Dave Clutter, Driftless Area Land Conservancy, (608) 692-2153, Dave@driftlessconservancy.org
George Meyer, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, (608) 516-5545, firstname.lastname@example.org
Judith Nemes, Environmental Law & Policy Center, (312) 795-3706, JNemes@elpc.org
Wisconsin PSC/DNR Draft Environmental Impact Statement Echoes Conservation Groups & Natural Resource Experts’ Concerns of Unneeded Huge Transmission Line Harming Scenic Driftless Area
State report identifies harmful impacts, need for huge transmission line questioned
Dodgeville, WI – The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ and Public Service Commission’s just-released draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) confirms many of the same vital natural resources concerns over American Transmission Company’s (ATC) proposed huge Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line and 17-story high towers already voiced by local conservation groups and leading natural resources experts. The proposed transmission line would cut a wide swath through the Driftless Area’s scenic landscapes, conservation lands, parklands, key waterways, and other natural resource treasures. This is the wrong place for a huge transmission line, which, in any case, is not needed for electricity reliability.
According to Driftless Area Land Conservancy Executive Director David Clutter: “The Driftless Area is a nationally significant landscape that should be protected. We appreciated that Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources’ draft EIS recognized many of the same potential harms we and others identified that a massive transmission line and its 17-story high towers would inflict upon this unique treasure in the Midwest.”
A top-rate team of Wisconsin’s leading natural resources experts presented their concerns in written comments filed in January with the Wisconsin Public Service Commission and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Their comments were submitted on behalf of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation by the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which is serving as their public legal counsel.
George Meyer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and former Director of Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, said: “The Driftless Area and specifically the locations that would be harmed by the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line provide critical habitat for fish and wildlife. State, federal and local governments have invested many millions of dollars in lands for fish and wildlife habitat, public access and recreational purposes including hunting, fishing, trapping, biking, hiking and birdwatching which generate scores of millions of dollars into the local and state economies. The value of these public lands will be significantly degraded by the construction of the proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line.”
Howard Learner, Executive Director at the Environmental Law & Policy Center and one of the attorneys for the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation said: “The Driftless Area is the wrong place for a huge transmission line, which is not needed for reliability in any case as electricity demand is flat and there is already surplus power. The proposed costly transmission line is yesterday’s misguided way to meet future energy needs for people and businesses in Wisconsin. There are better, cleaner, and more flexible solar energy, storage, wind power and energy efficiency resources in southwest Wisconsin that would create jobs and economic growth here instead of subsidizing out-of-state energy including fossil fuel generation.”
A+ Team of Wisconsin Natural Resources Experts Oppose Huge Transmission Line That Endangers Scenic Driftless Area Values
Threats to Unique Landscape, Recreational Tourism and Fragile Ecosystems
Dodgeville, WI – Four of Wisconsin’s leading natural resources experts filed strong written comments opposing American Transmission Company’s (ATC) proposed huge Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line and 17-story towers that will cut a wide swath through the Driftless Area’s scenic landscapes, conservation lands, parklands, key waterways and other natural resource treasures. This is the wrong place for a huge transmission line that is not needed for electricity reliability.
The experts’ written comments were filed individually by January 4th with the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. They were also submitted on behalf of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy (DALC) and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation (WWF) by public interest attorneys at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which is serving as legal counsel for DALC and WWF.
According to DALC Executive Director David Clutter: “The Driftless Area is a nationally significant landscape that should be protected. This massive transmission line and its 17-story tall towers are not needed for reliability, and the Driftless Area should not be sacrificed for ATC’s profits. We are pleased to have a superb team of natural resources experts weigh in on the importance of protecting and conserving a unique treasure in the Midwest.”
