Wheatland official raises concerns about private lines

1/23/2013

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

The Mississippi Lime Play, an underground formation across southern and western Kansas and northern Oklahoma, is being eyed by state and local economic development officials for its potentially huge economic impact.

But the Finney County Commission learned Tuesday that increased oil and gas exploration could create future problems for public utilities if oil companies begin building their own electric infrastructure to service wells.

Phillip Shelley, director of operations for Wheatland Electric Cooperative, said at least one company so far, SandRidge, wants to build its own electric infrastructure to power its drilling efforts. The company currently operates a couple of well sites in northeast Finney County where public power transmission is deficient, he said.

To install electric lines, a private company buys private right of way from a property owner and puts the lines close to the public right-of-way, making that right of way useless for a public utility that might want or need to build there, Shelley said, and also making it difficult for the public utility to cross the private line to accommodate a customer.

While not a problem now, and not illegal, Shelley is concerned about the "real havoc" that could be created if multiple companies start stringing lines throughout the countryside.

"Once one company does this, there's nothing to stop other companies from wanting to do it. If you have four, five, six companies all doing it in an area, it can create absolute chaos," he said. "If we have tornadoes or ice storms, it is going to be a real problem."

Shelley said a weather emergency could cause public confusion about who's responsible for line repair. The public utility doesn't have the authority to repair or clean up a private company's line, and a private company may not have the same emergency response that public utilities do.

Commissioners took no action on Shelley's presentation, and expressed skepticism that the issue could be addressed at the county level.

"If they build those on private ground and buy the right of way from a landowner and generate their own electricity all on private ground, I don't see where we would have a lot of control over that," Commissioner Larry Jones said.

Shelley said one remedy he would like to see would be for private companies that construct a private utility system to be subject to the same Kansas Corporation Commission rules as public utilities. The KCC regulates public utilities on rates and general rules, but currently is forbidden from regulating a private company, according to Shelley.

KCC oversight won't address all the concerns but would be a good first step, he said. Shelley said he wasn't calling for the county to take action, he only wanted to raise awareness about concerns regarding private electrical systems.

Commissioner Cliff Mayo asked Shelley to create a one-page summary outlining the issue that Mayo could present to the Kansas Legislative Policy Group. The KLPG is a bipartisan coalition of 30 western Kansas counties that share a common interest in preserving the counties' tax base and retaining local control. Mayo said the KLPG may be interested in taking the issue to the Legislature.

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