Minnesota court rules against planned Wisconsin power plant

Published 5:16 pm Monday, December 23, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday ordered state regulators to reconsider whether an environmental review is necessary for a proposed natural gas-fired power plant that would be built by Minnesota and Wisconsin utilities.

Minnesota Power and Dairyland Power Cooperative are seeking regulatory approval in both states for the proposed $700 million Nemadji Trail Energy Center in Superior, Wisconsin. The two utilities would share the power from the 525 megawatt plant.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals sent the case back to the state Public Utilities Commission to determine whether the proposal has the “potential for significant environmental effects” that would warrant a formal study. It said the commission erred by approving the project in October 2018 without adequately determining a need for the review.

Email newsletter signup

Environmental and other groups opposed to the project say it’s unnecessary and would contribute to climate change. Opponents include some iron mining and paper companies that say it would raise rates. But the commission rejected petitions for an environmental review, saying the project wasn’t subject to Minnesota environmental law and that the commission lacked jurisdiction to order a review for a power plant in Wisconsin. The Court of Appeals disagreed.

The proposal is also making its way through the regulatory process at the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, which held a public comment period earlier this year on its own environmental review.

Minnesota Power, the state’s second-largest investor-owned utility behind Xcel Energy, said it’s reviewing the decision and considering its legal options. The company can appeal the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

“We are disappointed in this unprecedented decision because Minnesota environmental review has never been applied to a facility outside the state of Minnesota just as other state’s policies shouldn’t apply to Minnesota’s environmental review,” the Duluth-based company said. “We feel the rigorous and thorough review by Wisconsin regulators that is currently underway will adequately address any environmental concerns and the steps we are taking to mitigate any environmental impact.”

Minnesota Power and Dairyland, based in La Crosse, Wisconsin, say the plant is needed to meet growing demand, to serve as a backup when power production falls off from renewable sources such as wind and solar, and to diversify their portfolios away from coal.

But environmental groups welcomed the court’s ruling. They have said that the commission should not rely on Wisconsin to do a review that considers the impacts on Minnesota.

“This ruling sends the strong message that Minnesota utilities can’t ignore or sidestep the environmental and public health risks of burning fossil fuels,” said Jessica Tritsch of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal to Clean Energy Campaign. “We hope Minnesota Power will take this signal from the court and develop a new plan that meets our state’s energy needs with clean, renewable energy rather than dirty, risky gas.”