How a Conservative Billionaire Is Moving Heaven and Earth to Become the Biggest Alternative Energy Giant in the Country

Source: By GABRIEL KAHN, Pacific Standard • Posted: Thursday, July 2, 2015

In 2006, Bill Miller was about to sell his boss’ cattle ranch, a 500-square-mile high-desert expanse in south-central Wyoming. A buyer was prepared to pay roughly $50 million for it. But something was gnawing at Miller. Every time he visited the place, called the Overland Trail Ranch, the wind there blew so fiercely he had to brace against it just to stay upright.

Miller’s boss, Philip Anschutz, had become one of the richest men in America—with a fortune of nearly $12 billion—by figuring out an abundance of ways to churn wealth out of real estate, from oil wells and railroads to sports arenas and cattle ranches.

Born in the midst of the 1930s oil boom in central Kansas, Anschutz had a wildcatter for a father and a mother who taught history in a one-room schoolhouse. In the early 1960s, when he was just a few years out of college, he bought his father’s oil company and re-named it the Anschutz Corporation. In the 1970s, land he owned in Utah became home to the largest United States oil find since Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay. In the 1980s, he chased leases on immense tracts of land in a geological formation in the Rockies called the Overthrust Belt, amassing oil-drilling rights on more than 10 million acres. He diversified, buying the Rio Grande railroad, then the Southern Pacific, later merging them, then selling them again.

Today, Anschutz is the largest shareholder in the nation’s biggest movie-theater chain, Regal Entertainment, and owns the film company Walden Media (they produced the Chronicles of Narnia movies and The Giver). The Anschutz Entertainment Group owns the Los Angeles Kings hockey team and a minority stake in the Lakers. It also owns the Staples Center, the complex where both teams play, along with dozens of other big-city venues. Anschutz owns a company that runs the hotels and concessions in major U.S. National Parks. In the past decade, he has expanded his media holdings to include the Weekly Standard, which he purchased from Rupert Murdoch, and the Washington Examiner, both of which toe a conservative political line. He donates millions to charity every year.

Though Anschutz’s collection of properties is eclectic, his approach to business is straightforward. “Mr. Anschutz’s view of the world,” explains Miller, “is that the basis for all wealth and all opportunity is land.” This year, Anschutz co-authored a book titled Out Where the West Begins, about pioneering businessmen, many of whom also made their fortunes off the land by trapping, trading, mining, or ranching.

One morning in 2006, as Miller stood on the barren bluffs of the Overland Trail Ranch, thinking about the sale of the property, he sensed an opportunity.

Philip Anschutz became one of the richest men in America—with a fortune of nearly $12 billion—by figuring out an abundance of ways to churn wealth out of real estate. (Photo: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post/Getty Images)
Philip Anschutz became one of the richest men in America—with a fortune of nearly $12 billion—by figuring out an abundance of ways to churn wealth out of real estate. (Photo: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post/Getty Images)

Miller was soon sitting in Anschutz’s 24th-floor office, which has a sweeping view of Denver, the high desert, and the Rocky Mountains beyond. The two of them knew that the market for wind energy was growing, and that other oil and gas companies had been poking around Wyoming’s windy corners. “I know we’re trying to sell this ranch,” Miller told his boss, “but we may have something here. So why don’t we peel this orange and see what we get?”

Anschutz, who reads widely about energy markets, seized on the idea at once. Though the pair didn’t realize it at the time, they were about to hatch plans for the largest single onshore wind farm in the world.

On the prairies of northwestern Iowa, where turbines have been churning out electricity since around 2000, the winds are considered Class 3 by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which ranks wind density on a scale from one (lowest) to seven (highest). The winds of West Texas, home to some of the nation’s largest wind farms, are Class 4. Most wind power in these places is generated at night, when the winds blow the hardest; that’s the time, of course, when people need it the least.

But along the ridges of the Overland Trail Ranch are some of the only Class 7 winds in the nation. What’s more, the wind on the ranch starts up in the morning and gains force throughout the day, just when people are firing up their air conditioners and dishwashers. “We looked at the data and said, ‘I’ll be damned,’” Miller recalls. The property was like the Saudi Arabia of wind.

