Utility alleges fraud in Montana wind farm deal

2014-03-31T15:11:00Z 2014-04-02T00:10:08Z Utility alleges fraud in Montana wind farm dealThe Associated Press The Associated Press
March 31, 2014 3:11 pm  • 

A California utility that invested in a Montana wind farm has accused the developer of fraudulently concealing that federal wildlife officials recommended the project get a permit in case it harms eagles.

San Diego Gas & Electric and a subsidiary of Spanish wind developer NaturEner filed dueling lawsuits in California and Montana stemming from a dispute over the wind farm near Cut Bank.

At issue is whether NaturEner followed through on contractual obligations to protect eagles and other birds that nest near the 126-turbine Rim Rock wind farm.

NaturEner spokesman Patrick Ferguson on Monday rejected the fraud allegation.

SDG&E said in court documents filed Friday in California Superior Court that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended NaturEner get a wildlife “take permit” so the company would not be in violation of federal law if any birds were killed at Rim Rock.

Passages of emails between federal officials in which they discuss the need for a permit were submitted to back the claim. The utility’s lawyers said NaturEner concealed such information to induce SDG&E to invest $285 million in Rim Rock and buy renewable energy tax credits under a power purchase agreement.

“NaturEner concealed and intentionally omitted information,” SDG&E attorney J. Michael Hennigan wrote. He added that NaturEner “acquired SDG&E money, and caused SDG&E to incur expenses, through its unfair and fraudulent business practices.”

NaturEner’s Ferguson said the allegation was an attempt to “divert from what we think their real motive is, which is breaking the contract.”

SDG&E has suffered from buyer’s remorse, Ferguson said, as prices have fallen for the renewable energy credits the utility was obligated to purchase under its contract.

The government emails cited by the utility in its fraud allegation were dismissed by NaturEner as internal Fish and Wildlife Service communications that had been taken out of context.

Ferguson said wildlife officials told NaturEner that it was ultimately up to the company to decide if it wanted to pursue a permit allowing it to take eagles or other birds.

Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Leith Edgar said he could not immediately respond to the conflicting arguments.

The Rim Rock wind farm is near an area with seven golden eagle nests and Montana’s densest concentration of ferruginous hawks.

Under federal law, a take permit is required for activities that could injure, kill or otherwise harm protected birds such as eagles.

No eagles have been harmed or killed since the project began operating in 2012, Ferguson said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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