The natural resources expert team includes:
George Meyer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and former Director of Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, stated:
“The Driftless Area and specifically the locations proposed to be traversed by the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line provide critical habitat for fish and wildlife. State, federal and local governments have invested over $100 million dollars in lands for fish and wildlife habitat, public access and recreational purposes including hunting, fishing, trapping, biking, hiking and birdwatching which generate scores of millions of dollars into the local and state economies. The value of these public lands will be significantly degraded by the construction of the proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line.”
Don Waller, Professor of Botany and Environmental Studies and former Department Chair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, stated:
“As a professional conservation biologist, I am concerned about the environmental impacts of this proposed transmission line as I know this project would have both immediate and sustained deleterious impacts on plant, bird, and other animal populations in the region.”
Stephen Born, Emeritus Professor of Planning and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, stated:
“One of the greatest losses associated with a major transmission line across this special region is the degradation of scenic and amenity resources. Because these highly-valued scenic resources are among the surest victims of a huge transmission line, those impacts should be thoroughly and carefully assessed in the review process for the transmission line.”
Curt Meine, Senior Fellow at the The Aldo Leopold Foundation and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, stated:
“We must strive together for energy solutions that do not sacrifice other conservation goals and degrade the quality of our land (in the Driftless Area). The decision on this proposed powerline is a test. It will show if we as a society are willing to resist the easy path of expediency and short-term profit.”
The proposed 345 kV high-voltage transmission line is on a route cutting a wide path from Dubuque, Iowa, through the Upper Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Refuge, across protected conservation lands, wetlands, family farms, school district property and many sensitive natural areas in the Driftless Area. The huge transmission line routes would run through the protected Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area and Black Earth Watershed Conservation Area, and by Governor Dodge State Park and Blue Mounds State Park.
ATC is requesting a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the Public Service Commission so that it can assert eminent domain in order to take private land for its expensive transmission line and high towers.
Howard Learner, Executive Director at the Environmental Law & Policy Center and one of the attorneys for DALC and the WWF said: “The Driftless Area is the wrong place for a huge transmission line, which is not needed for reliability in any case. The proposed costly transmission line is yesterday’s misguided way to meet future energy needs for people and businesses in Wisconsin. There are better, cleaner, and more flexible solar energy, storage, wind power and energy efficiency resources in southwest Wisconsin that would create jobs and economic growth here instead of subsidizing out-of-state energy including fossil fuel generation.”
DODGEVILLE, Wis., Dec. 10, 2018 – The draft environmental impact statement (EIS) released recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) for the proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line includes only a cursory review of non-transmission alternatives to the high-voltage line such as greater energy efficiency, local renewables, and energy storage, despite requirements in federal law that alternatives be considered thoroughly. The draft EIS admits that non-transmission alternatives, along with lower-voltage and underground alternatives, were “not carried forward for detailed analysis.”
The proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line in southwest Wisconsin would cut a swath through the state’s scenic and ecologically unique Driftless Area. The cost of the project would be borne by electric ratepayers in Wisconsin and other states and energy experts have concluded that the new transmission line is not needed due to flattened demand for electricity in Wisconsin and recent advances in energy technology.
The costs and environmental damage that would be created by the transmission line has sparked opposition and legal challenges from local grassroots citizens and conservation groups. Wisconsin’s Dane and Iowa Counties voted to oppose the transmission line and have intervened in the Public Service Commission proceedings to fight the project.
“We wouldn’t think of putting a power line across the Grand Canyon, so why would we think of putting one through one of the most beautiful and unique landscapes in the Upper Midwest?” Said Dave Clutter, executive director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy. “We have a national treasure in the Driftless Area, and we should treat it like one.”
“RUS is required by federal law to ‘rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives’ to proposed transmission lines like the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project,” said Howard Learner, one of the Environmental Law and Policy Center attorneys representing DALC. “RUS cannot simply look at different environmentally harmful routes for this huge transmission line and call it a day.”
“Iowa County residents have come together to adamantly oppose this unneeded high-voltage power line, which would irreversibly damage the landscape, ecology, and recreation economy we depend on,” said Betsy D’Angelo, a member of the Driftless Defenders’ leadership team. “There are alternatives that can improve our electric system without damaging the Driftless Area’s most important natural areas.”
