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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published January 28 2011

North Dakota coal subject of Minnesota debate

ST. PAUL – Minnesota lawmakers are debating whether to continue restricting the use of North Dakota-produced electricity.

Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, is pushing a bill to eliminate that restriction, saying Minnesota needs affordable electrical power from North Dakota plants fueled by lignite coal. It also would allow new coal-fired power plants in Minnesota, although companies that want new plants still would need to receive state approval.

Democrats, with support of environmental groups and students, argued on Thursday in favor of keeping current restrictions. They said North Dakota lignite coal used to produce much of Minnesota’s im­ported electricity pollutes the air.

The House energy and environment committee heard two hours of testimony Thursday, but Chairman Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, delayed a vote until Tuesday as time ran out.

Besides electricity, at stake is a potential legal action. North Dakota officials say they may sue Minnesota over the 2007 law that restricts electricity from coal-fired plants.

North Dakota’s lignite industry and its associated power plants employ more than 27,000 people, provide a $3 billion annual impact and generate more than $90 million in North Dakota taxes each year.

Mike Jones of Grand Forks, vice president of the Lignite Energy Council, told McNamara’s committee that 2 million Minnesotans get power from North Dakota’s seven power plants. He added in an interview that half of North Dakota’s electrical production goes to Minnesota.

More than 70 Minnesota companies profit from supplying personnel and materials to North Dakota lignite industry businesses, he said.

Jones said his organization and others are studying how to deal with pollutants such as carbon dioxide and mercury and have dramatically have emissions in recent years.

“It makes sense for Minnesota to continue with energy partnership,” he said.

Eric Olson of Great River Energy, which is building a coal-fired plant near Jamestown, N.D., said he wants current law to change or the Spiritwood plant may not be able to sell its power to Minnesota. Great River supplies power to 28 Minnesota electric cooperatives and plans to open the new plant next year.

“Coal really is the best option,” Olson said.

To environmentalists who oppose new coal plants, Olson said the problem with release of damaging emissions is a national situation, asking, “Why should Minnesota go it alone?”

The new plant, using new technology, would produce about the same emissions as natural gas plants that are generally heralded as low-pollution facilities, Olson said.

However, Barbara Freese from the Union of Concerned Scientists said one coal plant produces emissions equivalent to 100,000 cars.

Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, argued that existing law allows construction of new coal plants, but no company has sought permission to build one. Freeze said no new coal plants are planned until after 2030.

Falk said building coal plants contradicts Minnesota’s effort to be a renewable energy leader in areas such as wind power.

Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, criticized Great River for not seeking an exemption to the 2007 law that restricts out-of-state coal power. Spiritwood was begun in 2007, and Hilty said all Great River needed to do was to ask for the exemption when that law was being considered.

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said he is concerned about mercury emitted from North Dakota plants drifting into Minnesota and eventually getting into fish.

“We are going to put more mercury into the air,” he said. “How are we ever going to eat the fish?”

Several students testified against Beard’s bill, saying they want their future to include clean air. They fear it won’t happen if more coal-fired plants are built.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com