State's U.S. lawmakers file eminent domain bill

WASHINGTON -- Members of the all-Republican Arkansas congressional delegation introduced legislation Monday that would effectively block construction of a new power line stretching from Oklahoma to Tennessee, potentially halting the $2 billion project.

If approved, federal officials would need permission from state officials before they could approve the use of eminent domain to build an electric power transmission facility within the state. Approval would also be needed from American Indian tribes if the project affects their property.

In addition, the project would have to be constructed, "to the maximum extent practicable," on federal rights of way or lands.

The Assuring Private Property Rights Over Vast Access to Land Act, if passed, would give Arkansans a voice in the process, U.S. Sen. John Boozman of Rogers said in a written statement. "If a project is not good for Arkansas, our governor or public service commission should have the power to say 'no' instead of being cut out of the process and dictated to by Washington bureaucrats."

Boozman and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack of Rogers are the lead sponsors of the legislation; U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Dardanelle, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro, U.S. Rep. French Hill of Little Rock and U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs are co-sponsors.

Delegation members introduced the same legislation in 2015, but it died after passing in the House Natural Resources Committee.

Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners wants to deliver power from Oklahoma wind farms to consumers in the southeastern United States.

The Plains and Eastern Clean Line project would span more than 700 miles and would enter Arkansas just north of Van Buren and would exit the state south of Wilson in Mississippi County, if the preferred route is adopted.

In a written statement Monday, the company said the bill "creates more red tape and kills jobs" and undermines efforts by President Donald Trump to strengthen the nation's infrastructure.

"The Plains & Eastern Clean Line is a pro-jobs, pro-consumer, pro-environment public energy infrastructure project that will help to create a secure energy future for the country, and we are ready to get to work," company President Michael Skelly said.

The company said the project would boost Arkansas' employment and provide another power source for Arkansans.

The line cutting across Arkansas would carry 4,000 megawatts, enough power to supply 1 million homes, supporters say. A converter station in Pope County would enable up to 500 megawatts of the power to be delivered to Arkansas customers, the company added.

Under Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the secretary of energy can own, operate, build or collaborate on construction of a transmission facility that is needed "to accommodate an actual or projected increase in demand for electric transmission capacity."

The project must be in the national interest, "reduce congestion of electric transmission in interstate commerce" and not interfere with the "efficient and reliable operation of the transmission grid."

A year ago, then-Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz gave his backing to the Clean Line project, saying it would help modernize the nation's power grid and facilitate the use of renewable energy.

"Building modern transmission that delivers renewable energy to more homes and businesses will create jobs, cut carbon emissions, and enhance the reliability of our grid," Moniz said when his decision was announced.

Some area officials and landowners who live near the power line's path have objected to its construction.

In a press release Monday, members of the Arkansas congressional delegation expressed their support for the legislation they introduced.

"Arkansans have been taking care of their land for generations. And they should have a say in any decision that affects that land," Cotton said.

"Arkansas officials and residents should decide the best use for our state's land, not the federal government," said Crawford.

"I continue to hear concerns from our state and local officials about the impact of the Clean Line project and its effect on private landowners in Arkansas," said Hill, noting that the bill would give Arkansas officials "the final say."

Womack said he is proud to sponsor the legislation, adding, "Too many Arkansans risk losing their land and livelihood to Section 1222 projects, and I will always do what I can to preserve individual property rights and power in the people."

Calling private-property rights "fundamental to a free society," Westerman said the bill "safeguards landowners from the threat of having their property taken through eminent domain."

The legislation would require explicit authorization from both the governor and the head of the public service commission or its equivalent in each of the states affected.

The lawmakers say their legislation is supported by numerous groups, including the Arkansas Rice Federation, Arkansas Soybean Association, Agriculture Council of Arkansas and the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.

Clean Line says it has support from businesses as well as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

"The IBEW strongly disapproves of politics getting in the way of American job creation," the union's international president, Lonnie Stephenson, said in a written statement released by Clean Line.

The legislation "will kill thousands of American jobs and, specifically, hundreds of Arkansas jobs," Stephenson said.

Metro on 03/07/2017

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