JEFFERSON CITY — Supporters of the Grain Belt Express power line clashed with advocates for private property rights Wednesday in a public hearing for a bill that would prohibit private entities from using eminent domain to build "above-ground merchant lines."
The proposed 780-mile transmission line would carry wind power from western Kansas through Missouri and Illinois to a substation in Indiana, where it would connect to a power grid serving Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. Over the past five years, Grain Belt has faced legal challenges, switched parent companies and seen multiple legislative attempts to block it from gaining eminent domain status.
Landowners who do not want the power line on their property have opposed the project from the start. Many city and county officials have supported the project, some for its renewable energy and some for the revenue it would bring to cash-strapped communities.
Many of the 10 witnesses who spoke in favor of the bill said landowners should not have to accept a project that will not benefit the entire population of Missouri. No one who supports the bill opposes renewable energy, said state Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, the bill’s sponsor.
"This power goes to the East Coast, and the small percent that’s being dropped off in Missouri is like a Band-Aid on an elephant’s you-know-what," Hansen said.
The bill was heard by the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee. No vote was taken.
Hansen’s bill passed the House 115-35 on April 18 with the Boone County delegation split. Columbia Democrats Kip Kendrick and Martha Stevens voted no while state Reps. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, Cheri Reisch, R-Hallsville, and Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, supported it.
The Columbia Water & Light Department will purchase power from the project and the Columbia City Council has endorsed it.
Opposition to the bill unites the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the Sierra Club, groups that rarely agree.
Hubbell Power Systems in Centralia also supports Grain Belt. Hubbell vice president Mike Becktell was one of 12 witnesses testifying against the bill at Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee.
Becktell called Grain Belt a "trifecta" because it would "create jobs, support Missouri-based manufacturing and attract millions of economic investment."
The Grain Belt line would run through Buchanan, Clinton, Caldwell, Carroll, Chariton, Randolph, Monroe and Ralls counties. It needs easements from 570 landowners but only 39 have agreed, according to the Missouri Public Service Commission.
Grain Belt will save 39 municipal utilities $10 million per year, according to the Missouri Public Utility Alliance.
The PSC expressed doubts about the project in 2015, but the Missouri Supreme Court ruled last year that the commission did not have the authority to deny the project. The five-member commission unanimously approved the $2.3 billion project in March, allowing Grain Belt’s Chicago-based developer, Invenergy, to take easements by eminent domain like a public utility.
The commission acted after Hansen introduced the bill. The version now being debated states that power transmission lines owned by companies that do not have substations every 50 miles and do not provide service to retail customers may not use eminent domain even if the PSC has approved it.
Missouri will receive up to 500 of the power line’s 4,000 megawatts, and the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission has bought 200 megawatts from Grain Belt. The Missouri Public Energy Pool, which provides power to 35 cities including Fayette and Vandalia, has bought 60 megawatts, and Columbia Water & Light plans to buy 35.
Eminent domain is "sometimes a necessary evil," and landowners understand that, said Paul Agathen, lead attorney for the Missouri Landowners Alliance, in his testimony supporting the bill.
"I believe that most of them can tolerate transmission lines which they know will serve their own communities, or at least serve the best interest of the entire state," he said. "What the great majority of them are so upset about is the prospect of being forced to sacrifice their land for the benefit of billionaire out-of-state-investors, and for a line which will provide only a small fraction of its power to people in Missouri."
Retired electrical engineer Donald Shaw agreed with Hansen and Agathen. Eminent domain has historically been exercised only for projects that benefit the public as a whole, such as roads, sewer systems, and electric lines that serve large areas, Shaw said.
He also spoke against the magnitude of the project.
"If you’re going to move 200 megawatts from Kansas to Missouri, I guarantee you there’s a cheaper way of doing it than building a 600,000-volt transmission line," he said.
Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, brought the opposite perspective.
"This is a public utility whether we like it or not," he said. "The power is not originating in our state. It’s passing through and we’re taking some of it. It is a public service, and although yes, we are Missourians, we are also Americans."
Eminent domain is a last resort that companies only use "when there is absolutely no possibility of an agreement" after negotiations with landowners, White said.
Grain Belt is a linear project that cannot zigzag around property lines, and all landowners in the project’s path will have a chance to negotiate easements with Invenergy before it resorts to eminent domain, said Nicole Luckey, the company’s director of regulatory and government affairs for the Midwest.
Constructing Grain Belt will create 1,500 jobs and maintaining it will create more, Luckey said in her testimony against the bill. Grain Belt will also spawn local property tax payments that will fund schools, roads, bridges and fire districts in counties that need the money, she said.
Nine cities in Grain Belt’s path will save tens or hundreds of thousands on utilities every year for the next 20 years if the line is built, said Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission president Duncan Kincheloe, who is also president of the Missouri Public Utility Alliance.
Mayors of two of the nine cities Kincheloe listed spoke against the bill. Hermann mayor Robert Koerber said the city could reduce rates and try to attract industry with $230,000 of annual savings from the power line. Lamar mayor Kent Harris said $244,000 of annual savings would fund necessary infrastructure upgrades.
Randolph County landowner Donna Inglis’ property lies in Grain Belt’s path. She told the committee she was sick of hearing people say Grain Belt would take away their land.
"This company cannot take your property and they cannot own your property," Inglis said. "They’re going to discuss with you how much you should get for damages for disturbing your land. This has become such an emotional argument and it’s gotten completely out of hand."