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Published April 22, 2009, 06:28 AM

Wind companies fight bill

Wind energy developers are trying to kill to a bill that prohibits them from issuing confidential leases to landowners. The prohibition is in a bill that many legislators say is needed to keep industry representatives from taking advantage of landowners who are at a disadvantage when confronted with a 44-page lease and, sometimes, high-pressure company tactics. The companies build wind turbines on the leased plots.

By: By Janell Cole, N.D. Capitol Bureau, The Jamestown Sun

BISMARCK — Wind energy developers are trying to kill to a bill that prohibits them from issuing confidential leases to landowners.

The prohibition is in a bill that many legislators say is needed to keep industry representatives from taking advantage of landowners who are at a disadvantage when confronted with a 44-page lease and, sometimes, high-pressure company tactics. The companies build wind turbines on the leased plots.

Industry representatives say House Bill 1509 as it stands will threaten the further development of wind farms in North Dakota.

“They will go elsewhere,” said Bob Harms of Bismarck, who is lobbying for the American Wind Energy Association, which is made up of 1,900 wind farm development companies.

But Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, said landowners need to be able to discuss with their neighbors the contents of proposed or signed easements because they have no way to determine what the fair market value is of their land rights where companies might want to put turbines.

And, unlike mineral owners who want to search for coal or oil in specific spots, wind energy companies that don’t get their way with one landowner, merely move a few miles away to find “low hanging fruit” among other landowners who are more compliant, he said.

“The underlying principle (of the bill) was to make the playing field as level as possible to give the landowners some level of leverage so that the landowners can effectively negotiate the agreements,” Hogue said during a conference committee meeting on House Bill 1509.

John Olson of Bismarck, lobbying for NextEra Energy, formerly FPL Energy, which has done most of the wind farm development in North Dakota, said tales of abusive energy companies “is not us.” Landowners are given ample time to examine the documents before signing, are encouraged to consult their attorneys and are not pressured to sign, said Julie Voeck, NextEra’s director of regulatory affairs. The agreement only becomes confidential once it is signed, she said.

But NextEra is against the bill’s ban on confidential agreements because the company fears its expertise will be exposed to competitors if the contracts can be made public.

Rep. Duane DeKrey, R-Pettibone, a sponsor of the bill and chairman of the conference committee, said at Tuesday’s meeting, “I think that consumer protection for the landowner is warranted by the Legislature. I think it’s actually our duty to do that. Even during the discussion of the bill (earlier in the session), we saw some of the heavy-handed tactics that some, or very few, of the wind companies can exert.”

DeKrey said he knew about some heavy-handed tactics because of a company that forced his cousin to stop working for the bill.

DeKrey helped sponsor HB 1509 because his aunt, who lives north of Oriska, N.D., was offered a contract by a company, RES Americas, that was unconscionable. Her daughter, Colleen Rice, is a lawyer in Nevada who works for NV Energy, and when she read the contract, she advised her mother not to sign it.

Rice also came to the Legislature to testify to both Senate and House committees for the bill.

But DeKrey said Rice has now backed out of the debate because RES Americas has business dealings with NV Energy and called Rice’s employers to complain.

In an e-mail to DeKrey and other legislators last week, Rice said her parents’ neighbors who dealt with RES had to sign a confidentiality agreement “before they were allowed to even look at the easement” and “once they signed the easement, our neighbor were subjected to a second requirement of confidentiality.”

Further, Rice wrote, “I have no idea why my North Dakota neighbors were given below market terms.”

RES had no representative at Tuesday’s conference committee and Harms said he could not speak for the company. But a company spokesman, Scott Dunaway, told the Associated Press Tuesday that RES America is “committed to treating all landowner partners fairly, with transparency and openness.”

HB 1509 passed both Senate and House before the wind energy industry got very active on the bill. Harms said he was hired about a week to 10 days ago.

Most members of the conference committee that met Tuesday talked in favor of landowner protections, but it was assigned to a conference committee changes when House leaders would not accept the Senate version of the bill.

The conference committee next meets at 8 a.m. Saturday. Harms said he believes that industry representatives and members of the conference committee will have reached informal compromise by then.

Cole works for Forum

Communications Co., which

owns The Jamesotwn Sun.

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