The eastern Texas Panhandle, a land of rolling sand hills, tree-lined creek beds and tall grass vistas, may seem a desolate place to outsiders. Still, it has its beauty, especially to the cattle ranchers and wheat farmers who work and live on it. But not for long.
Much of this land, the fragile habitat of the Lesser Prairie Chicken and the Whooping Crane, is scheduled to become industrialized if the Texas PUC, the DOE and FERC have their way. Incongruously, the demolition of this mostly native grassland is being proposed in the name of green energy.
The Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ), a name not without irony, was initiated by a 10 million dollar grant from the Department of Energy (DOE). In December of 2009, plans were expanded when Secretary Chu joined Jon Wellinghoff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in a Memorandum of Understanding to coordinate efforts to interconnect several transmission lines. The CREZ line, part of the larger Electrical Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) system, is to help supply the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex with wind-generated electricity from the northern Texas Panhandle.
There are problems, however. Protests from disgruntled landowners have been met with staunch resistance from Cross Texas Transmission, the developer of the Gray to Tesla and Gray to White Deer lines. In an escalation of that resistance, landowners were sent a “Access Consent Form” the day before Thanksgiving insisting their lands be made available for survey. With the long weekend, landowners had only two working days to find representation and prepare a response and still meet CTT’s deadline. CTT, acting under the auspices of the Public Utilities Commission, has been given the power of eminent domain. With that looming over their heads, most landowners signed but added wording insisting Cross Texas Transmission follow established environmental laws, the same wording and the same laws now required on state-owned lands. Cross Texas responded to their request by issuing restraining orders and suing for entry without restraint.
The action was not surprising. Since having been awarded the contract to construct, operate and maintain these lines in October of 2009, Cross Texas has consistently reminded landowners that they have no options and has refused to address any of the economic or environmental problems created by the transmission lines.
The Economic Problems
According to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, wind energy in Texas will have in excess of 28 billion dollars in subsidies, federal and state, poured into its development by 2025. When tax breaks, market disruptions, increased production and ancillary costs are added in, the taxpayer’s bill could top 60 billion dollars. In spite of the massive funds being thrown its way, wind-generated electricity remains far more expensive for consumers than that produced from coal, gas or from nuclear facilities. It’s also proven far too intermittent. As a result, continued expansion of wind fields could raise rates paid by consumers by as much as 50 percent, even with the massive federal and state subsidies. The impact to small businesses and to those on fixed incomes could be devastating. Moreover, many experts believe that, due to the intermittent flow and low energy flux, wind generated electricity can never be competitive.
Science and Technology writer Gregory Murphy compared the energy flux density of the Comanche Peak nuclear plant south of Dallas to a hypothetical wind installation. The nuclear plant has two units capable of generating 2,500 megawatts and sits on only 4,000 acres which includes a man-made cooling lake that is open to the public and is used for recreation. Taking into account that the average wind turbine has a capacity of only 25 percent of its nameplate rated output, it would take 6,668 1.5 megawatt wind turbines to equal the output of the Comanche Peak station.
Spacing wind turbines at 5 per section of land, a rate somewhat higher than the density landowners were promised by wind farm developers, a wind installation equaling the output of the Comanche Peak plant would require well over 13,000 sections of land or 8.6 million acres. That is an area roughly 1/20th the size of Texas. All this land, plus the lands decimated by the transmission lines carrying electricity to major metropolitan areas, would have reduced productivity, severely increased erosion and drastically reduced property values—certainly no boon for landowners.
“Wind works only 25 percent of the time,” said Jeff Haley, rancher and Commissioner in Gray County, Texas. “And the CREZ line alone will cost 4.9 billion dollars. That’s a projected cost in 2008 dollars. It will almost certainly be more, but whatever it turns out to be, it will have to be paid for.”
“Don’t kid yourself,” said David Hall, another Gray County rancher. “The consumers will pay for much of this, and we’ll all pay for the rest with our tax dollars. It’s not just that I don’t want them on my land. It’s that this kind of government boondoggle is wrong. The politicians supporting these things don’t understand them. They’re being advised that this or that is the right thing to do, and they’re not informed enough to make the right decisions.”
“We’re dealing with Soviet-style technocrats,” Haley added.
