Each one of Clean Line's Midwestern projects suffered a setback that caused media backlash at some point this week, and the victories for affected landowners just keep piling up.
First, landowner groups in Illinois came out undaunted about the ICC's approval of the Grain Belt Express project last week. Because of the scathing dissent of two ICC Commissioners regarding the legalities of Clean Line's permit, appeal seems quite likely. And quite likely to be successful.
Block Grain Belt Express President Dave Buchman said, “We are disappointed by today’s decision but it was not unexpected. It is imperative for members of the opposition to remain united in our common goal of preserving property rights.” Buckman is anxious to review the order so that the group may formulate a plan of action. They have many avenues of defense still available, such as appealing the decision because the ICC violated state law by allowing Clean Line to file under an expedited permitting process for public utilities, although Clean Line is not a public utility. Additionally, Buckman advises that it is crucial to remember that if landowners stick together, the eminent domain process will be significantly more difficult, if not impossible, for Clean Line.
Opponents of Grain Belt Express recently won another significant victory in their efforts to block construction of a proposed mega electric transmission line through Missouri. Last month, the Caldwell County Circuit Court found that a project franchise initially granted by the County, but later rescinded, was void. Under Missouri law, Grain Belt Express must have the franchise of all counties crossed in order to build its project.
Last year the Missouri Landowners Alliance (MLA) filed a petition in the Circuit Court of Caldwell County, asking the Court to find that the franchise supposedly granted by the Caldwell County Commission to Grain Belt was void and/or unenforceable. The franchise would have allowed Grain Belt to build its line on and over the public roads of the county.
On October 7, the Circuit Court issued an Order finding in favor of the MLA. The time for Grain Belt to appeal that Order has now passed. Therefore, as a practical matter, Grain Belt now has no legal authority to build its proposed line across Caldwell County. And Grain Belt would have no such authority to build, even if it could somehow persuade the Missouri Public Service Commission to reverse its decision earlier this year that denied Grain Belt a Certificate of Convenience and Necessity. Grain Belt must obtain authorization not only from the PSC, but also from the County Commission in each of the Missouri counties where it plans to locate the line.
Grain Belt’s only apparent hope for building the line through Caldwell County would be to convince the County Commission to reissue a new franchise for the proposed line. Given that the County Commission supported the MLA in the Caldwell County Circuit Court case, the MLA is optimistic that the County Commission would reject any such overtures from Grain Belt. A survey taken last year for Grain Belt revealed that the citizens of Caldwell County overwhelmingly oppose the proposed transmission line.
Grain Belt could conceivably try to salvage this project by somehow re-routing the line around Caldwell County, into other neighboring counties. But given Grain Belt’s claim that the optimal route for the line is through Caldwell County, that option would seemingly raise a host of problems for Grain Belt.
The Grain Belt project is spearheaded by a Houston-based, investor-owned company with the goal of transmitting energy from Kansas to the richer eastern markets. After a lengthy court battle, in July the Missouri Public Service Commission issued an order finding that Grain Belt Express has failed to meet, by a preponderance of the evidence, its burden of proof to demonstrate that the project is necessary or convenient for the public service.
Recently, the Illinois Commerce Commission granted Grain Belt permission to build in Illinois, leaving Missouri as the only holdout. Jennifer Gatrel from grassroots group Block Grain Belt stated, “The decision by the Illinois commissioners is in no way final. There will be an extensive appeals process, which the opposition has an excellent chance of winning. We are all very grateful for the two brave commissioners who, in their dissent, outlined why it was illegal for Clean Line to be allowed the expedited permitting process available for public utilities. Their support will be invaluable in the appeal.”
Russ Piscotta, President of Block Grain Belt Missouri, stated, “We have beat them once and we will beat them again as many times as necessary. We have spent this time preparing our strategies and are ready to once again defend ourselves. Overall, as a grassroots group, we are doing excellent. We need to remember that Clean Line's goal is to dishearten us. Our goal is to prevent the precedent of a private company getting access to eminent domain. We are doing great so far and will continue to win. We simply cannot afford to lose. Many thanks to the thousands of devoted landowners who have sacrificed much. We are all in this together, and together we will succeed!”
In Iowa, the fate of RICL is equally uncertain. RICL has directed the Iowa Utility Board to suspend all work on their application. In spite of 18 months of land agent activity, less that 15 percent of the easements have been acquired and opposition remains strong.
