Opponents and supporters of the Plains & Eastern Clean Line, a $2 billion power line project that would transmit wind-generated electricity across the width of Arkansas, have opened an ideological battle that puts the all-Republican Arkansas congressional delegation in Washington at odds with the new infrastructure-friendly mindset of President Donald J. Trump.
Citing the need for local control and landowner rights, Arkansas' national lawmakers specifically targeted the Clean Line in reintroducing legislation Monday that would require permission from state officials before federal power line projects proceed.
The Clean Line project, planned by Clean Line energy Partners of Houston, Texas, was rejected by the Arkansas Public Service Commission before being revived with support from the Department of Energy in the Obama administration. The Energy Department authorized the use of eminent domain powers for the project to procure rights of way from landowners.
The bill introduced Monday, named to spell the acronym APPROVAL, is the Assuring Private Property Rights Over Vast Access to Land Act. If enacted, it would halt the Clean Line endeavor, which University of Arkansas economists have said will provide hundreds of jobs in Arkansas and $660 million in economic impact over 30 months of construction.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Steve Womack, as well as Sen. Tom Cotton and Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill and Bruce Westerman.
"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," Boozman said in a statement.
While Arkansas' lawmakers were making a case for local control and landowner rights, they found themselves in an odd position as Republicans being accused of promoting "job killing" legislation. Clean Line Partners suggested that they are standing against President Trump's championing of privately financed infrastructure projects.
Trump also voiced strong support of eminent domain procedures during the presidential campaign, and has turned to them in his own career as a real estate developer.
"At the same time 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," said Lonnie Stephenson, international president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who whose position was cited in a media statement from Clean Line Partners. "The IBEW strongly disapproves of politics getting in the way of American job creation."
The Clean Line Project has been fought by landowner groups and some environmentalists, while being hailed by other environmentalists in favor of wind energy proliferation. The project, which would carry 4,000 megawatts, enough to power a million homes, would cross 12 Arkansas counties, entering the state near Van Buren and exiting near Wilson in Mississippi County, north of Memphis.
The construction effort, scheduled to begin in the second half of this year, is being challenged by two landowner groups in a federal lawsuit due to begin soon in Jonesboro.
The Clean Line, which would transmit wind energy generated in Oklahoma, has been endorsed by seven major companies doing business in Arkansas, including AFCO Steel, Ingersoll Rand and Unilever. It was approved for federal support under provisions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and championed last year by Ernest Moniz, then the secretary of energy, who cited the project's renewable energy goals, job creation prospects and contribution to "the reliability of our grid."
Arkansas' delegation objected to the federal intrusion at the time, and Boozman offered similar local-control legislation last year, but it failed to win approval. The lawmakers felt the issue was important enough to bring up again, and in statements Monday they focused on what they called constituents' concerns about property rights and having a voice.
"Arkansans have been taking care of their land for generations," Cotton said in a news release. "They should have a say in any decision that affects that land."
Hill said he commonly hears concerns from state and local officials "about the impact of the Clean Line Project," and its impact on landowners. Westerman praised the legislation's protections for landowners "from the threat of having their property taken through eminent domain."
Those concerns, however, stand in contrast to statements Trump made as a candidate.
"Eminent domain is an absolute necessity," Trump said in one of the Republican debates. "Without it, you wouldn't have roads, you wouldn't have hospitals, you wouldn't have anything. You wouldn't have schools, you wouldn't have bridges. You need eminent domain."
Clean Line Partners noted that a $15 million factory set to open next month in West Memphis was sited there specifically by glass insulation maker Sediver because the company has a deal to supply insulation for the transmission line project.
"Sediver decided to return operations to the United States to serve customers across North America last year; Clean Line Energy was absolutely essential in our decision to locate in West Memphis," Sediver CEO Rene Tabouret said.
Clean Line Partners' media statement also said that the project will require nearly 70,000 tons of steel. Promoting American-made steel is another priority of the Trump administration.
While lawmakers cited support for the legislation from groups like the Arkansas Rice Federation, Arkansas Soybean Association, the Agriculture Council of Arkansas and the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts, Clean Line countered with statements of support from businesses, labor unions and clean power proponents like the Sierra Club.
"The Plains & Eastern Clean Line is a pro-jobs, pro-consumer, pro-environment public energy infrastructure project that will help create a secure energy future for the country, and we are ready to get to work," said Michael Skelly, president of Clean Line Partners.
The company noted that more than $100 million of private capital has been devoted to developing the project, and it pointed to the $30 million in payments it expects to make to Arkansas landowners for easements and transmission line structure payments. The company has also committed to paying counties crossed by the transmission line about $140 million over 40 years to support schools and community services.
But opponents doubt Clean Line's numbers and motives and insist that Arkansans should have a voice through their elected representatives.
"The delegation is doing exactly what they should be doing, listening to the views of their constituents in Arkansas," said Julie Morton of Van Buren, a vocal Clean Line opponent who has been protesting the project for more than four years. "A great number of landowners and others in the state are against this, and they deserve to be listened to."