When the writer Gabriel Kahn asked for a list of billionaire conservative Philip Anschutz’s holdings, his aides were unable to come up with a complete list. “I think they were kind of embarrassed,” says Kahn, who reports in this issue on one of Anschutz’s especially ambitious projects: a 500-square-mile cattle ranch in Wyoming that he is attempting to convert into one of the largest wind farms in the world. “I’m fascinated that the people behind the project don’t see it as a service. They are in it to make money,” says Kahn, a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent who is now a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism. “But that might be the most encouraging thing for anyone who wants a self-sustaining renewable energy industry.”

It just so happened that to the west, in California, then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had signed landmark legislation to reduce carbon emissions and to require the state’s utilities to get up to a third of their electricity from renewable sources. Anschutz and Miller had the wind and the financial wherewithal for a project of immense scope, and now they had the market.

Even among billionaires, Anschutz is an eccentric. Reputed to be painfully shy, he rarely makes public appearances and has spoken to the press only a handful of times in his 50-year career. (His office declined an interview request for this story.) But big projects, particularly ones with formidable obstacles, have always attracted him. Miller’s wind project would require $8 billion in financing, and there were plenty of obstacles standing in its path—not the least of which was that part of the Overland Trail Ranch sits on federal land. But it had all the markings of another Anschutz triumph. He’d tap a resource others had overlooked, bring it to a market 700 miles away, and do it on a scale never previously attempted.

It’s not hard to recognize a certain irony in the spectacle of Anschutz, a conservative oilman, moving to dominate a government-driven market for green energy. Anschutz donates tens of thousands of dollars each political cycle to candidates who pledge to roll back federal rulemaking and shrink government. And he has funded groups that try to debunk global-warming science. Miller isn’t much different. He describes himself as a climate-change skeptic. “Quite frankly, I’m not smart enough and neither is anyone else to say whether it is global warming or climate change or whatever,” he explains.

But for an industrialist, irony is cheap—and beside the point. Miller sees nothing special in a wind farm. “I just look at it as energy, pure and simple,” he says. “A wind turbine is just an oil well turned upside down.”

Bill Miller grew up in Greybull, a remote Wyoming ranching community where entertainment was the Friday-night rodeo. He left town the day after he finished high school. For the next four decades he worked in the energy business, traveling across the West cajoling ranchers who owned the land he needed to drill for oil. At the Anschutz Corporation, where he has worked for most of those years, he rose through the ranks to head up the oil and gas business and the company’s vast ranching operations. Now 67, he has a close-cropped gray beard, rarely cracks a smile, and speaks in a low, raspy growl forged by years of cigarettes.

Miller spends most days in his office in the firm’s Denver skyscraper, kept company by a nearly life-size cardboard cutout of John Wayne that stands in a corner. But give him any excuse to be out on the land and he’ll take it. The Overland Trail Ranch is larger than the City of Los Angeles, yet only three ranch hands live there year-round. Its pastures extend for miles in a wide, sweeping basin surrounded by steep, rocky hills. During round-up, ranchers use an airplane to scour the property’s sweeping, ochre, high desert and rocky bluffs to find lost cattle.

On a drive across the ranch, I watched a herd of antelope, startled by our truck, tear through the sagebrush at nearly 40 miles an hour. Except for a few rutted dirt roads that cut across the property and a line of cattle fencing, the landscape appears devoid of human tracks. The wind, though, is everywhere. It tugs at every stitch of clothing and tries to pry any object from your grip.

Philip Anschutz's 500-square-mile Overland Trail Ranch in south-central Wyoming. (Photo: Matthew Idler)
Philip Anschutz’s 500-square-mile Overland Trail Ranch in south-central Wyoming. (Photo: Matthew Idler)

The engineering firm Miller hired to map out the wind farm initially handed him a layout for 650 turbines, a figure that would have made it the biggest wind farm in the U.S. Miller sent the plans back and asked for more: “They said, ‘Hey, this is already pretty big. How big do you want it?’”

