Wisconsin regulators disagree over rescinding approval of transmission line

A deadlocked Wisconsin commission has declined to rescind and subsequently reissue a construction permit for a contentious high-voltage transmission line, a project that is now the subject of litigation in four court hearings.

The decision of Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission on Thursday comes as the three utility companies backing the venture have invested more than $126 million into planning and pre-construction work for the Cardinal Hickory-Creek project, which includes clearing forest in Iowa along the route the 102-mile line will follow as it stretches from Dubuque County to Dane County, Wis.

But PSC Chairperson Rebecca Cameron Valcq said that to rescind the permit as the transmission companies have requested would undermine the process by which she and two fellow commissioners approved the project and possibly establish an undesirable precedent.

“Are we signaling to applicants in the future that, OK, if you guys don’t like what you see in a final order or if you’re being dragged through litigation … then you can just come back and we’ll do a takeback?” she asked.

The request from American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative to rescind the permit comes after revelations that former Public Service Commissioner Michael Huebsch — who along with Valcq and Commissioner Ellen Nowak unanimously authorized construction of the $492 million line in 2019 — sent encrypted messages to a company employee and contractor for several years and during the proceeding.

The companies asserted that the correspondence was unrelated to the case and might not be retrievable, but opponents allege it is the latest instance of extensive ex parte communication between Huebsch and the applicants — a violation of state statute.

In court testimony, Huebsch has denied the allegations.

Huebsch’s position on the PSC has since been filled by Tyler Huebner, who has recused himself from the case.

The PSC issued a notice of its intent to rescind the permit earlier this month and requested comments as to how it should proceed.

The transmission companies said rescission and reapproval of the project will render pending court appeals moot and end the investigation into Huebsch’s actions, thereby avoiding protracted litigation.

Nowak agreed with the argument.

“This is a matter of efficiency,” she said. “Why there needs to be all the further issues going on in state court about a commissioner that’s not even here anymore, … it’s a waste of everybody’s time.”

Valcq and Nowak both rejected opponents’ assertions that Huebsch’s conduct indicates the public can no longer expect to receive a fair and impartial hearing from the PSC. However, Valcq said rescission is unnecessary.

“I understand that there are risks, financial risks, certainly, on behalf of the applicant,” she said. “Instead of rescission, they also have the power to slow and pump the breaks and not continue down the path of construction. It doesn’t necessarily have to be laid at our doorstep.”

The commissioners intend to revisit the request at an upcoming meeting.