Carolyn Sheridan, president of the grass roots organization Preservation of Rural Iowa (PRIA) commented, “We have a strong legal team and support continues to grow as they and we monitor all aspects of this proposed project. There is no indication that landowners will change their opposition to the misuse of eminent domain."
Those closely monitoring the project say they were told months ago it had been put on hold. Land agents haven't been in the state for months.
Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, a supporter of the line, said at a wind energy conference in September that the plan had "kind of been placed on hold right now." Clean Line Energy Partners spokeswoman Sarah Bray said the next day that the project was "certainly still moving forward," with biological studies, wind resource assessment and commercial discussions.
Bray struck a different tone in response to an inquiry on Thursday.
"Given the unique regulatory structure in Iowa, we are currently assessing ways to move the project forward and continue easement negotiations without incurring significant financial and regulatory risk," she wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, down in Arkansas, Clean Line's release of an "economic study" of the benefits of its Plains & Eastern project for Arkansas was a major flop. First of all, most people realize the study is nothing but cooked numbers created from Clean Line's data plugged into a generic spreadsheet that calculates numbers that don't jive with the economic data included in the Environmental Impact Statement released by the DOE.
A controversial electric transmission line project pushed by Houston-based Plains & Eastern Clean Line with the regulatory process challenged by members of Arkansas’ Congressional delegation would create a $660 million impact to Arkansas’ economy, according to a University of Arkansas report.
When asked about the UA economic impact report, Sen. Boozman said the issue is not the impact, but with the process and the potential cost to Arkansas ratepayers.
“Arkansans are not opposed to building needed infrastructure projects, but questions remain about whether this particular project is needed. No Arkansas utilities have signed up to purchase power from the line,” Boozman noted in a statement sent to Talk Business & Politics. “There are questions about the long-term benefits and costs to the state of Arkansas. Not only should a transmission project be necessary, but the state must be given an opportunity to review and approve it – just as it has always has in the past. When DC bureaucrats force a project on the state, as they have in this instance, the harm and costs may not be properly addressed.”
A statement from Rep. Womack’s office to Talk Business & Politics raised a question about who funded the UA study.
“Our concerns about the project are not based on whether Clean Line can commission a favorable study, but rather if the federal government should be able to supersede a state’s right to decide to license a utility and allow the use of eminent domain on behalf of a private company,” Womack said in the statement.
When asked about the perceived credibility of a study commissioned by Clean Line, Deck provided the following statement: “One of the things that our Center does for a wide variety of organizations is estimate economic impacts. Clean Line came to us to understand how its expenditures in Arkansas will affect the state’s economy. We very carefully looked at how much direct expenditure would be made and how the supply chain and personal expenditures that will result from that direct investment would impact the state. For this kind of study, there is no way to estimate economic impact without considerable input from the companies that are involved. And, of course, companies are the most interested in understanding their own particular economic impact. So, for economic impact studies, you will almost always find that the economic impact generator is the funder of the work.
“As always, economic impact should be considered a single piece of the puzzle as we live in a complex world. But, it is an important piece.”
Jordan Wimpy, attorney for Arkansas Citizens Against Clean Line Energy, said Tuesday, “At this time, the primary concern of our clients is Department of Energy’s review of and potential participation in a project that meets no identified or documented transmission need. This is particularly concerning when the federal government’s involvement will circumvent normal state level review and may well include the use of federal eminent domain to condemn the property of private landowners in order to benefit a private, for-profit transmission company.”
Alison Millsaps, spokeswoman for Block Plains & Eastern Clean Line, said, “Again and again, Clean Line and their supporters attempt to focus solely on economic development in regard to Plains & Eastern. The people who make up the opposition to this line aren’t against economic development, they’re against the use of eminent domain to further what is essentially private economic development.
“Dangling big numbers doesn’t always make a proposal necessary or legal. We believe both of those issues will ultimately be determined in a court of law, not by a study on construction benefits,” she said.
So, let's recap. Clean Line's RICL project is dead in the water and there is no federal override over the IUB's permitting authority. RICL's Illinois permit is being appealed. Clean Line's Grain Belt Express project is blocked by counties in Missouri, and will most likely be successfully appealed in Illinois. Clean Line's Plains & Eastern project just keeps gathering the ire of the State of Arkansas and nobody is buying the manufactured "benefits" of the project.
The only thing moving forward here is bad press.