When the engineers handed him a plan with 1,000 turbines stretching for more than 20 miles across the highest ridges on the ranch, where the wind is at its fiercest, Miller signed off. A thousand turbines was double the number at the most powerful wind farm in the nation, the Alta Wind Energy Center in Kern County, California. Miller also asked for the largest turbines on the market, which, at $4 million apiece, rise to nearly the height of the Washington Monument and have a capacity of more than three megawatts each. All told, Anschutz’s wind farm would be able to produce more than 3,000 megawatts of power, four times the electricity produced by the Hoover Dam and enough to power every home in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It could also cut carbon emissions by as much as 13 million tons a year.

At first, the renewable energy industry had a tough time grasping the scope of the plan. Roxane Perruso, the project’s general counsel, told me she went to an American Wind Energy Association convention where someone asked her how big the farm would be. Being modest, she responded that it was over 2,000 megawatts. “He put his hand on my shoulder, sighed, and said, ‘Oh, sweetheart, I think you’re confused— you must mean 200 megawatts.’”

Confused, no. Audacious, yes. The wind farm, which Miller named the Power Company of Wyoming, would be so big that the construction phase would amount to a modern version of pyramid building. Just getting the first 500 turbines up and running would take two years. To get around the fact that the turbines were too large to bring in via standard 18-wheelers on the public roads, Miller’s engineers drew up a plan to build a two-mile rail spur leading to the ranch from the old Union Pacific rail line. Trains 100 cars long would haul the first batch of turbines to a special staging area where they would be unloaded. From there, they’d be moved into place along the ranch’s ridges and bluffs via 500 miles of newly constructed access roads. To build the roads, the engineers would first have to dig out limestone and gravel from a quarry on the ranch. Rural Wyoming lacks the manpower for such an endeavor, so workers would have to re-locate to the area. The project called for building a “man camp” with up to 500 beds and an RV park that could handle 250 trailers.

Bill Miller sees nothing special in a wind farm. "I just look at it as energy, pure and simple," he says. "A wind turbine is just an oil well turned upside down." (Photo: Matthew Idler)
Bill Miller sees nothing special in a wind farm. “I just look at it as energy, pure and simple,” he says. “A wind turbine is just an oil well turned upside down.” (Photo: Matthew Idler)

Finally, installing the turbines would bring its own perils. The wind on the ranch is so ferocious during the day that it would likely blow the turbine shafts over before the workers could slip them into the foundations. Instead, the engineering plan arranged for workers to assemble them at three in the morning, when the gusts are tamer.

But all this would be the easy part.

California’s electricity market is part freewheeling capitalism, part Soviet central planning. Wholesale electricity prices fluctuate throughout the day, on rare occasions spiking to near $200 per megawatt hour. For the most part, though, electricity in the state costs $45 to $65 per megawatt hour (still a lot higher than almost anywhere else in the continental U.S.). Schwarzenegger’s mandate that utilities get 33 percent of their power from green sources by 2020 had investors piling into the market, realizing that if they could develop large renewable-energy projects, the utilities would have no choice but to buy their green power at a hefty premium.

But as California’s lawmakers began to turn the screws on the utilities, they fretted that their do-gooder requirements would end up creating green jobs in Arizona and Nevada, where wind and solar can be produced more cheaply, while pushing electricity rates higher in California. Fabian Núñez, a former speaker of the California assembly, who drafted some of the state’s early laws on carbon reduction, explained to me how the state dug a hole for itself: “What good does it do for us to set these regulations if we don’t develop the energy ourselves?” So the legislature added limits to the law on how much green power the state’s utilities could buy from beyond the borders. At the time, however, there was no way that enough green energy could be produced inside the state. “To get to the renewable requirement they are going to have to let in some energy from out of state,” Núñez explained.

The remedy, unsurprisingly, was to create a legal twist: California would count as “homegrown” any green electricity that was dumped directly onto the state’s grid. The idea was to allow, say, a solar installation just across the state line in Nevada to wire its power directly onto California’s system.

