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Lawmakers seek to block transmission lines  

Credit:  By Marie French | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | April 12, 2014 | www.stltoday.com ~~

Two different transmission lines that would cross through Missouri but end and begin in other states are the targets of lawmakers who want to stop the projects from using eminent domain.

The transmission lines already have raised the ire of landowners, who worry that the lines will ruin property values and interfere with their use of the land. Now action in the Legislature could imperil the projects, which supporters say would create over a thousand construction jobs and bring needed revenue to the state and local communities.

One transmission line, proposed by Southwestern Electric Power Co., would start and end in Arkansas but cut 25 miles through Barry and McDonald counties in the southwest corner of Missouri. Though it won’t supply electricity to Missouri, the line would benefit Missouri customers by reinforcing grid stability, according to the utility.

The other line, the Grain Belt Express, is a project by Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners, which plans to build a high-voltage transmission line across eight northern Missouri counties: Buchanan, Clinton, Caldwell, Carroll, Chariton, Randolph, Monroe and Ralls.

Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, said he was concerned about the precedent of allowing other states to route lines through Missouri. He represents Barry County and sponsored two bills intended to block the high-voltage transmission line. One of his bills would block Southwestern Electric Power’s use of eminent domain to acquire rights-of-way.

“I’m afraid other states that border Missouri are going to take note,” Fitzpatrick said. “If we allow that practice to continue, in 100 years you might look around and see the borders of Missouri covered in transmission lines.”

Southwestern Electric Power has filed for a rehearing on the route for the transmission line chosen by an administrative law judge in Arkansas, as the Missouri route was not the preferred one for the company. Fitzpatrick said he’s waiting to see how that turns out before moving forward.

The Grain Belt Express project faces similar opposition. Rep. Jim Neely, R-Cameron, filed legislation to block the Grain Belt line from using eminent domain. It has been referred to the House Utilities Committee and Neely said it would get a hearing.

“If it interferes with someone who’s worked years to build a farm or a home, that’s wrong. As a society, why would we want to disrupt that person’s dream?” Neely said. “The bottom line is I don’t want to look at these transmission lines.”

The Grain Belt Express will deliver cheaply 3,500 megawatts of Kansas wind energy to Indiana and beyond, according to Clean Line. The proposed route runs through Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and ends in Indiana. More than 200 miles of transmission line would be built in Missouri according to the route proposal announced on March 26.

Mark Lawlor, director of development at Clean Line, said Missouri utilities could buy power from the line if they want. He said there have been conversations with Ameren but that no negotiations have started because completion of the project is far in the future. Ameren declined to comment on the project.

According to documents filed with the PSC, ratepayers will not bear any of the costs of constructing the Grain Belt transmission line. The major investors in Clean Line, which has plans to build other transmission lines, are National Grid and ZAM Ventures.

The $2.2 billion, 750-mile project will create more than 1,300 construction jobs in Missouri, according to Clean Line. Construction is projected to begin in 2016 and it is expected to be completed in 2018. The Grain Belt Express has received regulatory approvals in Kansas and Indiana but has not yet applied for any in Illinois.

The company has applied to the PSC for authority to build the transmission line. The approval from the commission could potentially allow the company to use eminent domain if a landowner refuses to agree to have the line on their property.

Mark Lawlor, director of development at Clean Line, said the company wants to avoid eminent domain but views recognition as a public utility as the first step towards the authority to use it for a right of way to build the line.

“That’s sort of the threshold question,” Lawlor said. “Our approach has been that we want to avoid eminent domain at every turn.”

Landowners in Caldwell County and others have organized to oppose the proposed Grain Belt line, which they say could damage property values and threaten their way of life.

Although Clean Line held public meetings to discuss the route in July, opposition to the line has been building since then. Five of the eight counties the line would cross have withdrawn support or oppose the line.

Jennifer Gatrel, whose family owns more than 400 acres in Caldwell County, has been working with others to organize opposition. Gatrel said she hopes the PSC will deny the company’s application to be granted public utility status. The route chosen by Clean Line does not run through Gatrel’s property but she plans to continue working against the line.

“An out-of-state, private company should not be allowed to get public utility status and then be able to take our land,” Gatrel said.

Opponents have organized a group called the Missouri Landowners Alliance to intervene in the PSC proceedings.

Neely, however, doesn’t want to leave it up to the PSC, saying the process doesn’t allow landowners to properly voice their concerns.

“I just can’t sit by and not do anything and let it be decided by the Public Service Commission,” the legislator said, explaining why he filed his bill to block the project.

Other lawmakers would prefer to defer to the PSC and the process in place, which includes public hearings in affected areas.

The decision on the Grain Belt Express line is up to the PSC, said Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg. The proposed route goes through Pearce’s district.

“We’re somewhat divorced from that, the way things are structured,” Pearce said. “(If the Legislature were directly involved) there would never be any utility lines, gas lines, highways or anything like that because if you had one powerful senator or representative, they could stop it.”

Southwestern Electric Power’s parent company, American Electric Power Co., agrees.

“It’s a legislative end-run around a process that we feel should be handled by the Missouri Public Service Commission,” Kevin Reeves, managing director of energy marketing at AEP, said during his testimony against Fitzpatrick’s bill.

Lawlor, with Clean Line, said the company is closely following Fitzpatrick’s and Neely’s bill. He said the company considered regulatory frameworks in the state before deciding how or whether to proceed.

“We want to make sure state legislatures aren’t changing the rules of the game in the midst of project development after a company has already made investment decisions,” Lawlor said. “Any time someone dabbles in legislation that affects transmission lines, we’re paying attention.”

Source:  By Marie French | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | April 12, 2014 | www.stltoday.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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