Environmental groups want to question a former Wisconsin regulator who applied to lead one of the state’s largest utility companies after voting to approve two of its projects.
Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club have asked a judge to require former Public Service Commission member Mike Huebsch to testify about whether interest in the top job at Dairyland Power Cooperative influenced his vote to allow the utility to build a $700 million natural gas plant.
The groups cite a Wisconsin State Journal story from earlier this month that reported Huebsch, who left the PSC in February, applied in April to be CEO of the La Crosse utility. Though he did not get the job, the timing of his application has prompted allegations of bias by opponents of two Dairyland projects.
Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club are suing to overturn the PSC’s approval of the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, which they say will deplete groundwater, destroy wetlands and pump heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.
In a motion filed Monday in Dane County Circuit Court, the environmental groups argue the “alleged irregularities in procedure” warrant testimony because even “a serious risk” of bias can result in a due process violation.
The groups note that Huebsch cast one of two votes to authorize Dairyland to build the jointly owned Nemadji Trail natural gas plant in Superior less than two weeks after Dairyland’s CEO announced her retirement and just days after Huebsch announced he was stepping down from his $128,500-a-year government job.
In the court brief, the groups allege the timing of the announcements and “the significant pecuniary benefit” of a CEO job that paid $888,000 in 2018, according to Dairyland’s most recent tax filing, create “a possible temptation” for bias.
“The obvious concern is that Mr. Huebsch knew or suspected he may apply for the CEO job, and sought to curry favor with Dairyland (or at least not upset it) by voting to approve their project,” the brief states.
‘Too many questions’
Clean Wisconsin spokesman Jonathan Drewsen said the circumstances — given the environmental impact of the plant — warrant more explanation.
“We’re not necessarily alleging he did something wrong,” Drewsen said. “We’re looking to make sure the integrity of the decision-making process at the PSC is upheld. ... There are just too many questions with this to ignore.”
Huebsch, who runs a private consulting firm, and a spokesman for the PSC, which is representing him in the court case, declined to comment, citing agency policy on pending litigation.
A longtime state Assembly representative from West Salem, Huebsch served in Gov. Scott Walker’s cabinet before being appointed to the PSC in 2015. He disclosed his application for the Dairyland job in response to a separate court case involving a $492 million power line through southwestern Wisconsin.
The PSC voted unanimously in September to approve the Cardinal-Hickory Creek power line project, a joint venture of American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest and Dairyland.
In response, the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation sued in federal court, claiming conflicts of interest on the part of Huebsch and Chairwoman Rebecca Valcq, who previously worked for WEC Energy Group, the majority owner of ATC. Both commissioners denied any bias.
An attorney for DALC and WWF said the timing of Huebsch’s application casts doubt on his impartiality.
A joint venture of American Transmission Company, ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative, the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line would stretch across more than 100 miles of the Driftless area. The $500 million costs -- and any possible benefits -- would be shared by ratepayers in 12 states. Wisconsin’s share is about $70 million.
Utilities and some environmental groups say it would deliver cheap, clean wind energy from Iowa, saving ratepayers money. Opponents question the public value, saying it would enable little new wind energy and damage important conservation areas.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will host meetings March 13-20 to hear comments on its environmental review of the high-voltage line known as Cardinal-Hickory Creek, which would connect Dubuque and Middleton.
As the Public Service Commission grapples with another controversial power line some opponents question whether the law allows enough time to thoroughly vet the $500 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek project.
Members of the public can offer opinions on the $500 million high-voltage transmission line known as Cardinal-Hickory Creek during meetings June 25-27 in Madison, Dodgeville and Lancaster.
Wisconsin Democrat calls on the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service to conduct “a meaningful analysis” of alternatives to the 345-kilovolt transmission line as well as other possible spots to cross the Mississippi River.
Attorneys for the utilities have sought to question Driftless Area Land Conservancy executive director David Clutter and to force the land trust to turn over eight years of internal communications regarding the line and to identify “the individual/s that first proposed having DALC oppose the Project.”
As intervening parties, they will be able to offer testimony from expert witnesses, cross-examine witneses and request information -- including trade secrets -- from the applicants, American Transmission Company, ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign says employees of two utilities made more than $338,000 in political contributions between 2010 and 2017.
The Driftless Area Land Conservancy is expected to file a request Wednesday with the PSC for $80,000 to cover half the cost of hiring the experts. The nonprofit conservation group will raise the other half.
The government shutdown created some confusion about the meetings, which are still listed on the USDA website. Agency phones went unanswered Tuesday, and outgoing messages indicated furloughed employees do not have access to email or voicemail.
If plans for the line are canceled for reasons beyond their control the owners would be allowed to bill consumers for all “prudently incurred costs."
If approved, the $500 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek high-voltage power line would alter the landscape and the way of life for scores of families and businesses.
Conservation and environmental groups say the U.S. Department of Agriculture failed to consider alternatives in its draft environmental review.
The Wisconsin Public Service Commission on Thursday declared the Cardinal-Hickory Creek application complete, triggering a 180-day review period of the project, which has an estimated price tag of more than $500 million and is expected to cost Wisconsin consumers up to $72 million.
Three utility companies want to build a 345-kilovolt transmission line from Middleton's Cardinal Substation to Dubuque, Iowa.
Developers of the planned Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line from the Madison area to Iowa have shrunk the two corridors under consideration.
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