Federal Lawsuit Challenges Clean Line Transmission Project

Federal Lawsuit Challenges Clean Line Transmission Project
(To view an interactive map of the proposed Plains and Eastern Clean Line route by Arkansas county, click here.)

Two groups representing landowners are suing to block an electric transmission line planned for delivering wind-generated power across Arkansas from Oklahoma to Tennessee.

The federal lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Jonesboro by Golden Bridge LLC and Downwind LLC, the two landowner organizations, will test the legality of a decision by the U.S. Department of Energy to aid construction of the Plains & Eastern Clean Line through provisions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

The act allows the agency to provide tax incentives and loan guarantees for certain private energy infrastructure projects. The Clean Line would transmit direct current some 700 miles from wind farms in the Oklahoma Panhandle to near Memphis.

The landowner groups are represented by Christopher L. Travis and Jordan P. Wimpy, both of the Gill Ragon Owen firm in Little Rock. The complaint lists as defendants the Energy Department and Ernest Moniz, the U.S. secretary of energy, as well as the Southwestern Power Administration and its administrator, Scott Carpenter.

More: Download the lawsuit here (PDF).

The lawsuit questions the Energy Department's authority to approve the construction of one of the nation's largest electric lines without seeking state-level review. It also challenges its power to exercise the federal right of eminent domain to condemn and acquire private property under the Energy Policy Act. Landowners, it says, should have played a bigger role in the Energy Department's review of the project, which is being carried out by Clean Line Energy Partners of Houston.

Clean Line Energy Partners calls the project the largest clean energy transmission endeavor in the nation. The $2 billion line would deliver 4,000 megawatts of wind energy to distribution centers in Arkansas and Tennessee, and a converter station in Pope County would "bring enough low-cost clean energy to power more than 160,000 Arkansas homes," according to a statement from Clean Line.

"The Plains & Eastern Clean Line is a pro-jobs, pro-consumer, pro-environment public energy infrastructure project," said Mario Hurtado, executive vice president for development. But the Arkansas congressional delegation opposes the project, saying it usurps state authority over power lines.

Dave Ulery, a spokesman for Golden Bridge, said that landowners along the line's route were denied "an appropriate avenue for due process during the DOE's review of Clean Line's application." Saying a chance to comment isn't the same as participating officially, he said landowners should have been given a "significant opportunity to engage on a meaningful and substantive level."

Hurtado, who said Clean Line had not seen the complaint and couldn't comment specifically, suggested that legal action is a common tactic to delay energy infrastructure projects, adding that private and public cooperation are essential in revamping the nation’s energy infrastructure.

The project will affect property interests, farming operations and working lands in 11 counties, the suit says: Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Pope, Conway, Faulkner, Van Buren, Cleburne, White, Jackson, Poinsett, Cross and Mississippi. Hurtado said the counties will reap $140 million in voluntary payments over 40 years to support schools, fire departments and other services.

The lawsuit described the Energy Department's involvement in the project as a "stunning example of federal overreach," and asks the court to declare it unlawful and "enjoin the Defendants from any further activities in furtherance of the Project."

Hurtado said the project is moving ahead. 

"There is a new manufacturing facility under construction in West Memphis that will supply components for the project and will create more than 70 new jobs," Hurtado said. "Employees of Arkansas companies have been mobilized across the state and are currently conducting right-of-way negotiations and environmental survey work." 

He said Clean Line has invested "nearly $100 million of private capital" in the project and "anticipates making over $30 million in payments to Arkansas landowners for easements and upfront transmission structure payments."

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., had advanced a bill to kill the project in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill, with backing from other Arkansas Republicans, would give states the ability to reject an electric transmission project before the federal government exercises the right of eminent domain. The bill cleared a committee hurdle in June, despite opposition from environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which support the Clean Line.