Two Minnesota Legislature committees overwhelmingly voted Tuesday to allow the stateâ€™s utilities to buy electricity made from North Dakota coal.
The two votes indicate the bill likely will pass the full House and Senate this spring, probably avoiding a threatened North Dakota lawsuit.
While the bills technically allow Minnesota utilities to buy electricity produced by coal, and even open coal plants in the state, the practical immediate impact would be to allow power produced by a Jamestown, N.D.-area plant that is about to go on line.
The vote also could mean more North Dakota power plants could be built, with power heading to North Dakota. Vice President Michael Jones of North Dakotaâ€™s Lignite Energy Council said a couple more plants being considered would have more potential Minnesota customers if the bills pass.
A House committee passed the bill 15-6, followed by a 9-3 Senate committee vote.
There was no immediate reaction from North Dakota officials.
The 2009 North Dakota Legislature set aside $500,000 to pay legal bills to challenge the Minnesota law. About $100,000 has been spent, mainly to pay private attorneys for legal research.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem argues that Minnesotaâ€™s law violates the U.S. Constitutionâ€™s commerce clause, which bars states from interfering in other statesâ€™ commerce
Current Minnesota law basically places a moratorium on new use of electricity produced by coal. North Dakota is most affected because much of the power it produces is sold in Minnesota. Most is produced by lignite coal mined in the western half of the state. Several power plants produce electricity near the coal fields.
Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said the Minnesota bill she authored produces a balanced energy program, allowing nuclear, coal, wind and other types of power.
State regulators need five years to approve a new plant, which then would take three years to build, she said. So, she added, the coal moratorium needs to be lifted to allow Minnesota utilities to build a new power plant years down the road.
House author Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, said that as Minnesota comes out of a recession, more factories and mines will open and need electric power. Current law would limit that power, he said.
Beard said he expects a full House vote on his bill in late April or early May. Rosen and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said they plan a Senate vote as early as next week.
Legislative committees heard from both sides on the issue in the past two months, with those opposed to the Rosen-Beard plan in a Senate committee Tuesday afternoon.
Coal opponents threw three major arguments at legislators: burning coal is unhealthy, coal plants cost more than other forms of energy and they produce carbon dioxide, which is the major cause of climate change.
â€œNew coal plants now are so expensive they are not really competitive with cleaner solutions,â€ Barb Freese of the union of Concerned Scientists told the Senate energy committee.
She said coal costs more than twice that of wind power. Rosen, however, said wind is not the answer to Minnesotaâ€™s needs since it is not always available.
â€œWind is not the cure-all and save-all for our energy needs,â€ Rosen said.
Robert Moffitt of the American Lung Association of Minnesota told senators that coal emissions cost Minnesotans $600 million in health care costs three years ago.
Several young people testified to the House and Senate committees, saying they are concerned about the problems coal will cause to the world they inherit.