The metaphor isn’t without basis. Cross Texas Transmission is a wholly owned subsidiary of J. L. Power Group, a Delaware shell corporation with no board of directors and only a few employees. SEC filings list Mikhail Segal, a one-time official in the Ministry of Energy in the former Soviet Union and Michael Liebellson as founders. From the outset, landowners say, Cross Texas Transmission has acted every bit the oligarch and used the PUC’s power of eminent domain as a weapon.
“These technocrats understand how to maneuver through the technicalities of the law.” Haley said. “It’s their job. They do it every day. How can we run our businesses and spend the time this is requiring to stand up to this kind of abuse?”
One of the maneuvers he is referring to is the Texas PUC hearings held last August. Three routes had been selected for the proposed Gray to Tesla line with one listed as the “preferred route.” Multiple landowners and attorneys were present to defend their properties from damage along this route. Without discussion, the Public Utilities Commission chose an alternate route automatically subjecting those properties not represented to eminent domain. The landowners on the route selected had received a notice that their lands could, at some point, be affected, but all assumed that only the preferred route would be considered at the hearing. None realized they would not have an opportunity to intervene specifically for their properties should the preferred route be rejected.
In addition to the issues of land spoilage and the usurpation of private property rights, the issue of viability is very much at the forefront. A number of wind power companies are currently being sued by utilities companies and municipalities for not being able to deliver the electricity they promised. In Texas, three wind farms owned by NextEra Energy Resources LLC agreed to sell specified amounts of power annually to Luminant Energy Company beginning in 2002. When they failed to deliver the contracted amount, Luminant sued for $29 million in liquidated damages and won. A similar case occurred years earlier in Washington state, and observers of the wind industry are predicting a deluge of such cases in the future.
The Waxman-Markey Cap-and-Trade Bill may be momentarily dead, but there are persistent rumors of its resurrection. Even without it, proposals are floating through the halls of Congress which would offer billions more to wind developers and demand that as much as 20% of our electricity be generated from renewable sources. While these proposals are being discussed, three wind farms are cluttering the landscape of Hawaii, monuments in rust to the government’s imposition of a technology that simply does not work.
A similar situation exists in California. In the December 13th, 2010 edition of The American Thinker, Andrew Walden discusses what was once the largest collection of wind farms in the world. “In the best wind spots on earth,” he writes, “14,000 wind turbines were simply abandoned. Spinning, post-industrial junk which generates nothing but bird kills.”
If and when federal funds cease to be shoveled into the wind projects now underway in Texas, most industry observers believe they will also be abandoned leaving the once swaying prairie an industrial junkyard of concrete, steel and fiberglass.
Meanwhile, the green jobs pledged by the Obama Administration seem to be suffering the same fate as the birds. Almost 12 percent of the President’s original $814 billion stimulus package, enacted early in 2009, went to renewable energy projects. The White House estimates that the stimulus created 190,700 green jobs. The Department of Energy, however, reports only 82,000 jobs actually resulted from the bill and as many as 80 percent of those went to firms in China, Spain and South Korea. Further, the National Center for Policy Analysis reports that, because of the expense, renewable energy is in reality costing more jobs than it is creating.
The Enviromental Problems
While projects such as the CREZ line are legally obligated to do environmental impact studies, Cross Texas Transmission may have opted to instead pay mitigation to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If so, these monies will likely be used to transfer more land from private ownership into the vast domain now ceded to the federal government. Private land owners generally see this as a system of payoffs that exempts favored companies or political backers from the requirements of the law.
“While no one knows the exact amount, it is reported that Texas remains nearly 97 percent privately owned and that’s a fact the federal government would like to change,”
Dan Byfield, CEO of American Stewards of Liberty stated. “When companies like Cross Texas come along, federal land agencies see opportunities to charge fees or collect mitigation that brings huge sums of money into their agency to either regulate private landowners or buy up privately held land.”
Unlike Texas, the national statistics are grim. Federal ownership of land has now reached the 40 percent mark with the latest land grab device being conservation easements. Still, agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argue that government-owned property is entitled to greater protection under the law. That may, in fact, already be the case since private landowners can seldom afford the legal expenses required to see that existing laws are enforced. The demand under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is, quite simply, that an environmental impact study be completed before work begins on the CREZ line. For that to take place, however, some very expensive legal wrangling will be required since Cross Texas has vowed that the law does not apply to them.
