Debates about electricity involve parallel universes, probably several of them.

If a public utility applies for a rate increase, advocates of poor people will enter the fray. Denials of rate increases make lenders and investors reluctant to fund new generation projects, making opponents of coal and nuclear power celebrate.

If a public utility proposes to build a coal-fired power plant to avoid curtailments in service, the global warming opponents enter the fray.

If a public utility proposes to build a spent-fuel storage facility or a nuclear generating facility, the anti-nuke fraternity whips the public into a frenzy. The tragedy in Japan won’t help with finding a critically necessary long-term solution to accumulations of spent fuel rods.

If a natural gas producer proposes to drill wells in virgin Wyoming land, sagebrush habitat temporarily inhabited by elk, sagebrush habitat inhabited by a grumpy landowner or Sublette County, it’s time for a fight. Some of these fights last a long time and cost a lot of money. Meanwhile, the EPA is objecting to Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality water discharge permits for coal-bed methane operators.

If a company wants to drill a well in the Gulf of Mexico, there are a plethora of opponents who rush to object.

Hydro? Hello? Only in China and Brazil can new hydroelectric power facilities be built. In the western United States, dams are being taken out.

Wind generation? That’s crippled, in Wyoming at least. A proliferation of anti-wind power laws, including punitive taxation and a discriminatory exemption of wind utilities from all other utilities’ rights of eminent domain, appears to be driving wind energy capital elsewhere, to the detriment of Wyoming ranchers, local governments and others. (Disclaimer, or lack of: So far, I have no clients directly involved in wind energy disputes or development.)

President Obama wants alternative energy and we won’t let him have it.

Why? Certain environmental groups in Wyoming have for years striven to avoid the label “environmentalists” and paint themselves as “landowner advocates.” These groups are not funded by the stock growers and the wool growers. They are funded by dotcom billionaires and environmental foundations.

But, in order to preserve the image of being pro-rancher, they get caught in a bind. The supporters of the Powder River Basin Resource Council historically promoted wind and solar energy. But they want to protect landowners from power lines. You can’t have wind energy to supplant fossil fuel generation without power lines. Sometimes “do it right” is a euphemism for “don’t do it at all.”

Like me, these folks consume power, petroleum, paper and gasoline. I renewed my membership in The National Audubon Society recently, for I am a bird watcher, thence to be rewarded with a daily flood of expensive mailings promoting dozens of environmental causes. These bulk mailings, eating up tons of wood pulp and oil-derived plastics, fill my mailbox daily. Such waste of resources is annoying.

Conserving energy? I am all for it. But that will not meet the country’s needs.

Natural gas prices are low compared to oil. Why not build natural gas combined-cycle generators linked to wind turbines to reduce the need for new coal or nuclear base-load capacity? But such development would require new power lines.

The eminent domain laws were amended in 2007 to give landowners greatly improved leverage. The Legislature should repeal the exemption of wind energy from the right to use eminent domain and do whatever is needed to provide certainty in the marketplace, so that investors can invest in wind and gas generation with a reasonable expectation of a fair return.

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Published on May 3, 2011

  • RT Cox (The Sage Grouse)

    Eminent domain laws are land-use conflict resolution laws which provide a tie-breaker when industry or government needs land for a public purpose and a landowner refuses to grant an easement. They are not wildlife management tools. Landowners sometimes perceive eminent domain laws as giving condemnors a loaded gun to point at their heads. Industry and government perceive eminent domain laws as a last resort. I perceive them as a necessary tool, but more like an unloaded gun than a loaded one; it is not easy to initiate and complete a condemnation case since the 2007 amendments. The debate over where to site wind generators certainly involves broader considerations than eminent domain. Every other electric and pipeline utility has rights of eminent domain; I see no reason to discriminate against wind energy. All long-distance electric and gas transmission projects involve large losses over great distances, perhaps another reason to build decentralized and local projects.

  • http://www.powderriverbasin.org Shannon

    Hi, just wanted to say that we can have powerlines without eminent domain. Power companies have the ability to negotiate and sign an agreement with landowners. Landowners that do not host energy projects (and therefore are not getting the same level of benefits) should not be unduly burdened by the use of eminent domain for powerlines. Also, wanted to add that Powder River Basin Resource Council has a solid stance against eminent domain abuse – regardless of the power type. It just happens that all the legislature is interested in is wind.

  • Ben Deeble

    I’m one of those conservationists who sees a lot of challenges with energy development in the West, at least where you want to have abundant wildlife left.

    RT, you need to take a more sophisticated look than to just demand blanket eminent domain authority for the wind industry. Yes, we need renewable energy, but not everywhere. Wind energy also happens to have one of the largest physical footprints on the landscape per megawatt, with huge transmission losses when built for distant markets.

    There are a bunch of unintended consequences for not only landowners, but species like sage-grouse, pronghorn, mule deer, weeds, etc. when you erect towers, build lines, and all the roads to support the infrastructure. You should acknowledge these in your piece (instead of just condemning conservationists for sending you direct mail!) and provide a more thoughtful approach for addressing these problems.

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