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Archive for Monday, May 16, 2011

Moving a proposed utility line to protect endangered birds could cost millions

Supporters want to redirect route to protect lesser prairie chickens

May 16, 2011

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— A state agency charged with deciding whether to move a wind energy power line in western Kansas will consider the financial cost and the potential impact on the lesser prairie chickens that breed in the area and the whooping cranes that migrate through it.

The Kansas Corporation Commission began hearing testimony on Monday from opponents and supporters of a proposal to move a wind energy power line from a route near Dodge City in order to protect the habitat of about 140 lesser prairie chickens.

Supporters of the change, including Westar Energy, Kansas wildlife officials and environmental groups, said the proposed route would disrupt the habitat where the birds breed.

An Oklahoma-based utility that hoped to connect to the original route estimates the alternate route could increase the cost by hundreds of millions of dollars. Those costs would be passed on to customers in several states, including Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Chermac Energy also contends that the new route would interfere with the migration of whooping cranes, a federally endangered species, The Kansas City Star reported.

"This case cries out for reasonable consideration of all the issues," said James Zakoura, an attorney representing Chermac.

The original route began in Clark County, west of Pratt and southeast of Dodge City, and went south into Oklahoma to hook into another power line. The new route would shift the line east by about 30 miles, beginning at Medicine Lodge before going south to Oklahoma.

The KCC, whose approval is needed for the project to proceed, is expected to make a decision by June 28.

Westar Energy, Kansas' largest utility, is part of partnership building the line. It filed written testimony favoring the revised route.

Chermac, which has proposed building 1,170 megawatts of wind capacity in Kansas, would have to build a separate 29-mile line to connect to the new route.

Chermac president Jaime McAlpine said that new line would increase the company's cost by $93 million to an estimated $200 million. Once financing and other expenses, including extra property taxes, are figured in, the cost increases to $567 million over the life of the power line, Chermac estimates.

In its written testimony, Westar Energy doesn't dispute Chermac's cost estimate but argues that the original route should not be used for cost comparisons because it wasn't a "serious proposal," even though the first route was proposed by Westar's construction group and approved by a regional power group.

The lesser prairie chicken, a smaller version of the greater prairie chicken, lives in five states, with between 20,000 and 40,000 estimated to live in western Kansas. Its breeding ritual, known as "booming" draws tourists to the area.

"I would expect wind development to face significant opposition," said Eric Johnson, chief of ecological services at the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

The same agency declined last year to put the bird on the threatened list after determining that its population was stable or increasing. The state also has a hunting season for the birds.

Chris Tymeson, general counsel for the wildlife agency, said the annual hunt is for only about 3 percent of the birds' population, which would not impact them. But the agency opposes the original route of the transmission line because it would destroy breeding habitat, which would have a lasting impact.

"I don't think it's an inconsistent message," he said.

Paul Kerlinger, former director of the New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory, studied both routes for Chermac.

He concluded that the route favored by Chermac would disturb the lesser prairie chicken and mitigation efforts such as restoring habitat would be needed. But he said the revised route was worse for more bird species and noted that the route is in the migratory path of the endangered whooping crane.

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