Rancher's battle with Oncor gains attention

May 15, 2014

A North Texan’s battle to budge the power line that he says was built in the wrong place on his ranch is gaining attention from landowners and utilities as Texas regulators prepare to decide the line’s fate. 

This week, the Public Utility Commission of Texas will consider a complaint that Johnny Vinson, an 82-year-old rancher, lodged against Oncor, the state’s largest transmission operator. The case concerns this question: After landowners sign off on a power line routes, can a transmission company install it somewhere else? 

Vinson says a 345-kilovolt power line stretching across the northwest corner of his Wise County ranch should run 150 feet north of where it does — atop an older, 69-kilovolt line. That is where Oncor originally mapped it, but not where the company built it. The change left Vinson with what he says is an unusable 11-acre gap between two power line easements. 

Power line routes commonly move slightly after regulators approve them, but no state regulations address precisely how much leeway transmission companies have. Landowners are rarely warned that approved routes might shift. 

Vinson’s complaint, filed in November 2012, originally drew scant attention from those outside of the dispute. But less than a month after The Texas Tribune reported on it, a state lawmaker, several landowner groups and several of Texas’ largest utilities have submitted comments to the PUC addressing the issue. 

“It reflects that this issue is of the highest importance to everyone — including landowners and utilities,” James Brazell, Vinson’s attorney, said of the flurry of last-minute comments to the commission. “And it really needs the commission to make a decision regarding how to fix this problem.” 

The case appears on the agenda for the PUC’s open meeting on Friday, when the three commissioners will discuss whether to quickly vote or take more time to hear arguments on either side. 

In late April, state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, asked the commissioners to give the issue a full hearing, saying the case could have “far-reaching effects.” 

“Due to the nature of this case and the possibility for statewide implications, I encourage the Commission to consider granting a full hearing,” King wrote in a letter to the commissioners. “Furthermore, if requested, I encourage the Commission to allow oral arguments to ensure the voices of both parties can be adequately expressed.” 

Oncor says it ran into engineering problems while designing the line — primarily the discovery of gas and water pipelines beneath the old power line that made building on the original path unsafe. Oncor argues that maps included in a company’s application to build a project on private land — called a certificate of convenience and necessity, or CCN — are merely “indicative” of where power lines will go, and that a company has the power to maneuver around constraints it discovers. 

Transmission companies across the state agree with that position. Last week, in a filing to the PUC, a group of seven large transmission companies wrote that the transmission line development process “will change for the worse” if the commission sides with Vinson, requiring companies to complete detailed field surveys and engineering studies on every proposed power line route — regardless of whether each is chosen. 

“This would result in considerable additional expenditures of cost and of time in the CCN process, with a corresponding delay in transmission line development and increase of costs to all ratepayers,” said the group, which includes Cross Texas Transmission, El Paso Electric Company, LCRA Transmission Services, Lone Star Transmission, Sharyland Utilities, Southwestern Public Service Company and Texas-New Mexico Power Company.  

Vinson’s legal team called Oncor’s revelations about underground gas and water pipelines on Vinson’s property a “red herring.” The rancher says Oncor ran into difficulty with the original route after realizing it had failed to give notice of the CCN proceedings to Vinson’s neighbor to the northwest, whose property would have abutted the power line. That neighbor refused to give Oncor permission to survey his land for an easement. Oncor denies that those details played a role in its routing decision. 

Brazell said that siding with Oncor would give transmission companies too much wiggle room to move projects without landowners’ consent. 

“Today it could be 5 feet. Tomorrow, it could be 150,” he said. “Next day it could be 1,000. Then, a week from now, it could be 5 miles, because there’s no limit on it.” 

A group of North Texas landowners, including the city of Haslet, the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw Independent School District and several homeowners associations support Vinson’s position. 

Because the power line has already been built, a ruling against Oncor would prove complicated, and it is not clear what that would mean for the project. 

Vinson is fighting an uphill battle. PUC staff members support Oncor’s position, and last month, an administrative law judge ruled in the company’s favor, saying that “it was clear that Oncor followed good engineering practice” on Vinson’s property. That ruling is not binding but would likely play an important role in regulators’ final decision. 

Disclosure: El Paso Electric Company is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Oncor was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2012. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at