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First nukes, now coal?

For the second time this year, legislators are on the verge of approving a bill that could greatly expand electricity generation in Minnesota.

On the heels of the House and Senate repealing Minnesota's moratorium on new nuclear power plants, bills that would eliminate the state's four-year-old ban on new coal-fired plants are on their way to the floor of both chambers. The nuclear bill is in a conference committee.

Committees in both chambers overwhelmingly passed the identically worded coal bills Tuesday, which would strip the coal prohibition from the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act.

Part of that law, which had bipartisan support and was signed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, barred building new coal-fired plants or importing electricity from such plants in other states.

It was intended to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, the main contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Supporters turned aside environmentalists' arguments that allowing new sources of those emissions is a mistake in light of scientific research linking them to climate change. Eliminating the ban also would discourage development of the state's nascent renewable energy industry, opponents said.

The committees' votes also rebuffed arguments that coal is an increasingly expensive way to generate electricity and that it can cause chronic health problems.

In an argument also used to support lifting the nuclear moratorium, supporters said the elimination of the coal ban is needed to ensure that the state will have sufficient electrical generation capacity in the future.

In both cases, supporters have pointed out that neither bill means ground will be broken any time soon, because none of the state's electrical utilities has any firm plans to build new base-load coal or nuclear plants.

But Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, the coal bill's author in the Senate, said "it's a lot more immediate than the [nuclear] bill."

That's because the prohibition against importing power generated by coal from other states ran headlong into plans by Great River Energy to supply its customers in Minnesota from a coal-fired plant in North Dakota that is scheduled to go online in several months.

"I hope the situation with North Dakota can be resolved by this."

Rosen and House sponsor Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, both made economic arguments on the bill's behalf, saying new generating capacity will be needed when an economic recovery begins to take hold.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said eliminating the ban would amount to "simply taking the lid off" on new greenhouse gas emissions.

Gov. Mark Dayton has not taken a public position on the coal bill.

On the nuclear bill, he has expressed reservations but has stopped short of threatening a veto.

Bob von Sternberg • 612-222-0973