“The draft environmental impact statement for the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project ignores the reality of new technology that has improved energy efficiency and decreased the demand for electricity,” said David Meylor, chairman of the Western Dane Preservation Campaign, the Mount Horeb area citizens group formed to oppose the line. “Recent analyses of electric demand demonstrate that the expensive, invasive Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line project simply isn’t needed.”
“The proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek Transmission line will have a significant negative impact on fish and wildlife habitat and the management of public lands in Southwestern Wisconsin and in light of other energy alternatives should not be constructed,” stated George Meyer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
The proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line would install towers of up to 175-feet along a 100-mile route that would affect sensitive natural areas and disrupt economic activity. The project could cost ratepayers more than $1 billion during the life of the project, including a profit margin for the transmission line’s utility owners that is guaranteed by Wisconsin law.
Legal counsel for the Driftless Area Land Conservancy will be reviewing the RUS’s draft EIS in greater detail and will submit comprehensive public comments to the agency. Members of the public are strongly encouraged to submit comments before the deadline of Feb. 5, 2019.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE David Clutter, Driftless Area Land Conservancy
Judith Nemes, ELPC
Dane County Board of Supervisors Rejects High Power Transmission Line
MADISON, WI. – Dane County Board of Supervisors voted to oppose ATC’s Cardinal-Hickory Creek high-voltage transmission line and tall towers. The transmission line would carve a wide path from Middleton, Wisc., to Dubuque, Iowa, across conservancy land, private farms, school district property and many sensitive natural areas in the treasured Driftless Region. The board voted to oppose the transmission line 33-0, with two abstentions.
“This is a major victory in our efforts to oppose this expensive, unnecessary and damaging transmission line,” said David Clutter, Executive Director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy (DALC). “The Dane County Board of Supervisors sent a convincing message that this transmission line should be stopped. The vote helps to assure that beautiful scenic lands, important habitats and farmland in the Driftless Area will be protected.”
“The Dane County Board recognized that this huge and expensive transmission line is not needed to meet Wisconsin’s power needs,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which serves as legal counsel for DALC. “There are better, cheaper and cleaner energy alternatives for Wisconsin’s future.”
Learner added: “It’s vital to protect the scenic Driftless Area, which is a center of nature and tourism. Hopefully, ATC will reconsider its controversial high-voltage transmission line plan and avoid contentious legal proceedings.”
The Board of Supervisors’ resolution states, in part: “Now is the time to begin increasing reliance on advanced technology, robust regional planning, innovative commercial practices and coordinated local system operations rather than to construct the proposed 345 kV transmission line.
“The Dane County Board of Supervisors calls upon the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, Governor Walker, and the Wisconsin Legislature to oppose the construction and operation of the proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line and not grant any permits, certificates or other approvals needed for the proposed transmission line.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Wisconsin Power Line Pits Green Interests Against Each Other June 11, 2017 By Lee Bergquist
A fight that involves dueling environmental constituencies is brewing over plans for a massive transmission line that would run through the Driftless Region of southwestern Wisconsin.
Developers say the estimated $500 million, 125-mile line would help buttress the regional power grid and provide access to lower-priced electricity in Iowa and other states.
But like the clamor that has erupted over construction of oil pipelines, transmission lines also engender strong emotions, with opponents often raising environmental objections.
In this case, Wisconsin’s newest power-line proposal pits a pair of green interests: those who see the project as a blight on the picturesque ridges and valleys of the region and those who say it opens up a new route for renewable wind energy from other states.
The Cardinal-Hickory Creek power line would run from west of Madison to Dubuque County in Iowa, where it would be linked to a growing fleet of wind farms that produce no greenhouse gases.
The Wisconsin Public Service Commission, whose members have all been appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, must decide whether the line is needed, and, if so, the best corridor to build it.
