A Canadian energy company said Tuesday that it is buying an embattled Montana power transmission line project that has seen its plans of shipping wind energy across the border become mired in landowner disputes. Alberta-based Enbridge Inc.'s announcement came the same day the company announced a significant settlement with a leader of the opposition.
Enbridge's plans to purchase Tonbridge Power Inc. _ whose main business involves the Montana-Alberta Tie Line power transmission project _ in a deal worth $70 million is subject to shareholder approval.
Enbridge said it will pay stockholders $20 million and agree to repay about $50 million of debt incurred in the development of the 214-mile transmission line. Ultimately, Enbridge said it expects to spend approximately $300 million completing and upgrading the line.
The MATL line has been the focus of high-profile legal and legislative battles in Montana. Some landowners are refusing to sell rights of way to the company, leading to bitter eminent domain claims that have slowed construction considerably.
The state Legislature initially refused to guarantee eminent domain powers to MATL after a judge last year ruled the company could not use the process that allows it to force landowners to sell. But even though a new law was eventually put in place to help the project, the issue is still in the courts as MATL tries to negotiate sweeter deals with landowners and re-route its line to satisfy complaints.
Recent mediation talks between the two sides fell apart, and the dispute appears hardened by past grievances that are slow to ease. But both sides say publicly a settlement is within reach.
And one noteworthy deal fell into place Tuesday, MATL announced.
Larry Salois, a landowner who gained notoriety fighting to re-route the project around ancient teepee ring sites, and MATL said the line will indeed be built elsewhere on his land. The two sides said they have secured regulatory approval for the new route. Financial details for the transaction were not released.
But the company said the deal does not have any impact on the other lawsuits and disputes that still need to be worked out.
A lawyer who represented Salois, and represents many of the others, said she hopes the new owners will help settle the claims.
"I would just hope that new management would result in the company treating my clients fairly and decently," said Bozeman attorney Hertha Lund.
The issues sparked by MATL promise to linger in Montana for years, with some landowners and their advocates still seething over the legislative fix to clarify that such operations do have eminent domain power.
Enbridge comes into the project confident. It points out that regulatory hurdles have been cleared, and it is already eyeing upgrades to the planned line.
The company said demand is strong for electricity transmission, and expects the need to replace aging infrastructure and other factors will only increase the demand.
The company, which operates significant gas and oil transportation and pipelines, said the MATL project is "the first step" to developing power transmission. The company said it is expanding its interests in renewable energy.
"The project comes with an established project development team which, with support from Enbridge's major projects execution group and our financial resources, will be well positioned to develop the existing Tonbridge opportunities under the Enbridge banner, as well as to support other transmission development opportunities Enbridge is examining," Enbridge executive J. Richard Bird said in a release. "We welcome this team to Enbridge."