The Missouri Public Service Commission — the state's energy regulatory board — has denied a controversial wind energy project for the third time, providing another major hurdle for the project that promised lower energy prices for some people in the state, but also stirred significant consternation from northern Missouri landowners in the proposed path of the project.
During the Wednesday, Aug. 16 PSC meeting, four of the five commissioners indicated they would have approved Clean Line Energy's Grain Belt Express but for a Missouri Western District Court of Appeals ruling on another, unrelated case.
"There is a worldwide, comprehensive trend toward renewable energy," PSC Chairman Daniel Hall said. "It is cheap, it is reliable, it is safe. To me, this project would facilitate that worldwide trend we see."
Despite that sentiment shared by a majority of PSC commissioner, the body felt it had no choice but to deny the project to adhere to the state's courts.
Opponents of the project celebrated the decision denying approval, but expressed concern that commissioners were essentially in favor of the project anyway.
“We support the PSC’s decision denying Clean Line Energy the use of eminent domain power for its Grain Belt Express power line project; however, we are concerned with issues raised by some commissioners who expressed disappointment in a related court ruling requiring consent by all affected counties,” said Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst. “Missouri Farm Bureau will seek to strengthen protections restricting the use of eminent domain power”
Block GBE-Missouri President Russ Pisciotta stated, “This is a huge victory for the impacted property owners and property rights. We are so thankful to all that made this possible.”
Grain Belt Express would have carried wind energy from the plains of Kansas through northern Missouri, including Monroe and Ralls County, to states further east. Plans for the project also included a converter station near Center to get the energy onto the electric grid in the state. Grain Belt developers touted cheaper energy for dozens of Missouri cities that agreed to purchase energy from the company if the project went live. Hannibal, Monroe City, and Palmyra were some of the those cities slated to benefit.
Developers also championed job creation and tax money for local schools, ambulance districts, and others.
Opponents of the project, however, cited numerous complaints with the project, ranging from land disruption to possible health consequences. The biggest complaint, it seemed, was the threat of eminent domain to secure land for the project.
Grain Belt developers worked to prove the project was both necessary in the state and beneficial to its citizens.
In an opinion that concurred with report and order that denied Grain Belt the necessary permits, four of the five PSC commissioners said the project did indeed meet criteria for approval in the state.
"I was originally opposing this the first time around," Commissioner Scott Rupp said.
"They (Grain Belt developers) proved their case met the Tartan factors and I am changing my opinion on this case," he continued, referring to requirements — including proving the necessity of a project — a potential utility must satisfy.
Instead, the commission said it was bound by a court opinion rendered earlier this year on the Mark Twain Transmission Project. That case involved the issue of assent — or permission from counties to use right-of-ways to construct the project.
In the Mark Twain case, the PSC gave approval to Ameren Transmission Company of Illinois' Mark Twain Transmission Project before Ameren gained the assent of the county commissions in the project's path. Opponents of the project appealed, and won.
The Missouri Supreme Court let stand the Courts of Appeals decision vacating the approval, in essence saying a county's assent is required before the PSC can render approval. That opinion dramatically shifted the conversation surrounding Grain Belt from one about necessity and benefit to one about the relevance of the Mark Twain decision on Grain Belt.
PSC Commissioner Stephen Stoll refused to sign the concurring opinion.
"To me the court has spoken," he told his counterparts at the PSC meeting.
Grain Belt, from the beginning, had a tough hill to climb, with nearly united opposition from stakeholders in the project's path. Ralls County provided a particularly strong rebuff to Grain Belt. It's unclear if developers will try to get assent from counties who have staunchly said “no” in the past.
Reaction to the decision was predictably mixed.
Locally, Ralls and Monroe County officials praised the decision.
"We are very pleased to hear about this," said Ralls County Presiding Commissioner Wiley Hibbard.
Hibbard explained that his county's refusal of the project has been fueled by the county's desire to keep their energy source local.
"The Ralls County Electric Coop has 250 megawatts of clean renewable energy for everyone" he said. "This is about us protecting our landowner rights from out-of-country corporations.”
The Eastern Missouri Landowners Alliance also emphasized the importance of landowner rights and local decision making.
“The importance of county commissioners' support emphasized as in compliance with the law. However, we are disappointed the commissioners would have approved Grain Belt Express based on criteria for CNN,” read a statement from the organization. “Going forward, we will see what GBE does next. EMLA will continue to take steps to protect property rights and will continue to oppose Grain Belt Express.”
Elsewhere, the Hannibal Board of Public Works General Manager, who favored a deal that was ultimately reached between Grain Belt and the city to purchase energy, expressed disappointment.
“My first reaction is disappointment for the loss of opportunity for Hannibal rate payers who will miss out on some significant savings on their energy bills,” Bob Stevenson said.
Arguments in favor of the project throughout the application focused on statewide benefits. Clean Line Energy President Michael Skelly condemned the decision, claiming it would ultimately harm the Show-Me State.
“The PSC’s decision to deny approval of the project, despite the clear public benefits, sends a clear message that investors contemplating new infrastructure projects should not come to Missouri. Today’s ruling is inconsistent with good government and sound public policy and it is our hope that moving forward Missouri will work to remove barriers to building new critical infrastructure projects,” he said.
This is the third time the Grain Belt Express has been denied a Certificate of Convenience and Necessity in Missouri. The project was denied in July 2015 for not proving its necessity and worth in Missouri. In 2016, it was again denied, this time on a procedural error.
The Grain Belt Express received necessary approval by similar commissions in Kansas, Illinois, and Indiana.
Forrest Gossett and T.C. Pierceall contributed to this report. Reach editor Eric Dundon at firstname.lastname@example.org .