PSC Must Kill Cardinal-Hickory

The Public Service Commission must rescind its approval of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek power line. Every day they dither, more rate-payer money is wasted and a deeper scar gets torn unnecessarily through the Driftless Region.

A federal court has closed off any chance that the line can cross the Mississippi River at its planned spot, and any rerouting would take years and require a new approval process from scratch. Yet ATC, the company that would own the line, keeps building. They must be ordered to stop because, apparently, they won’t do so on their own.

Here’s the background. Cardinal-Hickory Creek would run from Iowa to Middleton. After much controversy, ATC and its partners ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power won approval for the line, which was designed to bring in power from western states. Those approvals included ones from Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission and from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to cross a refuge at the Mississippi River. 

And last year they started to build

In fact, the company estimates they’ve already sunk $161 million in building the line starting at either end. But the problem comes in between. The line needs to cross the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge

Last month a federal judge said that ATC could not cross the river through the refuge. “Simply put, the court ruled that the huge high-voltage transmission line and 20-story high towers are not ‘compatible’ with the purpose of a protected National Wildlife Refuge,” explained lead attorney Howard Learner. Learner runs the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which is representing the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and two other plaintiffs in the suit. 

This is no small hurdle as it means that ATC would have to go about 30 miles downstream to Dubuque (which has already rejected a line through their city) or about the same distance upstream at Prairie du Chien. Either way it would mean that this would be a very different route, certainly requiring new environmental impact statements and a new round of reviews and approvals. 

But that’s not stopping ATC. They continue to build. Why? Well, Federal Judge William Conley put it bluntly in his blistering decision, issued on Jan. 14, siding with the ELPC and its clients. He called ATC’s gambit “an orchestrated train wreck.” 

Here’s what Conley wrote: “The Utilities are pushing forward with construction on either side of the Refuge, even without an approved path through the Refuge, in order to make any subsequent challenge to a Refuge crossing extremely prejudicial to their sunk investment, which will fall on their ratepayers regardless of completion of the CHC project, along with a guaranteed return on the Utilities’ investment in the project.”

In other words, Conley called them out on their game. ATC is trying to put his court in a bind by ignoring the fact that they now have no way to cross the river, sinking hundreds of millions of dollars in building the line on either side of it, and then inciting public pressure to force a reversal of his decision later on. And, even if they ultimately must abandon it altogether, they still could get their 10 percent profit on the wasted effort. 

“Because the transmission companies cannot cut a wide swath through the middle of the protected Refuge at Cassville, their current routes in Wisconsin and Iowa amount to two very costly transmission line segments to nowhere,” Learner told me.“The transmission companies, nonetheless, are being arrogant bullies by clear-cutting and bulldozing through people’s property and waterways to the very edges on both sides of the protected National Wildlife Refuge. They want to keep charging consumers money as they run up the costs, and are causing unnecessary destruction to property and ecological values.”

Wisconsin’s Citizens Utility Board (CUB) agrees. On Jan. 28, CUB Executive Director Tom Content sent the PSC a letter asking them to order ATC to halt construction and to reopen the case to consider what should happen next. “Each day that the Utilities continue with construction is a day they are knowingly and intentionally spending Wisconsin customer dollars not just imprudently, but recklessly,” Content wrote. 

And, Content noted in his letter, it gets even worse. Because ATC has no plausible way to cross the river now, it means that the regional benefit of bringing in power from the west is cut off. That, in turn, could mean that the entire cost of what ATC builds in Wisconsin could be borne not by customers throughout the Midwest, but by Wisconsin ratepayers alone. That would be a triple whammy for Wisconsinites: get stuck with an ugly scar across the sensitive Driftless area, pay ATC and its partners a tidy profit for that privilege, and get to pick up the entire costs while we’re at it. 

