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Minnesota should resist pressure from North Dakota coal lobby to weaken climate legislation

The so-called “Coalition for a Secure Energy Future” has jumped into action with the start of Minnesota’s new legislative session, publishing op-eds urging Minnesotans to consider that our carbon free energy goals would be best served by expanding our definition of carbon-free to include energy sources such as … coal.

Coal
A clean energy future powered by coal doesn’t exist.
REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Innovation breeds resistance, and as Minnesota’s Legislature works to set our state on a new ambitious course towards 100% clean energy our neighbors in North Dakota are doing their best to muddy the waters.

The so-called “Coalition for a Secure Energy Future” has jumped into action with the start of Minnesota’s new legislative session, publishing op-eds urging Minnesotans to consider that our carbon free energy goals would be best served by expanding our definition of carbon-free to include energy sources such as … coal.

According to their op-ed signature, the Coalition for a Secure Energy Future is “a nonprofit working to ensure affordable, reliable energy for Minnesotans.” But peeling back the layers of the Coalition’s identity reveals a deep connection to the dirtiest of all fossil fuels — coal. Despite the fact a clean energy future powered by coal doesn’t exist. On their website, the coalition reveals that they are “a project of the Lignite Energy Council,” a North Dakota-based coal industry lobbying group which has bragged in the past about their successful interventions to block previous iterations of Minnesota’s 100% clean energy plans. The coalition has also received millions of dollars of funding from the North Dakota Industrial Commission, an organization staffed by the state’s governor, attorney general, and agriculture commissioner, a group of people looking out for the best interests of North Dakota, not Minnesota.

That the coalition’s backers feel the need to cloak their lobbying efforts with a thin veneer of Minnesotan authenticity — hiring a Minnesotan PR professional to sign their op-eds and serve as their “executive director,” the only employee listed on their site — says something about how much North Dakota feels their interests are impacted by Minnesota’s decisions when it comes to energy.

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Making a full switch to renewables would benefit Minnesotans in nearly every way. The benefits of technologies like wind and solar go beyond climate, offering Minnesotans cleaner air and improved health, with electricity that is not only more affordable, but more reliable in a crunch: when severe winter weather in 2021 knocked out power generation across the country causing blackouts for millions, 73% of the lost generator capacity came from coal and methane plants.

Minnesota has no fossil fuel reserves or production to speak of, meaning most of the jobs created by our energy consumption don’t stay in our state and instead benefit economies of other states such as North Dakota, a trend that a home-grown renewable energy economy could begin to reverse.

It’s clear our neighbors in North Dakota are putting up a fight to stop Minnesota from charting our own energy future. In 2020 Minnesota-based Great River Energy tried to close Coal Creek Station, a failing coal power plant that had cost the electric co-op’s member-owners an estimated $170 million the year before. Officials in McLean County, North Dakota, where the station is located, responded by threatening to have the state’s attorneys nuke all renewable energy leases in the area, effectively holding hostage a high voltage power line carrying power from Coal Creek to the Twin Cities 436 miles away. In a time when transmission of electricity is perhaps the No. 1 barrier to electrifying our economy the message to Great River Energy was clear: The line would be used for coal, or for nothing.

Duane Ninneman
Duane Ninneman
The Lignite Council’s strategy here is a proven one: buy friends, disguise your interests, misrepresent the facts, and do anything to buy a little more time for the dying coal industry. Fossil fuel interests have been using the same playbook for decades, starting when they buried the research of their own scientists by hiding evidence of climate change from the public. Once word got out about this deception they worked to delay the clean energy transition in any way possible — discrediting science, blocking alternatives, and asking us to believe in an alternate “clean coal” reality in which carbon capture isn’t prohibitively expensive and where fossil fuels have been our clean energy solution all along.

Renewable energy, not fossil fuels, is Minnesota’s path forward, benefiting our wallets and health as well as our climate. We welcome informed and honest debate about how the whole region can thrive going forward, but that does not include furtive meddling and veiled threats. This an uncomfortable truth for North Dakota’s outdated dirty energy economy, but Minnesota needs to do what is best for Minnesota—and this means passing the 100% Clean Energy bill (H.F. 7 / S.F. 4) now.

Duane Ninneman is Executive Director of CURE, a nonprofit organization based in Montevideo, MN that works to move people to action and build power within rural communities.