U.S. Department of Energy backs Clean Line project
LITTLE ROCK — The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said Friday it would partner with a Houston, Texas private firm that wants to build a transmission line to carry wind power from the High Plains to the southeastern United States, including the Arkansas River Valley.
The department’s decision angered Arkansas politicians in Washington, D.C., who in a statement said they believe the federal government is helping the project bypass state utility regulators.
Also responding to the agency’s announcement were spokespeople from the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, Arkansas Sierra Club and Golden Bridge, LLC, made up of members of Block Plains & Eastern Clean Line: Arkansas and Oklahoma, Arkansas Citizens Against Plains & Eastern Clean Line and other interested and affected parties.
The DOE invoked the infrastructure-improvement Energy Policy Act of 2005 and said it would participate in the 705-mile Plains & Eastern Clean Line transmission project, designed to move up to 4,000 megawatts of power from the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles into western Tennessee.
In a statement Friday, Clean Line said a converter station to be built in Pope County would deliver 500 megawatts (MW) of power to more than 160,000 Arkansas homes annually. Last December, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) identified a preferred route for the direct current (DC) transmission line and identified its preferred locations for the delivery converter station.
Arkansas’ Public Service Commission (PSC) ruled against the transmission line project in 2011, saying Clean Line Energy Partners firm didn’t qualify as a public utility serving the state’s power consumers.
Golden Bridge, LLC spokesperson Alison Millsaps said questions still remain.
“While we are disappointed with the the decision, there are numerous legal, procedural and meritorious questions, raised by multiple parties, we believe are still unanswered,” she explained. “We have long felt the fate of the Plains and Eastern project will not be decided by the DOE or Clean Line, but rather in a court of law.
“Going forward, our focus will be educating landowners about their rights, the process, the powers (or lack thereof) that have been granted to Clean Line, as well as the legal options available to them as we evaluate the contents of the Record of Decision and other documents.”
All six members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation decried federal involvement in the project, saying it would “usurp the will” of state politicians and policymakers, and that they’d check on whether the agency met each condition required before joining an infrastructure project.
“Today marks a new page in an era of unprecedented executive overreach,” U.S. Sen. John Boozman, Sen. Tom Cotton of Dardanelle, Rep. Rick Crawford, Rep. French Hill, Rep. Steve Womack and Rep. Bruce Westerman said in a joint statement. “DOE has decided to forgo the will of the Natural State and take over the historic ability of state-level transmission control through this announcement.”
In a conference call with reporters, Clean Line Energy president Michael Skelly said the company will not go back before Arkansas regulators, adding that the commission previously called the project “laudatory” but found it did not have jurisdiction.
“It’s not up to us to decide what the laws should be. … Congress decides, and we and others work within the framework of existing law,” Skelly said. He likened it to the federal government’s role in developing the country’s network of gas pipelines and interstate highways.
Company officials also said provisions have been built into the plan to allow homeowners to choose from different easement payment options and to request commercial arbitration when a property value cannot be agreed upon.
Clean Line Energy Partners said the $2.5 billion project, for which construction is expected to begin next year, would support thousands of jobs in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee. The U.S. Department of Energy said it was taking part to build a more-reliable power grid and would exercise eminent domain only as a last resort — and after project organizers prove the transmission project will be successful.
According to Clean Line, the preferred route for the line starts near Guymon, Oklahoma and terminates northeast of Memphis, Tennessee — after running north of Oklahoma City, south of Tulsa and near Fort Smith, Searcy and Harrisburg.
“The Plains & Eastern project will be good for our community,” Atkins native Louis Schmoll previously told The Courier. “The county will receive yearly payments that will help the schools here that are in financial distress, and landowners like myself will be fairly compensated. While some people may not like change, I see it as progress. Arkansas needs more low-cost clean energy, not only now, but for our future generations, and this project will make that possible.”
The Sierra Club said Friday transmitting wind power over long distances would help the country meet terms agreed to at the Paris climate summit last fall. Its local chapter hailed the decision.
“Putting thousands of megawatts of clean wind energy onto the grid — including 500 megawatts for Arkansas — will undoubtedly lead to less dirty coal and gas being burned for electricity,” said Glen Hooks, Director of the Arkansas Sierra Club.
“The Arkansas Wildlife Federation applauds the Department of Energy’s decision to move forward with the Plains & Eastern Clean Line project,” said Ellen McNulty of the Arkansas Wildlife Foundation. “The Plains & Eastern Clean Line transmission project will provide substantial amounts of low-cost clean energy to Arkansas consumers, enabling significant pollution and water use reductions, for the benefit of people and wildlife in the Natural State.”
Associated Press writers Kelly Kissell Claudia Lauer contributed to this report.