Miller’s team seized on this opening and drove a truck through it. They crafted a strategy that adheres to the letter of the law and yet makes a mockery of its initial intent: They would build a high-tension power line, called the TransWest Express, to take wind-generated electricity straight from Wyoming across Colorado, Utah, and Nevada and dump it into a substation on the California-Nevada border—a location that technically was part of the California grid. “It’s a pipeline,” explains Perruso, the general counsel. “We’re taking green electrons from Wyoming and delivering them straight to California.”

Which would mean that Wyoming wind could fetch the same high prices as any green power generated inside California. Crude arithmetic indicates that the Anschutz wind farm could generate anywhere from $660 million to over $1 billion a year in revenue. If Miller could navigate the bureaucracies involved—no small task—the Power Company of Wyoming could end up being more profitable than any gusher he had ever dug.

As the plans took shape, accounts of the project’s size and potential impact began to spread through the environmental community. Carl Zichella, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, was among the first to connect with Miller, who took him on several tours of the ranch. Zichella became an instant evangelist. “It’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “They have the land, they have the wind, they have everything.”

But Zichella has seen grand plans flounder before. “Projects like this don’t often get built,” he says. Sometimes their financing falls through, or they get tripped up in the government’s tangled review process. He offered to be an informal adviser and help Miller wend his way through environmental regulatory hurdles: “When you have a facility like this that can deliver this much power with this level of impact, you have to figure out how to get it to the finish line.” He adds, “I see them offsetting a lot of fossil [fuels].” Miller realized that he and Zichella made an odd couple, but he knew that the environmental leader’s help could be paramount.

Philip Anschutz's 500-square-mile Overland Trail Ranch in south-central Wyoming. (Photo: Matthew Idler)
Philip Anschutz’s 500-square-mile Overland Trail Ranch in south-central Wyoming. (Photo: Matthew Idler)

The Overland Trail Ranch follows a “checkerboard” pattern—every other square mile on the property is federal land. The layout is a legacy of the Union Pacific Act of 1862, in which Congress tried to finance the construction of a rail line to California by allowing the railroad to sell alternating parcels of land along the route. Today, this means that though Anschutz technically controls all the land on the ranch, he needs to meet more federal environmental standards for his wind farm than he would if the land were entirely private.

With decades of experience drilling oil wells, Miller wasn’t so naive as to think that getting this approval was going to be easy or cheap. “When we first started on this thing I told everyone that this was going to be the toughest environmental analysis that we would ever do.” His estimate as to how long it would take: four years. That was seven and a half years ago. The environmental review process is still under way.

The American sage grouse weighs about six pounds and looks like a cross between a turkey and a pigeon. It roams across the Western United States. It’s not very fast or ambitious. It flies only when it has to, and then not very far or high. Not surprisingly, it often serves as breakfast, lunch, and dinner for coyotes, mountain lions, even badgers. Because its habitat—sage brush—has been disappearing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has flirted for close to a decade with the idea of including it on the endangered species list.

Governors in Western states like Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana are terrified of this possibility. If the sage grouse is listed as endangered, the states could be forced to shut down numerous mining and drilling operations that affect the grouse’s homeland. Coal mining is Wyoming’s largest source of revenue and one of its biggest employers. The state’s Republican governor, Matthew Mead, has said that if the sage grouse becomes officially endangered, it could “cripple the economy of our state.”

And so Mead has moved to protect the state’s coal industry by protecting the sage grouse: He has expanded the state’s policy to restrict new development from impinging on core sage grouse habitat. And he has created sage grouse implementation teams—a whole state bureaucracy, really—devoted to protecting the bird. The teams are supposed to work with federal agencies to keep the sage grouse out of harm’s way. In order to get the right of way to erect even one turbine, Miller would have to convince both the State of Wyoming and the federal Bureau of Land Management that sage grouse wouldn’t be affected.

