JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Just weeks after winning a key regulatory approval, one of the nation's largest wind energy projects is facing a new obstacle from Missouri legislation that could prevent the proposed high-voltage power line from being strung across the property of uncooperative landowners.
A Missouri House panel advanced legislation Wednesday that would prohibit the use of eminent domain to acquire easements for the Grain Belt Express project. The proposed 750-mile transmission line would carry wind power from Kansas across Missouri and Illinois into Indiana, where it would connect to a power grid that serves eastern states.
The $2.3 billion project has been repeatedly delayed by regulatory hurdles and court battles but won a significant victory in March, when Missouri's utility regulatory commission reversed its previous denials and approved the project. Missouri's "certificate of convenience and necessity" deems it a public utility, which allows it to pursue condemnation cases in local courts against landowners who refuse to sell easements.
The legislation is intended to block that - either forcing the power line to zig zag around unwilling sellers or zapping it altogether.
Clean Line Energy Partners, based in Houston, has been pursuing the project since 2010. In November, Chicago-based Invenergy announced it was buying the project - a deal that would strengthen the project's finances but still needs regulatory approval.
Unlike traditional power line projects, the Grain Belt Express is not part of an existing energy distribution system and would not carry power directly to residential customers. It instead would sell power to other utilities. A coalition of Missouri municipal utilities has agreed to purchase some of the energy, but the vast majority would go to eastern states.
That's sparked opposition from some Missouri landowners and politicians.
"We're asking our Missouri farmers and rural areas to give up their land and their rights so that people further east can save on their energy bills? I don't think that's good for Missourians," said Republican Rep. Dean Plocher, the chairman of the committee that advanced the eminent domain legislation.
Invenergy spokeswoman Beth Conley said the legislation would delay or prevent residents in dozens of Missouri communities that agreed to purchase the wind power from saving millions of dollars annually through cheaper rates.
While approving the project last month, the Missouri Public Service Commission concluded "the broad economic, environmental, and other benefits of the project outweigh the interests of the individual landowners."
At a legislative hearing this week, Marilyn O'Bannon vowed she and her relatives never would agree to provide easements for the transmission line to pass through about 5 miles of her family's farmland near Madison. She expressed concerns their farms would be harmed by the construction without benefiting from any of the electricity passing overhead. Her family's farms get their power from a rural electricity cooperative.
"They think we're just out here complaining because it's our land, but every acre really counts, especially when the commodity prices are where they are today," O'Bannon told the Associated Press.
Other property owners appear more willing to sell easement rights without going through condemnation proceedings.
"I really believe in renewable energy," said Donna Inglis, whose Huntsville property lies in the path of the power line. She added: "I think a lot of the people on the line are being very selfish, because they're worried about me. They're not worried about the better good."