LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Energy said Friday it would partner with a private firm hoping to build a transmission line to carry wind power from the High Plains to the southeastern United States, angering Arkansas politicians who believe the federal government is helping the project bypass state utility regulators.
The agency, invoking the infrastructure-improvement Energy Policy Act of 2005, 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.
Arkansas' Public Service Commission 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. In a statement Friday, Houston-based Clean Line said a converter station to be built in Arkansas would supply enough power for 160,000 homes annually.
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," members of the delegation 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."
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander was also critical of the announcement.
"This is the first time federal law has been used to override a state's objections to using eminent domain for siting electric transmission lines. It is absolutely the wrong policy," Alexander, a Republican, said in an emailed statement.
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 the 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, Oklahoma, and near Fort Smith, Searcy and Harrisburg, Arkansas.
The Sierra Club said 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.