- Associated Press - Thursday, November 5, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The Arkansas congressional delegation said Thursday that it has asked the U.S. Department of Energy to slow down the review process for a planned wind-energy transmission line that would cross 12 counties in Arkansas.

The department issued the final environmental impact statement for the multibillion-dollar Plains and Eastern Clean Line Transmission Project on Wednesday, noting its preferred path through Oklahoma and Arkansas and the preferred locations for converter stations. But a statement signed by all members of the delegation says the agency did so without answering several letters from them requesting information about the 700-mile line carrying energy from wind farms in the Oklahoma Panhandle through Oklahoma, Arkansas and into Tennessee.

The Arkansas delegation and several state officials in Oklahoma have expressed concerns that the project would impose on landowners’ rights because the company spearheading the project - Clean Line Energy Partners LLC - would be granted the power of eminent domain during property negotiations. That means if landowners in the path didn’t want to sell, the company could take the easements they need in exchange for governmentally determined fair compensation.

The delegation’s latest letter asks the department to provide previously requested information, including an “anticipated timeline,” and adds that a request it sent on Sept. 14 has so far been “disregarded.”

A department spokesman said it plans on a formal response and had already met with the delegation’s staff in October.

“The Energy Department takes the concerns of the delegation seriously, and two weeks ago met with the delegation’s staff on this project,” department spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder wrote in an emailed response to The Associated Press. “The Department is currently working on a response to their inquiry, but issuing this environmental review is not a final decision on this project, nor does it affect the Department’s ability to consider the questions raised in their letter.”

The report is a big step toward the approval of the project that began with applications in June 2010. A spokeswoman from Clean Line Energy said the company anticipates a final decision in late 2015.

Mario Hurtado, executive vice president of Clean Line Energy, said the company has made a commitment to use eminent domain as a last resort, and after many public meetings with landowners it drafted a compensation plan that includes more than $30 million in Arkansas and more than $35 million in Oklahoma for land easements and to pay to have structures on some of those easements. He said more money has been set aside to compensate for any loss of business such as crops or timber.

“I think it’s important for folks to understand and know that we take those property rights very seriously. … That’s why you go through that long process to determine whether the project is needed and whether it’s in the public interest,” he said.

The Arkansas Public Service Commission denied the company’s request to operate as a utility in 2010, which would have carried eminent domain powers, partly because that version of the transmission line plan did not include delivering any power to Arkansas customers. Hurtado said the planned converter station in Arkansas, which as of the final environmental impact statement would be built in Pope County, addresses that issue by making 500 megawatts of power available to the energy pool.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wrote a separate letter to the Department of Energy with concerns about Clean Line Energy paying for portions of the project review and whether the department staff members were trained in avoiding conflicts of interest. Hurtado said the funding was part of an administrative agreement so the public wouldn’t bear the cost of review and is “routine” for similar projects.

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