The dispute over construction of two wind farms adjacent to the famed King Ranch in south Texas entered the courts Tuesday when an alliance of conservation and related groups filed lawsuits to stop the projects.
The Coastal Habitat Alliance, which includes King Ranch, filed separate lawsuits in state and federal court in Austin. The federal lawsuit claims the state has not done a thorough analysis of the impact the farms and their massive turbines will have on wetlands, habitat, endangered species and migratory birds. It seeks a declaratory judgment and, if needed, an injunction against the developers, whose combined initial investments are expected to top $1 billion.
The state lawsuit claims the Texas Public Utility Commission illegally denied the alliance a chance to intervene in the PUC’s hearings on transmission lines for the wind farms.
The PUC late last month approved plans for a $60 million transmission-line project to be built by AEP Texas, division of Ohio-based American Electric Power. Both wind farms and the transmission line are going up on the sprawling Kenedy Ranch, the smaller neighbor of King Ranch, which covers 825,000 acres on the Texas Gulf Coast.
King Ranch’s vast privately held portfolio includes ranching and farming operations, oil and gas royalties and hunting leases. It was established in 1853.
“The state of Texas has a legal responsibility to look at the potential threat posed by this construction project,” said Jim Blackburn, founder of the alliance, which was formed earlier this year to protect coastal wildlife and habitat. “Federal law and the PUC’s own statutes demand it.”
PUC spokesman Terry Hadley said the agency would be represented by the state attorney general, which is standard practice in civil cases, and had no immediate comment.
John Calaway, chief development officer for Babcock & Brown Ltd., one of the wind-farm developers, said the lawsuits would have no effect on construction, which already has started. The Australian outfit plans to spend up to $800 million to build 157 turbines on a lease secured from a foundation that helps oversee the Kenedy Ranch.
Those Kenedy Ranch overseers have said Babcock & Brown and the other developer, PPM Energy of Portland, Ore., have spent two years studying migratory birds’ flight patterns and are convinced the environmental impact will be minimal.
“We have tremendous knowledge of the area and feel comfortable with our approach,” Calaway said. “It’s unfortunate because they’re trying to reinvent the law to fit their needs.”
Calaway said he hopes to have 118 turbines up and spinning sometime next year.
A PPM Energy representative was not available to comment.
Wind farms generate electricity by using wind to turn giant blades that rotate on turbines, an alternative to power created by utilities using coal, natural gas and other sources. In Texas, developers need neither state nor federal approval to erect the towers on private land.
But the alliance claims that because Texas receives federal funds to help protect the coastal region through the Coastal Zone Management Act, a thorough environmental review of the wind projects is required.
The act “mandates that Texas must conduct environmental assessments of all energy projects, including wind, to receive federal money,” Blackburn said. “In any event, wind energy facilities should not be constructed on the Texas coast without regulatory oversight.”
By John Porretto
AP Business Writer
4 December 2007
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