In 2008, when Miller first looked at the map of core sage grouse habitat, he was dismayed: There was a black line drawn with a marker encircling much of the ranch. “We called it the Sharpie map,” Miller recalls. It essentially cordoned off tens of thousands of acres from any development. If the black line was set in stone, the project was dead. But Miller realized that whoever had drawn up the map knew little about the ranch or sage grouse habitat. If he could marshal the right data, he might be able to show the state’s sage grouse team that the birds only lived in certain regions of the property.

No such data existed. So Miller set out to create it. He hired an expert in statistical biology from the University of Missouri. He brought on a team of botanists and habitat specialists. The ranch, which usually had almost no people on it, now had up to 50 “bugs and bunnies” experts, as Miller calls them, crisscrossing it daily.

The bugs and bunnies experts soon convinced Miller that strapping radio transmitters to the backs of sage grouse would allow them to chart the birds’ movements. Each transmitter, at $4,000, is the size of a Matchbox racecar. It is hand-painted to match sage grouse feathers.

South-central Wyoming has some of the only Class 7 winds in the nation. "We looked at the data and said, 'I'll be damned," Miller recalls. The property was like the Saudi Arabia of wind. (Photo: Matthew Idler)
South-central Wyoming has some of the only Class 7 winds in the nation. “We looked at the data and said, ‘I’ll be damned,” Miller recalls. The property was like the Saudi Arabia of wind. (Photo: Matthew Idler)

Each night, the biologists conducted sage grouse hunts, setting off across the ranch in teams of two on all-terrain vehicles (the nights were so cold they dressed in Arctic-rated coveralls). “It’s basically a deer-in-the-headlights thing,” says Jon Kehmeier, one of the scientists. Hit with a spotlight, the sage grouse would freeze, and a biologist would jump from the vehicle, creep toward the bird, trap it in a large hoop net, and strap on the transmitter. Since 2010, the team has put tags on 370 birds. Kehmeier estimates he’s probably caught over a hundred himself.

For the past five years, the transmitters have allowed the teams to collect hundreds of thousands of data points, essentially dots on a map, that document how the sage grouse spend their time. It is the most sophisticated study of sage grouse ever conducted.

As the research dragged on, Miller began to worry that his wind farm project had turned into a protracted environmental research project. The research was also, unfortunately for Miller and his team, the source of some painful news: Some of the ranch’s unambitious sage grouse liked to mill about on a hillside where the ranch’s strongest winds blew.

Ryan Jacobson, the company’s chief wind engineer, was crushed. He had planned 327 turbines in that spot. So he set about drawing up a new plan with half as many turbines. “I’m still in mourning,” he says. The more bird data that came in, the more complicated the situation became. Jacobson would submit a new map for the turbines, only to be told by the sage grouse teams that he had to make another adjustment. With each change, the wind farm became a little less powerful. When Jacobson submitted his seventh major redesign, the Bureau of Land Management gave the green light. They had spent four years counting sage grouse. But now momentum was picking up.

On October 9, 2012, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar flew to Cheyenne for a signing ceremony. Speaking before the press at Laramie County Community College, he boasted that authorizing the first-ever wind farm on federal land was “getting us within grasp of energy independence in the United States.”

Miller was relieved. He even told a reporter that he expected to send tractors and earth-moving equipment onto the ranch the following spring, as soon as the snows cleared. But he soon realized that the wind farm was still far from a done deal. The authorization Salazar signed was conditional. Miller’s team needed to meet further environmental reviews—not for sage grouse, but for eagles.

In 1940, when America’s iconic bald eagles were on the brink of extinction, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act. In 1962 it expanded the act to include golden eagles as well. Killing either species, even accidentally, is a felony. Those 60-meter-long turbine rotors, moving at up to 200 miles per hour at their tips, are giant guillotines. The Eagle Protection Act can turn a wind farm into a criminal enterprise. (In the past two years, Duke Energy and PacifiCorp, both of which operate wind farms in Wyoming, have pled guilty to killing eagles and paid millions of dollars in fines.)

The only way Anschutz’s company was going to be able to operate without fear of prosecution was to apply for something called an eagle take permit, a classification the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created in 2009. If a project can demonstrate that it has done everything possible to mitigate the loss of eagles, a certain number can perish. So far, Fish and Wildlife has issued a total of one long-term eagle take permit—to a wind farm in California.

