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Clean Line project battle lines drawn

Opposition prepares for latest appeal

Published: Friday, Sept. 16, 2016 5:21 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Sept. 16, 2016 10:23 p.m. CDT

The $600 million Rock Island Clean Line energy transmission project was supposed to be under construction by now, but it can't seem to break free from the court system.

The project route was to begin in Iowa's O'Brien County, enter Illinois between Cordova and Port Byron, continue through Whiteside County just southwest of Erie, through the entire north edge of Bureau County, and end in Grundy County.

First proposed in 2010, Houston-based parent company Clean Line Energy has been challenged ever since by Block RICL and the Illinois Landowners Alliance.

In 2014, a legal path was cleared for the company when the Illinois Commerce Commission affirmed Rock Island Clean Line's status as a public utility and gave the company a green light for construction.

The judicial system, however, was again asked to intervene, and on Aug. 10 a ruling came down that put the project in limbo. The state's 3rd District Appellate Court reversed the ICC's decision, ruling that Rock Island Clean Line wasn't a public utility under the parameters of the Illinois Public Utilities Act. The court said that because the company has no utility assets, operations or customers, the project wasn't eligible for regulatory approval.

The company's attorneys countered Wednesday by filing an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.

With the company likely at the end of the road in its legal options, and the opposition smelling blood, both sides are rallying their troops for the latest battle.

Clean Line said several groups have been on board during its appeal process. Its list of supporters include the ICC, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Natural Resources Defense Council, and wind energy advocacy group Wind on the Wires.

The IBEW and other trade organizations are voicing their concerns about the state taking work from them. The company estimates that 1,450 workers would be involved in a 3-year construction process.

"The court's ruling unnecessarily interferes with vital interstate transmission projects," IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson said. "We have filed a request to ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review the RICL case, because our workers cannot afford to have Illinois be a roadblock to nationally significant projects."

Clean Line has claimed the project would deliver more than 3 times the energy of the Hoover Dam on an annual basis, and reduce electricity costs statewide by $320 million just in the first year of operations.

Those numbers have grabbed the attention of consumer advocates, some who have publicly supported the project.

"New carbon-free power supplies are a critical leg of the stool for keeping electricity prices affordable going forward," said David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board. "This project could be good news for consumers, and we believe the court was wrong to reverse the Illinois Commerce Commission's approval."

Several other influential business, labor, and alternative energy organizations have officially aligned with Clean Energy on the appeal efforts.

Clean Line contends the appeals court, in its reversal, made interpretative mistakes it hopes the high court will find.

"The appeals court has created a Catch-22 barrier, with no basis in the statute, to prevent new companies from becoming public utilities, and to keep them from helping to lower energy prices in Illinois," said Hans Detweiler, vice president of Clean Line Energy.

At the heart of the matter for the project's opponents is the right of eminent domain. While the company has said land would be taken in only a few instances, the landowners say the project would require eminent domain to be used on a large scale.

Block RICL said the court ruling recognized that Clean Line doesn't meet the requirements of a public utility, and should not have the same rights. The organization issued a statement after the appellate court's reversal.

"Clean Line is a private, speculative company, operating outside of established public utility systems, are not true public utilities, and do not merit the same rights as real public utilities, especially the right of eminent domain," Block RICL stated in the release.

Block RICL said there is a good chance Rock Island Clean Line's appeal will never be heard.

"Just because they are going through the motions of appealing, it doesn't mean that the Illinois Supreme Court will choose to hear the case," said Mary Mauch, a Block RICL spokeswoman.

Mauch said the 3rd Appellate Court's decision was unanimous, and only about 5 percent of the appeals made to the state's high court are heard. She said the landowners groups weren't surprised by Clean Line's appeal and they are prepared.

RICL has scheduled two meetings, one for Sunday in Mendota, and another for Tuesday in Erie. The organization is also active in Iowa, putting up signs and speaking with politicians.

The landowners are not alone in their fight against the transmission line project. The Illinois Farm Bureau and ComEd joined the Illinois Landowners Alliance in the appeals process that led to the reversal of the ICC's ruling.

The Farm Bureau is involved in another pending case against Clean Line Energy. Farm Bureau attorneys are working to block the proposed Grain Belt Express, a 780-mile transmission line involving several states, including south central Illinois.

ComEd's parent company, Exelon, is the largest power producer in Illinois, so there is an obvious competitive interest in the Clean Energy project. ComEd, however, has contended that Clean Line isn't financially or structurally equipped to deliver on its promises, and ultimately the transmission line wouldn't be in the best interest of consumers.

BLOCK RICL MEETINGS

Block RICL and the Illinois Landowners Alliance have scheduled two meetings in the aftermath of recent court developments in the proposed Rock Island Clean Line project.

The first meeting is at 4 p.m. Sunday at Mendota Civic Center, 1901 Tom Merwin Drive in Mendota.

The second is at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Erie High School, 435 Sixth Ave. in Erie.

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