Excelsior Energy’s office in Coleraine, Minnesota. (Photo by Dan Haugen for Midwest Energy News)

A long-stalled northern Minnesota “clean coal” project is again in the spotlight following a two-part investigation by the Duluth News Tribune.

The Mesaba Energy Project, which we profiled in April, is a proposed coal-to-gas plant that was eagerly embraced by officials in Minnesota’s Iron Range, which has long suffered from high unemployment due to a downturn in the region’s mining industry. Excelsior Energy, which organized the project, has received more than $40 million in public funds, but after ten years, has yet to produce much beyond blueprints.

The News Tribune took a more aggressive look at the project’s finances, finding that the backers of the plant, Tom Micheletti and Julie Jorgensen, had been paying themselves six-figure salaries, and that the project is nearly out of money.

Jorgensen and Micheletti responded with an op-ed piece defending the project, blaming regulations for the lack of progress.

Karl Bremer, a journalist and blogger based in Stillwater, Minnesota, picks up where the News Tribune left off, finding that the project’s backers have spent more than $325,000 toward campaign contributions (to Democrats and Republicans alike) and lobbying expenses.

It’s a scenario we’ve seen before: A private company forms to promote a dubious enterprise, hires politically connected lobbyists, sucks up millions in government grants, hands out boatloads of campaign cash to politicians who keep the government money flowing to enrich a handful of lobbyists and consultants—and then the cycle repeats itself over and over.

Aaron Brown, a former newspaper editor and current college instructor/blogger/organizer in Hibbing, Minnesota, has been following the project since its inception in 2001, and, like Bremer, isn’t been shy about using the word “boondoggle” to characterize it.

Brown says it’s time to move on:

The Iron Range must do better. There is no acceptable defense of the status quo in the context of this story. Those who persist to ignore facts and advance the causes of private interests over the public good are enemies of the people of the Iron Range and should be treated as such.

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.