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Janell Cole, Published April 22 2009

Wind companies battle bill

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. They say landowners 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 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.

“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.

Landowners are given ample time to examine the documents before signing, they are encouraged to consult their attorneys and they are not pressured to sign, said Julie Voeck, Next-Era’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.

Rep. Duane DeKrey, R-Pettibone, a sponsor of the bill and chairman of the conference committee, said it’s the Legislature’s duty to offer consumer protection for landowners.

DeKrey says he knows 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, was offered an “unconscionable” contract by RES Americas. Her daughter, Colleen Rice, is a lawyer in Nevada who works for NV Energy. When she read the contract, she advised her mother not to sign it.

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

But DeKrey said Rice has 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 neighbors were subjected to a second requirement of confidentiality.”

RES had no representative at Tuesday’s conference committee meeting 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.”

The conference committee next meets at 8 a.m. Saturday.

Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. She can be reached at (701) 224-0830 or forumcap@btinet.net