A unanimous decision by the judges now sends the Grain Belt Express project back to Missouri's energy regulatory body “to determine whether Grain Belt's proposed utility project is necessary or convenient for the public service.”
*Editor's Note: This story will be updated.
The Missouri Supreme Court said the state's Public Service Commission did not have the authority to deny approval for a controversial wind energy that could cross north Missouri — giving a jolt to the stalled project.
A unanimous decision by the judges now sends the Grain Belt Express project back to Missouri's energy regulatory body “to determine whether Grain Belt’s proposed utility project is necessary or convenient for the public service.” The decision, handed down Tuesday, provides a much-needed win for the wind energy company, which has faced fierce resistance as it tries to construct a 780-mile DC transmission line across Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana.
Judges wrote in a decision unattributed to any particular judge, that the PSC erred in using the ruling in a similar, but unrelated, case to deny Grain Belt its necessary permits. A Missouri Appeals Court ruled in the ATXI case that prospective utilities needed to gather county-level approval for projects before the PSC could issue final approval.This Court cannot ignore words in a statute and must give meaning to every word used. Supreme Court judges, in their 7-0 decision on the Grain Belt Express case
That's true in some cases, the Supreme Court noted, but not in the case of Grain Belt, which did not have county assent and was subsequently denied.
Grain Belt applied for a line CCN, rather than an area CCN. Statutes dictate that applicants for a line CCN do not have to receive county assent — permission to use county roads during construction phase. The Appeals Court case did not delineate the differences between a line and area permit, even though the application process for the two permits are worded differently in separate statutes.
“This Court cannot ignore words in a statute and must give meaning to every word used,” judges wrote.
The case now goes back to the PSC. That body, in its 2017 rejection of Grain Belt based on the ATXI case, signaled it would in fact have approved the project but for the result of ATXI.
Parties will have 15 days to file an application for rehearing, said PSC spokesperson Kevin Kelly. If an application or applications for rehearing are filed, the Supreme Court would need to rule on them.
Despite the good news for Grain Belt Tuesday, the project is a long way from realization.
The Supreme Court acknowledged that the company would still need county assent to begin construction, if approved by the PSC.
Wiley Hibbard, presiding commissioner of Ralls County, said that's unlikely to happen in his county.
“There's no change in the county's position, my position, or the citizens of Ralls County position,” he said by phone Tuesday afternoon. “I don't see the assent from Ralls County forthcoming.”
Ralls County, as well as Monroe, are the impacted counties under the jurisdiction of the Appeals Court of Eastern Missouri, where Grain Belt filed its case against the PSC.
“Our will to fight this further has not been diminished whatsoever,” Hibbard said, adding that he was not surprised by the Supreme Court's ruling.
He cast doubt that Grain Belt developers were serious about the project, saying that no one from the Houston-based Clean Line Energy had contacted the county commission in four years. The company has not sought a zoning change for a proposed DC/AC converter station site near the town of Center.
Block Grain Belt Express, a grassroots group of landowners opposed to Grain Belt, expressed dismay with Tuesday's ruling.
"Grain Belt has proven that is an untrustworthy company, bullying their way through rural Missouri,” said spokesperson Jennifer Gatrel. “This battle had many highs and lows...This is a fight we can not afford to lose and we will persevere."
But not everyone was displeased with the decision.
“...this puts the Show-Me State back on the map for wind energy by giving municipal utility companies all over the state more options in how they can best serve their customers’ power needs,” said Renew Missouri Executive Director James Owen.
A consortium of dozens of towns promised to purchase energy from Grain Belt if the line rises.
“Municipal utilities are encouraged by this decision, especially coupled with the earlier findings of the Public Service Commission recognizing the substantial benefit this project brings to electric customers in the state,” said Duncan Kincheloe, President and General Manager of the Missouri Public Utility Alliance.
Also in a celebratory mood was Clean Line Energy.
“The Missouri Supreme Court provided clear and helpful guidance in its decision as to the differing roles of the Missouri Public Service Commission and the counties... The role of determining the public interest of a project under the relevant section of the statute thus rests with the Commission. The Court also affirmed that county assents will be required prior to construction,” said Michael Skelly, Clean Line Energry President. “Clean Line looks forward to obtaining the required assents and acknowledges and respects both roles.”
Former Gov. Jay Nixon led the case for Grain Belt. While in office, Nixon endorsed the project while also championing better rights for farmers.
Many people in the proposed path of the line feel their rights as landowners could be threatened, along with health and safety concerns.
The company positioned the project as a major generator of tax dollars for local schools, ambulance districts, and libraries.
Grain Belt must clear several more hurdles not only in Missouri, but also in Illinois. That state overturned its approval of Grain Belt. An Appeals Court in the Land of Lincoln ruled that Grain Belt was not a utility in that state and was not entitled to permits there because the company could not demonstrate that it owns land, infrastructure, buildings, equipment, or other utility-related assets in the state. A reapplication with the Illinois Commerce Commission has not yet taken place. Earlier this year, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed a decision that ruled a different project by the parent company of Grain Belt was not a utility for the same reasons as Grain Belt.
Kansas and Indiana approved the project.
Reach editor Eric Dundon at email@example.com . Reporters Forrest Gossett and Trevor McDonald contributed to this report.