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Dane, Iowa counties challenge power line approval, says regulators abused discretion

Four local governments are asking state courts to block a proposed high-voltage power line through southwestern Wisconsin, saying regulators abused their discretion and violated their own rules when they approved the $492 million project.

Dane and Iowa counties each filed petitions Thursday in their respective circuit courts seeking to overturn the Public Service Commission’s September order approving construction of the line known as Cardinal-Hickory Creek.

The three-member PSC unanimously authorized the line, finding it would improve reliability of the electric grid while providing greater access to clean energy and accepting the utilities’ assertions that it will ultimately deliver lower electricity prices.

Carlos Pabellon, Dane County’s deputy corporation counsel, argues the commission failed to follow state law, instead relying “on shifting public policy determinations,” and that the adoption of those considerations were an “abuse of discretion.”

Pabellon goes on to say commissioners erred by dismissing their own staff’s analysis and presentation of an alternative option that would have cost less than $1 million.

According to the petition, the line will create significant negative impacts on the county’s land and natural resources, including the Black Earth Creek Wildlife Area, and hinder efforts in long-range planning and environmental protection.

In a separate petition, Iowa County and two municipalities challenged the decision on the grounds that it was based on erroneous interpretations of both the law and the PSC’s authority and was “rationalized based on a policy favoring and prioritizing the development of out-of-state renewable energy resources, a policy that does not exist in law, was never adopted by the legislature, and is contrary to policies that exist in law and were adopted by the legislature.”

That petition, filed by attorney Frank Jablonski in Iowa County Circuit Court, claims the line will add to the cost of service “without proportionately increasing the value or available quantity of electricity.”

Through the Driftless

A joint venture of American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power, the line would run more than 100 miles from Dubuque to Middleton, crossing a unique landscape known as the Driftless Area.

The costs will be passed on to ratepayers in 12 states, with about $67 million falling to Wisconsin ratepayers.

The case drew unprecedented interest, with dozens of groups and individuals participating in the evaluation process, which drew hundreds of public comments, almost all of them opposed to the line.

The utilities and clean energy advocates said the line is needed to deliver cheap, renewable electricity from the west to population centers, and numerous wind and solar projects are depending on it to deliver their full output.

Opponents – including conservation groups, the Citizens Utility Board and local governments along the route – questioned the public value, saying it would enable little new renewable energy, damage important conservation areas, and result in minimal if any ratepayer savings while the total cost to ratepayers, including maintenance and utility profits, will be more than $2 billion.

Federal lawsuit

The state court challenges come a day after opponents of the line sued the PSC in federal court, alleging two commissions failed to recuse themselves despite apparent bias and conflicts of interest.

Those opponents, the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, also plan to challenge the decision in state court ahead of Monday’s deadline. They contend the line is unneeded and will harm the Driftless Area.

“The Public Service Commission’s decision is contrary to law, ignored compelling expert testimony, and disregarded the voices of southwest Wisconsin’s communities and businesses,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which is representing the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

Multiple opponents previously asked the PSC to reconsider the order, arguing the application was deficient. Those petitions for rehearing were effectively denied when the commission did not act on them.