Grain Belt Express developer seeks expedited decision by Missouri Supreme Court

Source: By Karen Uhlenhuth, Midwestern Energy News • Posted: Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The proposed route of the Grain Belt Express through Missouri.

The developer of a long-distance, high-voltage transmission line has asked the Missouri Supreme Court to rule on the project in the hope of achieving a faster resolution to the long-stymied project.

Known as the Grain Belt Express, the 780-mile overhead line is designed to transport additional wind energy from western Kansas, across Missouri and Illinois to roughly the western border of Indiana. It would be capable of ferrying about 4,000 megawatts of power. The project is one of five developed by Clean Line Energy Partners to move wind power to more populated areas.

After the Missouri Public Service Commission in August for the second time rejected the company’s request for a certificate of necessity and convenience, Clean Line appealed the ruling to the eastern division of the Missouri Court of Appeals.

While the case is pending before that court, Mark Lawlor, Clean Line’s director of development, said the company decided to try to expedite matters by asking the state Supreme Court to rule on the issue without waiting for a ruling from an appeals court.

Bypassing the appeals court in Missouri is unusual, but not unheard of, according to Lawlor. He said it has happened “a few dozen times in the last 10 years. We feel this is of paramount importance to Missouri infrastructure.”

Asked whether Clean Line approached the Supreme Court because it expected a more sympathetic audience there than before the appellate court, Lawlor said, “I don’t think that’s the calculation at all. We think the western district (of the Missouri Court of Appeals) got this wrong. And we’re not the only ones. The commissioners themselves think they got the law wrong. That’s why we have supreme courts.”

The state regulators said they couldn’t approve of the Grain Belt Express because they felt bound by a ruling made by the western district of the state court of appeals. That court ruled that a different transmission project could not proceed because it had failed to get approval from the counties along the route. The state’s regulators said they had to comply with that ruling.

The decision to approach the supreme court no doubt reflects the thinking of Clean Line’s new legal counsel. A couple months ago, the company changed up its legal counsel and hired Jay Nixon, former Missouri governor and attorney general. As governor, Nixon supported the Grain Belt Express, which would cross through largely agricultural northern Missouri.

Many landowners along the route have objected to the massive transmission line running through their property, or nearby. As for the developers latest legal move, they’re “not overly concerned about it,” according to Russ Pisciotta, president of Block the Grain Belt Express.

“Either way, we’re prepared to fight it,” he said. “Our attorney is working on the briefs. He didn’t seem to think one way is better than the other.”

Lawlor has characterized the earlier rejection as a gross misinterpretation of state law, effectively giving county commissions the power to make final decisions on large infrastructure projects. And that, he claims, “would have a chilling effect on investment on infrastructure in Missouri. When other utilities and investors look at where they want to spend money, they will look at Missouri and see a Do Not Enter sign.

“The case is really simple: it’s who has ultimate jurisdiction over utilities? Is it the counties or the public service commission? For over 100 years, it’s been pretty clear: it’s the purview of the public service commission. But for the last few months, it’s been turned on its head.”

The Missouri Supreme Court has the option of deciding at any point in the appellate process to intercede and make a decision, Lawlor said. In the meantime, the appellate court process is proceeding and, according to Lawlor, could render a decision next spring.