Opponents of a proposed power line through southwest Wisconsin have leveled conflict of interest charges against two utility regulators and argue the Public Service Commission cannot legally approve the project.
Attorneys for the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation filed a motion Friday claiming Public Service Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Valcq and Commissioner Mike Huebsch have “entanglements” that should prohibit them from ruling on the $500 million line known as Cardinal-Hickory Creek.
Both were part of a 3-0 vote on Aug. 20 to approve the project, a joint venture of ATC, ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative that will run about 100 miles between Dubuque, Iowa, and Middleton.
Arguing that federal law requires judges to avoid even the appearance of bias, the opponents, represented by the Environmental Law & Policy Center, do not claim any conflict of interest by Commissioner Ellen Nowak but argue the PSC itself should be barred from ruling on the project.
“The process is contaminated, and the commission should be recused,” said ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner.
The PSC is expected to issue a final written order Thursday, four days before the statutory deadline to render a decision on the application for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN). Under a 1998 state law, the PSC has 360 days to issue a CPCN or the permit is automatically granted.
Learner dismisses that outcome.
“Ultimately this will need to be determined by an impartial body that does not have these conflicts of interest and does not have this bias,” Learner said. “State law cannot be construed in a way that deprives people of their Constitutional due process rights.”
Huebsch serves on an advisory committee to the Midwest grid operator, MISO, which was working with ATC to gain approval of the line. In his role with MISO, the opponents argue, he had outside communications with a party to the case.
“Huebsch is meeting with and engaging in communications with an active party in this case, which has an agreement to strategize with ATC,” Learner said.
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Valcq, who was appointed as commission chair by Gov. Tony Evers, previously spent 15 years as an attorney for the WEC Energy Group, which owns We Energies and about 60 percent of ATC. She agreed to recuse herself from 28 open cases as well as any new ones filed this year that she had worked on prior to joining the PSC. Cardinal-Hickory Creek was not among those cases.
ELPC argues that Valcq worked on cases involving generators that connect to the electric grid, of which Cardinal-Hickory Creek will be a part.
“(T)he extent of Chair Valcq’s relationship with We Energies and the lack of any meaningful gap between her representation of We Energies and this case create at least an appearance of bias to a reasonable person that warrants recusal in this particular contested case,” ELPC’s brief states.
ELPC says the commission functions as a judicial body, and therefore the appearance of bias would deny its clients their rights to due process in a case in which the utilities would be granted eminent domain powers to take private property while collecting more than $2.2 billion from ratepayers over four decades.
PSC spokesman Matthew Sweeney said Monday the PSC would address the merits of the motion “at a future open meeting.”
“While (Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation) could have made this filing at any time, they waited to make these claims until only after they did not get the result they had hoped for,” Sweeney said. “The timing of this alone should cause anyone to question the allegations they are making.”
Learner said it is the responsibility of the commissioners to recuse themselves and that the opponents weren’t aware of Huebsch’s involvement with MISO before Huebsch led the Aug. 20 public discussion.
These are not the first conflict of interest charges leveled against Valcq.
In May the PSC unanimously denied a petition to reconsider its approval of the state’s first large-scale solar farm after opponents argued that Valcq’s previous work for We Energies should have barred her from participating.
The Cardinal-Hickory Creek case drew unprecedented interest, with more than 50 groups and individuals participating in the evaluation process, which drew hundreds of public comments, almost all of them opposed to the line.
The utilities and clean energy advocates said the line is needed to deliver cheap wind power from the west and that it would deliver between $23 million and $350 million in net benefits to Wisconsin ratepayers.
Opponents — including conservation groups, the Citizens Utility Board, Dane and Iowa counties and local governments along the route — questioned the public value, saying it would enable little new renewable energy, damage important conservation areas, and result in minimal ratepayer savings.