The developers have not yet selected precise route options, but recently sent letters to potentially affected property owners.
Two electric transmission companies — Pewaukee-based American Transmission Co. and ITC Midwest of Cedar Rapids, Iowa — lead the project. A third partner is Dairyland Power Cooperative of La Crosse.
The companies expect to make a formal application in 2018. If approved, the new line would begin operating in 2023.
The PSC’s decision will center on the need for a transmission line in a state now brimming with power. Regulators also will assess the ecological impact of a system whose towers will rise half the length of a football field and occupy 150 feet of right-of-way.
A comparable project can now be seen on stretches of I-90/94 in northern Dane and Columbia counties and the Lake Delton area of Sauk County, where another transmission line, the Badger Coulee, is under construction. It will run between Madison and La Crosse.
The Cardinal-Hickory Creek line has been included in a group of more than a dozen transmission projects that the Midwest’s grid operator and planning agency, known as the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, says should be built to maintain the reliability of the system and help alleviate traffic jams on the wires.
That means Wisconsin utility customers would pay about 15% of the cost of the line because MISO recommended that it be built for the benefit of the region.
Factors favoring the line, said the leader of a utility watchdog group, are falling electricity prices from wind and mandates in neighboring states for renewable energy that are higher than Wisconsin’s 10%.
On the other hand, electric demand in the state has been flat, said Thomas Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, which will analyze the case when it reaches the PSC.
“From our perspective, it’s making sure the need is justified,” Content said.
New transmission lines are going up as the power industry evolves from heavy reliance on coal-fired plants to a more varied mix that includes natural gas, wind, solar and other renewable sources.
Advocates for more renewable power say shifting to wind requires bigger transmission systems to move power around.
Wisconsin received 3.4% of its electricity from wind last year — up from 2.6% in 2015, according to PSC documents.
But the mix of wind is expected to grow.
With more wind turbines in development in Iowa and elsewhere, and the price of wind power falling, “we are seeing a pretty quick transition in the Midwest and a pretty big increase in wind,” said Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin.
“We need a more robust system to take advantage of it.”
But big transmission towers are not what David Clutter and others want to see.
“This isn’t your typical part of the Midwest or Wisconsin,” said Clutter, executive director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy. “Our concern is that it will permanently change the character of the area.”
The Driftless group and others, including the Nature Conservancy of Wisconsin, have land holdings in the region and want to protect remnants of prairies and other ecological features that escaped the scouring impact of glaciers thousands of years ago.
This spring, the Iowa County Board, the towns of Dodgeville and Wyoming in Iowa County and the Village of Spring Green in Sauk County have all passed resolutions opposing the project and expressed concerns about the effect on tourism and recreation.
One potential route lies near a segment of Highway 18 in Dane and Iowa counties that passes the communities of Mount Horeb, Barneveld and Dodgeville where vistas of cornfields and tall grass prairies with scattered oaks can stretch for miles.
Among the worries: The potential effect on parcels like the Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area, which the state Department of Natural Resources has identified as having the highest priority for grassland protection, and the potential scenic harm the line would have on the 40-mile Military Ridge State Trail that runs along the highway.
If the line swings north, there are concerns on how habitat and wildlife would be affected as it cuts through miles of rolling woodlands and oak savannas where there are little or no existing roads or rights-of-way.
Spokeswoman Kaya Freiman of American Transmission Co. said power lines can co-exist with bike trails and sensitive ecosystems. She said the environmental effects will be “thoroughly reviewed” by regulators.
State law also requires that lines be constructed along existing rights-of-way as much as possible, she said.
Opponents are also challenging the line on economic grounds and say the biggest motivation of the transmission companies is receiving the nearly 11% return permitted by regulators on investments to build power lines.
They also note that electric demand has been dropping because of energy conservation and lingering effects of the recession.
On days with peak electric demand, utilities in Wisconsin last year produced 17% more power than was needed, according to PSC figures, and the agency expects it to remain nearly as high in the next five years.
