JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. | A battle to prevent the developer of the Grain Belt Express from acquiring farmland via eminent domain is now in the hands of the Missouri Senate.
Last week, House of Representatives passed by a 118-42 margin a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankfort, whose district includes Ralls and Monroe counties. His bill will prohibit developers of the 4,000-megawatt a day high-level transmission project from forcing landowners to sell property.
“This bill protects the rights of landowners in Missouri,” Hansen said.
While not mentioning Grain Belt Express by name, it is clearly aimed at the project.
“No owner of an electric transmission line of 200 kilovolts or higher shall have the power of eminent domain unless…such transmission line includes electric substations constructed at intervals of less than fifty miles, which substations are necessary to accommodate both the purchase and sale of electricity transmitted by such line to persons or entities located in the state of Missouri and elsewhere,” reads the bill in part.
Hansen's bill moves to the Senate, where Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina, has a similar bill. Last year, legislation to prevent eminent domain by Grain Belt failed due to a Senate filibuster in the waning days of the session.
O'Laughlin, who testified for the Grain Belt project during a hearing in Monroe City in 2016, said that she is not opposed to the construction of Grain Belt or any other alternative energy source, but she is opposed to giving the developers eminent domain.
“I do not favor the taking of private property,” O'Laughlin said. “There is no doubt that construction of the project would help our economy, but this is not that way.” Grain Belt Express is proposing the construction of a 780-mile transmission line from wind farms in western Kansas to feed power grids on the East Coast. The company needs to build a direct-current transmission system across Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
The proposed route cuts through the heart of farmland in Monroe and Ralls counties before the project enters Illinois.
Kansas and Indiana have approved the project, as have regulators in Illinois. However, courts in Illinois have blocked the approval, ordering the issue back to state utility regulators.
Opposition in Missouri has been fierce as landowners along the proposed route have organized and fought regulatory approvals needed by Grain Belt to bypass landowners. Last year, the Missouri Public Service Commission voted 5-0 to certify Grain Belt Express as a public utility, reversing a previous decision. In December, a three-judge panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court ruling that rejected a challenge from opponents of the PSC action.
The project, though, is stalled in Illinois, after the state's Supreme Court rejected an approval from Illinois regulators for the project.
The Missouri Public Utility Alliance issued a statement last month saying that 39 communities will receive low-cost power from the project that would serve more than 350,000 people, saving those consumers about $12.8 million a year in electric costs.
“The transmission line, unanimously approved by the PSC after five years of vetting, will be one of Missouri's largest transmission infrastructure projects, an estimated $525 million investment,” said the alliance in a statement. “Unlike other large-scale economic development projects, the Grain Belt Express is not seeking state incentives. School districts and other local jurisdictions in the eight counties along the development route will receive $7.2 million in tax revenues in its first year of operation, as it also creates 1,500 trade, construction, and manufacturing jobs in Missouri.”
Hannibal is one of the communities that have agreed to purchase power from the Grain Belt project. The alliance says that the project would mean $750,000 in projected annual savings for the community and its utility customers. Hansen, though, said that Missouri consumers would see little benefit at the expense of taking land from farmers, which he said will be devalued.
“The average consumer of power would receive a benefit of about $3 a month in exchange for taking property from farmers,” he said. “Grain Belt says that it has spent $19 million so far to develop the project. How much have family farmers spent to on their properties, in some cases going back several generations?”