HELENA — A state Senate panel on Monday voted to table a high-profile bill designed to override a court decision that has stalled construction of a northern Montana power line to transport wind energy — but it’s unclear whether the measure is dead at the Legislature.
The Senate Energy Committee deadlocked Monday on House Bill 198, which would clarify that power line companies can use “eminent domain” to condemn property along a line’s permitted route. The committee then voted to “table” or kill the bill.
HB198 would override a state District Court decision that has snarled plans for the 215-mile Montana Alberta Tie Limited power line, stretching from Great Falls to Lethbridge, Alberta.
The court decision said state law doesn’t give MATL the power of eminent domain, which allows entities to condemn and purchase private property for a “public use,” such as a building a power line, pipeline or highway.
MATL is trying to use eminent domain to condemn a small piece of property near Cut Bank, where a landowner does not want the line to go through sites of historic American Indian tepee rings.
MATL has appealed the December 2010 decision to the Montana Supreme Court, but the company and other business interests had hoped the Legislature would pass HB198, which they said simply makes clear that power lines such as MATL have always had the power of eminent domain.
Darryl James, a lobbyist representing MATL, said work on the line in Montana has been shut down for more than a month and probably won’t start up again until the court case is resolved.
“At this point, it looks like all we’re going to do is rely on the court,” he said after the committee vote.
Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, who chairs the Senate Energy Committee, said the votes don’t exist in the full Senate to remove the bill from committee and bring it to the floor.
Olson did schedule another meeting of his committee on Tuesday, but said that it was merely to discuss the panel’s session-end dinner and that he had no plans to bring up HB198.
However, at least one member of the committee who voted against the bill indicated late Monday that he might be persuaded to change his vote.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Sen. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings. “It’s certainly a struggle. I wasn’t ready to vote ‘yes’ (Monday). I may change my mind. ... I’ve got a feeling this isn’t done yet.”
Supporters of the MATL line and HB198 said Monday that they’re disappointed with the committee’s decision.
“I guess the majority of Democrats on that committee have decided against clean energy,” said Jim Jensen, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, one of the state’s most prominent environmental groups. “That was the vote this Legislature for clean energy.”
“I’m very disappointed in the vote and particularly disappointed that the Democrats would kill the bill leading to a billion dollars of renewable energy development in Montana,” said John Fitzpatrick, director of government affairs for NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest electric utility. “There was a chance for bipartisan resolution to this issue, and it was squandered.
One Democrat on the committee, Sen. Ron Erickson of Missoula, and five Republicans voted to approve HB198 and send it to the Senate floor for debate and a vote.
The panel’s other four Democrats and two Republicans voted against it, resulting in a 6-6 tie. The panel then voted 8-4 to table the measure.
Erickson said that his “yes” vote was one of the toughest decisions that he’d made as a legislator, but that he thought the bill was critical for construction of the power line and development of wind power in the state.
“I’m afraid, if House Bill 198 does not pass, we will dampen at least for a while and perhaps permanently wind energy coming out of this state,” he said.
Space on the MATL line has been reserved primarily by potential wind-farm developers. The proposed 309-megawatt Rimrock wind farm near Cut Bank has been looking to use the MATL line to export its power.
Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, who voted against HB198, said that the measure has been a “high stakes game of poker” between power companies and landowners and that neither one has been willing to give on the issue of eminent domain.
“A court only has one way of resolving issues: There is going to be a winner and a loser,” he said. “At this point, either could lose and will have nothing for their effort. If they want to play their game in court, I guess that’s where they’ll play.”
Also voting against the bill were Republican Sen. Jason Priest of Red Lodge and Democratic Sens. Linda Moss of Billings, Mitch Tropila of Great Falls and Shannon Augare of Browning.
Voting for the bill were Erickson and Republican Sens. Bob Lake of Hamilton, Olson, Ed Walker of Billings, Verdell Jackson of Kalispell and Chas Vincent of Libby.