“Very tall towers and transmission lines aren’t needed,” said attorney Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, which has been hired by the Driftless Area Land Conservancy.
“There is already a surplus of generating capacity.”
How will the American Transmission Company’s proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek power line affect Wisconsin residents? What are the benefits of the new power line? Will rates go up for Wisconsin citizens? This power line is meant to follow a route from northeastern Iowa, on or near the Hickory Creek, and across the Mississippi River, through southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Area to the Cardinal substation in Middleton.
The Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) is pleased to announce that Scott Strand, an experienced public interest litigation attorney and environmental policy advocate, will join ELPC as a Senior Attorney focused on natural resources protection issues and opportunities in the Upper Midwest and Great Plains states. Strand is a Minnesota native, bringing 30 years of litigation experience to his new environmental role at ELPC.
Strand most recently served as Executive Director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) for six years. He and MCEA have played key roles in securing state regulations that protect Minnesota’s waterways, retiring old highly-polluting coal plants and keeping harmful sulfide mining proposals at bay.
Strand previously served for 17 years in senior positions at the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, including as Deputy Counsel and Manager of the Natural Resources Division. He also worked at a private law firm on diverse business and public sector litigation.
Scott Strand said: “Joining ELPC presents an exciting opportunity for me to work at a regional organization that uses a diverse strategic advocacy approach to preserve the Midwest’s vital natural resources. I look forward to working with ELPC’s strong multidisciplinary team of public interest attorneys, environmental business specialists and policy experts to better protect the special places in the Great Plains and Upper Midwest. This is a great opportunity for me to help make a difference by focusing my work as a full-time public interest lawyer on important litigation and advocacy campaigns to protect our Midwest environment.”
ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner said: “We welcome Scott Strand to ELPC’s strong public interest advocacy team. Scott is a talented litigator and knowledgeable environmental policy advocate who has been a valued colleague. We look forward to Scott now joining ELPC to expand our important work to protect vital natural resources and the wild and special places in the Great Plains and the Upper Midwest including the Driftless Area, Great Lakes, Mississippi River and Northwoods. Scott will provide additional experienced legal firepower for ELPC and our clients and colleagues to succeed.”
Strand will be based in Minneapolis-St. Paul, which is a regional hub in the Great Plains and Upper Midwest, and is a key place for natural resources protection issues and opportunities, and for clean energy development.
By Denise Thornton and Doug Hansmann
Environmental Group Examines Impacts of Proposed ATC Power Line
A Chicago environmental legal advocacy group is scrutinizing the Driftless Area west of Madison and the damage that could be done there with construction of a high-voltage American Transmission Company power line.
The ATC project would carry electricity from Dubuque County, Iowa, to Middleton along 500 steel towers, each one 10 to 15 stories tall.
The Environmental Law and Policy Center has led a number of successful advocacy campaigns designed to protect natural resources throughout the Midwest. In 2003, the group led the effort to get a court order that halted accelerated logging in Wisconsin’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, safeguarding 22,000 acres of forestland.
One of the tactics that makes the center successful is its Science Advisory Council. Susan Mudd, the group’s senior policy advocate, says, “Each scientist contributes pro bono advice and connects us with other experts and research that relates to our work.”
One of these experts is Don Waller, a UW-Madison professor of botany and environmental studies. “This Driftless Area Project and the transmission corridor is a new approach,” Waller says. “Instead of just focusing on one issue, we are looking at the range of threats now and in the future for a particular region and how those threats can be addressed in an effective and collaborative way.”
Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter Published: Friday, February 27, 2015
Ask Chicago environmentalists who’s the Windy City’s best lawyer, and they’re likely to name Howard Learner.
Learner has built his Environmental Law and Policy Center into a Midwest powerhouse over the last 20 years on transportation and clean energy issues, scoring victories in courtrooms and state legislatures along the way.