As of this writing the PSC has not responded to CUB’s request. Commission Chair Rebecca Cameron Valcq, a career-long utility regulation lawyer appointed by Gov. Tony Evers, and Commissioner Ellen Nowak, a pro-utility holdover appointee of former Gov. Scott Walker, have been solidly, even militantly, behind this project. The third commissioner, Tyler Huebner, another Evers appointee, has recused himself because he once lobbied for the line. 

Look, Evers messed up badly in his appointments to the PSC. If they now refuse to do the obvious thing and stop ATC from continuing to build, he can redeem himself, at least in part, by coming out publicly and saying that they should. It’s reasonable to fear that the governor’s mishandling of his appointments and this issue could cost him votes in Southwest Wisconsin and, in a close race, that could cost him the election.

A version of this piece originally appeared in Isthmus.

Welcome to the 361st day of consecutive posts here YSDA. Thanks for reading! 

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

2 thoughts on “PSC Must Kill Cardinal-Hickory

  1. “Those approvals included ones from Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission and from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to cross a refuge at the Mississippi River.”

    So the US already gave permission to cross the refuge, yet suddenly this judge thinks it shouldn’t be allowed? Permissions were all set, building started over a year ago, and only a month ago a judge says no? This article is written as if the last word is written on traversing this refuge, but it’s hard for me to believe that. Clearly it’s not yet at the US Supreme Court, I would think this might get overturned on appeal. Heck, our government could disband the refuge or do any number of things to make this happen.

    Who’s wasting money/time here, the utilities or the sue-happy environmentalists? Get all this way in a project for the good of electricity consumers only to have a judge throw a wrench in it after the project started. Environmentalists likely had a chance to make their case earlier in the process, prior to all those approvals, and clearly failed. So search out more legal loopholes and keep at it, huh? No money would have been wasted if the environmentalists would have accepted their loss once the project was approved, but trying to stop it after if was approved and started guarantees ratepayers foot some level of lost money no matter how the case turns out. Smooth move trying to frame only the utility as wasting ratepayer money – the lawsuit wastes our money too and could just as well be framed as the primary driver of any potential money losses.

    If Evers “mishandled” appointments isn’t clear by this article – just because they didn’t act the way you think they should? To jump to election chances seems a stretch; I don’t know that environmentalists in SW WI would suddenly vote Republican over this.

    When it’s an issue someone personally cares about it can be hard for others to see what the big deal is. While this blog chastises “extremists” who care about CRT and race history in the US, those “extremists” might wonder why they should care about a few trees in the Driftless region. Suddenly the environmentalist seems like the extremist who shouldn’t be making such a big deal out of their pet issue.

    “Be quiet about racism that you, a human being, experience in your own life, but get really up in arms over these trees in the middle of nowhere getting chopped down so you can have reliable electricity”. Careful who you tell to quiet down, you might need them to speak up for you somewhere down the line. This is how the right best defeats the left – divide and conquer. Works every time. If Environmentalists will turn on the Woke in a quick minute, who’s to say the Woke will care about some trees? The American right doesn’t have these same problems, it’s like they share one mother brain or something (joking aside, their unity is remarkable).

    Status quo and moderate politics can’t solve problems like this. That is the formula for the conditions under which this problem arises. Perhaps this particular issue could under current structure get solved to the satisfaction of the author, perhaps not, but it won’t be the last of it. If all long-term hope rests on getting just the right people on a commission, that’s no hope at all. The right people somehow have a certain way of becoming eventually not-so-right in our governance system.

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  2. Here’s what Conley wrote: “The Utilities are pushing forward with construction on either side of the Refuge, even without an approved path through the Refuge, in order to make any subsequent challenge to a Refuge crossing extremely prejudicial to their sunk investment, which will fall on their ratepayers regardless of completion of the CHC project, along with a guaranteed return on the Utilities’ investment in the project.”

    I’m no lawyer, but it strikes as strange that a legal decision would factor in the sunk investment. It’s either legal or illegal. This entire episode only further dims my view of our judiciary – it really seems that they can just decide what they wish and pull together some scraps of paper to justify it any way they please. Our vaunted “rule of law” in action.

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