Credit: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

The debate over the fate of Minnesota’s largest — and most polluting — coal fired power plant has intensified as state policy makers begin creating a roadmap to meet goals set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.

On Monday House Job Growth and Energy Affordability (JGEA) Committee Chair Rep. Pat Garofalo led a tour of the Sherburne County Generating Station (Sherco) along with Rep. Jim Newberger, who represents the town of Becker, where the plant is located. A hearing afterward focused on the plant’s importance to the community.

Meanwhile, the Legislative Energy Commission will hold a hearing Thursday at 3 p.m. on the Clean Power Plan to hear from representatives of state agencies, Minnesota’s major utilities, a tracking agency, clean energy groups and others. Garofalo, a Republican, chairs the commission with DFL Sen. John Marty.

“We wanted to give people a forum to learn more about the Clean Power Plan and the impact it will have on Minnesota,” said commission executive director Annie Levenson-Falk.

Garofalo sent a letter last week to Gov. Mark Dayton expressing concern that closure of the Sherco plant, owned by Xcel Energy, could result in hundreds of jobs being lost.

If other coal plants close it will have “a devastating impact” on the communities where those plants are located, he wrote. Clean energy and environmental groups (including members of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News) have long advocated that two of Sherco’s older boilers be shuttered, while allowing for a third to remain open.

Dayton has responded by saying the state has no plan currently in place and that he and the agencies involved welcome all input from stakeholders. No power plants are slated for closure yet, he wrote, while pointing out that in 2030 the state will save $7.7 billion to $8.3 billion in health care related costs due to reduced smog and soot.

Garofalo sees no way for Minnesota to reach the EPA’s target without closing coal plants.

“Right now there’s a 40 percent mandated reduction in CO2 emissions,” said Garofalo. The reduction is based on 2012 carbon levels. “The only way those targets are achievable is shutting down power plants. You can’t get to it mathematically any other way.”

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy reports Sherco emits approximately 16,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 25,000 tons of sulfur dioxide annually and causes haze as far north as Isle Royale and Voyageurs national parks and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“Sherco is ground zero for this fight,” Garofalo said. “This is a really big deal.”

A lot of the coal-based plants have installed carbon and mercury mitigation technology due to state regulation, he said. No technology exists to remove all carbon pollution, he said.

When asked about converting Sherco to natural gas, Garofalo said the EPA does not credit Minnesota for past efforts at plants serving Minneapolis and St. Paul several years ago.

“We’re not getting any credit for that production,” he said. “Now the federal government is telling the state to double down and do it again. (The EPA) is punishing Minnesota for making decisions on our own.”

Garofalo said Minnesota has spent “billions of dollars” reducing carbon dioxide emissions, without any credit for those expenditures in the Clean Power Plan targets. “The reason we don’t get credit is that the federal government didn’t tell us to do it,” he claimed.

That kind of thinking “stifles innovation” in states that have taken a lead, like Minnesota, he said.

Dayton’s letter, however, pointed out that Xcel Energy testified before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that the new Clean Power Plan did a much better job of crediting the state for past investments in creating cleaner air.

The company’s CEO, Ben Fowke, participated in a White House ceremony celebrating the Clean Power Plan in August. In a prepared statement, he said the following.

“While we expect the Clean Power Plan does not provide everything we hoped for in terms of fully recognizing the early actions of proactive states and utilities, Xcel Energy is ready to move ahead. We look forward to working with our states in the best interest of our customers, ensuring we continue to meet their expectations for clean, reliable and affordable power.”

In addition, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported in August that Minnesota is the only Midwest state on target to meet or exceed its Clean Power Plan targets by 2030.

Expressing another concern, Garofalo said that legislators are “confused” over who will have the final say in formation of the plan to meet the EPA’s targets. For now, the governor makes the final decision, with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and other departments crafting the plan.

This doesn’t sit well with Garofalo or his fellow Republicans. He would like the plan to “have bipartisan support and legislative approval for it.  But that’s not the way it is now.”

He thinks the Clean Power Plan will be stronger with the support of “both sides of the aisle” and stakeholder groups. Because the Clean Power Plan represents a “dramatic change in our energy policy” all parties should have a chance to weigh in.

Some state legislatures are attempting to have a voice in any Clean Power Plan legislation. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported last month that in 14 states lawmakers have introduced legislation requiring that they have an opportunity to approve Clean Power Plan-related regulations.

That legislation has been approved in some states while others allow for a non-binding vote or for their PUC to approve the final plan. Ten states have asked that the plan be dismissed or that they be exempted from the regulation.

Garofalo, a Telsa owner, believes rather than focusing on coal-fired plants the state could consider promoting electric and natural gas vehicles.

“You could spend less money and get huge environmental benefits for Minnesota,” he said. “Alternative fuel vehicles are a good thing for the environment and a good thing for the economy.”

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.

One reply on “In Minnesota, coal plant is ‘ground zero’ for Clean Power Plan debate”