Arkansas Congressional delegation asks Energy Sec. Perry to reverse course on Clean Line project

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,430 views 

Members of Arkansas’ Congressional delegation plan to send a letter to newly appointed U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry asking him to reverse the Obama Administration’s participation in the controversial Clean Line project through Arkansas.

Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary under Obama, used “Section 1222” of the Congressionally-approved 2005 Energy Policy Act to green light the $2 billion, 720-mile transmission line that travels through three states to deliver wind-power generated electricity. The line, to be built by Houston-based Clean Line Energy, was approved through Arkansas even after the state’s Public Service Commission ruled against it.

The three-state project to deliver electricity from the Oklahoma panhandle will enter Arkansas in Crawford County north of Van Buren and travel below Alma and Dyer before dissecting Mulberry to follow a line with Interstate 40 through most of Franklin County. From there, the transmission 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.

Once the project is operational, a power station in the Oklahoma Panhandle will convert the incoming alternating current (AC) power generated by new wind farms into direct current (DC) power. The converter stations in Pope County, Ark., and Shelby County, Tenn., will convert DC power back into AC power to be delivered to customers through the power grid, officials said.

Arkansas landowners represented by Golden Bridge LLC and Downwind LLC filed suit in early January to halt work on the project. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas in Jonesboro issued an order setting hearings for Nov. 14, 2017. Clean Line attorney Michael Heister of Quattlebaum, Grooms & Tull PLLC in Little Rock has asked for the hearings to take place earlier in the year. Clean Line officials say they plan to begin construction in the second half of 2017 and complete the project in 2020.

In a letter set to be sent to Perry on Tuesday (Mar. 7), all six members of Arkansas’ Congressional delegation are reinforcing their opposition to the project by repeating their assertion the project approved without state or local input reflected “vast overreach” by the Obama Administration.

The delegation also sought to separate its objection to the project from its support of clean energy.

“Our objection to Clean Line’s application should not be viewed as a fight against renewable energy; we each understand the importance of having a reliable electricity grid and are strong advocates of a diverse energy portfolio, including wind, solar, hydropower, renewable biomass, and nuclear energy. Likewise, we do not take issue with the building of national infrastructure; robust infrastructure investments, including the enhancement of the electrical grid, are often productive undertakings.”

Specifically, the objection on which the delegation focused was the alleged loss of voice in the process by state officials and local landowners. They noted in the letter to Perry that moving forward with the project could result in “your department risks codifying into law the practice of federal eminent domain seizures.”

“Throughout your career you have been a champion of states’ rights. This Administration has promised to give a voice back to its citizens. This is a good way to show that commitment,” the delegation noted in the letter. “We will continue working to halt the project, not only because it violates property rights of Arkansans, but also because it violates the rights of all Americans to have their voices heard at the state and local level. We hope you can appreciate our concerns and work with us to fight against this lingering overreach of the Obama Administration.”

The theme in the letter to Perry is also contained in legislation the delegation said Monday it plans to soon file.

The Assuring Private Property Rights Over Vast Access to Lands (APPROVAL) Act would require the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) receive approval from a governor and a state’s public utility regulatory body – or tribal authorities on tribal lands – on a project before the DOE could use Section 1222 and seize property via eminent domain. The delegation first filed the legislation in 2014.

“The APPROVAL Act allows the voices of Arkansans to be included in decisions that impact their land. If a project is not good for Arkansas, our governor or public service commission should have the power to say ‘no’ instead of being cut out of the process and dictated to by Washington bureaucrats,” U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., noted in a press release.

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, the primary House sponsor of the legislation, said private property rights must be protected.

“In 1792, President James Madison wrote that ‘government is instituted to protect property of every sort,’ and nearly 225 years later, the concept of private property is still integral to who we are as a nation,” Womack said in a statement. “I am proud to once again be the House original sponsor of the APPROVAL Act, which will grant American landowners and their states a voice before the federal government takes their land using eminent domain. Too many Arkansans risk losing their land and livelihood to Section 1222 projects, and I will always do what I can to preserve individual property rights and power in the people.”

If signed into law, APPROVAL “has the potential to stop” the Clean Line project, noted Womack spokesperson Claire Burghoff.

The proposed legislation would also require the DOE to first consider placing such projects on existing rights-of-ways and federal property managed by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The delegation statement also said the legislation is supported by the following groups: Jackson County Farm Bureau; Arkansas Rice Federation; Arkansas Soybean Association; Poinsett County Conservation District; Riceland Foods, Inc; USA Rice; Agriculture Council of Arkansas; Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts; Arkansas Rice Farmers Association; Farm Credit Midsouth and Poinsett County Farm Bureau.

In a statement provided Monday to the media, Clean Line officials said the APPROVAL Act “creates more red tape and kills jobs by attempting to pull back approvals the project has already received.” The Clean Line statement also included a note of support from a large national union.

“At the same time that our country is focused on creating opportunities for American workers, Arkansas congressmen have introduced a bill that will kill thousands of American jobs and, specifically, hundreds of Arkansas jobs,” Lonnie Stephenson, International President of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), said in a statement. “The IBEW strongly disapproves of politics getting in the way of American job creation.”

Clean Line Founder and President Michael Skelly said much consideration was given to the project before it was approved.

“We are very confident in the nearly decade long process undertaken by the U.S. Department of Energy in order to decide to participate in the project under Section 1222 of the 2005 Energy Policy Act. This law was passed with bipartisan support, including then-Congressman John Boozman’s, and signed by President George W. Bush,” Skelly said in the statement. “The Plains & Eastern Clean Line is a pro-jobs, pro-consumer, pro-environment public energy infrastructure project that will help to create a secure energy future for the country, and we are ready to get to work.”

Clean Line officials have touted the transmission project as the first overhead high voltage direct current (HVDC) project in the U.S. in more than 20 years. Skelly has said the line will bring a direct benefit to the state.

“With a delivery converter station in Pope County, Arkansas, the project will bring enough low-cost clean energy to power more than 160,000 Arkansas homes each year,” he said in early 2017.

Clean Line officials also have said the new HVDC transmission lines are necessary to connect homes and business to less expensive wind-generation power hundreds of miles away. The energy sector venture group has also said it has already invested nearly $100 million of private capital to develop the project and anticipates making more than $30 million in payments to Arkansas landowners for easements and upfront transmission structure payments.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, supports the project in her state.

Wesley Brown, a senior reporter with Talk Business & Politics, contributed to this report.