What’s next after legal win for contentious Midwest power line

By Jeffrey Tomich | 08/03/2023 06:38 AM EDT

The Cardinal-Hickory Creek project has become a flashpoint in the debate over high-voltage transmission lines.

A portion of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line.

A portion of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line is pictured. American Transmission Co.

A legal barrier blocking completion of a 100-mile power line in the Upper Midwest has been eliminated by a federal appeals court, which lifted an injunction prohibiting construction of the disputed project across a wildlife refuge.

But the Cardinal-Hickory Creek high-voltage transmission line — a link that would move electricity from northern Iowa to a substation outside of Madison, Wis. — still needs permission to cross the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

The dispute over Cardinal-Hickory Creek, first approved in 2011 by the region’s grid operator, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), has become a symbol for utilities, congressional Republicans and renewable energy developers of the need for changes to facilitate development of high-voltage transmission projects to enable a transition away from fossil fuels.


On July 19, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals removed a preliminary injunction that barred developers from building a section of the project across the refuge, a 241,000-square-mile habitat for migratory birds, fish and wildlife along the winding Mississippi River.

Three transmission companies jointly building Cardinal-Hickory Creek said in a statement the next day that the ruling gives them a green light to complete the project. Still, they need permission from the Fish and Wildlife Service to build across the refuge, and conservation groups that have fought it at every stop aren’t surrendering.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, which is representing conservation groups that oppose the project, said the court’s 10-page opinion didn’t decide the substance of the issue. Rather, the judges determined there wasn’t yet a formal decision by FWS — a “final action” on which to base an injunction.

“We have to wait until the Fish and Wildlife Service issues a final decision in order to have our claims fully heard by the court,” Learner said in an interview.

Groups including MISO, the Edison Electric Institute, the American Clean Power Association and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association filed briefs in support of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project in the 7th Circuit case.

The plaintiff groups — the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, the National Wildlife Refuge Association and Defenders of Wildlife — haven’t decided their next step, including whether they will file another legal challenge if developers get federal permission to build across the refuge.

The groups have expressed concern not just about the refuge, but also about having the line cross through the surrounding Driftless Area, a region in the Upper Midwest that wasn’t flattened by glaciers and is characterized by its hills, bluffs and valleys.

“I don’t want to say we’re going to do X or Y until we actually see what they’re going to do,” said Learner of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

The project developers — American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest LLC and Dairyland Power Cooperative — declined to make representatives available for an interview.

In a filing with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, the companies said they “are working with the federal agencies to expeditiously complete their decision making.”

“Once the timing of the decision making is established, the Co-Owners can set a schedule for construction of the Project near the Mississippi River and within the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge,” the companies said.

In an emailed response to questions, the companies said they still need the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service to complete a supplemental environmental assessment of minor route changes as well as approval from FWS to complete a proposed land exchange.

Developers have proposed retiring a 69-kilovolt transmission line within the refuge and co-locating another existing 161-kV line on the same right of way as Cardinal-Hickory Creek, reducing two existing transmission corridors to one. Cardinal-Hickory Creek is a 345-kV project.

“This means that the two existing transmission corridors will be reduced to one after the project is constructed and the existing rights-of-way will be re-vegetated,” companies say on the Cardinal-Hickory Creek website.

Developers say 115 generation projects in Wisconsin and four other states representing more than 17 gigawatts of renewable energy — enough to power millions of homes — depend on the line’s construction.

Opponents say the statement is misleading — that Cardinal-Hickory Creek isn’t dedicated solely to renewable energy. It will carry power from both renewable and fossil fuel plants when, and if, it’s completed.

While developers succeeded in removing the preliminary injunction, uncertainty remains about the project’s future.

In the filing with the Wisconsin PSC, developers couldn’t offer a final cost estimate for the project. According to the filing, the cost has already reached $582 million through June 30 — 18 percent higher than the $492 million estimate approved in the Wisconsin commission’s order approving the line.

Developers have blamed the cost increases on rising prices for steel, aluminum and labor as well as expenses related to multiple lawsuits to federal and state approvals.