September 11, 2010

Wind lines questioned

By Kevin Welch, Amarillo Globe-News, 11 September 2010

Gray County Commissioners are asking to be heard by the Public Utility Commission on Wednesday.

The route for a wind-energy transmission line from near Childress to the Lefors area that resulted from an agreement among the commission, the builder and landowners crosses through lesser prairie-chicken habitat, posing a risk of federal curtailment of all sorts of economic activity.

“It hasn’t been classified as endangered, but it’s No. 2 on the list,” said Gray County Judge Richard Peet.

He wrote a letter filed at the PUC Tuesday that says Cross Texas Transmission, the builder and operator of the line, may not have followed proper procedure by not consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in reference to the endangered whooping crane that also can be found seasonally in the county.

County commissioners also filed a resolution asking for a different transmission-line route to avoid prairie-chicken habitat.

“We want them to sit down at the table and negotiate instead of just saying that’s the way it is,” Peet said.

“We want the power line. The people of Gray County want it.”

But the case has gone through months of hearings and evidentiary filings in Austin and consultations with various agencies.

“Cross Texas has followed all the required procedures and consulted with federal, state and local agencies,” said Cameron Fredkin, director of project development for the company. ”

There was a settlement between PUC staff, intervenors and Cross Texas. It will be up to the commissioners to decide the route.”

PUC commissioners meet Wednesday, and approval of a route is on their agenda.

Typically, they don’t take further comment at that point.

“Only if commissioners allow it,” said PUC spokesman Terry Hadley. “The contested case record is already closed.”

The urgency and lateness of the county’s effort is driven by its concern that federal intervention could bring too many constraints.

“At the time, it wasn’t really brought out how high a level (the prairie-chicken) was getting to for being declared endangered,” Peet said.

As evidence and testimony was offered since May in the case, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department registered agreement the settled route followed an existing transmission line through the habitat. That is one way to lessen the impact of the new line.

“The concerns from the county are actually addressed,” Fredkin said.

A letter filed with the PUC by Clayton Wolf, director of wildlife at TPWD, notes the prairie-chicken has become more likely to be listed as endangered due to current or expected wind energy development and conservation reserve program land going back into crop production.

Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Susan Combs weighed in with concerns about economic impacts.

“There is some research and evidence in other states indicating prairie chickens will avoid vertical structures such as transmission towers,” she wrote in a letter to the PUC.

“If the LPC is listed as endangered before the lines are complete, transmission routes through habitat areas could experience delays in construction or increased cost as a result of this additional regulation.”

Peet still hopes for a chance to address the commission.

“I don’t know if we could have a strong impact. It may be too late,” he said. “But to use the pun, we want to let them know we haven’t blown away.”

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