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Minnesota fighting attorney fees awarded to North Dakota in lawsuit

Minnkota Power Cooperative's Milton Young Station, located near Center, N.D., burns lignite coal to generate electricity for customers in eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. Photo special to Forum News Service.

BISMARCK—The state of Minnesota is fighting attorneys' fees awarded to North Dakota in a long-running dispute over a Minnesota clean energy law.

Almost a year ago, Minnesota appealed a federal judge's order awarding North Dakota more than $1.3 million in attorneys' fees and other costs in the case. Arguments are scheduled for Oct. 18 in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul.

The case stems from a 2007 Minnesota law, dubbed the Next Generation Energy Act, that restricted electricity purchases from coal plants in other states. Almost three-fourths of North Dakota's net electricity generation came from coal last year, according to federal figures, and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem previously said 800,000 Minnesotans rely on electricity from North Dakota plants.

The appeals court sided with North Dakota last year, with one judge writing that the law's provisions "regulate activity and transactions taking place wholly outside of Minnesota." Minnesota officials later said they would not appeal the ruling, although they "strongly" disagreed with it.

Minnesota has lobbed several arguments against awarding attorneys' fees, however, including that North Dakota and its Industrial Commission are not "persons" entitled to relief, according to U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson's September 2016 order.

North Dakota was joined in the suit, originally filed in 2011, by coal interests such as the Lignite Energy Council and power cooperatives. Industrial Commission Executive Director Karlene Fine estimated the state would receive about half of the attorneys' fees, with the other groups getting a share.

A spokesman for Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson deferred to that state's Department of Commerce and Public Utilities Commission. A commerce spokesman deferred to the state's legal brief Friday afternoon, Oct. 6, and a PUC official declined to comment on pending legal matters.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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