Is it OK to kill an endangered species and destroy a Nebraska treasure unique to the world so a handful of people can make money off the federal government? We’re about to find out.
According to the Audubon Society, there are about 603 whooping cranes left in three different flocks, two of which stay in the southern United States and do not migrate. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 431 whooping cranes are in the one flock that does migrate from south Texas to Canada each year. This flock flies back and forth right through the heart of Nebraska. The No. 1 cause of death in these migrating whooping cranes is wire strikes with power lines. Don’t take my word for it. All of this information is contained in the many studies found in the extensive public comments to the draft environmental impact statement to Nebraska Public Power District’s proposed R-Project.
The proposed R-Project is a 225-mile-long, 345-kilovolt high-voltage power line that is going to tear through the heart of Nebraska’s Sandhills, the most environmentally sensitive region of our state. The Sandhills are geologically unique. There is not another place like them on Earth. They are very fragile and will not recover from the destruction that is being planned for them. The scar it is going to leave across Nebraska will be visible from space well into the next century.
What could be so important that we would destroy one of our few beautiful and unique places in Nebraska and kill endangered species in the process? The modern world we all want to live in demands we have public infrastructure like power lines, and I know no one wants them in their back yard. NPPD argues the line is necessary for load balancing and to provide redundancy in the event that tornadoes and ice storms knock down the power lines, which is sound reasoning. But I will argue the fact that NPPD has several routes they can choose to accomplish this goal. These routes follow roads and use existing utility corridors where there are already power lines. They don’t destroy our Sandhills, and they pose less of a threat to the whooping crane.
So why didn’t NPPD save itself all this grief and choose one of the other routes?
I think the proposed R-Project is being built specifically for wind energy development in the Sandhills. There are meeting minutes from the Southwest Power Pool that attest to this fact. NPPD met with wind developers in Cherry County three times in 2011 on how to lobby the SPP to build a line into the Sandhills. SPP issued its notice to construct on April 9, 2012. The Cherry County Wind Energy Association, a consortium of land owners in Cherry County, became a for-profit company just 10 days later on April 19, 2012.
NPPD told me they knew of only one wind energy company that had made an “interconnect” request to the proposed R-Line. However, the Southwest Power Pool’s public website records five additional industrial wind facilities with plans to connect to the R-Project, totaling over 1,500 megawatts, or over 800 turbines, planned for the Sandhills, many right in the middle of the whooping crane flyway. The destructive route the proposed R-Line follows was chosen because it will allow future wind energy projects an “interconnect” capability, tying their industrial wind facility to the power grid. It financially benefits a handful of people (including elected officials). Load balancing and redundancy are not the main reasons for the R-Line. Money in the hands of a few people is the main reason.
NPPD evaluated the potential for whooping crane mortalities caused by the proposed R-Project using old, sparse data. A new, large data set from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is available. It is based on GPS trackers used on individual birds. It clearly illustrates the R-Project is routed through several prime whooping crane roosting areas. There is a very high probability this gigantic power line is going to kill whooping cranes. If NPPD was willing to do the right thing, they would apply for an “incidental take permit” so the accidental killing of an endangered species is at least lawful. In light of the new data, I urge NPPD to do a supplemental study for their environmental impact statement to take this new data into consideration and, at the very least, modify their mitigation plan, but they do not want to do this either.
The project is already over two years behind schedule and $5.6 million over budget for just the “pre-construction” phase. There is overwhelming evidence it poses a grave threat to a bird on the brink of extinction and will do incredible harm to a singularly unique place in the world. Over one-third of the 225-mile route will have to be forcibly taken from land owners using eminent domain. In spite of all this, NPPD insists this project must go forward and this terrible route must be followed.
It’s my sincere hope that NPPD will change its mind on the proposed R-Project, but can they? In 2009, Nebraska’s public utilities decided to join the Southwest Power Pool, a consortium of power companies in 14 states headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas. This wasn’t a question put to Nebraska voters or even one debated by the Legislature — they just up and did it. Who’s calling the shots now? Did Nebraska give up our sovereign power to some board of directors in Arkansas?
Nebraska being the only state with 100 percent public power should mean we’re all paying the cheapest electric bills around. We’re not. Since our public utilities joined SPP, we have fallen from eighth to 17th lowest in the country and getting worse. We may never know the answers to these questions. Despite my filibuster trying to stop it, a bill was passed last session (LB 1008) that allows our public utilities to conceal information from the public. I think we may have given away the “Nebraska Public” in NPPD.
I hope people reading this share their concerns with their state senator and/or their NPPD board member. We’re about to do serious permanent harm to some very special things in Nebraska that we will lose forever. NPPD is a subdivision of state government that is supposed to serve the public. It is pursuing the proposed R-Project in spite of opposition by multiple state and federal agencies, state and federal organizations, and the public. Urge them to change the route of the R-Project. As it is, the “R” stands for “refuses” to listen. Please help me make them listen.
Find your senator here: nebraskalegislature.gov/senators/senator_find.php.
Find your NPPD board member here: www.nppd.com/about-us/board-of-directors.
Nebraska State Senator Tom Brewer is a candidate for the Republican nomination for Congress in the 3rd District