For years, a group of Missouri landowners has battled the developer of the proposed Grain Belt Express transmission line that would stretch across the Show-Me State. And the parties have disagreed on nearly everything involving the project.
But the two sides agree on this: A state Supreme Court decision refusing to hear an appeal involving another transmission line project should help bring resolution to the Grain Belt Express case.
This week’s court decision involved an appeal of Ameren Transmission Co.’s Mark Twain transmission line in northeast Missouri. An appellate court this spring vacated the Public Service Commission’s order approving the line on grounds that Ameren didn’t first obtain “assents” from each of the five counties the line would cross.
The Mark Twain line has no connection to the Grain Belt Express project, except that a key issue before the PSC in weighing whether to approve the $2.8 billion direct-current line is whether developer Clean Line Energy Partners LP must obtain approvals from the eight counties its project would cross before getting regulatory approval.
Last month, PSC Chairman Daniel Hall pulled a proposed order in the Grain Belt Express case from the commission’s agenda, saying the PSC would monitor the Mark Twain appeal and “contemplate” if it affected the pending decision (Energywire, June 7).
Now, after more than a year, thousands of pages of briefs, days of evidentiary hearings and legal resolution of the Mark Twain appeal, the Grain Belt Express case is teed up for a commission ruling.
The stakes are high. Missouri is the only state yet to grant approval to the Grain Belt Express project. And the PSC has already denied the company’s application once, leading Clean Line to refile with the commission exactly a year ago (Energywire, July 1, 2016).
Houston-based Clean Line set out to develop the Grain Belt Express line seven years ago. The 780-mile transmission line would deliver wind energy from remote southwest Kansas to more populous areas in the East. The line would have 4,000 megawatts of capacity with 3,500 MW sent to the PJM Interconnection grid and 500 MW delivered to eastern Missouri, part of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator’s grid.
‘It doesn’t affect what we’re doing’
While both Clean Line and landowners who oppose the project are eager for a second, final decision, they also disagree over the relevance of the state Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the Mark Twain appeal.
Clean Line said the appellate court ruling on the Mark Twain project shouldn’t affect the commission’s decision on the Grain Belt Express because the court opinion cites a different subsection of state law from what the company cited in its application.
“It doesn’t affect what we’re doing and what we’ve asked for from the commission,” said Mark Lawlor, director of development at Clean Line.
The opinion cites a subsection of Missouri statute that says an “area” franchise certificate cannot be issued unless an entity has first “received the required consent of the proper municipal authorities.”
Clean Line said it applied for a “line” certificate under the preceding subsection of the statute that merely requires commission approval before constructing an electrical plant.
The company agrees that county assents are necessary, but under a different chapter of Missouri code – one that isn’t specific to public utilities and doesn’t require county approvals as a prerequisite for regulatory approval.
Lawlor said the PSC has issued numerous certificates throughout its 113-year history without requiring county assents as a prerequisite.
“Some folks have viewed this as a problem for Grain Belt,” he said. “We do not.”
It’s a legal interpretation that the commission, too, supported in a brief asking the state Supreme Court to take up the Mark Twain appeal.
Whether the commission continues to hold onto that legal position in the wake of the court decision remains to be seen.
Landowner groups see the court’s refusal to hear the Mark Twain appeal as a victory, one that paves the way for the PSC to deny Clean Line’s application because the company hasn’t yet obtained county approvals.
“The people impacted by the proposed line have repeatedly spoken out loudly and clearly against the ill-conceived, unnecessary interstate transmission line, and now we are watching democracy in action and the system is working,” said Russ Pisciotta, president of one of the landowner groups, Block Grain Belt Express-Missouri.
Clean Line originally obtained the blessings of all eight counties. But a court invalidated one of the county assents, and five other counties rescinded approvals.
While some county commissioners continue to oppose the Clean Line project, Lawlor expects the company will ultimately be able to obtain needed approvals and said counties have indicated they are waiting on a PSC decision before doing so.
The company believes counties are required to give their assents as long as a particular project, whether it’s an electric transmission line, water line or petroleum pipeline, meets safety requirements for road crossings.
The statute was not meant to give county commissions veto authority over any type of public infrastructure project.
“The public policy implications here are not sustainable,” he said.
It isn’t known how soon the PSC may make a decision in the case.
In filings earlier this month, Clean Line, wind developer Infinity Wind Power and a public power agency that wants to utilize the Grain Belt Express to buy wind energy from Kansas urged the commission not to wait on the Supreme Court.
The company said in its filing that any “substantial delay” could be a “de facto denial” of the application.
The clock is also running for wind generators to begin construction and qualify for federal production tax credits. The PTC value affects the price that the Missouri customers pay for power delivered over the Grain Belt Express.
Meanwhile, Ameren has been busy reworking the route for the 100-mile Mark Twain line from near Palmyra, Mo., to the Iowa border. Under an agreement with a rural electric cooperative, the route will largely use existing rights of way to minimize impact to farms and landowners, the company said.
Lori Light, a spokeswoman for St. Louis-based Ameren, which sued five rural Missouri counties to obtain road-crossing assents as required by law, said it will seek a stay of pending litigation if all five counties agree to the new route. If the route is approved, it would dismiss the lawsuits.