Legislation that would effectively kill the proposed Grain Belt Express transmission line could come up on the floor of the Missouri Senate in the waning days of the legislative session — even though the Senate’s own version of the bill is stuck in committee.
Grain Belt, a high-voltage transmission line proposed by Chicago-based Invenergy, would carry 4,000 megawatts of renewable energy from Western Kansas to Indiana, cutting across eight counties in northern Missouri.
Proponents of the bill tout myriad benefits, including the ability to provide larger swaths of the Midwest with clean energy and boosting local economies with construction jobs, landowner compensation, property taxes and savings for residents on their utility bills.
But the project still faces opposition from landowners and legislators who don’t think Invenergy should be allowed to use eminent domain to acquire rights to land along the route. The company has already acquired 40% of the land easements it needs through voluntary deals with landowners, officials have said, but the Missouri Public Service Commission also approved its right to use eminent domain to acquire land rights from property owners who don’t want to negotiate.
Now, the Senate could consider legislation requiring that Grain Belt — or any other transmission line seeking eminent domain rights in Missouri — first get resolutions of support from county commissions in each of the counties in the project’s path. That would effectively kill the project, as several county commissioners across northern Missouri have already voiced their opposition.
The language targeting Grain Belt is currently part of Senate Bill 141, originally a proposal to require the PSC to create a “renewable natural gas” program. When the legislation moved to the House, members added the Grain Belt language. That chamber has been more amenable to legislation targeting the project.
The full Senate, however, has not seen a Grain Belt bill yet. The Senate’s own proposal targeting Grain Belt didn’t get a committee vote.
Because of the differences in the House and Senate versions, the bill went to a conference committee Tuesday evening. The three Republican senators on the conference committee let the Grain Belt language remain in the bill.
None of the three senators — Jason Bean, Mike Bernskoetter or Eric Burlison — immediately returned requests for comment.
Sen. Doug Beck, a St. Louis Democrat who opposed the conference committee report, said he wasn’t sure how the bill would fair on the Senate floor
“I think we’ll probably have a long debate on it,” Beck said. “Obviously (Bean) wanted it, so we’re going to have a debate on the floor.”
The legislative session ends at 6 p.m. on Friday.
Proponents of the legislation say Invenergy shouldn’t be granted public utility status as a private company. They doubt the benefits the company says Grain Belt will provide Missouri and say the line is being built by a private company seeking to make a profit, meaning it is being allowed to take other private property for its own gain, not the public’s.
John Truesdell, presiding commissioner in Randolph County, said in an interview last month he has advocated for bills to stop what he calls “eminent domain for private gain.”
Grain Belt, he said, is “nothing more than a big corporation trying to overrun little people, take their homes, take their land and pocket the money in their pockets at those other people’s expense.”
Nicole Luckey, Invenergy’s vice president of regulatory affairs, has urged the lawmakers not to pass similar House legislation, which she said would, without a doubt, kill the project.
“The most pro-business, pro-jobs action the Missouri legislature can take in the last week of session is ensuring SB 141 does not advance with language aimed at killing the state’s largest energy infrastructure project,” Luckey said in a statement.
Invenergy says it’s paying 110% of fair market value for the easements, which are 150-foot wide zones running under the line where Grain Belt pays landowners to operate. And company executives said landowners will still be able to hunt, farm or graze livestock in the easement area. The company will not acquire the land itself, but the right to use it.
Grain Belt’s supporters say the line will benefit Missouri customers. Invenergy says it has contacts with 39 municipal utility providers in Missouri and anticipates saving those customers $12.8 million a year. The company could revise its plans to drop off more power in Kansas and Missouri, saving up to $7 billion a year over 20 years for up to 2.4 million residents.
Peggy Whipple, an attorney representing Grain Belt, told the House committee the legislation unconstitutionally targets a single project and could open the state up to a lawsuit.
Whipple also said utilities never want to use eminent domain — but that without it, one landowner who didn’t want to grant the line an easement could sink the project.
“If you take away a public utility’s right to eventually, if necessary, use eminent domain, you might as well just accept that a big project like this isn’t going to happen,” Whipple said.
This story was republished with permission from the Missouri Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy.