Clean | Green | Sustainable

Montana’s growing eminent domain debacle

Posted by Matthew Koehler on August 31, 2011

[The following article was written by Paul Edwards, who owns a historic ranch on the Rocky Mountain Front, home of both the MATL transmission line and proposed wind farms. The article originally appeared in the summer 2011 newsletter of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.  Below the article is a link to the site of “Real Montanans for Fair Land Use.” They are currently gathering petitions to repeal HB 198.   –  MK]

“Eminent domain” is the legal tool used by corporations such as utilities, railroads, and energy companies to condemn and purchase private property they claim to need for their transmission lines, pipelines and railroads. The 2011 Montana Legislature, at the urging of Governor Brian Schweitzer, “clarified” the existing eminent domain law (HB 198) to favor energy corporations seeking to build transmission lines to export power out of state. But two seminal questions remain unanswered: Is there really a “need” for these lines on some of Montana’s most pristine landscapes; and are they truly in the public interest?

The issue arose because a Montana district judge denied a Canadian corporation the right to put its “Montana Alberta” transmission line, to export power to Canada, through private land dotted with tipi rings that have remained undisturbed for more than a century. The property is owned by members of the Little Shell tribe with direct blood ties to the Blackfeet who said they didn’t want to stop the line, but did want it moved away from the historic sites.

The new law will now allow the lines to be built wherever the Canadian or any other corporation wants to build them, tipi rings, historic sites, or any other reason notwithstanding. It will likewise allow NorthWestern Energy to proceed with its planned “MISTI” export power line to Idaho and points south that is now being contested in court by several Montana counties and hundreds of concerned citizens.

Those who argue for the law say that without massive transmission capacity to move the power out of state there will be no incentive to build industrial scale wind farms that will, theoretically, discourage new construction of highly-polluting coal-fired power plants.

But although “meeting the demand” has become the mantra in energy circles, there are other alternatives that make much more sense. Efficiency and conservation are vastly cheaper, faster and less costly than building new generation and landscape-defacing transmission towers and lines simply to provide all the electricity that can possibly be consumed. And since Montana already produces twice as much power as its residents consume, there is no market and hence, no need, for the excess energy in state.

Where public interest is concerned, there is no conceivable way to argue that Montanans will publicly benefit from construction of the export power facilities. An endless march of 150-foot (or larger) towers, their drooping wires and the clearcut access routes beneath them detract from, rather than add to, the public interest.

And finally, what guarantee is there that these lines will be used for transmitting wind power as proponents have claimed? Simply put, there are no guarantees. Given Governor Schweitzer’s continuing promotion of coal, combined with his efforts to develop the massive Otter Creek Coal Tracts, it is just as likely that these lines will be transmitting electricity from mine-mouth, coal-fired generation plants as windpower. A high-voltage transmission system is a conduit which is completely indifferent to the source from which its energy load originates.

The sad truth is that none of this scam has anything to do with public benefit in Montana or anywhere else: it’s about turning public resources into private profit. It’s the same as turning Montana into Asia’s coal cellar and siphoning Alberta’s Tar Sands oil into and across our state in Exxon’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Eminent domain was intended specifically and solely to be used to promote the public good. Energy corporations have never operated on that basis and never will. It’s too bad Governor Schweitzer and the 2011 Legislature didn’t grasp that basic truth.


Take Action: Repeal Corporate Eminent Domain to Protect Property Rights

During the past year citizens of Montana were left out of the loop on a crucial issue that threatens our basic rights, as well as our state’s heritage and future. Montana legislators, encouraged by gigantic corporate interests, grossly expanded eminent domain authority to allow private foreign and out-of-state corporations to condemn and confiscate private property for their own bottom line. Let us decide. It’s an issue that is too important for the backrooms and boardrooms.

Support IR-125 to give citizens a voice in overturning a bad law and restoring fundamental Montana values.


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