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Environmental groups have filed an appeal over the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s 3-2 decision to approve a $700 million natural gas plant in Superior, Wis.

The proposed 525-megawatt natural gas plant, Nemadji Trail Energy Center, would be jointly owned and operated by Minnesota Power and La Crosse-based electric cooperative Dairyland Power.

Petitioners asked the Minnesota Court of Appeals to reverse the commission's assertion that the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act does not apply to this project. They asked the court to order the commission to conduct an environmental assessment, or "at minimum" decide whether an assessment is necessary under Minnesota law.

Petitioners include the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The commission had initially asked an administrative law judge to review whether the proposed gas plant was "needed and reasonable" after Minnesota Power filed its application for the plant in 2017. The commission also asked the judge at the time to consider projected energy demand, economic and environmental costs of natural gas generation, alternatives to natural gas, and how the plant would fit into the state's renewable resource requirements.

The judge decided that Minnesota Power failed to show in its application that a natural gas plant was "needed and reasonable" and recommended that the utility commission deny Minnesota Power's application.

When the commission voted in January to approve the natural gas plant, environmental groups petitioned in February that the commission review its decision. That petition went ignored, starting the clock for the group to petition through the state court of appeals.

At a time when other companies have declared pushes toward zero-carbon emissions by 2050 and the price of renewables are falling, large investments in natural gas plants built to last 40 years run the risk of turning into stranded assets. This leaves ratepayers on the hook for the cost of these plants, even if the plants become obsolete before the end of their useful lives.

Dairyland Power has said on multiple occasions that the Nemadji Trail plant will act as a bridge to help the cooperative move away from coal-fired generation.

The Nemadji Trail Energy Center awaits regulatory approval from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.

Minnesota Power and Dairyland Power filed their application to the Wisconsin regulatory group in January. As a wholesale merchant plant, the Nemadji Trail plant does not need to be assessed based on projected energy needs, or whether there are energy and supply alternatives.

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Jennifer Lu is the La Crosse Tribune environmental reporter. You can reach her by phone at 608-791-8217 and by email jennifer.lu@lee.net.

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