With just a few months left before the Missouri Public Service Commission renders a decision regarding a controversial wind energy project, the gap between where local landowners and business interests stand on the project continues to widen.

With just a few months left before the Missouri Public Service Commission renders a decision regarding a controversial wind energy project, the gap between where local landowners and business interests stand on the project continues to widen.

Many Ralls County landowners are in the crosshairs of the development of the Grain Belt Express (GBE), a wind energy project that would take wind energy from southwest Kansas east through Missouri with the project’s terminus in Indiana.

Missouri is the last state in the path yet to approve the project. To proceed with construction, the company behind the project — Clean Line Energy, based in Texas — needs the approval of a Certificate of Convenience and Necessity (CCN) from the PSC.

Tuesday marked the closing date for rebuttal testimony, following public hearings held along the project’s path in December. Rebuttal testimony refers to responses to original testimony by Grain Belt developers and their experts. Kevin Kelly, a spokesman for the PSC, said individuals, organizations and agencies can file a recommendation on the case in rebuttal testimony.

An analysis of the rebuttal testimony shows a majority of individual landowners continue to oppose the project, while regional and statewide interests provided testimony mostly in favor of GBE. Out of 31 pieces of rebuttal testimony, 12 rebuttals came from representatives of statewide agencies/organizations or business interests (Walmart, for example, provided testimony supporting the project). Eighteen pieces of testimony came from individual landowners or people speaking on behalf of a landowner organization formed to fight the project. The PSC staff filed its own rebuttal testimony.

Of the 18 rebuttals representing landowners, all 18 either opposed the project or provided evidence to dispute original testimony from Grain Belt Express.

Ten of the 12 rebuttals from agencies or business interests expressed support for Grain Belt or affirmed original testimony — the exceptions being testimony from the Missouri Farm Bureau and the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association/Missouri Dairy Association (which were combined into a single rebuttal).

Both the project developers and Block Grain Belt Express — perhaps the most dogged group opposing the project — touted success at the close of the rebuttal testimony phase.

“We are very enthusiastic about our chances of defeating Grain Belt for good and resuming our lives. This is their third attempt and we are hoping that for us the third time is the charm and we will finally be rid of the constant threat they represent to our way of live and communities,” said Jennifer Gatrel, spokesperson for Block Grain Belt Express Missouri.

Grain Belt expressed, however, pointed to support from the broad range of businesses endorsing the project.

“These organizations, which sometimes oppose big energy projects, filed testimony with the Missouri Public Service Commission advocating for the approval of this new infrastructure project, citing millions of dollars in lower energy costs to Missourians instead of the typical rate increases associated with new projects,” a press release from project developers said.

The rebuttal testimony further defines the gulf in opinion regarding Grain Belt — with the “little guy” largely on one side and entities on the other.

Rebuttal testimony addressed a myriad of points regarding why the project should or should not proceed in the state. Most landowners agree, though, that the possible use of eminent domain to seize land for the project is a top concern.

“I fail to understand why and how we are at this point in deliberations,” wrote R. Kenneth Hutchinson, a Chariton County landowner, in rebuttal testimony. “How private venture capitalists can use the precious apparatus of the state (Eminent Domain) is troubling.”

Others in rebuttal testimony and at public hearings issued the same refrain — including the Missouri Farm Bureau.

“The government acquisition of land and buildings should be severely restricted in cases where reasonable alternatives are available,” President Blake Hurst said in written testimony. “We oppose the acquisition of land and buildings from an unwilling seller simply to keep development within a particular political boundary. Neither its purpose nor potential benefits to Missouri citizens enumerated by Grain Belt Express justify the authorization to exercise eminent domain power.”

Grain Belt has mostly downplayed that issue, focusing instead on providing landowners with what they say is fair compensation and also on possible benefits to the communities who would receive taxes and jobs generated by the project.

“The construction phase of the Project is expected to support 1,527 total jobs over the three years, create $246 million in personal income, $476 million in GDP, and $9.6 million in state general revenue for the state of Missouri,” wrote Alan Spell with the Missouri Department of Economic Development testified, noting that in the years of operation, significantly fewer jobs would be realized along with a lower GDP.

The Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission, a group of 68 municipal utilities, expressed their support citing $10 million in annual savings to their wholesale customers through their agreement with the Grain Belt Express.

“Missouri municipalities, Walmart, Missouri consumer organizations, and others’ involvement in our application affirms the tremendous long-term public benefits the Grain Belt Express will provide, if Missouri regulators allow it to proceed,” said Michael Skelly, President of Clean Line Energy. “We are encouraged by the national conversation around American infrastructure projects because we know that critical infrastructure projects like the Grain Belt Express create American jobs, provide energy security, and modernize our nation’s antiquated electric grid.”

Parties filing testimony in support of the project include:

•Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission

•Missouri Industrial Energy Consumers

• Missouri Retailers Association

• Consumer Council of Missouri

• Walmart

• Missouri Department of Economic Development

• International Brotherhood of Electric Workers

• Infinity Wind Power

• Wind on the Wires

• Natural Resources Defense Council

Other testified about a robust transmission grid the project would enhance.

Testimony representing the Missouri Landowner Alliance and property owners across northern Missouri filed several pieces of testimony, advocating for the individual and providing a counterpoint to nearly every piece of evidence presented in original testimony, ranging from effect on land value difficulty maneuvering farm equipment around poles to the validity of an electricity contract between Grain Belt Express and the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission — which has dozens of member utilities who have expressed interest in electricity from Grain Belt.

John Cauthorn, a representative of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, perhaps summarized the overarching feelings of many landowners in his testimony.

“...We absolutely must secure the rights of private property owners in order to ensure family farms remain in business in this state and across the country,” he wrote.

Maybe most detrimental to the project is the rebuttal testimony of the PSC staff, which issues advisory opinions, but has no actual decision-making power (that falls to the five-person commission). The staff indicated there was no clear need for the project, an important bullet point Grain Belt must prove to get the necessary permits.

Project developers originally applied for the necessary in permits in 2014. In July 2015, the PSC voted 3-2 to deny the permits. A second application in 2016 was quickly denied due to a procedural error. Evidentiary hearings in GBE’s third attempt at necessary permits will take place in March.

Reach editor Eric Dundon at eric.dundon@courierpost.com .