His shop eschews the national spotlight for a hyper-regional focus that he says is part of the group’s DNA.
“First of all, we are Midwesterners,” he said. “The Midwest is probably the most important region in the most important country in the world.”
ELPC is among a few regional environmental law centers that operate in the gap between national Goliaths like the Natural Resources Defense Council and small grass-roots organizations. The center takes on major litigation — fighting lawsuits brought by former Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon, arguing for solar and wind energy in state Supreme Courts, and battling Great Lakes pollution. Moreover, it has developed a lobbying operation that pressures government officials — from U.S. senators to mayors — to support environmentally progressive policies.
Learner prides himself on leading a “grass-tops” organization, meaning it seeks to unite leaders from often-opposing camps — such as unions and local chambers of commerce — to push for common goals.
Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but ELPC is now thriving, thanks largely to Learner’s grasp of regional politics.
“He has steered clear of the weird political fights,” said J. Paul Forrester, an energy and agricultural specialist at Mayer Brown in Chicago. “He has a lot of political acumen. I give him a lot of credit for that. That’s helped him avoid ugly confrontation.”
Learner, 59, lives a mile-and-a-half from where he was born in Chicago. The son of a University of Wisconsin football player, he’s well over 6 feet tall and bearded. He cuts an imposing presence that he establishes right away with a firm handshake.
Growing up as an outdoorsman, Learner biked across Wisconsin several times and always had a backpack ready for weekend trips. He attended the University of Michigan and remains a devoted fan of the Wolverine football team, then headed to Harvard Law School.
He returned to Chicago with his law degree and worked for a public interest law firm that specialized in housing cases. Learner launched the group’s environmental practice and specialized in pro bono work.
In 1991, seven major foundations pooled funds and asked several local lawyers for proposals for a regional-based legal center to address environmental programs in the Midwest. Such a group didn’t exist, and, as Learner recalled, there were ample reasons the region needed one.
The Great Lakes contain nearly a fifth of the world’s freshwater supply and provide drinking water to more than 40 million people. At the time, electricity utilities were becoming more regionally focused, building power lines across state borders. The Midwest was also home to some of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Three-quarters of the pollution in the Great Lakes was coming from the energy and transportation sectors.
The region also served as the nexus of multiple types of transportation; interstate highways crisscross the area, as do major railways. And Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport serves as a hub of air travel in the region.
“If you are serious about solving our climate change problems, and you’re serious about keeping the Great Lakes clean,” Learner said, “you need to deal with the energy and transportation sectors on a regional basis.”
Learner applied for the funding, basing his proposal in part on other regional outfits like the Conservation Law Foundation in New England, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund on the West Coast, which has since become Earthjustice.
The foundations backed Learner, guaranteeing $850,000 per year for three years. He left his practice, rented a storefront and started assembling furniture.
At the core of the group’s philosophy from the start, Learner said, was devising “pragmatic solutions” that paired environmental benefits with economic growth and job creation. Now such proposals are increasingly common among environmental groups, but at the time they weren’t.
Learner pledged that whenever his group came out against a project or proposal, it would say yes to a less harmful alternative.
“We said from the beginning we weren’t going to get boxed in as naysayers,” he said.
ELPC now has an annual budget of more than $6.5 million and about 50 employees in eight offices throughout the Midwest. It divides its efforts into two groups. Its strategic advocacy arm lobbies and files lawsuits to fight what it views as environmentally harmful policies. And second, it brings parties together to come up with “eco-business” deals and proposals, such as working with labor unions, local chambers of commerce and officials to facilitate solar and wind energy development in the Midwest, or a regional high-speed rail network.
Those efforts have yielded results. Iowa is the second-largest wind energy producer in the country, and Illinois, Minnesota and Kansas all rank within the top 10. And plans for a regional high-speed rail proposal to serve 60 million people in eight states are starting to jell. The St. Louis-to-Chicago-to-Detroit line is being built, and sections already run at 110 mph. The effort has garnered the support of the Obama administration, which committed $13 billion in the 2009 stimulus package.
