Minnesota will push ahead with plans to develop cleaner power sources despite a U.S. Supreme Court order that has temporarily delayed a national clean power plan.
Still in question is how much guidance state officials can expect from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after the justices stepped in Tuesday to stop implementation of the Obama administration's attempt to address climate change with new limits on carbon emissions. The high court did not rule on the merits of the plan, but did stop application until the legality of the clean power requirements can be argued by the federal government and states and businesses opposed to them.
"While the Court's temporary stay is disappointing, it does nothing to diminish our resolve in Minnesota to keep moving forward on clean energy initiatives, including the development of our state's Clean Power Plan," Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement Wednesday. "We shouldn't need a federal edict to understand how vital it is that we keep doing everything in our collective powers to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency and advance Minnesota's clean energy economy."
Minnesota officials have been working with the EPA, utilities, neighboring states and other interests to begin shaping a compliance program tailored to the state's electric industry.
"We want to be as prepared as possible," said Frank Kohlasch, air assessment manager for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, who is part of the effort. "We have some good momentum. We want to move forward."
The embattled EPA rules give states more than two years to complete plans to enforce carbon regulations, though that deadline is in doubt because of the litigation. If states don't develop compliance plans, the EPA would do so under the rule.
Now, Kohlasch said, it's not clear whether EPA officials can continue to work with states, including on developing model state plans.
"It does create some confusion and challenges for moving ahead with planning for the implementation of the new rule," Kohlasch said.
The EPA did not respond to a Star Tribune request for an explanation of what kind of guidance it will offer states during the court-ordered delay.
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson signed on to legal filings opposing any delay in implementing the federal plan that aims to help control climate change by restricting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. Minneapolis also filed on the side of the EPA.
At least one state politician whose district includes a major power plant pushed back on the state's endorsement.
"Gov. Dayton owes taxpayers an explanation why his administration wants to waste taxpayer dollars to continue implementing rules that are likely to be struck down as unconstitutional," said Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker.
Some Minnesota power cooperatives have opposed both the federal and state Clean Power Plans.
"I don't see us saying 'Let's not do anything to move forward [on carbon emission reductions],' " said Mac McLennan, CEO of the Minnkota power cooperative, which sued Minnesota over its Clean Power Plan. But how companies address the issue could depend on a Supreme Court ruling, McLellan added.
"You could get part of the way down a path; the Supreme Court throws out part of the [EPA] rules; and you just made a bad investment."
The state's biggest utilities said they are moving toward compliance. Xcel Energy, Minnesota's largest power company with 1.2 million electric customers, recently said it has positioned itself to comply using a 15-year plan to boost investment in wind and solar energy and replace two coal-burning units.
A spokesman from Minnesota Power told the Star Tribune that the company "is actively involved in the state meetings regarding the [Clean Power Plan] implementation. Overall, we believe that we are well positioned … because of the many early steps our company has taken to reduce emissions including adding significant renewables to our fleet and the conversion of a smaller coal plant to natural gas and the planned economic idling of another."
North Dakota, which considers the EPA rule illegal, will nevertheless remain engaged with Minnesota in clean power planning, said Dave Glatt, the state's chief of environmental health.
"We'll cooperate with Minnesota, but that goes the other way," Glatt said. "If we decide to develop a plan that's different, we would expect the surrounding states to respect what we do."
North Dakota remains committed to coal, but Glatt said that with or without the EPA plan, the role of coal will change.
"Multistate utilities are all engaged in how they can generate electricity better, greener, working toward a future that has reduced carbon emissions," Glatt said. "I don't see that changing."
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