“If you or I were proposing such a project, you can rest assured we would have to fulfill the requirements of the law and do a rigorous EIS,” said Jeff Haley. “I see no reason Cross Texas shouldn’t have to live under the same laws as the rest of us.”
While pro-wind energy groups maintain that less than one percent of land is removed from actual production by turbines and transmission lines, many experts argue otherwise. First, the towers create large dry spots at their base that, in a semi-arid environment like the Texas Panhandle, simply won’t support a vegetative cover. The resulting “blow spots” grow with each wind storm and can, in short order, consume many acres. Further, roads must be built to service turbines and transmission towers. In sandy areas like most of the Gray to Tesla line, the surfaces must be paved or coated to prevent blowing. These roads prevent normal moisture absorption and interfere with animal migration, and the damage to wildlife by the existence of tall structures is far greater than that from technologies dependent on fossil fuels. Tall grasses and wildlife are also damaged by the turbines’ prodigious oil leaks, plus, in an area already plagued by major grass fires often started by downed power lines, lines of the magnitude proposed are not welcome.
Heavy equipment used to install and service these lines and turbines compacts the turf and churns the surface destroying vegetation. Then, during the frequent winter and spring winds, the barren spots grow larger. Once productive sandy loam becomes what Panhandle ranchers call “blow sand,” soil leached of organic material by the wind, unable to sustain a vegetative cover.
Both the turbines and the lines interfere with bird migration as well. The tall structures inhibit the breeding of the Lesser Prairie Chicken, and their presence will put the fate of the Whooping Crane very much into question. Further fragmentation of the LPC nesting grounds will almost certainly put it on the Endangered Species list and subject land owners to close federal scrutiny creating even more unwanted intrusion.
Richard Peet, Gray County Judge, wrote in a letter to Assistant Attorney General Moreno and Tom Clark of the Natural Resources Division on December 9, 2010, that prior to allowing Cross Texas Transmission to circumvent the law that requires an environmental impact study, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents themselves pointed out that the currently proposed positioning of the Gray to Tesla line would “most assuredly” put the LPC on the endangered species list. At the very least, it was expected that the Fish and Wildlife Service would step in and insist that the route be studied for impact to wildlife. But the Service said there was no federal action that triggered a proper Environmental Impact Statement and that no permit would be required of CTT. However, a field coordinator for the Service told one landowner, if a permit is required, more than likely they will just pay mitigation and all resistance would end.
The Problems of Quasi-Capitalism
“Wind power is an open trough of government subsidies, tax credits and state mandates. Taken together, it’s a massive corporate welfare effort that means big money for the wind power developers and big costs for the rest of us.” Loren Steffy, the Houston Chronicle.
In a free market, goods and services are offered for gain. So long as it is mutually advantageous to buyer and seller, it works. When products fail to meet requirements, the buyer finds better, cheaper or more desirable products elsewhere. When the producer fails to make a profit, he generally seeks another market. Or another product
The role of government in such a system is limited. If the producer fails to deliver promised goods or delivers something other than what was promised, or if the buyer refuses to pay the agreed-upon price, the government steps in through the criminal courts system, demands remediation and applies appropriate penalties. But what happens when the government itself exerts influence in the decision-making process or even dictates the outcome of the transaction?
In that case, competitively priced goods or services cease to be the primary concern of the producer. Courting government agencies and influencing laws becomes the chief goal. Government-backed or government-created corporations become an extension of political might, and a symbiotic relationship develops between lawmakers and corporations facilitated by laws that, in many instances, they helped write.
Intermittent sources of power, especially those that require backup from coal or gas, cannot compete in the open marketplace. Equipping corporate welfare recipients with one of the most easily abused powers of the state in an attempt to force the populace to accept an unreliable source of energy at a tremendously inflated price is both unwise and dangerous. Such policies come at great cost, and landowners may only be the first to be asked to pay.
“The government is using corporations as its arm. They’re not just destroying my land; they’re destroying my heritage,” said Mark Cadra, a Wheeler County rancher whose land lies along the route selected by the Texas PUC. “I was taught for as long as I can remember to be a good steward of the land. Now the government has given this company the right to take what they want and do whatever they want with it. Believe me, what they want will damage my land forever. It makes me feel helpless.”
Sam Pakan is a rancher and writer in Wheeler County, Texas. He is currently producing beef for the health market while writing a series of historical novels set in WWII. He also edits books for selected novelists.
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