The Illinois Supreme Court has delivered the latest blow to Rock Island Clean Line's plans to build a $600 million wind energy transmission line across Iowa and Illinois.
In its decision issued Thursday, the state's high court sided with an August 2016 appellate court decision that overturned public utility status for Rock Island Clean Line. The appellate court had ruled the Illinois Commerce Commission should not have granted permission because the company did not meet the definition of a public utility.
In its 7-0 opinion, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the company does not actually own, control, manage or operate any plant or transmission lines in Illinois.
"We agree with the appellate court that the Commission erred in finding that Rock Island (Clean Line) is a public utility," the court wrote. "The company does not qualify as a public utility under Illinois law and was ineligible for a certificate of public convenience and necessity from the Commission."
The certificate would have allowed Rock Island Clean Line to construct the project in the state of Illinois. The proposed 500-mile transmission line will run from O'Brien County in northwest Iowa to Grundy County in Illinois.
In a telephone interview with the Quad-City Times, company Vice President Hans Detweiler said the court "tightened up the definition of ownership."
He said that Rock Island Clean Line had an option agreement to purchase land in Grundy County, Illinois, to build a converter station for the transmission line. "They said that was inefficient and said we need to be already vested in that property."
"It's like a legal hangnail," Detweiler added.
Clean Line Energy Partners first announced plans in 2010 to build the wind energy transmission project. Its path would include Scott County in Iowa and Rock Island and Henry counties in Illinois.
Detweiler said the company will consider all its options, including a rehearing with the court. It also could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. It has 21 days to request a rehearing.
"Or we could decide we have enough information from what they have done, and we can figure out what to do to get approval," he said, including exercising its purchase option agreement.
"On the upside, they invited us, if we move forward and acquire utility property, we could reapply. They really left an open invitation to come back in," he said, adding that the Illinois Commerce Commission's "authority was not diminished at all as a result of this decision."
But opponents of Clean Line's project, including the appellant Landowners Alliance, were claiming the court's ruling to be a victory.
"Our legal victory today is for all landowners in this state," Curt Jacobs, an alliance board member, said in a news release issued by the alliance.
William Shay, the lead attorney for the alliance, said the court agreed with the Illinois Landowners Alliance, Farm Bureau and ComEd on the definition of public utility.
"The Court noted that nothing stops Rock Island (Clean Line) from seeking to develop its project as a private facility, but it will not have public utility status, including the right to condemn landowner easements through eminent domain," he added.
Founded in 2012, the alliance and the Block Rock Island Clean Line effort has been argued from the beginning that the company did not qualify as a public utility and is not entitled to use the power of eminent domain, said Mary Mauch, the alliance's executive director. "RICL's 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," she said in the release.
Carolyn Sheridan, president of Preservation of Rural Iowa, said that Iowa landowners also "rejoice with our Illinois neighbors." "This is clearly an example of large groups of people coming together for a common goal."
In December, Clean Line Energy Partners withdrew its application with the Iowa Utilities Board pending the Illinois Supreme Court decision.
"Now we have all the information for the situation is in Iowa and the situation is in Illinois...," Detweiler said. "We're going to look at all the pieces and make a decision."
But in a statement, he said "This (ruling) causes great delay for the project and will directly impact competition in electricity markets... It is unfortunate that Illinois now has higher barriers for new market entrants."