Philip Anschutz's 500-square-mile Overland Trail Ranch in south-central Wyoming. (Photo: Matthew Idler)
Philip Anschutz’s 500-square-mile Overland Trail Ranch in south-central Wyoming. (Photo: Matthew Idler)

In one document, the Bureau of Land Management estimated that Miller’s wind turbines might kill as many as 64 eagles. Miller was seething. “No way in hell we were going to kill that many eagles!” he says. “We don’t have that many in the first place. What am I going to do? Import eagles just so I can kill them?”

Again, Miller started looking for data. Fish and Wildlife suggested that his team invest in an avian radar system, similar to those used in many military airports, to track the eagles. Miller wrote a check.

But the radar couldn’t distinguish between an eagle and a sparrow—each was just a dot on a screen. So Miller hired biologists to sit in the fields for four-hour shifts with binoculars and call in eagle sightings so that someone manning the radar could match the dot to a particular species of bird.

“We collected data for two years,” says Garry Miller (no relation to Bill), who was in charge of the project. “Then we concluded that it didn’t work.” The biologists resorted to staring at the skies and scouting for eagle nests—“three or four avian biologists, six, seven days a week, just counting birds.” Wherever they found a nest, even an inactive one, the engineers would have to carve out new buffer zones and re-arrange the turbine layout once again.

Plus, they had yet to sign up one customer to buy their electricity. Miller’s team re-grouped: Instead of trying to get the government to sign off on the full 1,000 turbines, they’d start by getting approval for the first 500.

Clint Riley, an assistant regional director at Fish and Wildlife, says that the reason it is taking the agency years to sign off on the eagle take permit is simply that “the project is much, much larger than anything that’s been contemplated anywhere else.” He thinks that if all goes well, his agency could grant the permit by the end of the year.

Back at the Denver headquarters, there is a photo that the Power Company of Wyoming team is fond of showing off: It’s a stack of binders, measuring almost three feet high, containing all the documentation they have submitted to various government agencies. Each month it gets a little higher.

Bill Miller’s willingness to resolve any impasse with meticulously collected data has endeared him to the environmental community. While he is proud of the science, he doesn’t get misty-eyed about his aims. “We’re doing it with good science and good planning. But don’t forget, we’re capitalists. We’re doing this to make money. This is what we do for a living,” he says.

Miller loves the land; ranching is part of his heritage. He’s just not sentimental about it. In 2009, he was leading a tour across the ranch, something he had been doing more and more often as the years went on. In the group were representatives of the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society and others, all of whom had come to see where the nation’s largest green-energy project would one day stand. Miller was at the wheel of his pickup truck when he spotted a rattlesnake splayed out on the dirt road warming itself in the sunlight. The other men and women were a few minutes behind him in their trucks, but coming fast. Miller keeps a snake gun in a compartment on the driver’s-side door. In a flash he was out on the road, aiming the barrel at the snake.

A woman from the Bureau of Land Management was in the first truck behind him. Knowing how the posse of environmentalists would react, she jumped out and wagged her finger at him. Now the snake was coiling and hissing, Miller recalls. But he sheepishly set the gun back in its place in the truck. When the visitors’ trucks rolled in a few moments later, suddenly it was like a scene from a nature video. “They all wanted to take its picture,” he says.

Believe it or not, Miller’s biggest hurdle had nothing at all to do with the ranch itself. It involved securing permission to build a power line across 700 miles of Western terrain. The construction alone would be an impressive feat of engineering, requiring helicopters to lift and then lay the thick aluminum cable on top of 120-foot-high towers. But the real complication was getting the necessary permits and rights-of-way from the federal government, the states, Indian tribes, and local landowners. The longer a transmission line gets, the more it becomes ensnared in property rights. One of the last power lines of this magnitude to be built in the United States, the Pacific Intertie, from Oregon to Southern California (completed in 1970), required a presidential decree. Simply put, the fact that there are so few power lines between the Great Plains and America’s power-hungry consumers along the coasts is what keeps some of America’s best green energy trapped in the middle of the country.

