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High court deals another blow to Clean Line project

Upholds decision that it isn't a public utility

Clean Line Energy’s plans to build a wind power transmission line through Illinois and Iowa took another hit last week.

The Illinois Supreme Court on Sept. 21 unanimously ruled that the Rock Island Clean Line project does not meet the state’s definition of a public utility. The decision upheld an August 2016 appellate court ruling that had reversed an earlier decision by the Illinois Commerce Commission.

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

The project isn’t dead, but it would have do be done as a private venture. Without public utility status, Clean Line won’t have the right to acquire property through eminent domain.

The Illinois Landowners Alliance, along with the Illinois Farm Bureau and ComEd, have been fighting the $1.8 billion project in court since plans began 7 years ago.

“We have firmly believed that Rock Island Clean Line does not qualify as a public utility and is absolutely not entitled to use the power of eminent domain,” ILA Executive Director Mary Mauch said in a news release. “Their foray into eminent domain for private gain has served to raise the public consciousness against these kinds of projects and unite communities to create strong opposition to them.”

Curt Jacobs, an ILA board member who farms land near the Whiteside and Henry county line, said the ruling was a victory for all Illinois landowners.

“The courts have affirmed the precise wording of the law, and have relieved a great amount of stress from all the landowners in the scope of this project,” Jacobs said.

Clean Line said the high court based its decision largely on the status of a purchase agreement for a converter station parcel. At the time of the company’s application to the ICC, Clean Line had an option to buy the land instead of a fully exercised purchase agreement.

Hans Detweiler, vice president of Clean Line Energy Partners, said the company isn’t ready to pull the plug on the project, but having to restart the process will ultimately hurt consumers.

“This causes great delay for the project and will directly impact competition in electricity markets, resulting in fewer choices and higher prices for electricity,” Detweiler said in a news release. “It is unfortunate that Illinois now has higher barriers for new market entrants.”

Detweiler said he was encouraged that the court made it clear that they could reapply with the ICC at some point, and the ruling didn’t impact the authority of the regulatory body.

Earlier this year, Iowa effectively shut down the project in that state with legislation that prohibits “merchant transmission lines” from acquiring private property through eminent domain.

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