Protecting a covey of 140 lesser prairie chickens southeast of Dodge City, Kan., could add hundreds of millions of dollars to the price of a critical wind energy power line.
By one estimate, rerouting the proposed line away from the birds’ habitat will increase costs by $567 million – more than $4 million a bird.
Yet those same birds spend part of the winter dodging hunters’ bullets. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks – which supports moving the power line – for $20.50 issues licenses to shoot up to 40 of the birds.
The Kansas Corporation Commission, whose approval is needed for the project to proceed, is scheduled today to take up the power line issue. It would be built by a partnership that includes Westar Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, and its costs eventually would be paid by utility customers in several states, including Kansas and Missouri.
Westar and the state wildlife agency have filed written testimony favoring the revised route as the one that is best for the lesser prairie chicken. Westar’s partnership changed the route after the wildlife agency and groups such as the Nature Conservancy opposed the original route because it would disrupt the birds’ habitat.
But Chermac Energy, an Oklahoma wind-energy developer that was counting on the line’s original route, is crying foul.
Chermac argues that it makes no sense to value the birds at millions apiece on one hand – the cost of rerouting the line – and a few cents on the other hand – the price of a license to kill dozens of the species.
Chermac also maintains that the shift would be worse environmentally, moving the line to an area that would interfere with the migration of the whooping crane, a species that the U.S. and Kansas have listed as endangered or threatened.
“This case cries out for reasonable consideration of all the issues,” said James Zakoura, an attorney representing Chermac.
The dispute comes as Kansas and other Great Plains states scramble to develop wind energy, whose growth depends on the ability to export electricity to more populous states. But the region’s electric grid is in such bad shape that billions of dollars in new transmission lines and upgrades are needed.
The original route of the new high-capacity power line began in Clark County, west of Pratt and southeast of Dodge City, and then went south into Oklahoma and hooked into another power line. The new route is shifted east by about 30 miles and would begin at Medicine Lodge before also going south to Oklahoma.
Chermac, which has 2,900 megawatts of wind-farm capacity in four states, has a stake in the case in part because it has proposed building 1,170 megawatts of wind capacity in Kansas. Chermac says the revised route would cost it millions because the company would have to build a separate power line connecting with the new route.
Chermac president Jaime McAlpine also said the revised route would add 29 miles to the transmission line and increase its cost by $93 million to an estimated $200 million. The additional cost, once financing and other expenses, including extra property taxes, are figured in, mushrooms to $567 million over the life of the power line, Chermac estimates.
Westar Energy in its testimony does not directly dispute Chermac’s cost estimates. Instead, Westar says the original route should not be used for cost comparisons because it wasn’t a “serious proposal.” – even though the proposal was made by Westar’s construction group, and it was approved by a regional power group.
Westar vice president Kelly Harrison also says in testimony that environmental and wildlife agency officials “unanimously recommended use of the preferred eastern route” to protect the birds.
The lesser prairie chicken, a smaller version of the greater prairie chicken, lives in five states, but Kansas is thought to have the most, with estimates ranging from 20,000 to 40,000 in western Kansas.
The birds make a high-pitched sound and have a red air sac on their necks. They are perhaps best known for their mating rituals, with the males “booming” and puffing out their air sacs to produce “spectacular” displays.
The original route of the transmission line would have traveled through part of the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat where these breeding rituals occur. State wildlife officials quickly took a position that the transmission line and, for that matter, any wind energy development, would be detrimental to the birds.
“I would expect wind development to face significant opposition,” said Eric Johnson, chief of ecological services at the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
He noted that the bird had been on a list for some time as a candidate under the federal Endangered Species Act.
But Kansas’ wildlife agency was asked last year to put the bird on the threatened list and declined after determining that its population was stable or increasing. The state continues to have a hunting season for the birds that begins in November.
Chris Tymeson, general counsel for the wildlife agency, was among the hunters last year seeking to bag a lesser prairie chicken.
But he said the annual harvest of the birds is only about 3 percent of its population, far less than would be necessary to have an impact on them. But the agency opposes the original route of the transmission line because it would destroy breeding habitat, which would have a lasting impact.
“I don’t think it’s an inconsistent message,” he said.
But Chermac hopes to show that moving the power line’s route was illogical. And it has a big-name expert on its side.
The company hired Paul Kerlinger to study the environmental impact of both routes. Kerlinger is a former director of the New Jersey Audubon Society’s Cape May Bird Observatory and the author of five books.
After studying the routes, he concluded that the route favored by Chermac would disturb the lesser prairie chicken, and mitigation efforts such as restoring habitat would be needed.
But he said the revised route, favored by Westar, was worse – and for more bird species. That route is in the migratory path of the endangered whooping crane.
“Overall, the east route poses greater risk,” he said.
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