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N.D. sues Minnesota over coal power restrictions

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North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem speaks at a news conference in his North Dakota Capitol office in Bismarck, N.D., on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011, about a lawsuit the state of North Dakota and representatives of the state's coal industry have filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis against the state of Minnesota. The lawsuit seeks to overturn a Minnesota law that makes it more expensive for North Dakota to export electricity to Minnesota that is generated by coal. (AP Photo/Dale Wetzel)

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BISMARCK -- North Dakota is suing Minnesota over restrictions that could affect North Dakota's electric power sales.

"Minnesota's Next Generation Energy Act has direct and serious consequences for North Dakota," North Dakota Attorney General Stenehjem said Wednesday when he announced the federal lawsuit.

Stenehjem long has threatened the suit, but held off to see if the Minnesota Legislature would overturn some of the state's carbon dioxide emission restrictions adopted in 2007. Lawmakers passed a bill earlier, but Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed it.

"It is unfortunate it has come to this. As Minnesota seeks to rebuild its economy, it will need energy." Stenehjem said. "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."

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill at the end of the regular legislative session in May to allow power from a new coal-fired Spiritwood, N.D., power plant and existing North Dakota plants into Minnesota, but Dayton vetoed it as being environmentally unfriendly.

Dayton said the suit has no merit. The Senate sponsor of the vetoed bill, however, sided with North Dakota.

"Minnesota has a robust and diverse energy portfolio, but precluding future development of important base load power from coal is irresponsible," said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont. "We need every energy option available to keep Minnesota economically competitive."

Rosen, like North Dakota's attorney general, said the bill lawmakers passed would have presented the lawsuit.

Minnesota House and Senate hearings vetted the issue. Rosen said Minnesota would lose jobs without the bill because its companies would not have enough electricity.

While many Democrats complained that coal causes pollution, Rosen said modern coal plants have devices that scrub out most particles.

The Minnesota bill had been watered down in an attempt to meet Dayton's objections, Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, said at the time. It would have allowed Minnesota power companies to buy power from coal-fired plants in other states, but restrict building new coal plants in Minnesota.

Environmentalists do not like power produced by coal because burning coal releases carbon dioxide and other air pollutants.

In legislative debate, Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, said that North Dakota's lignite is the dirtiest coal available. Beard countered that North Dakota has found ways to cleanly burn lignite.

"But for the veto of the law by their governor, we would not have had to take this step," Stenehjem said Wednesday.

About 60 percent of electricity Minnesota power plants generate comes from coal brought in from other states. North Dakota provides much of that coal, from its several mines, and provides power from its coal-fired plants.

Most of North Dakota's electricity from its seven power plants is sold in other states. Its lignite supply is less expensive than coal from places such as Wyoming.

Davis is the Minnesota State Capitol Bureau correspondent for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald.

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