North Dakota sues Minnesota over energy act

By Stephanie Hemphill

North Dakota has made good on its threat to sue Minnesota over the Next Generation Energy Act passed by the Legislature in 2007 and signed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

The law prohibits Minnesota utilities from building any new power plants that would produce a net increase in carbon emissions. They also cannot add to their imports of electricity from fossil-fueled-fired power plants

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the law unfairly restricts interstate commerce, as state officials explain in this fact sheet.

Environmental groups backing the law point out that it applies equally to Minnesota and surrounding states.

The law provided exceptions for power plants that offset carbon emissions with reductions elsewhere, and this would be an option for any North Dakota power plant that wants to sell new electricity to Minnesota.

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Stenehjem points to other exceptions in the law: two industrial projects on the Iron Range, and two power plants -- all of which were already in various stages of planning when the law was negotiated and passed.

Neither of the power plants has been built. Backers of Big Stone II dropped their project because of rapidly-rising cost estimates and expected federal carbon-reduction initiatives. Mesaba Energy can't find a buyer for the electricity it wants to produce.

That suggests that the law is working as intended, moving Minnesota utilities toward cleaner sources of energy. Most of them are adjusting to the Next Gen Act's requirements quite comfortably. Because their plans for the next few years focus on wind and other renewable energy, they don't need to build new coal plants.

Utilities recently reported to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that - with few exceptions - that renewable energy is costing ratepayers the same as coal-fired power, or very little more.

Meanwhile, North Dakota is fighting with the federal government over emissions limits designed to protect national parks and wilderness areas -- including some in North Dakota and Minnesota.