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Published April 21, 2009, 01:25 PM

Wind companies want to nix contract disclosures

An energy developer has silenced an attorney who supports a ban on confidentiality agreements in wind leases by complaining to the Nevada utility that employs her, the lawyer’s mother says.

By: Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

BISMARCK — An energy developer has silenced an attorney who supports a ban on confidentiality agreements in wind leases by complaining to the Nevada utility that employs her, the lawyer’s mother says.

“I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t think it’s right. She is only defending my interests, and her interests,” Nora Sannes, of Fargo, said of the developer’s complaints about her daughter, Colleen Rice, a lawyer for NV Energy of Las Vegas.

The incident has become part of a growing Capitol debate over legislation that sets requirements for wind energy developers’ contracts with North Dakota landowners.

The proposal’s final details are being debated in a House-Senate conference committee. The panel took no action during its first meeting Tuesday.

In its present form, the legislation would bar wind companies from requiring landowners to keep silent about the details of their contracts with wind developers. The contracts give companies the right to use private land for wind projects and outline how property owners are compensated.

Confidentiality agreements are common in wind projects across the country, said Robert Harms, a Bismarck lobbyist for the American Wind Energy Association. Harms said the bill could drive away investment in North Dakota wind projects.

Rice, who drafts and litigates contracts for NV Energy, has testified at House and Senate hearings to support the bill.

She became involved in the issue when her mother was approached last year by an affiliate of wind energy developer RES Americas Inc. The company was interested in leasing 800 acres of family farm land in Grand Prairie township, in Barnes County, for a wind project.

Sannes asked her daughter to look over the lease, and when she did, she “called me and said, ’This is the worst contract I have ever seen,”’ Sannes said in an interview. She said company representatives told her 80 of her Barnes County neighbors had signed it.

RES Americas and NV Energy are partners in China Mountain, a wind energy project in northeastern Nevada and southern Idaho. Scott Dunaway, a spokesman for RES Americas, said his company contacted NV Energy on April 17 to allege that Rice may have violated the China Mountain project’s confidentiality provisions.

“The economics of wind projects vary from state to state, and it is not appropriate to compare them as similar markets,” Dunaway said.

About RES Americas’ dealings with landowners, the company “continues to be committed to treating all landowner partners fairly, with transparency and openness,” Dunaway said.

In a telephone interview, Rice said RES Americas “has contacted my employer, and I’ve agreed not to be involved in that process any longer.” She declined further comment.

Adam Grant, an NV Energy spokesman in Las Vegas, said Rice’s comments on the North Dakota legislation were made as a private citizen. Grant and Dunaway said they would not affect the business relationship between RES Americas and NV Energy.

Besides the no-confidentiality language, the North Dakota bill requires wind project property agreements to have a cover sheet encouraging the landowner to consult a lawyer before signing it.

The bill limits the risk a wind developer may require a property owner to assume, and says contracts may not require the landowner to pay property tax on wind energy installations. The bill says landowners must have the option of ending their agreements if a wind tower on the property has not operated for three years.

Before RES Americas complained to NV Energy last week, Rice had been a vocal supporter of the bill.

She told the state House Natural Resources Committee that examining the contract her mother was asked to sign “was enough to convince me that there is a problem that state government should help solve.”

“North Dakota farmers are being approached by sophisticated wind developers and are being encouraged to sign contracts, either leases or easements, which subject the farmers to legal risk that could, one day, cause them to lose their farms,” Rice said. “I have the utmost respect for farmers, but frankly, they are no match for contracts drafted by the big-city law firms representing wind developers.”