Last Tuesday (Mar. 19), two members of the town of Stark’s Energy Planning and Information Committee (EPIC) went to Madison to testify against a bill that would expand American Transmission Company’s (ATC) market powers outside Wisconsin.
Assembly Bill 39 and its Senate version SB35 would allow ATC to purchase or acquire the right to profits from transmission lines the company doesn’t own, out of state as well as in Wisconsin. The rest of the bill deals with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) role in high voltage transmission line review and the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) notification to municipalities after a company submits application for a project.
Why is this expansion of ATC’s power included in a bill that its authors are calling “housekeeping?” EPIC secretary Rob Danielson and EPIC co-chair Joan Kent asked members of the Assembly’s Energy and Utilities Committee. “The trading of transmission rights as market derivatives was far from the minds of state legislators when ATC was formed in 1999,” Danielson said.
Since ATC was created by the Legislature, Kent asked if the bill could make Wisconsin legally vulnerable regarding ATC investments in other states. “My common sense tells me this has everything to do with increasing ATC’s profit and little or nothing to do with energy reliability for Wisconsin ratepayers,” she said.
But only one of the committee members asked only one question about the expanded market powers. And the bill’s author and ATC officials did not give specific information:
Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee, who authored Assembly bill, summarized the expanded business abilities as the “right to rule the pipes” in emerging markets outside Wisconsin.
It’s modernization to bring Wisconsin laws in line with opportunities throughout the country, said John Flynn, ATC executive vice president, strategic planning and project development.
“Do you have any idea of the percentage of the jobs created by the new business activities will be made in Wisconsin?” asked Rep. Thomas Larson, R-Colfax. The majority would be in state, Flynn replied. “We are going to see more energy opportunities and this will allow us to take advantage for the benefit of Wisconsin.”
Citizens Utility Board Director Charlie Higley told the Capital Times the law might allow ATC to “cross-subsidize” its investment in other states with money collected from Wisconsin ratepayers. ATC’s return is an outrageously high 12.2 percent, he said.
The bill also would eliminate a requirement for a transmission company to submit a detailed project plan to the DNR at least 60 days before filing application including final route selections with the PSC.
David Siebert, director of the DNR’s Office of Energy and Environmental Analysis, testified this would have little effect and would eliminate confusing overlap. Another law already requires the DNR to work closely with a transmission line application during the pre-application phase, he said.
But Danielson said, “To the best of our understanding Wisconsin law does not give the DNR the right to review citizens’ comments, questions and suggestions made as potential corridors are studied and narrowed down by the applicant. The exchange of this information is crucial to DNR effectiveness yet providing it to the DNR is at the discretion of the applicant.”
The current review process doesn’t give the DNR enough power, Danielson said, noting that no permits specifically protect wetlands, parks or historical sites from high voltage transmission siting. “When an extremely sensitive natural area is under consideration, the DNR can only propose an alternative corridor,” he said. When the sensitivity of a natural setting is questioned or unknown, current law permits the applicant, rather than a DNR official, to examine the site, he said.
Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, asked if EPIC is content with the way the DNR handles the draft Environmental Impact Study (EIS). The information presented in the draft EIS is satellite mapping of the corridors that the applicant has selected and not based on citizen feedback, Danielson answered, suggesting the committee members ask the DNR official if law requires ATC to give the DNR citizens’ feedback.
No one did.
The bill originally contained a provision that would reduce the amount of notification the PSC gives when a transmission company submits its application. But after EPIC and other groups voiced concerns about that during last month’s Senate Government Operations, Public Works and Telecommunications Committee hearing, Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee, chair and Senate author of the bill, and committee member Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, offered an amendment. This would restore the requirement that the PSC send copy of an application to clerks and libraries upon initial filing and add a requirement for the PSC to send a copy of the completed application. Both are to be in electronic form, though a clerk or library may require paper copies.
Higley said CUB was withdrawing its opposition to the bill as its concerns had been answered.
But Danielson said the amendments do not change the fact the public is marginalized in the Public Information Phase, the approximately two-year period before the application is filed. The applicant holds open houses, but the law does not define what information must be provided the public, he said. “Communities must be able to compare job creation benefits, comprehensive costs, carbon emission impacts and other potential benefits between all energy solutions,” he said, pointing to resolutions from more than 90 municipalities asking the PSC for that information.
The Senate Government Operations, Public Works & Communications Committee voted on the bill Mar. 27, at 9 a.m. The date for a vote in the Assembly committee has not yet been set.