Environmental groups have failed to block a power transmission line that enables the construction of a major wind energy project in eastern Oregon.
However, economic shifts in the energy industry are now posing another threat to the project, backers say.
While litigation has delayed the project, natural gas has become cheaper due to new extraction technology, said Chris Crowley, president of the Columbia Energy Partners, which proposed the wind turbine development.
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has greatly increased U.S. natural gas production in recent years, decreasing prices.
As a result, it’s difficult for renewable energy systems to compete, Crowley said. “It may be a while before we can pursue a project there.”
In 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved the 12-mile transmission line, which runs through public land and is critical to the proposed 100-megawatt wind turbine project on a ranch near Steens Mountain.
The Oregon Natural Desert Association and the Audubon Society of Portland filed a legal complaint last year seeking to overturn the BLM’s decision.
U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman has now rejected their arguments against the transmission line, finding that BLM sufficiently studied the project’s impacts on sage grouse habitat and other environmental factors.
Brent Fenty, executive director of ONDA, said the group was still reviewing the opinion and deciding whether to appeal. He characterized the ruling as granting “complete deference” to the BLM.
“The ruling doesn’t change our opinion on this issue,” Fenty said. “We are still deeply concerned about the proposal.”
ONDA opposes the project because it would lead to new road building and massive structures in one of the most undeveloped parts of the West, he said.
“We believe there are areas where renewable energy projects can be done responsibly, but this is clearly not that place,” Fenty said.
Jon Norling, an attorney for Columbia Energy Partners, said the project would likely be “on ice” until investors know legal questions are fully resolved.
They wouldn’t want to move forward with the project only to have the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reverse the project’s approval, he said.
“There’s still a risk out there,” Norling said.
The project promised to be a boon to the local economy, which largely depends on ranching, said Steve Grasty, Harney County judge. The county intervened in the lawsuit as a defendant.
Aside from creating jobs, wind energy can provide more money for ranchers and prevent the fragmentation of their land due to succession issues, Grasty said.
“You need a revenue source to do the generational shift,” he said.
Grasty said he is “ecstatic” about the ruling as a legal win for his community, he’s less enthusiastic about the wind project’s current prospects.
“I’m not giving up, but I’m not overly optimistic,” he said.
Crowley said that while the project was tied up in litigation, the company’s power purchase agreement with a utility expired.
Meanwhile, an Oregon business energy tax credit program that provided incentives for such projects has also ended, he said.
“The marketplace has changed very dramatically,” Crowley said.