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State Board Declines To Lease To Wind Energy Company, Raises Policy Considerations

Rail Tie Wind Project project location based on the ConnectGen website

The state board of land commissioners has voted against leasing land to a renewable energy company planning to build a wind farm in Albany County. Local opponents raised concerns during the public meeting about the project's various impacts.

The Texas-based energy firm, ConnectGen, is working to develop the Rail Tie Wind Project, slated to be a 500 MW wind farm in southeastern Wyoming spread over state and private land. State land comprised about 20 percent of the original plans. The company will continue its plan to develop, though exclusively on private land.

Local residents raised concerns that the wind farm would interfere with views, affect real estate value, tourism, and roads.

"There's an abundance of land... that doesn't impact our world class viewsheds," said Albany County resident Ron Wilson. Viewsheds are the geographical area visible from a location.

After hearing public comment, Brandi Monger, deputy Attorney General in the civil division, reminded the board, which is made up of five state officials including Gov. Mark Gordon, that its goal is to maximize value of the land, not judge the strength of the project itself.

"Your responsibility is as fiduciaries of the state trust lands, to follow the laws that relate to those to determine whether or not this lease does or does not enter to the... greatest long term benefit of the trust beneficiaries," Monger said.

ConnectGen calculated the project would have provided $45 million in total tax revenues to the state over the project's life. The state would have been guaranteed to receive at least $480,000 per year for leasing the land, according to the company. The project also projects to generate $131 million in total tax revenue to Albany County.

In addition to the board's role of maximizing the value of state land, Secretary of State Ed Buchanan said, "We have policy considerations too. And I think in a contemporary society with the advancements we've seen and the energy alternatives that we have to consider, now that folks were largely successful in killing coal prematurely, here we are. And so we do have to make policy considerations."

The board was initially interested in putting off the decision until seeing if the rest of the project would go through. Treasurer Curt Meier said, in that case, the viewshed would already be compromised. "Under those circumstances we participate, but not under circumstances of being a leader and trying to push this project forward," he said.

ConnectGen's Amanda MacDonald said that plan would not work.

The board determined this lease would not be incompatible with existing operations in grazing or agricultural leases. After deliberations, the board collectively voted against leasing the land.

Its decision confused ConnectGen Vice President Mark Lawlor. "It's just not clear why, if the project is going to proceed the state wouldn't take the $20 million in lease payments especially in light of tightening budgets and the challenges and funding schools in the coming years," he said.

The Rail Tie Wind Project is still waiting to receive its draft Environmental Impact Statement and could begin development as soon as 2022.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.

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