WASHINGTON – Arkansas’ congressional delegation on Tuesday asked U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to examine whether the federal government or the state should get final say on plans to build a wind-power transmission line across Arkansas.
“We just want to continue to go on record voicing concern,” said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. “And really get them to think through these things.”
The U.S. Department of Energy is reviewing thousands of public comments it received about the Plains & Eastern Clean Line transmission line, which would transmit up to 3,500 megawatts of electricity from a proposed wind farm in western Oklahoma through northern Arkansas to western Tennessee. The department said in an email earlier this month that it plans to make a decision by the end of the year.
A megawatt is the measure of electrical output of a power plant or the amount of electricity used by a city. For example, Arkansas’ maximum output in 2013 was 16,355 megawatts, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Opponents have said the overhead line would reduce property values, hurt tourism, interfere with waterfowl migration routes and pose health risks. Supporters deny those claims and say the project would mean a $500 million investment in the state that would generate jobs and provide low-cost, clean energy to Arkansas electric customers.
The six members of Arkansas’ all-Republican congressional delegation signed a nine-page letter detailing their concern the federal government may use Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to approve the proposed transmission line.
Section 1222 gave the department authority to work with private companies to design, develop and operate electric power transmission facilities across state lines without state approval if the line is needed for national security reasons or because the energy is needed. The agency also can exercise or grant eminent domain to take private land to build the transmission line.
Among the questions in the letter is whether the transmission line meets the Section 1222 criteria of electricity need or national security need.
“We feel strongly that the situation that we have doesn’t meet the letter of the law that was written,” Boozman said. “There’s a real question as to whether or not the power is even needed.”
Boozman, while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, voted for the 500-page legislation that became the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
Clean Line President Mike Skelly said Tuesday that many questions raised in the delegation’s letter are answered in the thousands of pages of application materials the company had to provide the department to prove it qualified under Section 1222 and for its environmental impact review. Those documents are available at http://www.energy.gov/oe/downloads/plains-eastern-clean-line-transmission-line-part-2-application.
“That’s what the process is designed to do, right?” Skelly said. “We feel like the project is heavily studied.”
Skelly said Clean Line has invested tens of millions of dollars in the project and would reapply with a modified plan if the Energy Department found that Section 1222 doesn’t apply to the company them.
“We understand that it takes a long time to build infrastructure in this country. We’re not as good at it as we used to be, so it requires a lot of patience and some back and forth. We knew that when we started the company,” Skelly said.
As the country moves toward using cleaner fuels like natural gas and wind energy, it has to build the infrastructure to move it, he said.
“If you want to get natural gas to market you need pipes; if you want to move trucks you need roads; if you want to move coal you need railroads; and if you want to move electricity you need power lines,” Skelly said.
Clean Line’s application is one of the first that would use eminent domain authority under Section 1222 authority, according to the delegation.
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., said Tuesday that the energy secretary should review the application himself to see if it qualifies.
“We think that this is an extremely important issue for the secretary to intercede on because of the unprecedented nature,” Womack said. “We have a time-honored process for the approval of this type of activity and we don’t think it’s appropriate to ask the federal government to grant them the authority that would otherwise be reserved to the states.”
While the transmission line’s final path hasn’t been determined, it is expected to enter Arkansas north of Van Buren, follow near Interstate 40 to Ozark and then pass north of Conway and near Searcy, pass south of Newport and out of Arkansas above Memphis.
The delegation filed legislation in the House and Senate earlier this year that would require the federal government to get approval from a state’s governor and public service commission before approving a project under Section 1222. Neither bill has been considered.
“We think state level review of those concerns is necessary, and if they want to continue to move forward with a construction project that affects Arkansas energy access or land values or even livelihoods we want the decision to rest within the state and let state officials make that determination,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark.
The Arkansas Public Service Commission denied Clean Line’s request to be considered an Arkansas public utility in 2011. The company could have gone ahead with the project regardless of the designation, but as a public utility would have had eminent domain.
Commission Director John Bethel said Tuesday that Clean Line didn’t meet the legal definition of a public utility because its plan at the time was to transmit power across the state rather than into it.
“It was going from a point in Oklahoma to a point in Tennessee,” Bethel said. “They weren’t going to serve any customers in Arkansas.”
Skelly said the Public Service Commission’s decision was one reason Clean Line turned to the federal government and Section 1222.
“They basically said that they didn’t have jurisdiction,” Skelly said.
Clean Line has since announced plans to build a station near Russellville that would provide 500 megawatts of direct current for consumption in Arkansas. Bethel said the company doesn’t have to be a state public utility to distribute that power if it is considered a federal public utility.
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