Montana Senate Bill 180 Goes To The House

Montana rural landowners are gearing up to push Senate Bill (SB) 180 through the Montana House. SB 180 will repeal the power of eminent domain granted via the Montana Major Facility Siting Act (MFSA) as legislated in the 2011 session under House Bill 198. I’ve spent much time since the last Montana legislative session delving into how eminent domain law in Montana was changed by the enactment of HB 198 and also dealing with the potential impact of this on rural landowners.

I view this change in eminent domain law as largely a decision that favors economic development in rural areas being done at the expense of landowners. That may be a decision that the Montana legislature ultimately agrees upon, but it was a decision that did not result from an honest, open debate during the last legislative session. I think that this type of decision is best done via an interim study that incorporates input from a diverse set of Montana citizens.

However, for the moment, I think that SB 180 sets us on the path for a meaningful debate on how to handle eminent domain and merchant transmission lines. SB 180 will pull the power of eminent domain out of MFSA, and this first step is essential to take before any meaningful debate can occur. I say this because MFSA is basically an environmental review process that does not contain any vehicle for determining the facts necessary for condemnation, yet it gives the successful applicant the power of eminent domain. MFSA has also become more a political process than true environmental review process as evidenced by the fact that out of 37 projects proposed during the lifetime of MFSA, only one project has not been granted a certificate of compliance.

Additionally, I believe that the eminent domain power conferred via MFSA opens the gate for a variety of other energy facilities, in addition to the merchant transmission lines that have been central to most of the legislative debate on this issue. The power of eminent domain will go to any “person” who is granted a certificate of compliance for the following projects:

1. Nuclear (generation and storage: MCA 75-20-104 and 75-20-1202), hydro (MCA 75-20-104 and 75-20-204), and geothermal (MCA 75-20-104 ) energy generating facilities,

2. Certain transmission lines (MCA 75-20-104),

3. Certain major pipe lines (MCA 75-20-104),

4. Geothermal exploration (MCA 75-20-104),

5. Transportation links, pump stations and other facilities associated with the delivery of energy (MCA 75-20-104).

Some of the listed projects above requiring a MFSA Certificate are expressly identified as a public use in the Montana eminent domain statute 70-30-120, but others are not identified in this manner.  That means entities can be granted the power of eminent domain for projects that are not considered a public use. This is further evidence that use of the MFSA to delegate eminent domain was not fully considered.

Obviously the focus of last session’s HB 198 and the current session’s SB 180 is merchant transmission, but the questions of public uses and whether or not an entity must expressly be granted the power of eminent domain should be resolved given the variety of facilities that are still covered under MFSA and could be built using eminent domain. With no large impending projects looming under MFSA, we have time now to have a true public debate on these questions. This time we should do it correctly, and the goal of SB 180 is to start us on that path.

I’ve been asked how we can proceed with building merchant transmission lines as we sort this out. First of all, it is important to remember that many other kinds of entities, including various types of power companies, have existing authority to condemn property for construction of power lines in statute that is unaffected by SB 180: including the State of Montana, Municipal Utilities, Rural Cooperative Utilities and Public Utilities.

For building “merchant lines” specifically, there are currently a few options:

—–Use federal energy corridors that were established by several federal agencies in eleven Western states expressly to expedite the construction of high voltage transmission lines (established under the Energy Policy Act of 2005),

—– Bury high voltage direct current transmission lines in state highway and/or railroad right-of-ways,

—-The private, for-profit company can negotiate with a landowner for a true business partnership. This could include yearly royalties per tower, a fair one-time payment, or some other actual business partnership arrangement.

Montana citizens and legislators need to get behind SB 180 and get it to the governor’s desk!