Rural Missourians are united against granting eminent domain to a proposal to build a transmission line across northern Missouri. The proposed project, called Clean Line, would move power generated by wind in western Kansas to electricity customers in the eastern U.S.
Tom Kiernan, writing in favor of the project in the Feb. 12 Post-Dispatch, has made it clear that the project, part of a multi-state effort known as the Grain Belt Express, would be “difficult” to complete without eminent domain. But his op-ed piece seemed designed to avoid actually mentioning the words “eminent domain.” Why did he fail to mention the central issue driving this controversy?
As the line was originally designed, Missouri wouldn’t have received any of the power being transferred across the state. That made it hard to argue that the project was a Missouri utility, which is necessary to secure eminent domain. Clean Line solved the problem by contracting with several municipalities in the state, promising them electricity at less than market rates. Interestingly enough, most of these cities and towns were far from the proposed route. Voila! The project is now a Missouri utility, and after turning down the request for eminent domain twice, the Public Service Commission approved the project.
The Missouri Farm Bureau and landowners have appealed in Missouri courts, so far unsuccessfully, and the Legislature will ultimately decide the future of the project. But there is a cautionary tale here for those who are paying attention. If this project goes forward, property rights in Missouri will be considerably less secure.
The company promises that the discounted electricity would save Missouri municipalities receiving the power $12 million a year. So the market price of eminent domain has been established for the state. For $12 million, you, too, can be a public utility with the right to condemn and seize property from unwilling sellers.
As the Missouri Legislature enters its third year of debate over the project, Clean Line’s backers have started talking about fiber optics as well. Not only will electricity consumers receive a bonanza, but everybody in north Missouri will be able to watch Netflix.
Perhaps not as good as a toaster for opening a new account, but haven’t we all been asking for better rural broadband? Well, yes we have, but extending the fiber to homes, which is the most expensive part of providing rural broadband, is a much more difficult and expensive proposition than what Clean Line is offering.
When windmill companies freely negotiate with landowners, the lease payments vary, but a pretty good estimate is around $10,000 per year per windmill. Clean Line is promising lease payments for the large steel structures that hold up the line of $1,500 per year. As far as landowners who have registered their concerns with the Farm Bureau are concerned, the inconvenience and visibility of windmills and towers are roughly the same. Clearly, the power of eminent domain would save Clean Line millions of dollars a year.
More importantly to the company, I’m sure, is the very big stick they’ll have in negotiations with individual landowners. And you can see their point. There are more than 500 owners in the path of the line, and individual negotiations would be painful, slow and expensive.
Of course, those of us who don’t have $12 million a year to spend to buy eminent domain or the funds necessary to hire an army of lawyers and lobbyists have to undergo those painful steps every time we want to expand our farms or businesses.
The promotional literature for the company touts the project as a “free market solution to meet the growing demand for sustainable energy.” Well, there is nothing in a “free market” that gives entities the right to condemn property owned by the residents of Missouri and taking it for a private business.
When normal utilities are granted the ability to use eminent domain, their electricity rates are regulated by the state of Missouri. In exchange for the convenience of siting their facilities and the money saved because sellers have no bargaining power, the PSC protects consumers and makes sure that the benefits of eminent domain are passed along to electricity consumers.
Clean Line will be able to charge whatever the market will bear to transfer the power along its lines. Landowners should have the same right to freely negotiate compensation, or to just say no. That’s the way real free markets work.
Blake Hurst, of the Hurst Greenery in Westboro, Missouri, is president of the Missouri Farm Bureau.
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