Will A Clean Energy Trunkline Bring Eminent Domain To Arkansas's Rural Landowners?

Oct 20, 2016

A wind resource map, published by the U.S. Office of Renewable Energy, illustrates the windiest real estate in America. A vertical violet streak down the nation’s midsection indicates persistent, intense winds concentrated in places like western Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. And a private company, called Clean Line Energy Partners, plans to tap that for electricity it can immediately transport to utilities requiring a bolus of alternative energy in their portfolios.  

Clean Line Energy Partners, LLC — established in 2009 and headquartered in Houston —  has laid out five 600-kilovolt, direct current power transmission lines across the U.S. CLEP aims to bolster our aging national power transmission grid starting with The Plains & Eastern Clean Line that's designed to deliver 4,000 megawatts of wind energy from western Oklahoma to the Tennessee Valley Authority for distribution to southeastern markets.

The $2.5 billion dollar transmission facility, however, will require more than 5,000 acres of private land to accommodate a 310-mile long corridor across north Arkansas.

Some of that acreage is Nic Stockton’s place in Crawford County.

Nick Stockton a fourth generation Arkansan who was planning to build a new home on his 95-acre farm when he first learned about the Clean Line three years ago. The power line will require a broad cut through his family’s farmstead, settled in the 1930s. More than a third of his timber will have to be removed, a forest he’s carefully managed for several decades.Credit JACQUELINE FROELICH/ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIAEdit | Remove

“It’s going to be within fifty yards of my house,” he says, looking up one recent fall afternoon and imagining 15-story metal poles strung with crackling high voltage electric cable.

Stockton’s a fourth generation Arkansan who was planning to build a new home on his 95-acre farm when he first learned about the Clean Line three years ago from his grandmother. She lives just up the hill.  

“My gramma, she’s 84, so the mail is the big thing, something to look forward everyday” he says.  “But she didn’t understand what the postcard meant.”

Her home, perched on a forested plateau overlooking the towns of Alma and Van Buren, is on the primary route for the new Plains & Eastern Clean Line, and the postcard invited her to learn more about CLEP’s plans.

Nic Stockton discovered the power line will require a broad cut through the hills and hollers of his family’s farmstead, settled  in the 1930s. More than a third of his timber will have to be removed, a forest he’s carefully managed for several decades.

EMINENT DOMAIN

Inside Stockton’s heavy-duty work truck, beneath a shotgun that’s strapped to the ceiling, Stockton talks about growing up on this land  as he takes a steep dirt incline through a dense stand of old growth cedar.

“I know every rock and tree. I want to raise my son here, teach him how to hunt, live off the land.”

But when Stockton, a professional welder and industrial pipefitter, discovered that the Clean Line is a hybrid merchant-public sector transmission project, he was taken aback.

“This is a private company trying to get the power of eminent domain,” he says, “which has  never been done in the United States.”

Stockton concedes that private property must give way for public utility easements to benefit the commons.

“But this project is about lining the pockets of rich investors,” he says.

Clean Line Energy Partners is the first energy transmission facility developer to participate in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Section 1222 program. CLEP, in collaboration with the federally-operated Southwestern Power Administration will be required to erect 5,000 metal towers, some of them 200 feet tall, across 12 Arkansas counties, to safely run millions of feet of HVDC power cable.

Nic Stockton says real estate agents have advised him that any Arkansas land in sight of the massive HVDC transmission line will instantly lose value.

He’s met up with other concerned property owners at various CLEP-hosted public meetings, over the past two years,  but decided to formally join the group Golden Bridge, LLC. According to the group’s Facebook page, the phrase “Golden Bridge" refers to the notion, here attributed to the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, of leaving “an opponent an opportunity to withdraw in order to not force them to act out of desperation."

Nic Stockton says he and members of Golden Bridge are all for clean energy development if it’s locally produced and distributed. Decentralized clean energy production, in short.

STATE CONGRESSMEN OBJECT

This summer Golden Bridge along with an eastern band of Arkansas property owners filed a legal complaint in federal court against the U.S. Department of Energy. Both groups seek declaratory injunctive relief claiming DOE’s decision to partner with CLEP is unlawful and should be set aside.

A decision in the case is pending.      

These landowners have also found common ground with both state and federal lawmakers. Arkansas’s Congressional Delegation filed matching bills in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in the summer of 2015 to block the Clean Line, describing the hybrid project as “federal overreach.”       

Mario Hurtado CLEP co-founder and Executive Vice President of development, is acutely aware of politicians and property owners’ concerns, having attended dozens of public and private meetings and talked with media. Thousands of landowners welcome the project, he says, and naysayers are a small minority.

“There’s an obligation on the part of the company to work with the landowner to minimize the impacts on their property including making micro-adjustments to the route.”

Indeed, just north of Nic Stockton’s place, Cedarville residents raised such a stink that CLEP relocated the route away from the town.

Hurtado also boasts CLEP’s easement compensation is state of the art.  

“[Property owners] will be paid 100 percent of market value of the 150 to 200 foot-wide easements, times square footage,” he says. “On top of that there’s a second compensation, for transmission structures on the property, for which landowners are paid a one-time sum or annual payments, their choice.”        

A third compensation covers other impacts.

“For example, if the landowner has marketable timber, they will compensated for timber losses on a long term basis. Or if there’s an impact due to construction on crops. They will be compensated.”

Property owners will have access to the land, he says, to use as they wish, as long as it does not impede access to or operations of the transmission line.

“The whole purpose of that compensation is to keep the landowner whole,” Hurtado says.

The Plains & Eastern Clean Line project has undergone five years of review, including more than a dozen public meetings across the tri-state area, as well as a National Environmental Policy Act review.

“This project will fix an aging national transmission grid, bringing affordable clean energy to millions of U.S. consumers,” Hurtado reiterates.

At an October 3rd press conference at the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission’s annual conference in Little Rock, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin gave her full support of the Clean Line and wind development in her state, citing declining oil and natural gas revenue.

SHOWDOWN?

But Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson was less enthusiastic.

“There has not been any role of the states to play” in authorizing the Clean Line, Hutchinson says.  “That has been accomplished at the federal level. So there is no [stated] position needed by me. But what I do advocate for, is that if we are going to have a transmission line going across Arkansas, then we want to have benefit from it in terms of access to the transmission line for our receipt of some of that energy, and that would help us.”     

In fact, Clean Line Energy Partners has vowed to construct a $100 million dollar substation in Pope County to offload 500 megawatts of clean energy in central Arkansas, create hundreds of temporary construction jobs along the route, purchase Arkansas-manufactured materials to build the power line, and pay $5 million dollars in annual property tax revenue to affected counties.

CLEP also claims it will generate $30 million in easement and infrastructure payments to affected property owners over the next several years.

Contract land agents for the company fanned out across the state starting late this summer, Hurtado said, to strike necessary right-of-way easements on a thousand parcels, anticipating construction to start late next year.

And if owners refuse?

“We would hand over that parcel to the Department of Energy,” Mario Hurtado says.  “And it would complete the acquisition.”

That is, the federal department would initiate condemnation proceedings.