PUC delays natural gas plant vote; Duluth hearings will go on
Regulators will no longer decide the fate of Minnesota Power's proposed $700 million natural-gas plant in Superior Thursday after a last-minute petition called for an environmental review of the project.
Regulators will no longer decide the fate of Minnesota Power’s proposed $700 million natural-gas plant in Superior Thursday after a last-minute petition called for an environmental review of the project.
Although the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will still hold hearings on the proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in the Duluth City Council chambers, the five-member PUC will no longer vote on whether the plant is needed or in the public interest.
The move comes after Honor the Earth, a Native American-led environmental group, submitted a petition to the MInnesota Environmental Quality Board on Oct. 8 requesting an environmental assessment worksheet.
On Tuesday, the Environmental Quality Board said “the PUC is the appropriate designated Responsible Governmental Unit to make the decision on the need for an (environmental assessment worksheet).”
The PUC expects to consider the petition at an Oct. 29 meeting.
The PUC will still hold Thursday’s hearings in Duluth, but will hold off on a vote.
“Therefore, the Commission will not decide Minnesota Power’s petition at the October 18, 2018 agenda meeting,” the PUC wrote in a filing Wednesday afternoon. “However, the Commission will hear oral argument from, and ask questions of, the parties on the record as it stood prior to (Environmental Quality Board’s) referral of the (environmental assessment worksheet) petition.”
Duluth-based Minnesota Power wants to build the 550-megawatt plant with La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative on a plot of land between Enbridge Energy's Superior terminal and the Nemadji River.
Honor the Earth argued in their petition that although the plant, known as NTEC, is proposed for Wisconsin, it would have environmental consequences for neighboring Minnesota.
“The location of the NTEC in Wisconsin does not relieve the Commission from its obligation under (Minnesota Environmental Policy Act) to evaluate the environmental impacts on the people, land, air, water, and climate of Minnesota resulting from a decision to allow Minnesota Power to commence construction of the NTEC,” Honor the Earth wrote.
In an email to the News Tribune, Minnesota Power spokesperson Amy Rutledge said the project will go through an environmental impact statement in Wisconsin.
The project will also be reviewed by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Rutledge said.
“We disagree with the petitioner’s position on this project. Minnesota’s environmental review laws do not cover facilities that are in another state. Minnesota Power’s proposed natural gas plant will be built in Wisconsin where it will undergo a thorough, robust and extensive regulatory review as part of the permitting process,” Rutledge said.
The Duluth-based utility argues the project would support its expanding solar and wind energy production because it would provide a reliable backup source "when the wind isn't blowing and sun isn't shining."
Minnesota Power set a goal of reaching 44 percent renewable energy by 2025. The company says it is currently at 30 percent.
Opponents disagree, arguing that natural gas contributes to climate change at that the project could cause Minnesota Power customer’s rates to increase.
In a statement, Courtney Cochran of the Sierra Club said she was happy with the decision.
“There are clearly significant environmental impacts on Minnesotans resulting from this proposal, and those should be analyzed. The most significant are the greenhouse gas emissions of this proposed plant, but there are other air emissions and impacts on border waters that need to be reviewed. ... A full environmental review of this proposal has not been conducted, and we welcome the decision that one is required before this proposal could be approved,” Cochran said.
In July, Administrative Law Judge Jeanne M. Cochran said the project is not needed or in the public interest, and should be rejected by the PUC.
“Minnesota Power has failed to establish that approval of these affiliated interest agreements is consistent with the public interest because it has failed to demonstrate that the underlying 250 (megawatt) NTEC purchase is needed and reasonable," Cochran wrote in her non-binding recommendation.
On March, 11 Northland mining, paper and energy companies, which consume two-thirds of Minnesota Power's electricity, voiced opposition to the proposed plant because, in part, the companies argued there are cheaper ways of ensuring reliable energy.