Eminent domain bill won’t stop Grain Belt
Credit: By Greg Kozol | News-Press NOW | St. Joseph News-Press | www.newspressnow.com ~~
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Ted Rogers stands near his front porch and gazes past the long gravel driveway that stretches out to State Route A. The Buchanan County farmer says, to no one in particular, “it’s coming.”
Nothing that happened in this year’s legislative session changes his premonition about the Grain Belt Express and its impact on the house that his parents moved into in 1955. He’s lived there since 1984.
“It’s going to run right past the house,” Rogers said. “Let’s just say we’re worried.”
Grain Belt Express is a high-voltage, direct-current transmission line that will deliver wind energy from western Kansas to population centers east of the Mississippi River. Its 780-mile route cuts through eight counties in north Missouri, including some of the 230 acres that Rogers farms near Faucett. Landowners like Rogers have fought the project for more than a decade at county commission meetings, with state utility regulators and in the Missouri General Assembly. They were particularly incensed that Invenergy Transmission, a private company in Chicago, could use eminent domain to build Grain Belt.
This spring, the legislature passed a bill that clamps down on the use of eminent domain for transmission lines. The legislation, now headed to the governor’s desk, requires a company or an investor-owned utility to pay 150% of market value for an easement on agricultural property. It also requires a project to deliver a proportional amount of power to Missouri so that it doesn’t just use rural counties as an energy superhighway on the way to bigger cities.
But House Bill 2005 contained the following words: “These provisions will not apply to applications filed prior to Aug. 28, 2022.”
That means Grain Belt, granted regulatory approval in 2019, is grandfathered in.
“We thank our many supporters for their tireless efforts in ensuring that this legislation recognized the legal rights of Grain Belt Express as a previously approved project that will continue forward toward full construction,” said Nicole Luckey, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for Invenergy, in a statement. “Missouri lawmakers brought stakeholders together around this important legislative compromise, which will benefit Missouri families, farmers, workers and businesses for decades to come.”
That’s not how Rogers sees it.
“I have a hard time with the Legislature right now,” he said.
Missouri Farm Bureau helped lead the push for changes to Missouri’s eminent domain laws. Garrett Hawkins, the president of Missouri Farm Bureau, said the bill’s passage represents a bittersweet victory because it marks a step forward for protecting landowners and ensuring more of a public benefit, especially with multi-state transmission projects involving for-profit companies.
But it has little impact on the one project that started the debate.
“What we can say with certainty is that the fight that was led by these landowners, coupled with our organization and others, has put Missouri in a stronger place as we look to the future of power transmission,” he said. “When future projects come, we know that Missouri will have to receive a benefit for a project in order for eminent domain authority to be granted.”
Grain Belt will impact 570 landowners in Missouri. It has also started to take reluctant landowners to court, filing condemnation petitions to gain involuntary easements to their property. In April, a Buchanan County judge granted Grain Belt’s petition of condemnation against Bradley Horn of Gower. Horn could not be reached and his attorney did not return a call for comment.
Invenergy said it has reached voluntary agreements on 74% of the route in Kansas and Missouri and has made court filings “as a last resort” on 14 so far.
One of the biggest points of contention about Grain Belt is whether the transmission line provides enough public benefit to justify the use of eminent domain to take private property. The project will move 4,000-megawatts of electricity from Kansas to the Indiana border. It’s a direct-current line, so the power can’t be transferred to the local grid without a converter station.
Hawkins said he doesn’t think Grain Belt would have been able to meet the proportional benefit requirements outlined in HB 2005. Those new rules, for example, would require 25% of the power to be provided to Missouri if 25% of the lines go through the state.
“We should not just be a pass-through corridor for a project,” Hawkins said.
The Grain Belt project first proposed 500 megawatts of the transmission line’s capacity for Missouri. Invenergy now says a combined 2,500 megawatts will go to Kansas and Missouri.
“Grain Belt Express will provide at least $12 million in annual energy savings to Missourians across the state while strengthening America’s energy independence by connecting millions of consumers to domestically produced, affordable and reliable power,” the company said.
A look ahead
One thing both sides agree on is that the eminent domain bill will have a bigger effect on future projects.
Hawkins said rural communities aren’t opposed to green energy. This won’t be the first time some company wants to generate wind power in the Great Plains and sell it out east. Those stuck in between deserve some protection, he said.
“This grid that we enjoy has been built on the backs of farmers and landowners for decades,” he said. “As the future of energy transmission unfolds before us and as more projects come down the line, we’re not going to stand in the way of energy security. We should expect and are owed a more level playing field in negotiations.”
Hawkins said he knows grid operators are looking at more high-voltage transmission projects in Missouri.
Rogers isn’t looking at the big picture. He’s just looking out to the horizon, where 150-foot poles could be erected on his property. He wonders what the future holds for his farm, his property and his life.
“Farming, it’s in my blood. Always has been,” he said. “There’s nothing else that mattered. I don’t think we could live in town.”
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