The first bill out of the Missouri House this year is another attempt to block construction of a wind-energy transmission line that would cross Randolph County and provide power to Columbia.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, would deny the use of eminent domain to builders of the Grain Belt Express, designed to carry electricity generated by Kansas windmills 780 miles across rural Missouri and Illinois before hooking into a power grid in Indiana serving eastern states.
The bill is similar to legislation that died last year in the Missouri Senate when opponents filibustered the proposal.
The Eastern District Missouri Court of Appeals in December denied efforts by opponents to overturn a Public Service Commission decision granting eminent domain authority.
The bill was sent to the Senate on a 118-42 vote that was mainly on party lines — only one Republican opposed the bill and only seven Democrats supported it. Central Missouri lawmakers stuck with the majority of their party on the legislation.
“We are ecstatic,” said Jennifer Gatrel, spokeswoman and vice president of Block Grain Belt Express, an organization opposing construction of the energy line. “This has been a 10-year battle for essential property rights.”
Chicago-based Invenergy, which purchased the Grain Belt project in 2019, defended the project as a major investment in the state that will produce 1,500 construction jobs and substantial local revenue. The company will work to defeat the bill in the Senate, spokeswoman Beth Conley said in a prepared statement.
“For five years experts at the Missouri Public Service Commission studied the Grain Belt Express transmission line,” Conley said. “Ultimately regulators unanimously approved this energy infrastructure project because they determined that the line would bring more than three-dozen Missouri communities clean energy at a cost savings of more than $12 million annually over the next 20 years.”
Republican House members and other supporters of the bill argue that the line infringes on property owners’ rights and that it does not warrant the use of eminent domain.
“I am proud that the Missouri House has again led the fight to protect the property of Missouri’s farmers and ranchers,” House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, said in a news release. The bill “was prioritized as the first bill the House would send the Senate.”
The bill would restrict the use of eminent domain for above-ground merchant power lines. The restriction does not apply, however, to rural electric cooperatives or any electrical cooperatives operating under a cooperative business plan.
The Columbia City Council in 2017 agreed to buy 35 megawatts of power from Grain Belt at $3 million per year over 20 years. If the line is built in time, the city will start receiving power in 2021. The Missouri Public Energy Pool, which serves 35 cities, including Fayette, Vandalia and Marshall, has agreed to buy 60 megawatts of power off the line.
Opponents of the line are confident that the bill will pass in the Senate since it was approved by the House so early in this year’s legislative session, Gatrel said.
“We’re looking forward to the Senate passing it and finally getting protection,” she said. “...We feel that we’ve got an early enough start, a strong enough push and thousands of people wanting their senators to do the right thing. We think that this is going to be our moment.”
Gatrel owns a ranch in Caldwell County. She said the bill passing would be a win for Missouri farmers and ranchers.
“If a private company can take private property via eminent domain, we think it would open Pandora’s Box and property rights all over the state would be in jeopardy,” Gatrel said. “We feel, as predominantly farmers and ranchers, that if we can’t control the property that we own, then it puts the food supply in jeopardy. ...We think it’s an absolute necessity to protect Missouri farmers and ranchers, and property rights in general.”
The bill has another supporter in the Randolph County Commission, said Presiding Commissioner John Truesdell.
“I think the eminent domain laws that we have in the state of Missouri are some of the toughest, but I think that was good, prudent legislation on behalf of our people,” Truesdell said. “That bill is just another piece of that.”
Despite the commission’s opposition to the current plans laid out for the line, Truesdell said he is keeping an open mind. The commission is set to meet with representatives of Invenergy at 1 p.m. on Feb. 5.