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A hollow victory for ND coal?

There aren’t too many things former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and current DFL Gov. Mark Dayton agree on, but one of them is the need to protect Minnesota from emissions from coal-fired power plants in North Dakota.

Dayton was outraged when a federal judge on Friday struck down a 2007 Minnesota law — signed into law by Pawlenty — that bans new power generation from coal.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson enjoined the state from enforcing key sections of the Next Generation Energy Act, saying it regulates business activities of out-of-state utilities in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

Minnesota was sued by North Dakota interests over the law, after state officials were unable to come to an agreement that worked for both sides.

“It is a complete victory for us,” North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in an interview with the Star Tribune newspaper.

“I strongly disagree with the federal court’s decision to strike down an essential part of Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Act,” Dayton fired back in a news release. “My administration will appeal this decision and oppose North Dakota’s intentions with every means at our disposal.

“I will defend the State of Minnesota’s right to protect the quality of the air our citizens breathe.” 

The law effectively bars Minnesota utilities from building new coal-based generation or from importing coal-based power from out-of-state utilities, according to the Star Tribune.

But the North Dakota interests argued that the law also limited that state’s utilities from signing new power deals in other states.

“This statute overreaches,” wrote Nelson in a 48-page order, “and, if other states adopt similar legislation, it could lead to Balkanization.”

The Commerce Clause gives Congress, not states, the power to regulate interstate commerce. The judge said Minnesota’s law is a “classic example of extraterritorial regulation because of the manner in which the electricity industry operates.”

Nelson added that if every state had laws prohibiting the use of power generated by certain fuels “the current marketplace for electricity would come to a grinding halt,” according to the Star Tribune.

Dayton says the Minnesota law doesn’t prevent anyone from building and operating a new power-generating facility, whose toxic emissions will affect Minnesota’s air quality.

It only requires that those new emissions must be offset by the same or greater reduction in emissions from other plants. In other words, Minnesota’s law encourages the replacement of older, more-polluting power plants with more efficient, cleaner facilities.

Dayton said North Dakota operators propose to build new, coal-fired power-generating plants without offsetting emission reductions.

Prevailing winds will “carry those toxic emissions directly into Minnesota,” he added. “That shameful practice should not be permitted by either the state or federal government.”

In the end, it may be a hollow victory for North Dakota lignite: The free market is moving away from coal and towards cheaper natural gas and renewable energy.