Looking for opportunity
ELPC’s success is due in large part to Learner’s relentlessness.
Jerry Adelmann, president of the Chicago-based Openlands conservation group, said it typically takes Learner “two seconds” to respond to an email.
“He lives and breathes this stuff,” Adelmann said. “It’s part of his very being.”
To his foes — which are typically entrenched energy utilities — Learner can come off as a zealot. But he has overcome such criticism through political adeptness, which is unusual for someone who wears his Democratic-leaning politics on his sleeve.
Learner was Illinois delegate at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and has served on political committees that others in the nongovernmental organization community would likely shy away from out of fear of reprisals from the other side.
“Howard is out front in terms of his politics,” Adelmann said.
Learner seems to dodge most blowback, though, largely because of his instincts.
“I think Howard is one of those visionary leaders,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney in ELPC’s Des Moines, Iowa, office. “His mind is always spinning, and he sort of sees the direction that things are moving. He is constantly trying to anticipate what opportunities will present themselves and constantly trying to take advantage of them in a strategic way.”
That doesn’t mean ELPC doesn’t have critics.
Todd Maisch, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said it’s possible to have a “reasonable conversation” with ELPC. But he stressed that the group often presses for more stringent environmental controls than his members can support.
“Bottom line is, we think a big part of their agenda results in very little environmental improvement but huge costs,” Maisch said.
He added that ELPC’s coalition building is often less successful than the group says.
“Their attempts,” he said, “to bring people together to build a consensus — a lot more of those fail than succeed.”
Battling energy tycoon
Learner and ELPC can nevertheless point to significant achievements, both on the large and small scale.
ELPC was part of a coalition that pushed for the closure of two old power plants in 2012 on Chicago’s South Side, the city’s last two coal-fired facilities. Before that, it fought to ensure that wastewater was treated before utilities discharged it into the Chicago River.
And last summer, ELPC lawyers secured an Iowa Supreme Court victory in challenging an Iowa Utilities Board decision that created an unfavorable and expensive environment for solar energy development in the state.
There is also a strong “defender of the little guy” thread to their work. Perhaps no case illustrates that better than ELPC’s work for a small community in Saugatuck, Mich., against former Chesapeake CEO McClendon.
An artsy Lake Michigan resort town with fewer than 1,000 year-round residents, Saugatuck is a 2½-hour drive from Chicago. In summer, tourists visit the town’s art galleries, shops and renowned beach dunes. The community has sought to protect those attractions from development by passing strict zoning laws.
Those efforts were threatened, however, in 2007, when McClendon bought 412 acres at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River that the town had been trying to make part of the public domain and conserve for 50 years.
McClendon wanted to build a gated community and resort on the land, with a nine-hole golf course, hotel, mansions and condos. Within 30 days of purchasing the property, he filed a series of lawsuits challenging Saugatuck’s zoning laws.
Overwhelmed, David Swan and the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance turned to Learner for help.
ELPC took the cases, and Swan said the group’s attorneys became part of the community. They also provided communications and marketing support to Swan and his allies.
They were able to halt McClendon’s development. In November 2011, a federal district court judge threw out a settlement between McClendon and the Saugatuck Township Board that would have essentially removed zoning provisions from the property. The judge ruled that the settlement would have illegally prevented the board from ever updating its zoning laws for the property.
Further, the court held that any future such settlement would require a hearing to ensure it benefits the “public good.”
There remains some ongoing litigation, but the community has since bought back half the land McClendon purchased. And, Swan said, nothing has been built on McClendon’s land.
Swan credits ELPC with saving the dunes — and his community.
“It just kind of amazed me,” Swan said. “Here was a really brilliant attorney, who is really busy with huge projects, and he doesn’t let small projects like trying to save 400 acres of pristine duneland fall by the wayside.”
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