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New power plants in limbo

ST. PAUL -- Supporters of a major South Dakota power plant said Minnesotans could lose out if lawmakers vote to delay the project.

Provisions in a House energy bill passed last week would freeze construction of large energy plants for two years until the state devises a system for businesses to limit carbon dioxide they produce. That could delay the Big Stone II coal-fired power project near Milbank, S.D., said the project's communications manager -- if an exemption granted in the House doesn't survive negotiations with the Senate.

"We can't wait two years," Dan Sharp said Monday. "It's a delay the state of Minnesota really can't afford to make."

By delaying the $1.6 billion project, Minnesota may be in jeopardy of draining its electricity reserves, Sharp said.

That may very well be true, said Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, who will lead environment policy negotiations for the Senate.

"But there are other projects, too," the Duluth Democrat said. "So where do we stop?"

The Senate version of the bill is less stringent than its House counterpart.

Besides Minnesota, the project would provide more power to North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa.

Negotiators this week will have to decide whether to include language that exempts Big Stone II from the two-year moratorium on energy plant construction. Big Stone II awaits an administrative law judge's recommendation to the state's Public Utilities Commission about whether Minnesota needs the added power boost.

Sharp said the judge's decision could come "any day now." The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission could decide on the project this summer, he added.

The House exemption doesn't specify Big Stone II by name, but releases "a new large energy facility or a power purchase agreement" under consideration by the Public Utilities Commission from the two-year moratorium.

That language also describes a proposed power plant slated for the Iron Range. Supporters of that plant, the Mesaba Energy Project, propose to produce electricity by turning coal into gas, producing steam to power turbine generators.

Rep. Aaron Peterson, DFL-Appleton, said Minnesota should establish a statewide carbon dioxide reduction plan -- not just a study, as senators approved.

"We need to move ahead," said Peterson, an opponent of the Big Stone II project. "The Senate didn't put as much effort into this bill as the House did."

Scientists blame global warming largely on the proliferation of greenhouse gases -- primarily carbon dioxide.

House conferees will have to bend, predicted Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson. He expects the joint panel to produce language supporting a carbon-reduction plan, albeit one "that is a little less prescriptive than the House" approved.

A spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office wouldn't say whether the governor supports the emerging legislation.

"We're still reviewing it," Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said.

State Capitol Bureau reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.