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Wis. groups challenge approval to 345-kV Cardinal-Hickory Creek line

Wisconsin conservation groups are taking aim at the state Public Service Commission's approval of the 345-kV Cardinal-Hickory Creek Transmission line.

The Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation recently filed a series of challenges to a September decision approving a certificate of public convenience and necessity for the project from American Transmission Co. LLC, ITC Holdings Corp. subsidiary ITC Midwest LLC, and Dairyland Power Cooperative.

Most of the project's approximately 100-mile route from Dane County, Wis., to Dubuque County, Iowa, will run through part of southwestern Wisconsin. In approving the Wisconsin segment of the line, the commission said the project would improve reliability, bring savings to consumers and provide access to renewable generation.

But the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation disagree and on Dec. 13 filed petitions in state court appealing the decision. The groups said the commission did not "meaningfully consider" alternatives to the transmission line, such as batteries and distributed generation, and ignored staff testimony that the project "would result in net economic losses for Wisconsin taxpayers in most likely future scenarios," according to a news release. The groups said the petitions also argued that an environmental impact statement for the project "did not fully and fairly consider" all of the project's impacts.

Copies of the petitions were not immediately available Dec. 16. The Wisconsin State Journal reported Dec. 13 that Dane and Iowa counties and two municipalities also filed appeals in state circuit courts.

Federal challenge alleges appearance of conflict of interest

Days before, on Dec. 11, the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation asked a federal court to vacate the certificate of public convenience and necessity and keep the commission from enforcing it. The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin argued that two of the PSC's three commissioners should have recused themselves from the case given their ties to industry groups.

Chair Rebecca Cameron Valcq used to work at We Energies, whose parent company, WEC Energy Group Inc., owns about 60% of American Transmission Co. Commissioner Michael Huebsch is a member of the advisory committee to regional grid operator Midcontinent ISO and the secretary of the Organization of MISO States.

MISO had designated the transmission line as one of its "multivalue projects" needed to improve the region's overall reliability and bring wind power to market and supported approval of the project.

The groups had made similar arguments in an unsuccessful attempt to get Valcq and Huebsch to recuse themselves from the case before the commission issued its final decision.

In denying the recusal motion, the commission said this information had been available for months, if not years, before the commission's Aug. 20 verbal approval of the project. Further, the groups did not prove any impartiality or bias by the commissioners in the case. The commission also said Huebsch and Valcq's participation "complied with all applicable ethical and legal standards."

American Transmission Co. directed a request for comments to the commission, which declined to comment, citing a policy not to comment on pending litigation.

Iowa regulators are reviewing the segment to run through that state. The project is slated to become operational in 2023.