Utilities help North Dakota foot bill for lawsuit against Minnesota

  • Article by: DALE WETZEL , Associated Press
  • Updated: December 28, 2011 - 9:29 PM

BISMARCK, N.D. - North Dakota utilities and coal interests agreed to pay up to $500,000 of the state's cost in challenging a Minnesota law that restricts imports of coal-generated electricity, but the state will still bear the brunt of the expense, documents show.

North Dakota has sued Minnesota in federal court, saying a 2007 law that bars utilities from buying power from new plants that would raise carbon dioxide emissions illegally restricts business between states and encroaches on Congress' power to regulate interstate power sales and carbon dioxide emissions.

The law is aimed at coal-burning power plants, and utilities in North Dakota say it would cripple future development of the state's lignite industry, which produces more than 30 million tons of fuel annually for western North Dakota power plants that supply Minnesota customers with electricity. Lignite is a form of coal.

Basin Electric Power Cooperative, Minnkota Power Cooperative Inc., Great Northern Properties LP and North American Coal Corp. have agreed pay up to $100,000 each in legal expenses for the lawsuit filed in federal court in Minneapolis last month. All are plaintiffs in the lawsuit and sell power to Minnesota utilities.

Missouri River Energy Services and the Lignite Energy Council have agreed to contribute up to $50,000 apiece. The utilities and coal groups have signed separate agreements with North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's office promising to put up the money.

But the state will still have to pay expenses exceeding $500,000, and Stenehjam has estimated the lawsuit could cost as much as $1.2 million.

Tom Trenbeath, North Dakota's deputy attorney general, said the state has spent just over $342,000 so far in preparing for the litigation. The figure includes expenses for lobbying the Minnesota Legislature to repeal the law, Trenbeath said. The utilities and coal companies were not required to pay a share of those costs.

Minnesota lawmakers endorsed a bill last spring that would have loosened the law's restrictions on importing electricity generated by coal. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the measure.

North Dakota state Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said he was troubled taxpayers were still being asked to shoulder a majority of the cost of a lawsuit that would benefit private companies.

"The coal companies are big enough to handle their own legal problems," Mathern said Wednesday. "They have plenty of resources ... We have other places to spend public dollars."

He also said the lawsuit is "setting up taxpayers of two states against each other. I think we ought to be doing more in terms of working with each other in solving our problems, versus using public dollars to confront each other."

Wayde Schafer, a Bismarck-based spokesman for the Sierra Club, an environmental group skeptical of coal development, said the state could instead use its money "to advance the technology to provide cleaner energy, so both North Dakotans and Minnesotans would benefit."

"Any time you're going to court ... to force (Minnesota) to accept a dirtier form of energy than they want, it seems like a waste of taxpayer dollars," Schafer said.

Stenehjem and utility executives say public financing is justified because of the coal industry's economic importance to the state. Coal mining and electric power generation provide a steady source of good jobs and tax revenue, they said.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has asked the case's presiding judge, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, to dismiss most of the lawsuit and remove her from its list of defendants. Nelson has scheduled an April 12 hearing in St. Paul.

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