This photo illustration shows what Clean Line transmission projects would look like after construction. Credit: Clean Line Energy Partners

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Developers of a wind energy transmission line have another shot at gaining the regulatory approval they need in Missouri, a state where the project has faced strong opposition.

The Missouri Public Service Commission last month said it would not rule on whether to grant Clean Line Energy’s application to run Grain Belt Express transmission line across Missouri until litigation involving a different transmission project was resolved. Clean Line had predicted that the delay might effectively kill the project. 

However, now that that case has been clarified, the Public Service Commission said it will give supporters and opponents of the project a chance to make their cases in a hearing scheduled for Aug. 3.

The Grain Belt Express is a 4,000-megawatt overhead transmission line that would span about 780 miles, from western Kansas to the Illinois-Indiana border. Faced with opposition in the eight Missouri counties it would cross, the developer agreed to provide about 200 megawatts of power to a collection of 67 municipal utilities in Missouri.

While the opposing sides in the matter agree that Clean Line must obtain both permission from the eight counties and a permit known as a certificate of convenience and necessity from state regulators, they disagree on the sequence in which they must be obtained: Clean Line says it can obtain the state certificate first, while opponents maintain that the developer must first get assent from the eight county commissions.

In a brief filed on Thursday, the commission staff took the position that Clean Line must obtain county consent before it can seek a certificate from the commission. The staff contends that the Grain Belt project is very analogous to the Mark Twain project, and so should be treated the same way – by requiring that it obtain county approvals first.

“The reason it matters so much to Clean Line is they’d like to use PSC authority as a lever against the county commissions,” said Jennifer Gatrel, spokeswoman for Block Grain Belt Express-Missouri. “If Clean Line were allowed to have that lever to use against the county commissions, it would unfairly burden the commissions and the landowners.”

The public service commission postponed acting on the Grain Belt application while it awaited a Missouri Supreme Court decision about Ameren’s application for a certificate allowing it to build a transmission line dubbed the Mark Twain. The state Supreme Court allowed to stand a ruling by the Missouri Court of Appeals that found that Ameren could not pursue a certificate of necessity from the commission until it had in hand approvals from the commissioners in all eight counties that the project traverses.

Mark Lawlor, director of development for Clean Line, doesn’t believe that the standard applied in the case of Ameren’s project is pertinent to the Grain Belt Express.

“We’re saying these are two different things, with entirely different standards,” he said. He contends that the standards debated in the Mark Twain project apply to utilities seeking permission to provide service on a retail basis, and are not relevant to a merchant developer of transmission, like Clean Line.

The two standards “have gotten conflated into one confusing mess,” he said.

To require approval from the county commissions before state regulators essentially shifts the bulk of the power from a state agency to a county authority, as Lawlor sees it.

“You’ve subjugated the public service commission to a county authority,” he said. “There’s a lot of public policy implications. They have leverage to stop infrastructure projects they don’t like.”

Editor’s note: this story has been updated to include comments of the staff of the Missouri Public Service Commission.

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Karen Uhlenhuth

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.