A divided Public Utility Commission shut the door Wednesday on conservationists’ efforts to air concerns about the effect of planned Gulf Coast wind farms on migratory birds.
The groups sought to intervene in an application for a 21-mile transmission line that would run through the sparsely populated Kenedy Ranch. It is envisioned to bring power from hundreds of wind turbines that eventually may be turning along the Gulf Coast.
The Coastal Habitat Alliance, a coalition that includes area Audubon Societies and other groups working to preserve the coast, along with the King Ranch and Armstrong Ranch, said the east-west power lines would cross a major north-south migratory flyway.
Commissioners Julie Caruthers Parsley and Barry Smitherman said that the alliance couldn’t intervene because none of its members owns land within 500 feet of the route for the wires.
Chairman Paul Hudson dissented, saying it would be in the public’s interest for the commission to hear about the environmental impact and that denying the intervention would prevent the PUC from ever looking at the alliance’s argument.
Because the wind generation facility is proposed for an area of the state that was deregulated under a 1999 state law, no permit is required to erect the turbines. But the commission still regulates the placement of transmission lines.
The lines would be built by Electric Transmission Texas, a joint venture of American Electric Power and Midamerican Energy Holdings Co. Other companies would construct the turbines.
The PUC will continue reviewing the transmission line application, agency spokesman Terry Hadley said. He said he did not know when the case might be finalized.
Environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn, founder of the Coastal Habitat Alliance, said the group may take the issue to court.
“We think that the commission was legally wrong,” Blackburn said. “Public interest groups with definable interest in the development of a transmission line should not be excluded from the process simply because they are not property owners.”
The venture that would build the proposed transmission line, in filings with the PUC, said the “true purpose” of the alliance intervention is to stop the construction of the two wind farms.
A preliminary assessment of potential impacts from the wind farms, conducted for the alliance by EDM International of Fort Collins, Colo., found potential threats to local and migrating bird populations in South Texas. The wind industry has said the installation would not harm migrating birds.
Blackburn said the transmission lines might not result in daily kills but could prove deadly when bad weather and other factors force birds to fly at lower altitudes. But he said the real danger is from the turbines.
“The coastal migratory bird corridor is unique certainly in Texas and in the United States,” he said.
Smitherman said it would be up to the Legislature to establish a process for hearing issues related to wind farms.
Several lawmakers weighed in on the dispute with letters to the PUC.
Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, asked that the alliance be granted intervenor status.
“I am simply asking that in conducting your review of the application before you, you allow for a fair and open hearing process with input and full participation from these credible intervenors regarding the environmental impacts to this most important region of the Texas coast,” Straus said.
But a Panhandle lawmaker, State Affairs Committee Chairman David Swinford, R-Dumas, said that “special interest groups who do not meet the statutory and regulatory criteria for standing should not be allowed to infringe on the private property rights of the Kenedy Ranch.”
By Janet Elliott
18 October 2007
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