Clara Dotson’s 80 acres north of Dover is crisscrossed by utility easements: a natural gas pipeline, HVAC power line and an Arkansas Valley Cooperative electric distribution line. Last year, she learned that Valero/Plains All American planned run its pipeline shipping crude oil from Oklahoma to Tennessee through her property. Utilities have the power of eminent domain in Arkansas, which means that landowners can’t stop them from building on their land. They can dicker over compensation, but that’s it.
So imagine the reaction when Dotson and family discovered last year that the Plains & Eastern Clean Line Transmission Project plans to run an overhead HVDC line across the property, perpendicular to the HVAC line and visible from all points on the property.
The Clean Line is a $2 billion, 720-mile project that would transmit electric power from Oklahoma wind farms across Arkansas to Tennessee. The company says it would make available 500 megawatts of power to Arkansas power companies and 3,500 mw to the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Alison Millsaps, Dotson’s daughter-in-law, who worked last year to coalesce opposition to the Diamond Project pipeline, now finds herself working to stop the Clean Line. This time she has lots of company: Several counties and towns that will “host” the Clean Line, in the utility’s vernacular, have passed resolutions in opposition.
But it’s a strange alliance for Millsaps. She is a proponent of clean, renewable power like wind energy. Not everyone who opposes the Clean Line feels that way. The opposition has made strange bedfellows of Tea Party members and Libertarians with folks on the left side of the political spectrum. “It’s a whole new world to me,” Millsaps said.
Opponents have a variety of reasons they dislike the Clean Line project. U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, who are to the right of the right wing of the Republican Party and supporters of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, have filed a bill in Congress that would give the states veto power over electric lines, ostensibly to stop the federal government from exercising eminent domain. Given their position on Keystone, it’s possible their financial support from the oil industry motivates them and others who oppose the project.
Millsaps and others – including the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma – believe the line will lower their property values a full 30 percent. (Clean Line says studies indicate that 10 percent is a more accurate figure, but Millsaps says it’s basing that on studies done in urban areas.) She also is concerned about health effects from the power line.
The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and landowners in Arkansas also say they were blindsided by the project, which a speaker for the Cherokee Tribal Council called a “monstrosity,” according to the Southwest Times Record of Fort Smith. (Clean Line applied to the U.S. Department of Energy for approval of its transmission lines in 2010; company representatives say there was plenty of notice of public scoping meetings held in 2013.)
The Cherokees registered their opposition with the DOE during its environmental impact review of the Clean Line project that ended in April. So did seven counties in Arkansas: Crawford, Cleburne, Conway, Franklin, Johnson, Pope and White. Crawford’s Quorum Court’s resolution asked the DOE to not approve the project unless it determined “clear and substantial benefits” to the state that would negate its detrimental impacts. Alma, Cedarville, Dyer, Mulberry, Ozark, Quitman and Vian also weighed in with resolutions in opposition, according to Millsaps.
The Clean Line project also drew opposition from the state Department of Parks and Tourism, which said the project’s “Applicant Proposed Route” presents “several apparent, immediate, and dire conflicts with public outdoor recreation in Arkansas.” In particular, the APR would take the power lines over the Mulberry and Big Piney rivers, which the state has designated as Extraordinary Resource Waters.
The application includes alternative routes as well. The DOE will determine the route of the line, and whether the project meets the requirements of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Section 1222 of that act allows the federal government to participate “with other entities” – in the private sector – to build new power lines. Should the DOE decide its Southwestern Power Administration, which includes Arkansas, can partner with Clean Line, Clean Line would then have to get power purchase agreements for its 4,000 megawatts from utilities in Arkansas and Tennessee before it can start construction. As a private-public partnership, the government would own the company’s assets – the lines themselves. That means Arkansas would not collect taxes from the lines – another complaint of opponents.
Despite that, Clean Line has promised its 12 host counties that it will pay $5 million yearly in ad valorem taxes. Christopher Hardy, a spokesman for Clean Line, said the company is committed to paying the $5 million as long as the projection is in operation.
The Clean Line project will be the first to be considered under Section 1222. Boozman and Cotton cited that last week when they asked the DOE to extend the comment period on the project’s feasibility by 60 days. The DOE agreed to take comments for 30 more days, until July 13.
The senators asked for the extension, they wrote in a letter to Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, to provide “a deliberative and thorough review, with greater transparency and public participation.
“Also, according to the Department, ‘the purpose of the program is to reduce electric transmission congestion and/or increase electric transmission capacity.’ However, the proposed route for the pending application is located in neither a Federal Power Act section 216(a) a designated congestion area nor a national interest electric corridor,” they wrote.
Hardy, however, said Section 1222 does not require the project to be located in a designated congestion area.
The Sierra Club chapter in Arkansas is fully supportive of the Clean Line. “It is going to undoubtedly lead to retirement of older and dirtier coal plans,” said Glen Hooks, chapter director. The project will create jobs – Hardy said it will employ “hundreds” in construction – and Hooks takes the company at its word that it will contribute $5 million a year to affected counties.
Hardy said wind power elsewhere sells for around a nickel a kilowatt, a price that Hooks said is so cheap that Entergy and the TVA will jump at it. “Entergy recently did an RFP for wind and reopened it because the price was so good they wanted to buy more,” Hooks said. Hardy said utilities can enter into 25-year agreements at one price for wind power, whereas fossil fuel prices fluctuate.
There is still the issue of the use of eminent domain. Clean Line must negotiate with owners of 1,000 parcels in Arkansas. “I get what these landowners are talking about,” said Hooks, who worked with Millsaps on the oil pipeline issue. “I get they have valid complaints, and we have really pushed Clean Line to listen to them as much as possible, and use eminent domain as a last resort.”
“We are committed to treating people fairly,” Hardy said. The company will offer “the full market value” for acreage in its easement and would also pay the landowner, either upfront or in annual payments, a price for poles on their property – $500 for a “mono” pole and $1,500 for a lattice pole, which requires a larger base. He said easements would be between 150 and 200 feet wide.
“We are finding a way to develop the project that causes the least amount of impact to homes, businesses and natural resources for the life of the project,” Hardy said.