Public power districts that distribute electrical power would be blocked for two years from building long transmission lines under a bill introduced Thursday by state Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon.
Legislative Bill 409, which also would set up a special Unicameral committee to study transmission-line issues, reflects a years-long Sandhills dispute over Nebraska Public Power District’s currently mothballed R-Project.
If passed, the bill would forbid “a public power district, public irrigation district or public power and irrigation district” from starting or continuing construction on transmission lines at least 200 miles long through Jan. 1, 2023.
That would include NPPD’s 225-mile-long R-Project, which was slated to start construction in earnest between Sutherland and Clearwater before a Colorado federal judge rescinded a necessary federal permit last June.
LB 409’s proposed moratorium also would block power or irrigation districts from spending “any funds relating to such project during such time period and prior to obtaining any required federal permits.”
An injunction in Nebraska’s state courts could be sought against power districts who start or continue work on transmission lines during the moratorium, according to LB 409’s text.
Brewer was unavailable for comment Thursday on his bill. His District 43 covers much of the R-Project route in the Sandhills, where many residents fear the $417.3 million project would encourage more wind-energy turbines to sprout from the region’s fragile topsoil.
NPPD announced the project in 2013, saying it’s needed to improve the reliability of its electrical service and meet its obligations to the multistate Southwest Power Pool.
From the line’s southern terminus at Gerald Gentleman Station, the R-Project route would jog north, east and north again before turning east for good at a substation near Thedford.
Project opponents have pointed to Southwest Power Pool documents listing the facilitation of wind-energy projects among its reasons for building the R-Project.
The Thedford substation lies a few miles from a southeast Cherry County area suggested for future wind farms by wind-energy promoters in that county.
U.S. District Judge William J. Martinez of Denver overturned on June 17 an “incidental take” permit for the American burying beetle that NPPD had received for the R-Project from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a year earlier.
While he didn’t rule out future construction, Martinez said Fish and Wildlife had “inadequately considered the effects of the R-Project” in its plan to cross over O’Fallon’s Bluff on the Oregon-California Trail south of Interstate 80 near Sutherland.
The bluff contains “swale” depressions cut by thousands of pioneer wagons during the trails’ peak years between 1843 and 1866.
Martinez also found fault with Fish and Wildlife’s analysis of possible wind-turbine development in Antelope County, on the line’s eastern end.
No one has appealed Martinez’s ruling, which told Fish and Wildlife to redo its environmental impact statement to properly consider all the R-Project’s impacts, including historical ones.
NPPD’s R-Project webpage says the transmission-line project is “on pause,” but it adds that the district continues to work with Fish and Wildlife “because the underlying need for the (R-)Project has not changed.”
The webpage says NPPD and its contractors “have been performing Project stabilizing work” along the route, including stabilizing “currently disturbed sites” and securing construction equipment “until such time as the construction work, or parts of it, may continue.”
Such work is allowed, NPPD Chief Executive Officer Tom Kent said after June’s ruling, under an agreement between both sides in the federal lawsuit over Fish and Wildlife’s permit.
Kent said then that the power district has no intention to reroute the 345-kilovolt line, because “we’re in the best place from a utilities standpoint.”
LB 409 would set up a seven-member Electric Transmission Line Study Committee from members of the Legislature’s Executive Board, Natural Resources Committee and Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. Brewer chairs the latter panel.
It would have until Dec. 15, 2022, to hold hearings and study “the need and necessity” for long-distance transmission lines, their routing process, laws and regulations, “customer and ratepayer interests,” property rights and “preservation of historical, cultural and ecological resources.”
LB 409 is co-sponsored by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, whose District 13 includes an Omaha Public Power District coal plant in the city’s Florence neighborhood.