Two months after planners gave up hopes of crossing Arkansas with a $2.5 billion wind-energy transmission line as doomed, the U.S. Department of Energy hammered a nail in the project's coffin Friday by ending its participation in the Plains & Eastern Clean Line.
The Energy Department made the announcement in Washington, reversing an Obama-era decision to back the project, which would have built a massive 700-mile power line from the wind farms of the Oklahoma to a terminal north of Memphis.
Along the way, the line would have crossed 12 Arkansas counties with 200-foot-tall towers, a prospect that roused anger and legal action from landowners fighting the prospect of eminent-domain powers. Individual Arkansans and the state's congressional delegation in Washington also fought the project, framing federal intervention as an improper breach of state and local authority over utility projects.
"I'm dancing a jig, and I'm about to do a Lady Godiva, which nobody wants to see," said longtime opponent Julie Morton of Van Buren, who denounced the line as an unnecessary scheme to enrich investors. "We won, we won, we won, we won, we won!"
The state delegation, all Republicans, put out a joint press statement applauding the termination of the DOE's agreement on the Clean Line, calling it a "victory for states' rights and a victory for Arkansas."
In the news release, Senators John Boozman and Tom Cotton, along with Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill, Steve Womack and Bruce Westerman, said they support policies promoting U.S. energy independence, "but they should not cost Arkansas landowners a voice in the approval process." All six had pressed the DOE to abandon the project, writing letters to Energy Secretary Rick Perry and questioning the legality and need for the transmission line.
Michael Skelly, president of the Houston firm that was developing the project, Clean Line Energy Partners, told Arkansas Business in January that the project was moribund, noting that his company had sold the Oklahoma section of the line — which would have carried 4,000 megawatts of wind-generated current — to NextEra Energy Resources of Florida. Neither of the private companies disclosed the price of that transaction, but Skelly described it as an outcome that was "fine for us business-wise, but not as good for Arkansas," which he sees as deprived of renewable power and millions in tax receipts. Clean Line Energy Partners had invested more than $100 million in the project.
Plans to sell the wind power to the Tennessee Valley Authority fell through late last year, and Skelly's team had faced political headwinds for years despite projections that the line would have a $660 million economic impact in Arkansas and generate hundreds of construction jobs.
The Arkansas Public Service Commission in 2011 rejected a bid to define Clean Line as a utility, effectively blocking its plans to cross Arkansas, but the DOE's conditional approval in 2016 revived the effort, which proponents said would benefit counties with some $147 million in tax proceeds over its 40-year lifetime. The energy agency had declared the transmission line a necessary infrastructure project under provisions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, a move that also asserted federal powers of eminent domain.
But the decision also galvanized legal and political opposition. As the congressional delegation ramped up opposition in Washington, Arkansas landowners sued to stop the project in federal court. Just before Christmas, U.S. District Judge D.P. Marshall Jr. of the Eastern District of Arkansas ruled in favor of Clean Line. But by the time of the ruling, the deal with NextEra was in the works and opponents were questioning the DOE's long-term commitment as the Trump administration continued to reshape energy policy.
Friday's announcement confirmed that assessment.
Billed as the largest private wind energy project in the country and the first major domestic overhead direct-current line in decades, the Plains and Eastern Clean Line could have been a $660 million injection into the state's economy over a 30-month construction period, according to an analysis by the Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Arkansas. Clean Line Energy Partners also said it would make $147 million in tax payments to counties crossed by the project, and pay Arkansas landowners $30 million over the decades for easements for the lines and towers.
Foes described the UA's economic impact figures inflated and raised environmental concerns, even though the wind-energy project had the backing of groups like the Audubon Society and Sierra Club. The transmission route would have crossed several scenic and fragile areas, including the Mulberry River, Big Piney Creek and the Little Red River.
Clean Line enlisted a roster of companies with Arkansas operations to endorse the project, including Ingersoll Rand, Unilever and LM Wind Power. It also lined up Arkansas-based suppliers, selecting General Cable of Malvern to deliver $135 million in conductive wires, and Sediver, a French company, to supply $60 million worth of glass insulators. General Cable has since shut down its Arkansas plant, but Sediver built a $15 million factory in West Memphis, creating dozens of jobs. The demise of Clean Line is considered a blow to its expansion prospects.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson never expressed support for the Clean Line, but he conceded that power from it might have benefited Arkansas. He received a letter from seven companies with more than 4,000 Arkansas employees supporting the project, including Sediver, AFCO Steel, Maverick Transportation and McGeorge Contracting Co.
But in the end the project faced too much opposition and had too few customers lined up.
"We knew that any revival of the project was unlikely, but we weren't going to do any happy dance until the agreement with the DOE was ended," Morton said. "We weren't going to celebrate until it was over. But now, apparently, it is."