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6 in D.C. question electrical line plan

State delegation talks with Moniz by Frank E. Lockwood | December 11, 2015 at 3:59 a.m. | Updated December 11, 2015 at 3:59 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- All six members of the Arkansas congressional delegation met Thursday morning with U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and expressed concerns about plans for a high-power energy line that would cut across Arkansas.

The Plains and Eastern Clean Line would ship wind-generated power, primarily from the Oklahoma panhandle to Tennessee and other southeastern states.

It is one of five that Clean Line Energy Partners wants to build in areas with higher-than-average wind.

U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton have blocked two presidential appointments for Energy Department posts, after saying that the department had failed to answer questions about Clean Line's federal application.

After Thursday's meeting, the state's delegation released a joint statement: "We appreciate Secretary Moniz listening to our concerns about the Plains and Eastern Clean Line Transmission Project and the use of section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to implement this project. We continue to have serious concerns that this project erodes the rights of local communities and the State of Arkansas to have a seat at the table in the decision making process."

Section 1222 gives the energy secretary the authority to join with companies like Clean Line "in designing, developing, constructing, operating, maintaining or owning a new electric power transmission facility and related facilities."

No state approval is required for Section 1222 facilities, but they're allowed only if "necessary to accommodate an actual or projected increase in demand for electric transmission capacity."

The Arkansas lawmakers question whether the Plains and Eastern Clean Line is necessary and whether demand will increase enough to justify it. Clean Line officials say there's high demand for affordable clean energy.

Energy Department spokesman Joshunda Sanders said she couldn't discuss the meeting, adding: "We don't comment on conversations with members of Congress."

Boozman said in an interview that he had "a good meeting" with Moniz.

"I think it sent a strong message to the secretary when he saw the entire state delegation there, taking the time and then also expressing real concerns about the project," the Republican from Rogers said. "I think what he tried to emphasize was the fact that it had not been approved, that they were still looking at the documents and that it was still open for questions and input."

Supporters say the project will create jobs, as well as low-cost energy, without doing as much damage to the environment as traditional power plants would.

But opponents say the transmission lines will lower property values, disrupt waterfowl migration and expose residents to health hazards. They also object to allowing the company to use eminent domain to take property, with compensation, from landowners who don't wish to sell it.

In an interview, Clean Line Executive Vice President Mario Hurtado said he understands why questions have been raised.

"It's going to be there for a long time. People are right to ask questions about it, they're right to ask questions about whether you're doing it correctly and, especially if they're going to be granting an easement for the project, they're correct to ask: 'how are you doing it?' 'why are you doing it here and not somewhere else?' and 'how are you going to compensate me for it?'"

If the line is approved, the company is committed to strengthening Arkansas' economy while also protecting its natural resources, he said.

"One of the things we're very proud of is the fact that this project will provide literally hundreds and hundreds of jobs during construction in Arkansas," he said.

The Houston-based company says the Plains and Eastern project would cost about $2 billion and would create enough energy to power more than 1 million homes per year.

The Arkansas Public Service Commission has already rejected Clean Line's bid for public utility status.

Some other projects have also generated opposition. In July, the Missouri Public Service Commission rejected plans for another line, known as the Grain Belt Express, that would stretch from Kansas to Indiana. The company is asking the commission to reconsider its decision.

The Rock Island Line, stretching from western Iowa to Illinois, also faces challenges.

In an interview, 4th District U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman said Arkansans have made it clear that they oppose the power lines, which would stretch for hundreds of miles.

"This goes across a lot of private property, and it hits every congressional district in the state, so everybody's hearing from their constituents about it," the Republican from Hot Springs said.

The federal government is taking up an issue that Arkansans have already decided, Westerman said. "State officials have looked at it and denied the use of eminent domain for the right of way for this transmission line," he said. "It causes me concern that the company would then turn to the federal government" for assistance.

Arkansas' 1st District U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford said the project is bad for the people he represents.

"I think it's an example, again, of the administration picking winners and losers," the Republican from Jonesboro said. "This time, the winner would be Clean Line Energy, the sponsor of this deal. The loser's going to be the private property owners of the state of Arkansas."

Metro on 12/11/2015

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