Was recent action by the Environmental Protection Agency a project killer for the controversial proposed Big Stone II coal plant?

Some environmental groups and reports have suggested that’s the case since the EPA raised objections in January about the air pollution-permitting process for the plant, which is just across Minnesota’s western border. But follow-up interviews with the EPA’s regional office in Denver suggest that rumors of the plant’s demise are overblown, at least when it comes to the EPA permitting objections. An EPA official in the Denver office said these are not major objections. Instead, they present some additional regulatory hoops to jump through, but are unlikely to halt the plant. The official also said the EPA’s objections had nothing to do with the change in presidential administration, that the agency would have raised the permitting objections no matter who was in the White House.

Late last week, the proposed plant got a boost from a heavyweight friend: U.S. Senator John Thune, R-South Dakota. Thune sent a two-page letter to the EPA inquiring about the permitting objections. Thune lauds the plant’s partners — Otter Tail Power Company, Heartland Consumers Power District, Montana-Dakota Utilities Company and Missouri River Energy Services — and cites President Obama’s readiness to "invest in low emissions coal plants" within his New Energy for America plan. Wrote Thune: "I trust the Administration will support the efforts of these dedicated individuals who have committed their work, time and money on this project to ensure the region will have safe, reliable and affordable energy in the future.’’

If that weren’t a clear enough indication of his support and willingness to get involved, Thune closes with this: "I look forward to hearing about your Agency’s role in moving this project forward, as it is essential to promoting economic growth and meeting the region’s energy demands, including expanded wind generation.’’

The Big Stone II project has been one of the most controversial environmental issues in the region. The plant's proponents say it's needed to meet regional electrical demand. Environmental advocates are concerned about the plant's carbon emissions on global warming and it will prove too costly to rate payers, particularly when new carbon emission regulations - expected under an Obama administration - are put in place. In January, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved new power lines to bring electricity from the plant into the state. Not getting the power lines approved potentially would have been a deal killer for the plant.

Environmental groups already have spent years and a significant amount of money to halt the plant. They've vowed to fight on in the courts, likely the next venue in the long Battle over Big Stone II.