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Jan Lee headshot

Court: Minnesota Coal Power Law Conflicts with Constitution

Words by Jan Lee

A federal judge’s ruling in Minnesota last week highlighted just how out of sync some federal laws may be with new climate change mitigation efforts.

Last Friday, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson struck down Minnesota’s landmark 2007 legislation that prohibited utility companies from purchasing energy from coal-fired power plants built after 2009 unless the carbon emissions were offset. The state law was designed to fit with Minnesota’s goal of reducing fossil fuel use by 15 percent by 2015.
The judge enjoined Minnesota from enforcing certain sections of the law, saying that it conflicted with the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling was in response to a lawsuit by North Dakota alleging that Minnesota’s law prohibited companies from selling its coal-based power to utilities in Minnesota. The judge agreed, saying that Minnesota’s New Generation Energy Act got in the way of federal regulation of commerce.

Ruling that the state law “overreaches” and is a “classic example of extraterritorial regulation,” she suggested that if all states could craft legislation like this, “the current marketplace for electricity would come to a grinding halt.”

North Dakota, which was joined in suit by power and coal companies, celebrated the ruling, which in effect lends financial support for the continuation of its coal-run power plants. An estimated 79 percent of the state's power generation comes from coal sources.

For its part, Minnesota pointed out that the state law doesn’t prohibit utility companies from purchasing coal-derived energy from plants built after 2009, but it does require the company to offset the carbon emissions -- a point that wasn’t supported with the federal ruling.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who has said that the state will appeal the ruling, expressed dismay about the lack of requirements for North Dakota coal plant operators to address environmental concerns.

“Prevailing winds will carry those toxic emissions directly into Minnesota. That shameful practice should not be permitted by either the state or federal government,” he said.

Michael Noble, executive director of the Minnesota-based Fresh Energy advocacy group, offered a somewhat cheery insight to the ruling. He noted that with new federal rules from the Obama administration limiting emissions from coal-powered plants, the district court’s ruling, and in fact Minnesota’s tough battle for restricting coal-powered plants, may soon be a moot point.

“They won their litigation, but the world is moving on from coal,” Noble concluded.

Still, this recent ruling does make you wonder whether we’re set up for more jurisdictional battles that presuppose that a state’s efforts to curb carbon emissions (and address climate change) are treading on federal grounds established hundreds of years ago by the Constitution. Will climate change mitigation that strives to protect a state’s environment from greenhouse gases come down to requiring a constitutional change? Or will such laws need to be federally implemented? I shudder to think that each effort designed at curbing climate change would need to undergo Congressional scrutiny, given the last year’s legislative stumbling blocks on Capitol Hill.

The results of Minnesota’s appeal may answer those questions, and no doubt states and environmental advocates will be watching to see which way these winds will ultimately blow.

Image credit: Johnathunder (CC)

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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