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Illinois Supreme Court ruling casts doubt on power-line projects

Developers of a $2.2 billion high-voltage power line that would cross south-central Illinois are considering their options after the Illinois Supreme Court rejected a similar project in the Rock Island region.

Justices concluded that the $600 million Rock Island Clean Line energy transmission project and developer Clean Line Energy of Houston did not qualify as a public utility under state law, overturning the Illinois Commerce Commission’s approval of the project. Clean Line also is the developer of the proposed $2.2 billion, 780-mile Grain Belt Express power line that would carry wind-generated power from Kansas to Indiana through Missouri and 200 miles of south-central Illinois.

The Rock Island project’s 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.

The ruling, Clean Line director of development Mark Lawlor said last week, would discourage renewable energy development in Illinois.

“It is clearly a setback, and a signal not only to our investors, but to other developers, on the tremendous amount of legal barriers in Illinois,” said Lawlor. “It goes beyond Rock Island. It goes beyond Grain Belt.”

The Supreme Court concluded in a decision released Sept. 21 that Clean Line did not qualify as public utility, as the company owned no property for the Rock Island project. The company did, however, have land options.

Opponents have also challenged the public utility status in a Grain Belt Express case after Clean Line sought expedited ICC approval of the central Illinois project. Expedited approval, according to the lawsuit pending in 5th District Appellate Court, is available only to public utilities.

Opponents, including the Illinois Farm Bureau, said granting Clean Line public utility status would drive up power rates by encouraging risky energy development projects. The power lines, according to opponents, also threatened prime farm ground.

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.

By denying public utility status in the Rock Island case, the court decision also prevents Clean Line from using eminent domain to acquire land.

Blake Roderick, executive director of the Pike-Scott County Farm Bureau, said attorneys in the Grain Belt Express case planned to cite the Rock Island ruling in the fight to halt the central Illinois project.

“We’re hopeful that they will be denied a permit for Grain Belt as well,” said Roderick. “If they want to come back and talk to landowners one-on-one, that’s fine. But they should not be declared a public utility with the right to eminent domain.”

Lawlor said the company would ask the Illinois Supreme Court for a rehearing, but that the Rock Island decision put both projects in doubt.

“Anytime you have legal clouds pending, you’re not going to spend a lot of time with that uncertainty,” said Lawlor. “We’ll see how the decisions play out before we put a lot of people to work building the project.”

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