by Aaron Klemz, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
Minnesotans are clamoring for bold action to address the climate crisis. Minnesota’s laws require increasing amounts of clean renewable energy, and we need to make the transition to 100% clean energy as soon as possible. So why is one Minnesota utility seeking to build an unneeded, expensive, and polluting gas power plant? And what are clean energy groups doing about it?
Minnesota Power proposes to build the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, a 525 MW gas power plant in Superior, Wisconsin as a joint venture with Wisconsin-based Dairyland Power. This gas-fired power plant would operate for decades if built, and spew 2 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere every year. Building a new fossil fuel power plant at this critical moment would be dangerous and irresponsible. The cost was so high that even Minnesota Power’s large industrial customers like mines and paper mills opposed NTEC on the expense alone.
In July 2018, it looked like this bad idea was dead. After a lengthy administrative trial with expert witnesses on all sides, an Administrative Law Judge ruled that NTEC was not “needed or reasonable” and not in the public interest. Judge Jeanne Cochran recommended that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) deny the plant. Despite this ruling, the Minnesota PUC approved the NTEC plant on a 3-2 vote in October 2018. Clean energy groups asked the PUC to reconsider its decision, and they refused. So in May 2019, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) appealed the decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Separately, Honor the Earth also appealed the decision. The cases were combined shortly afterward.
As part of this appeal, MCEA, Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists filed our brief with the Minnesota Court of Appeals earlier this month. This filing outlines the arguments we want the court to review. Here are our main concerns:
- There has been no study of the environmental impact of a new fossil fuel burning power plant. Despite a ruling by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board that an environmental review was required, the Minnesota PUC refused to conduct an environmental review. Instead, the PUC claimed that because the plant would be sited in Wisconsin, Minnesota didn’t have to do its own analysis. Then, this week, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (their equivalent of the PUC) ruled that no analysis of the environmental impact of the 2 million tons of CO2 added to greenhouse gas pollution was required in Wisconsin. If this two-step is allowed to stand, power companies could simply move facilities across a state border to avoid environmental standards, while selling the power back to Minnesotans.
- The PUC ignored evidence that clean renewable energy and efficiency measures can meet electricity needs. Rather than fully analyzing clean energy alternatives to a new fossil fuel power plant, the PUC assumed that the plant was needed. Minnesota law requires the PUC find that demand for electricity cannot be met through energy conservation and renewable before approving a fossil fuel plant. A number of expert witnesses showed that wind, solar and conservation could meet the need, but the PUC approved the NTEC plant anyway.
What are the next steps? First, we expect that a brief supporting our position will be filed by a student group in Duluth called “Friends of the Climate.” They previously requested to join the case as friends of the court, and their brief is due by mid-July. Second, the Minnesota PUC and Minnesota Power will reply to our brief in August. Then the Court of Appeals will set a date for oral arguments, likely sometime this fall.
Until then, we need you to keep the pressure on. Write letters to your local newspaper and elected officials saying NO to more fracked gas and new fossil fuel burning power plants. Ask your friends to support organizations like MCEA, Sierra Club & UCS. Sign up for future action alerts at https://www.sierraclub.org/minnesota. Whatever you choose to do, remember: all fossil fuels all contribute to the climate crisis -- fracked gas might be 'less dirty' than coal, but 'less dirty' is still way too dirty for Minnesota and for everybody who depends on a livable climate.