Grain Belt Express transmission project heads to Missouri Supreme Court

Source: By Robert Walton, Utility Dive • Posted: Thursday, March 1, 2018

Dive Brief:

  • A Missouri Court of Appeals has handed a major victory to Clean Line Energy Partner’s Grain Belt Express transmission project, concluding that regulators erred, and transferring the case to the state’s highest court.
  • Last year the Missouri Public Service Commission rejected the Grain Belt Express project, citing a controversial case that developers must get pre-approval from counties that would be impacted. It is that issue which will likely be debated should the state’s high court take the case.
  • The proposed 780-mile direct current transmission line will deliver wind energy from western Kansas to utilities and customers in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and neighboring states.

Dive Insight:

The case is still being litigated, but it is a major victory for Clean Line. The company’s project was rejected twice by the Missouri PSC, ultimately not on the merit of the proposal, but with regards to a controversial precedent.

In March of last year in the Western District Court of Appeals, Neighbors United blocked an Ameren Transmission Co. line when the court ruled the relevant statute required county commission approval before the PSC could grant a certificate. The commission based its denial of Grain Line on that decision, but the Eastern District Court of Appeals said the commission erred.

The difference is in the type of certificate requested. In the Ameren case, the debate was an “area certificate,” which would give a utility permission serve an area, but the utility filed a “line certificate.” Clean Line is seeking a “line certificate” which authorizes construction. The Eastern court found the PSC erred when it used the Ameren case to deny Grain Belt Express. But the Eastern court also determined the law in question was unclear and sent the case to the Supreme Court.

How the law is unclear, however, is complicated and hinges in part on the disjunctive use of the word “or.” In more plain language, the Eastern court is questioning whether lawmakers intended to require county approval for certificates.

“We presume the legislature intends a logical result and does not enact legislation that would result in meaningless provisions,” the court wrote.

It’s unclear what happens next. Grain Belt developer Clean Line Energy President Michael Skelly in a statement called the ruling “a significant victory” for state regulators. The Grain Belt proceeding stretched months and regulators ultimately found the transmission line in the public interest. However, the PSC denied the project because it felt bound by the Ameren decision.

Missouri sign-off is the last authorization needed for Clean Line to move ahead with the project, but the company has been stuck at the state’s Public Service Commission for years. In 2015, the PSC concluded Missouri consumers did not need the additional energy that would be brought to the state.

The company has already obtained regulatory approvals in Kansas, Illinois and Indiana and would privately finance the $2 billion transmission project.

Clarification: While court documents claim that Ameren filed an “area certificate,” filings from the utility showed it filed for a “line certificate.”