ND Sues MN Over State Law on Imported Electricity

The law restricts electricity imports from new fossil-fuel plants in other states-and North Dakota claims that it is interfering with energy production in the coal-rich state.

North Dakota and some of its largest energy interests have filed a lawsuit against Minnesota in an attempt to overturn a state law that places some restrictions on electricity imports from new coal-fired power plants in other states.

North Dakota-which has a robust coal industry-alleges in the suit that Minnesota's Next Generation Energy Act (NGEA) violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution by interfering with North Dakota's ability to export its electricity. North Dakota wants a court order that invalidates the law.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday by North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, two coal companies, their trade association, and three electric cooperatives. Stenehjem claims that electricity is protected by the Commerce Clause, which prohibits states from favoring their own products over those from other states.

In addition to banning new fossil-fuel power plants in Minnesota, the law restricts electricity imports from new fossil-fuel plants in other states by mandating that local utilities offset the carbon dioxide emissions from such plants by making reductions elsewhere. Former Governor Tim Pawlenty signed the legislation in 2007, and the law aimed to bolster investments in renewable power, increase energy conservation, and decrease Minnesota's contribution to global warming.

The lawsuit claims that the NGEA “is, at best, a purely symbolic gesture and will not have any meaningful effect on global warming.” The suit also claims that Minnesota lawmakers have granted exemptions to the law that have favored Minnesota projects or businesses.

North Dakota is home to the largest single deposit of lignite coal in the world, and that coal fuels seven power plants within the state. The state's lignite industry produces about 30 million tons of lignite annually; generates nearly $3 billion each year, including more than $100 million in annual tax revenue; and directly or indirectly supports 28,000 jobs, according to information released from Stenehjem's office. North Dakota power plants export most of the power they generate to other states, including Minnesota.

The Republican-controlled Minnesota Legislature voted to overturn the NGEA during the last legislative session, but Dayton vetoed the measure. His press secretary, Katharine Tinucci, told the Pioneer Press that the lawsuit is “without merit.” She also told the St. Paul newspaper that the law was amended during the last session to allow an exemption for a 99-megawatt coal-fired power plant near Spiritwood, North Dakota, that's set to go online in 2012.

“It is unfortunate it has come to this,” Stenehjem said in a statement. “As Minnesota seeks to rebuild its economy, it will need energy. Much of that energy will need to come from sources outside Minnesota. Over the last four years, we in North Dakota have made every effort to convince Minnesota officials to rescind this Act.”