Wednesday of legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, that could halt one of the largest renewable energy infrastructure projects in recent U.S. history.

The Assuring Private Property Rights Over Vast Access to Land, or APPROVAL Act, was introduced by Womack with the support of the entire Arkansas delegation in July 2015. It directs the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to obtain approval from a governor and state public service commission, prior to approval of any Section 1222 transmission project and subsequent use of federal eminent domain, as well as the approval of any tribal government for affected lands.

Lead sponsor Womack, along with the state’s entire congressional delegation and Committee Chair Rob Bishop of Utah, all released statements in support of the H.R. 3062, which moved out of committee by a vote of 19-11.

“The success of the APPROVAL Act in committee today is yet another positive step toward passage in a long and hard-fought battle to allow states to retain the historic precedent of authority for interstate transmission projects,” Womack said. “The (Obama) Administration has consistently demonstrated a lack of acknowledgement of this right through three years of conversations with our delegation leading us to this legislative fix, and I commend my colleagues for recognizing the need to reverse this all-too-common trend of ceding power to the federal government through their overwhelming support for my legislation.”

Despite moving out of the congressional committee, Womack’s bill still has a long way to go before becoming law and similar legislation has to be approved by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Also, a final bill has to be approved by the full House and Senate, and would likely face a veto from President Obama if it gets that far.

Womack and the rest of the state congressional delegation said they would continue to work to prevent the DOE from moving the project forward through the current transmission infrastructure approval process.

But Clean Line officials countered after the House vote that the bill “targets one project and changes the rules in the last quarter of the game, after a nearly six-year long review process and a private investment of close to $100 million.”

“Large field crews have been mobilized and are already working in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee, preparing for the construction of the Plains & Eastern Clean Line project,” the Houston energy partnership said in statement. “Manufacturers in Arkansas and other states are testing equipment and planning for production next year; one new factory in West Memphis is currently under construction preparing to manufacture the critical equipment for the project in Arkansas.”

In late March, the U.S. Department of Energy conditionally approved the $2 billion Clean Line project that will build through Arkansas a large electric transmission network, marking 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 DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz the authority to participate with other entities in designing, developing, constructing, operating, maintaining or owning transmission projects.

In support of the project, Moniz has said the multistate wind power 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.”

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.”

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.

This high voltage direct current (HVDC) electric transmission line, if approved, would cross the entire state of Arkansas despite being denied a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from state regulators – something Womack’s bill will rectify.

Beside potentially halting the Arkansas project, the APPROVAL Act also creates additional protections for states, as well as individuals, by requiring these projects – if approved – to be placed on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers whenever possible. The Senate companion bill, S. 485, was introduced by U.S. Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., in February 2015.

Arkansas’ other congressmen echoed Womack’s statements by saying that the project needs to have local and state support before moving forward.

“This bill provides flexibility and empowers our states by ensuring they have the final say on eminent domain.  In Arkansas, it would stop an unprecedented use of federal authority to give privately-held land to an out-of-state, private corporation.  I hope to see the APPROVAL Act move through the House of Representatives in a timely manner,” said U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

But Clean Line does have its supporters in Arkansas and abroad. Rene Tabouret, CEO of French manufacturing Sediver, said Womack’s bill could endanger the company’s plan to supply glass insulators for the multistate project to deliver wind powered electricity from Oklahoma to markets in Arkansas and other southern states.

A year ago, Sediver signed agreements with Clean Line that calls for Sediver to build and operate a manufacturing facility and test lab in West Memphis that will make high voltage electrical insulators and glass blocks for use in electricity lines, substations and other power grid applications.

“Sediver USA decided to return operations to the United States and has recently broken ground on a new manufacturing plant and advanced testing laboratory in Arkansas that will create more than 70 jobs. This decision was bolstered by the great opportunities brought forth by the Plains & Eastern Clean Line project,” Tabouret said in a statement. “We are disappointed to see that the Natural Resources Committee today voted to support the Womack bill as it will cause unnecessary delays for the Plains & Eastern Clean Line, making it harder to build infrastructure and create new jobs.”

Also, Arkansas Sierra Club Director Glen Hooks said the Clean Line has undergone “a very thorough and expensive public permitting process” in accordance with federal law. Hooks said Womack’s bill seeks to change that law after the permitting process has been underway for six years.

“That’s not only bad for our state’s air and economy – it’s blatantly unfair to the company,” said the Sierra Club director. “Wind energy is good for America and this project is specifically good for Arkansas. We call on the Arkansas congressional delegation to drop their opposition, and to stand up for clean air, clean energy jobs, and fundamental fairness.”