The politics of power lines in the 1970s and today


During the freezing winter of 1983, the first book my university professor assigned to me for our “Introduction to Political Science” course was Powerline: the first battle of the American energy war. The professor, Paul Wellstone, co-authored the book in 1981 with his physics colleague at Carleton College, Barry (Mike) Casper. Electric line recounts the violent protests in the late 1970s by farmers in western Minnesota against the construction of a 430 mile, 400 kilovolt power line, called the “CU Project,” which ran from a coal-fired power station in central North Dakota across farmland to a substation outside of Minneapolis.

Wellstone and Casper had led the power line protesters and documented their stories. The alliances they forged helped lay the groundwork for Wellstone’s 1990 election to the United States Senate, of which he was the most liberal member until he was killed in a plane crash in 2002. I wonder what Wellstone and Casper (deceased 2007), both champions of renewable energy and environmental sustainability, would do with the energy war that is brewing today for proposals, such as the infrastructure plan of the President Joe Biden, aiming to extend high voltage and long distance transmission lines. Massive grid construction has become a central element in strategies to decarbonize the power sector, electrify the economy and achieve net zero carbon emissions targets by 2050. Commentators generally present the obstacles to achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050. such expansion as “financial and administrative”. An equally significant obstacle, however, is probably political resistance to power lines like the revolt in rural Minnesota forty years ago.

Electric line is a classic morality tale of David vs. Goliath. The Goliath Electric Utilities and state government officials wielded eminent domain power – the right to take private property for public use. Their allies in state courts and law enforcement enforced government decisions and protected the line. Dairy farmer Davids in Grant, Pope and Stearns counties, by contrast, had little voice in the process of granting the “certificate of need” for the line and determining its location. Neither non-violent nor violent actions were able to stop the project. The lesson my classmates and I learned from the book was “fight the power! ”

The complexity of the power struggle escaped us at the time, however. The developers of the CU Project were not the investor-owned “private” electricity companies that farmers had long been suspicious of, but two associations of rural electricity co-operatives, the kind that rural Americans fought for. under the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. In the early 1970s, the price paid by cooperatives for electricity skyrocketed. Coal-fired power was by far the cheapest option for new electricity generation, and one heavily promoted by the Ford and Carter administrations. As interviews with the Minnesota Powerline Oral History Project reveal, co-ops viewed the CU project as a way to increase control over energy costs for their members, many of whom favored the line. But these partisans had no easements imposed on them through eminent domain.

For those who did, the power line represented an attack on their way of life, an intrusion by the government into the way they managed their private lands. Many have also alleged that the electric and magnetic fields emitted by power lines cause cancer and other illnesses, claims that have since been refuted. After exhausting their options through the legal and political system, farmers’ initial efforts for non-violent civil disobedience turned violent. Protesters removed survey stakes, destroyed concrete tower foundations, knocked down transmission towers (fourteen in all) and shot at private security guards.

In Electric line, Wellstone and Casper justify these acts of violence and sabotage as the only recourse for farmers in the face of “the increasing centralization of energy installations and the control of energy”. They conclude that the power line would not have been necessary if the utilities had followed the “soft energy route” towards the conservation and local production of renewable energy. They argue that the $ 1.2 billion in low-interest REA loans for the CU project would have been better spent on house insulation, wood stoves and solar water heaters. To be inspired by Electric line, a recent story of the ‘rural revolt’ of the 1970s goes so far as to portray power line protesters as budding renewable energy advocates.

This representation is far-fetched. These farms, averaging 300 to 400 acres, consumed huge amounts of electricity, fuel oil, propane, diesel fuel and gasoline. Small-scale solar installations would not have powered their dairy, poultry and agricultural operations. These protests were motivated by concerns not about energy, but about Earth. As the Powerline Oral History project shows, protesting farmers did not like the use of a prominent estate to force easements on their land against their will. They were challenging federal and state environmental laws that prevented the establishment of utility lines through wildlife areas and along highway rights-of-way, but not across farmland.

The farmers’ revolt did not prevent CU’s power line from entering service in August 1979. It still provides electricity today. However, the revolt won important reforms for future projects. Minnesota passed a “buy-from-the-farm” law that ensured greater public participation in decisions about energy site selection and strengthened the rights of landowners in proceedings relating to prominent estates. The state then amended the Prominent Estates Act to increase condemnation payments to landowners. Congress also revised the Highway Beautification Act to allow the construction of power lines in highway rights-of-way. These reforms paved the way for the completion in 2017 of the CapX2020 transmission project, an eight hundred mile system of new transmission to deliver electricity from the Dakotas through Minnesota.

Yet the property rights challenges to building energy infrastructure are gaining strength, echoing complaints from the Minnesota plains in the 1970s. The context this time around is different, primarily due to the issue of climate change. As part of their “stay in the ground” strategy to reduce carbon emissions, climate activists oppose the use of the eminent domain in relation to oil and gas pipelines. However, such opposition also fuels resistance to high voltage power lines, whether it is transmitting electricity from fossil fuels or from renewable sources.

While climate activists can distinguish between fossil fuels and renewables when it comes to enforcing eminent domain, their property rights allies in pipeline fights do not. Like Minnesota farmers in the 1970s, rural Americans intend to protect their land, and they oppose infrastructure more above than below. In 2016, Iowa farmers challenged the granting of a prominent domain for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Although backed by the Sierra Club, these Iowans were not concerned about the climate implications of DAPL, but what they saw as an unconstitutional take of their property. The Iowa Supreme Court dismissed the challenge, but the state legislature in 2017 recognized this property rights insurgency by prohibiting the use of the prominent estate for the location of overhead power lines.

Recently, developers have sketched out many large-scale transmission projects to integrate dispersed wind and solar power into regional grids. Landowners across the United States are fighting to stop them. The now debunked claim that power lines cause cancer still fuels opposition. Like Russell Gold Superpower says, Clean Line Energy Partners worked unsuccessfully for years to overcome landowner objections to power lines that would bring wind power from Oklahoma to Tennessee and from Kansas to Indiana. These regions, along with Iowa and Nebraska, are precisely where wind power is needed most to meet net zero goals. Battles have been fought in New Jersey, New Hampshire, Illinois and Wisconsin to block further transmission projects. In addition, many oppositions have been mobilized against wind projects in the Northeast and the Midwest, including Minnesota.

In some places, there are options to run lines along rail or road rights-of-way to avoid prominent area procedures. Transparent and inclusive transmission planning, exemplified by CapX2020, has proven that landowners can be won over in some areas. Nonetheless, achieving carbon reduction targets will require many wind farms, solar panels, and transmission lines across the country of rural Americans. Will some end up resisting as many Minnesotans did in the 1970s? Would Paul Wellstone and Mike Casper support such resistance now if it undermines national climate action?

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