Ex-governor makes another plea for $2.3B Clean Line project

Source: Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, April 5, 2018

For the second time this year, former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon pleaded to a panel of judges that the Public Service Commission wrongly denied Clean Line Energy Partners’ application to build a $2.3 billion high-voltage transmission line across the state.

This time Nixon appeared before Missouri’s Supreme Court, which will decide an issue that has divided the state’s appellate courts and so far blocked Clean Line’s 780-mile wind energy superhighway.

Nixon, the two-term Democrat who left office in January 2017, argued yesterday for Clean Line that the PSC erred last year in denying the company’s application for a certificate of convenience and necessity to build the 200-mile Missouri section of the project.

The argument is the same one Nixon made earlier this year to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District. That court agreed with Clean Line. But instead of remanding the case to the PSC, the court sent the matter to the state Supreme Court, citing the “general interest or importance of the question involved” (Energywire, Feb. 28).

The Grain Belt Express line, originally proposed in 2010, would deliver wind energy from remote southwest Kansas to Indiana to serve more populous areas in the East. The line would have 4,000 megawatts of capacity, with 3,500 MW sent to the PJM Interconnection LLC grid and 500 MW delivered to eastern Missouri, part of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator’s grid.

“For our state, this would bring not only clean renewable wind power to tens of thousands of Missourians but also generate millions of dollars of savings on energy bills and provide over $7 million in yearly property tax payments to schools, first responders and other entities along its path,” Nixon said.

The PSC last summer denied Clean Line’s request to build the line even though four commissioners agreed the company had demonstrated the project was in the public interest (Energywire, Aug. 17, 2017).

But the PSC ultimately rejected the application because of an unrelated court decision months earlier by the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District.

The Western District court said the commission erred by conditionally approving a 100-mile Ameren Transmission Co. line in northeast Missouri on the grounds that the company got approval from each of the counties the project would cross before starting construction.

Based on that decision, the PSC denied Clean Line’s application because the company didn’t have up-to-date approvals from each of the eight counties the Grain Belt Express line would cross.

Nixon told the state Supreme Court justices, two of whom he appointed, that the Western District decision was wrong and shouldn’t have been applied to the Clean Line application.

Clean Line maintains it sought a certificate to build the line under a specific section of Missouri statute that doesn’t require local government approval as a prerequisite. Nixon said there is 70 years of “unbroken case law” backing the company’s legal position.

While Clean Line acknowledges that a different statute requires assents from counties before transmission lines can be built over local roads, the company said the requirement isn’t a prerequisite to PSC approval.

To require otherwise would effectively give Missouri counties veto power over roads, transmission lines and other large infrastructure projects, the company said. It would also “subjugate” the role of the state utility commission to county governments.

“At stake is the very jurisdiction of the PSC to perform its essential role,” Nixon argued.

Clean Line was supported in court by the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission, a public power authority that buys energy for more than three dozen cities in the state. The commission said it would save at least $10 million annually by relating an expiring contract for coal-fired electricity with a contract for Kansas wind energy.

On the other side of the courtroom was the Public Service Commission, which defended its decision to deny the application based on the Western District verdict, and a Missouri landowner group seeking to block the transmission line.

Even if Missouri’s high court agrees and sends the case back to the PSC, it’s not immediately clear how the case will unfold.

Mark Lawlor, director of development for the Grain Belt Express project, said it depends on how prescriptive the language of a Supreme Court remand. But the company expects the PSC would decide the case on the record already established and not require a new application or additional hearings.

There’s also the question of how Clean Line proceeds in Illinois after that state’s Court of Appeals rejected the certificate approved by utility regulators on the grounds that the company wasn’t a public utility when it applied for the certificate under a statute reserved for utilities (EnergyWire, March 15).

“The Illinois situation is quite fixable,” Lawlor said, noting that Clean Line could acquire property in Illinois to qualify as a public utility under state law.

Still, the company will wait for an outcome in Missouri before deciding how to proceed in Illinois, he said.