For Perruso, the general counsel, laying the TransWest Express is akin to threading a needle. She spent months studying the different legal jurisdictions to ensure that each time the line crosses into a new county or state it complies with all the local laws. What she never considered was that those laws might change.

The experts convinced Miller that strapping radio transmitters to the backs of sage grouse would allow them to chart the birds' movements. Each transmitter, at $4,000, is hand-painted to match sage grouse feathers. (Photo: iStock/Wildlife)
The experts convinced Miller that strapping radio transmitters to the backs of sage grouse would allow them to chart the birds’ movements. Each transmitter, at $4,000, is hand-painted to match sage grouse feathers. (Photo: iStock/Wildlife)

When Steven Handy, a representative in the Utah assembly, first heard about the TransWest Express power line he was stunned. The plan called for the transmission line to cross 400 miles of Utah. But there were no provisions to allow power producers in Utah to drop their electricity onto the line for customers in California.

“This massive line is going to go through Utah and we don’t get anything out of it?” he fumes. “Hello?” Last year, Handy drafted a bill that would have reserved 25 percent of the line’s capacity for electricity produced in Utah. It sailed through the lower house and was headed to the state senate. But setting aside 25 percent of the line’s capacity for electricity from Utah meant 25 percent less green electricity for the Power Company of Wyoming to sell to California. Suddenly, Anschutz’s $8 billion investment no longer penciled out.

The full force of the Anschutz Corporation swung into action. Perruso decamped from her Denver office and set up shop in Salt Lake City. For the next three weeks, she presided over a team of 14 lawyers and lobbyists who coaxed, charmed, and, according to Handy, twisted the arms of Utah elected officials. “I didn’t see it coming,” Handy recalled. “There was blood on the floor. There was a lot of money. They hired every lobbyist around here who could walk.”

Perruso enlisted a coalition of unions who expected to get work from building the transmission line. One day, Handy says, they showed up in his office and accused him of trying to kill jobs: “That was a low blow.”

According to Perruso, “We didn’t actually change the law.” Rather, “what we did was help re-write the legislation.” At 10 p.m. on the last day the legislature was in session the senate approved the new version, which eliminated the 25 percent guarantee.

Philip Anschutz has always been deeply affected by the landscape of the American West. The wood-paneled halls of his offices in Denver are covered with paintings from his extensive collection of Western art— works by Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, and Alfred Jacob Miller; stagecoaches lumbering westward, Native Americans gathered around a campfire, cowboys driving horses on the hunt for buffalo. His business interests, from ranching to railroads, have often been part of that scenery. Many of the profiles in his book, Out Where the West Begins, are of traders, entrepreneurs, and speculators who, in Anschutz’s mind, were self-made men.

The character Anschutz is most fond of, according to his co-author, the Colorado state historian William Convery, is Theodore Judah, an engineer known as Crazy Judah because he kept insisting that it was possible to run a railroad “across 2,000 miles of mountains and wasteland between the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast.”

Miller's biggest hurdle involved securing permission to build a power line across 700 miles of Western terrain. One of the last power lines of this magnitude to be built required a presidential decree. (Map: TransWest Express, LLC)
Miller’s biggest hurdle involved securing permission to build a power line across 700 miles of Western terrain. One of the last power lines of this magnitude to be built required a presidential decree. (Map: TransWest Express, LLC)

During a rare public appearance at a Denver bookstore this past January, Anschutz told the crowd that one of the reasons behind the success of the people in the book was that they weren’t tripped up by an invasive government. That’s what allowed them to take full advantage of the opportunity that the land of the West afforded them, Anschutz said. Their success was the product of their own individualism, will, and little else.

It’s a concept even Convery believes is a bit fanciful. “He has a romanticized view of the West,” Convery says. Rather, he explains, the men were the product of a historical moment. But he was impressed by Anschutz’s deep knowledge of each of his characters. “He has studied their tactics. He read them meticulously. In many cases, he feels like he is their heir.”

