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Federal decision may fill sails of stalled wind project in Missouri

The federal approval of a controversial energy project in Arkansas could foreshadow the fate for another similar project that is proposed to run through Northeast Missouri.

The U.S. Department of Energy approved Clean Line Energy’s proposed interstate wind-powered Plains and Eastern Clean Line transmission line project – bringing renewed focus to a similar transmission line project that would pass through Ralls County if built.

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) March 25 decision to approve the Plains and Eastern marked its first use of a provision under the 2005 Energy Policy Act, establishing a public/private partnership between Houston-based Clean Line Energy and the DOE. After the similar wind-powered Grain Belt Express Clean Line proposal was denied by the Missouri Public Service Commission in July, groups on both sides of the issue are watching the Plains and Eastern Line unfold to see what the future in Missouri might look like.

An historic first

The DOE reviewed a variety of criteria before approving the Plains and Eastern Clean Line. The Secretary of Energy announced the department’s participation in the project, using Section 1222 of its Energy Policy Act for the first time to grant eminent domain powers to Clean Line for construction of the project in Arkansas, even after the state’s Public Service Commission denied the proposal.

Congress authorized the DOE to “promote electrical transmission development” through the act.

The department is not currently considering a partnership for the proposed Grain Belt Express Clean Line, but the energy company could submit an application for the proposal with the DOE similar to the Arkansas project.

Future for Plains and Eastern Clean Line

Although the Arkansas Public Service Commission previously denied the Plains and Eastern proposal, the DOE decision would pave the way for construction of the project, said Mark Lawlor, Director of Development with Clean Line Energy. Lawlor said the decision marked a “major milestone” for Clean Line Energy and proved the viability of wind-powered transmission line proposals.

“It proves that projects such as this are vitally important to our future,” he said.

But the Missouri Public Service Commission decided with a 3-2 vote that the $2 billion Grain Belt Express Clean Line proposal did not adequately meet public need or “promote the public interest” in 2015.

Missouri’s outlook

The Grain Belt Express Clean Line proposal is effectively dead as far as the Missouri Public Service Commission sees it, said Kevin Kelly, Missouri Public Service Commission Public Service Administrator. To date, the commission hadn’t received an intent to file an application or a new application for the proposal, Kelly said.

Lawlor said a time frame wasn’t set for a reapplication, but it could occur in late 2016.

With Clean Line Energy receiving approval from commissions in Kansas, Indiana and Illinois, Lawlor said focus has shifted to Missouri. Clean Line has approached the Hannibal Board of Public Works as a potential customer for the electricity generated by the wind energy.

Lawlor said the issue came down whether or not Missouri decided to modernize and strengthen its power grid “or remain stagnant and pay more for electricity.”

Supporters cite Grain Belt Express Line’s potential benefits

Sierra Club Missouri Chapter Director John Hickey said that the club supports Grain Belt Express Line because it would provide health benefits, more jobs for Northeast Missouri and lower utility costs. He said the Sierra Club felt the Grain Belt Express proposal was “a reasonable compromise,” but the group didn’t support Ameren’s Mark Twain Transmission Project proposal.

The group felt a reasonable number of transmission line proposals similar to the Grain Belt Express could help move Americans away from coal-fired electricity to renewable energy sources like wind.
“Coal has failed to provide reliable, inexpensive electricity,” Hickey said.

Opposition takes stand

Jennifer Gatrel, vice president of Block Grain Belt Express – a group of Missouri farmers, landowners and residents who oppose the project – said that court action would be inevitable in Arkansas which would question the constitutionality of Section 1222 of the DOE’s Energy Policy Act (eminent domain).

Bills in the Missouri House and Senate aimed to deny eminent domain rights to private companies, similar to what Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Frankford) introduced in 2015.

Gatrel said H.B. 2418 was up for hearing at 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, in Hearing Room 7 in the State Capitol building. She said she hoped for a hearing for S.B. 1107 the same day or soon thereafter.

Gatrel said Block Grain Belt Express stood in agreement with the governments in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. She said it was “inappropriate” for a private company to be able to use federal eminent domain rights to secure land.

“State laws should not be trampled,” she said.

With federal approval of the Arkansas project, all eyes will be on how Clean Line proceeds with the Grain Belt Express in Missouri.