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Clean Line Meets Resistance from Arkansas Lawmakers

9 min read

Who wouldn’t support a project that promises to bring cheap, clean power to 160,000 Arkansas homes along with hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars for state landowners and schools?

Well, every member of the Arkansas congressional delegation, for starters.

The state’s lawmakers in Washington all oppose plans for the Plains & Eastern Clean Line, which would deliver wind-generated power from the Oklahoma Panhandle to near Memphis through transmission lines running the width of Arkansas.

The $2 billion-plus project, which plans to use direct current to move high volumes of electricity over 700 miles, would also pump $660 million into the state over 30 months of construction, according to an analysis by the Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Arkansas.

The 12 counties crossed by the transmission line, which would have a capacity of 4,000 megawatts — with 500 of those megawatts coming to Arkansas — could reap $147 million in tax payments over the 40-year life of the project, much of that earmarked for public schools. Four thousand megawatts is enough to power more than 1.1 million homes, Clean Line representatives said.

Easement purchases and payments for structures on private property would mean $30 million for Arkansas landowners, and two manufacturers have operations based in Arkansas to supply parts to the power line. (See Clean Line Commits To Building With Arkansas-Made Products.)

Supporters, including the Arkansas chapter of the Sierra Club, the Southern Wind Energy Association and the U.S. Department of Energy, also say renewable energy is the wave of the future. For a decade, wind power has been the world’s fastest growing energy technology, according to the Department of the Interior, and planners say the Clean Line is the nation’s largest renewable energy project.

So what’s not to like? Well, Arkansans whose homes and farms are along the planned route aren’t necessarily singing hallelujah. Facing the federal power of eminent domain, some resent the prospect of being forced to make way for the line, even if they get a fair price. They fear lower property values, reduced standards of living and a scarred natural landscape.

“Nobody wants a highway in their backyard, but everybody likes to drive on highways,” said Duane Highley, CEO of the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., who is monitoring the project but understands objections to it. “I don’t want a power line in my backyard, but I like for the lights to come on when I flip the switch. It’s a trade-off, but the state is probably best situated to make those decisions.”

Two landowner groups are fighting the project and the company behind it, Clean Line Energy Partners of Houston. They are suing in federal court in Jonesboro, challenging a Department of Energy decision to aid in the line’s construction. Another group, Arkansas Citizens Against Clean Line, has protested online and elsewhere.

Opposition Called Surprising

Mario Hurtado, Clean Line Energy’s executive vice president for development, expected some opposition, but he was clearly a bit puzzled as he made a case for the project in an interview at Arkansas Business.

“There’s always opposition to a major infrastructure project,” he said. “But we’ve been surprised at the position the delegation has taken. It’s surprising in that all of them are Republicans, and usually Republicans are very pro-business. The position they’ve taken here is anti-business.”

The state’s members of Congress say that by aiding the project, the Energy Department is invading Arkansas’ turf, pre-empting the state Public Service Commission’s control over energy transmission projects. The landowners’ lawsuit makes some of the same arguments. Their attorney, Jordan P. Wimpy of Gill Ragon Owen of Little Rock, said his clients “harbor real concerns with the federal government’s legal authority and the scope and manner of its proposed participation in this and other transmission projects” under provisions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

He said his clients find the DOE’s participation “even more worrisome” because “the Department’s primary responsibility in the project includes the exercise of the federal power of eminent domain to condemn private property for the benefit of a private, for-profit company.”

While the congressmen and senators say that state authority has been usurped, the state government gave a $340,000 grant to Sediver, a French insulator manufacturer building a factory in West Memphis to supply the Clean Line. The grant was from the Governor’s Quick Action Closing Fund, according to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Clean Line’s $130 million deal with General Cable of Malvern to provide high-line cable was also praised by the AEDC — under a previous administration — in 2011.

AEDC Executive Director Mike Preston said his agency was continuing to monitor developments and potential economic impacts of the Clean Line project. “AEDC has not offered the company any incentives and has no plans to do so,” he said.

Hurtado, of Clean Line, said that landowners have “legitimate and understandable” concerns. “When you’re dealing with people’s property, and especially property that’s been in the family a while, it’s a legacy you’re dealing with.”

But he said thousands of Arkansans’ voices were heard during the DOE’s multiyear review. “More than 10,000 public comments were taken and responded to,” he said, adding that 12,000 Arkansans had signed letters in support of the line.

In fact, the company’s commitment to build a $100 million converter station in Hector (Pope County) was a direct result of the process. “We had comments from multiple parties that said if you’re going to build this project, then you really should deliver energy to Arkansas,” Hurtado said. “So we went back, sharpened our pencils and said yes, we can do this, and in fact it makes it a better project.”

