Interference with precision-guided tractors?
Mike Hennes, chairman of the Minnkota project, said North Dakota needs the transmission line to continue developing the wind industry. "Another transmission line provides another alternative, possibly," Hennes said. "It generally helps the capability of the existing transmission system."
Every wind farm has to deal with a transmission line, he said, and the best solution is to optimize its location. "I don't know how to demonstrate that a transmission line interferes with wind development," Hennes said.
But farmers have their own concerns to demonstrate. One is the possibility that the new power line will interfere with the links to the Global Positioning System satellites they need. The GPS locations tell them exactly where to plant seeds and apply fertilizer. Weckerly said obstruction from the transmission line could drop the number of satellite links his equipment relies on from eight or nine to four. That's more than enough to throw off the accuracy of his operation, he said.
John Shockley, a West Fargo, N.D.-based attorney representing the group of landowners, said that farming operations have gotten much larger in the past few decades.
"Power lines will interfere with them more than they did even 20 years ago," Shockley said. "We're concerned how [the line] will affect precision farm equipment."
Shockley estimates the Minnkota line will affect somewhere between 200 and 400 landowners. He couldn't say how many of them he's representing -- the number changes every day -- but Weckerly suspects it's near 100. About a third of the affected landowners have signed easements with Minnkota, Weckerly said.
A shock to migratory birds?
Wary that the transmission line could lower their property values, many of the landowners point to cheaper property that already has recognized rights of way or the possibility of using public land.
According to the Minnkota project's federal environmental assessment, most of the line's study area is on agricultural land.
None of Minnkota's four proposed routes go through public land. Weckerly, who lives in North Dakota's central region, said that there's a good spot of public land near him where a route could go. It's owned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Minnkota would have to go through a long legal process with no promise of being approved to build on it. Approaching a couple hundred landowners with easement options is easier for Minnkota, Weckerly said.
But pushing a transmission line through protected public land would almost certainly provoke outrage from environmentalists. The preferred route crosses a lot of wildlife easements, explained Todd Leake, a farmer and member of the state's Sierra Club chapter. It also travels close to the Cross Ranch state park and nature reserve.
"Those refuges are primarily for shorebirds that migrate to the Gulf Coast in the winter," Leake said. "And the biggest threat among migratory birds are power lines."
Many migratory birds that rest and breed in North Dakota's wetlands are federally protected. According to the transmission line's environmental assessment, wetlands encompass 12 percent of the study area's western portion and 5 percent of its eastern portion.
As a next step, the state's Public Service Commission is planning to hold public hearings on the Minnkota line in May. That could be a problem for many farmers in the thick of planting crops. North Dakota's spring planting season usually occurs in April and May, when the harsh winter finally gives way to thawed fields.
For now, the landowners represented by Shockley are figuring out how they should approach the PSC hearings.
"We can either intervene as a group or have individual testimonies," Shockley said. "The group is still determining how to approach them." Shockley said they haven't given him a direction one way or the other. He expects to have that figured out within the next few weeks.