Arkansas’ Congressional delegation may reboot efforts to halt Clean Line project under Trump

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 360 views 

Members of Arkansas’ Congressional delegation may reintroduce some version of legislation introduced earlier this year to halt one of the nation’s largest renewable energy infrastructure projects that will cross the entire state of Arkansas from east to west.

Representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, and U.S. Sens. John Boozman, and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., told Talk Business & Politics they were open to revisiting legislation under President-elect Donald Trump to block the $2 billion Plains & Eastern Clean Line that is expected to begin construction in the second half of 2017.

In late March, Energy Department (DOE) Secretary Ernest Moniz gave final approval for the so-called Clean Line development, an approximately 700-mile-long direct current transmission line that will 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.

That route across the Natural State has angered Arkansas’ entire congressional delegation, which together have said the decision regarding electric transmissions should be “appropriately left to elected officials at the state and local level, where they have resided for generations.”

Womack’s opposition has been most vehement. Earlier this summer he introduced the Assuring Private Property Rights Over Vast Access to Land, or APPROVAL Act, with the support of the entire Arkansas delegation in July 2015.

That bill, H.R. 3062, 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. Although Womack’s bill moved out of the House Committee on Natural Resources, a final bill has yet to be approved by the full House and Senate because of the threat of a veto from President Barack Obama.

But with Trump seeking to roll back many of the Obama administration’s initiatives to boost renewable energy use, Womack’s office said there will likely be renewed interest in pushing H.R. 3062 once the new Republican president is seated.

“While it’s a little early, I expect that our office will reintroduce some version of the APPROVAL Act in the 115th Congress,” said Womack spokeswoman Claire Burghoff. “That said, we’ll also be working with the new DOE leadership to see if we can get an ‘administrative fix.’”

Spokespersons from Boozman and Cotton also showed some interest in working with the Trump administration to address landowner concerns about the project. Along with their support of the APPROVAL Act, the two Arkansas senators have also filed separate measures to address the DOE’s authority. In April, Boozman and Cotton filed an amendment to block funding to the controversial Clean Line transmission line. The measure is attached to the Energy and Water Appropriations Bill and would block funding for projects carried out under Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which gives the Energy Secretary increased authority in approving power transmission projects.

Patrick Creamer, spokesman for Boozman’s office, said with the shortened post-election congressional session, there isn’t much happening in Congress outside of a continuing resolution to fund the government and the renewal of a few expiring authorities that will likely move, including the president’s authority to sanction Iran.

“If that plays out as expected, Sen. Boozman will have to reintroduce the APPROVAL Act and his other pieces of legislation in the next session,” Creamer said. “It is too early to say for sure if the senator will reintroduce the APPROVAL Act and what, if any, changes will be made it, but he is considering that as an option for the next session.

Sen. Cotton seemed more interested in blocking the project by working with the new Trump administration, which has yet to announce a new Energy Secretary.

“Sen. Cotton’s concerns about respecting Arkansas’ property rights and ability to define a public utility at state level remain the same,” said spokeswoman Caroline Rabbitt. “He will continue to work closely with the new Department of Energy to make sure Arkansas rights are reflected.”

Officials with Clean Line did not directly answer questions about possible Congressional action to block the project. The company did note that “hundreds of people” are already working on the project and reiterated their position that it will create 855 jobs in Arkansas during construction.

Clean Line officials sent a letter touting support from the business community, saying “eight major” Arkansas manufacturers has announced their support for the multistate, transmission project. The letter of support, which included heavy equipment supplier Ingersoll Rand, consumer products giant Unilever, steel fabricator W&W|AFCO Steel and wind blade manufacturer LM Wind Power, was sent to state elected officials and noted that the project will boost economic development in the state and increase the supply of renewable power in Arkansas.

Clean Line still has to navigate an ongoing federal lawsuit brought in August by Golden Bridge LLC and Downwind LLC, two groups formed last year to protect property rights and interests of member landowners along the route of the proposed 700-mile project. The lawsuit, filed against the DOE regarding their approval and participation in the proposed project in late March, raises concerns regarding the legality of the DOE’s decision to participate in the project using Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act.

The complaint is winding its way through the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas in Jonesboro. The two landowner groups are represented by Jordan Wimpy, an attorney with Gill Ragon Owen in Little Rock. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. set a bench trial date for case for March 5, 2017 in Jonesboro.