In some cases, Anschutz even bought their businesses. For a time he was vice chairman of the Union Pacific, whose main rail line Crazy Judah had helped plan. Anschutz also owns Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which includes portions of a hotel chain founded by Fred Harvey near the dawn of the 20th century.

Without a doubt, the protracted tangle with the federal government has eaten away at the Power Company of Wyoming’s economic vitality. If all had gone according to plan, electricity would have begun flowing off of the ranch this year. Instead, not a shovelful of dirt has been moved. Though Miller has spent close to $100 million, the ranch looks just as it did nearly a decade ago, when he was about to sell it. The project’s generous—and at times, Miller might argue, excessive—accommodations for sage grouse and eagles have partially closed off some of the country’s best wind resources. Not all of it makes sense to Miller: If the environment needs green power, shouldn’t government regulations try to create more of it?

Ultimately, however, Miller and Anschutz believe that free-market forces will propel the project to success. “We have a resource, we have an opportunity, we have a marketplace that ultimately is going to need this kind of resource,” Miller asserts. His new predictions are that the first turbines could begin to spin in 2018, maybe 2019, and that the project might be complete by 2022. Anschutz was 66 when Miller first brought the idea to him. He’ll be 82 when it’s complete—if there are no more delays.

These days, Miller is vexed by a new question: Will the energy marketplace in, say, 2022, even need this resource from the Power Company of Wyoming? In the decade since Miller first had the idea of converting the cattle ranch into a wind farm, California’s electricity market has changed considerably. Across the state, tens of thousands of rooftops are now decked out with solar panels. Turbines have sprung up on the slopes of the Tehachapi Mountains. Though few ever imagined it possible a decade ago, California already procures as much as 25 percent of its power from renewable sources.

Michael Picker, the chairman of the California Public Utilities Commission, is the state’s ultimate authority on the electricity market. Last February, when I asked him about the Anschutz project, he openly questioned whether California could even swallow all of this green power coming from Wyoming: “Three thousand megawatts? That’s a big gulp.” On sunny days, Picker said, the state is already overproducing electricity. Miller’s project, he said, “doesn’t fit the modern world.” Picker told me that he’s warned Miller’s team that they are heading down the wrong track, “but they hear what they want to hear.”

Philip Anschutz's 500-square-mile Overland Trail Ranch in south-central Wyoming. (Photo: Matthew Idler)
Philip Anschutz’s 500-square-mile Overland Trail Ranch in south-central Wyoming. (Photo: Matthew Idler)

When I relayed these comments to Miller, he was visibly unsettled. Could he have spent the past decade doing battle with government agencies, lining up $8 billion in financing, only to find that no one wants to buy his green power? He confessed that the prospect keeps him up at night. “We’ll build it,” Miller told me, but added, “The market is without a doubt the biggest risk.” He said he’s already planning on spreading some of the electricity to other markets, like Arizona and southern Nevada, or wherever else he can find a buyer. So far he hasn’t signed any.

If the Power Company of Wyoming doesn’t work out, it wouldn’t be the first grand wind project to fail. In 2008, the legendary oilman T. Boone Pickens poured money into wind farms as part of his highly touted “Pickens Plan,” which sought to derive more than a fifth of the nation’s electricity from wind. But his plan collapsed when natural gas prices tumbled, making wind energy comparatively more expensive.

Anschutz’s savior might not be the free market, after all. Instead, it could spring from the most ironic source: stricter government regulations.

In April, California Governor Jerry Brown stood before an audience of hundreds at a conference on climate change in Los Angeles and made a bold announcement: He pledged to cut California’s greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, a huge additional reduction from the state’s already ambitious targets. “We’re going to take whatever steps are needed to get the job done,” he told the crowd.

It was the kind of sweeping regulation—issued through an executive order—that had many in the business community steaming because of the costs it will add in order to comply.

But in Denver, it was welcome news. California’s electricity market will now need even more green energy. And Miller, though it will have cost him more than a dozen years, will be there to supply it. “The thing about us,” he said, “is we have patience.”