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The legal battle over two large wind farms planned for a remote stretch of the Coastal Bend intensified Tuesday with lawsuits filed in state and federal court in Austin.
The Coastal Habitat Alliance, a loose coalition of opponents to the projects proposed for the vast Kenedy Ranch, sued officials of the Public Utility Commission and the General Land Office, as well as the energy companies involved.
Alliance members, including King Ranch, American Bird Conservancy and Coastal Bend Audubon Society, say erecting hundreds of 400-foot-tall wind turbines will endanger migrating birds and spoil an untouched stretch of the coast.
One of the suits was triggered by the denial this fall of intervener status to the alliance in a PUC review of a 21-mile high-voltage line needed to serve the $1 billion wind project.
With the alliance on the sidelines last week, the PUC approved the $60 million transmission line to connect the turbines with the state’s electrical grid.
In that suit, filed in state court against the PUC and its members, the alliance is asking a judge to grant it intervener status and reopen the transmission line case.
“The lawsuit in state court is very straightforward. The question it raises is whether someone other than the owner of property within 500 feet has a legal right to a role in the PUC hearing,” said alliance lawyer Jim Blackburn.
That suit argues that parties with significant environmental, economic and recreational interests in proposed projects should be able to participate in a PUC application review.
The federal suit raises far more complex arguments. It claims that by participating in federal coastal management programs over the past decade, Texas committed itself to regulating coastal energy generating facilities, including wind farms.
“When Texas entered the Coastal Management Program in 1995, it described an existing regulatory process for every electrical generating facility that would fall along the coast,” Blackburn said.
He said the state has received tens of millions of dollars from the federal government through the coastal programs.
“But today, we are told there is no regulatory process for wind farms on the Texas Coast,” Blackburn said.
“We’re going to ask a federal judge to either force the PUC to follow through on its regulatory commitment or rule that wind farms cannot be constructed until a regulatory program is implemented.”
PUC spokesman Terry Hadley said he was aware of the suits but could not comment on the claims they raised, beyond the alliance’s recent involvement in the transmission line case.
“The commission felt the group didn’t have standing to participate in a transmission line case. It wasn’t about a wind farm project,” he said of the case decided last week.
The rest, he said, will be up to Attorney General Greg Abbott.
“The attorney general represents us when cases are filed, so we’ll refer this to them, and they’ll be working with us to respond to it,” he said.
In Kenedy County, where fewer than 400 people reside, public opinion on the wind projects is divided. The managers of the two nonprofit organizations that control the 400,000-acre Kenedy Ranch want the wind farms to offset declining revenues from oil and gas production.
If built as planned, the adjacent projects backed by PPM Energy and Babcock & Brown would generate enough electricity to light 180,000 Texas homes.
Road building is already under way, and construction is slated to begin early next year. Energy production may come as soon as 2009.
5 December 2007
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