To allay concerns, Hurtado said, his company laid out a detailed compensation plan for land crossed by the transmission line. It offers 100 percent of the market value of the land, annual or up-front payments for every structure and additional payments for the project’s impact on timber and lost crops, he said.

The company will be paying the purchase price of the property even though it requires only an easement rather than transfer of ownership. “There’s no purchase of the actual property, just a grant from the landowner to Clean Line to build and operate the project along the right of way,” Hurtado said. “Any other uses the landowner has — except for things that would interfere with operation or safety — are still possible.” He said landowners will be able to graze cattle or grow row crops or hay under the power lines, for example. The company is also using a specific formula to place a value on timber, and he said, “We will pay for that timber.”

Clean Line Energy Partners is working with independent contractors, including Parnell Consultants of Booneville, in acquiring the easements. Hurtado said offers to landowners will be based on values of similar nearby properties after a “complete market study for each of the counties where the project is located” — Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Pope, Conway, Van Buren, Cleburne, White, Jackson, Poinsett, Cross and Mississippi (links lead to PDF county maps found at the Plains & Eastern Clean Line website.) Parnell Consultants, which said in August that it employs 55 right-of-way agents and pipeline inspectors, expects to “put 18 additional Arkansans to work full time” because of the Clean Line project, according to CEO Floyd Parnell.

Clean Line foresees a total of $30 million in easement and structure payments to Arkansas landowners over the life of the project. Hurtado, who said the company had been working on the power line plans since 2009, expects to “be out in the field next year, clearing right of way,” with the line to be energized and placed into operation by 2020.

Chris Hardy, a Clean Line manager based primarily in Little Rock, said the construction phase would bring 855 direct jobs and 693 “induced or indirect jobs” in Arkansas alone. After it’s built, the line will create a demand for 41 permanent operations and maintenance jobs in the state, along with 28 indirect jobs, according to the University of Arkansas assessment.

Landowner Rights Cited

Opponents of the project, however, say the jobs and economic benefits to the state won’t matter much to a resistant landowner forced to give up property through eminent domain, and U.S. Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Steve Womack have promoted a bill that would limit the federal government’s condemnation of land for such projects.

Sen. Tom Cotton and U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill and Bruce Westerman joined them in a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last year protesting the DOE’s “unprecedented partnership” with Clean Line Partners.

Highley said the eminent domain issue is worrisome to the state’s cooperative electric utilities. “The Clean Line project has the potential of bringing additional wind energy to Arkansas at a very attractive price, but right now there’s a lot of opposition. Some of the [local electric cooperatives] I work for, and their members, are opposed to the line coming through their area because of the federal pre-emption. They’d rather see the state involved in siting projects, rather than the federal government picking the route, or blessing the route, that private businesses are using.

“All that said, if it gets built we want a piece of that wind power coming through Arkansas. It would be good for us.”

‘The Scale Is Huge’

Hurtado says the project, cleared by a DOE environmental-impact review in 2015, uses direct current to move wind energy efficiently from the wind farms of the Plains, which he calls the Saudi Arabia of wind energy, to bigger markets to the east.

“More than 4,000 megawatts of wind generation will be delivered — 500 megawatts to Arkansas and then 3,500 megawatts to Memphis,” he said. “The scale is huge. It’s the largest renewable energy project in the United States and will be one of the largest electric generation projects of any kind in the nation.”

He said that while Arkansans already rely on wind power — the electric cooperatives and Southwestern Electric Power Co. (Swepco) already have contracts for it, and Oklahoma Gas & Electric supplies some to Fort Smith — the Clean Line will double wind energy availability in the state.

“Wind power from a good resource area like the one we’re connecting to is basically the cheapest electricity you can buy on a long-term basis in the United States,” Hurtado said. “Roughly the cost is about 2 cents a kilowatt-hour. To get the wind power here to Arkansas will cost between a cent and 2 cents, so you’re talking about power that costs 3 or 4 cents, and that’s very competitive.”

The average price of electricity to Arkansas retail customers was 8.44 cents per kilowatt-hour in June, which ranks it among the least expensive states for consumers, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The U.S. average was 10.53 cents.

Hurtado said that wind power’s true value is multiplied by its environmental benefits. “Our country is moving to cleaner energy resources, and that’s simply the way of the future. We’ve gone from having coal energy supply almost half of U.S. energy to below 35 percent at this point, and it’s going to continue to go down. That energy has been replaced by new, efficient natural gas generation and by renewables. The biggest chunk of renewables has been wind. So solar is a part of the picture, gas is a part, and there’s wind.”

He said all the talk about megawatts, electrons and land easements may sound esoteric to “Joe on the street,” but that it’s not that hard to translate.

“He has to pay an electric bill every month,” Hurtado said. “He has to have his kids go to school, and he has to have a good job that works in our competitive international economy. He wants his air to be clean. And having access to low-cost renewable energy is absolutely critical for him to continue doing that.”

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