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Judge upholds state approval of Superior gas plant; $700M project faces additional hurdles

Dane County Circuit Judge Jacob Frost rejected arguments made by the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin that the Public Service Commission failed to consider the full environmental impact of the Nemadji Trail Energy Center.

The rendering shows what a new 550-megawatt natural gas power generation facility could look like near the Nemadji River along Superior’s industrial corridor along Stinson Street from East End to South Superior. Courtesy of Minnesota Power
The rendering shows what a new 550-megawatt natural gas power generation facility could look like near the Nemadji River along Superior’s industrial corridor along Stinson Street from East End to South Superior.
Contributed / Minnesota Power
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MADISON — Efforts to halt construction of a natural gas generator in Superior suffered a setback May 17, though the $700 million project faces additional legal hurdles.

Dane County Circuit Judge Jacob Frost said utility regulators followed the law when they approved the Nemadji Trail Energy Center.

Frost rejected arguments made by the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin that the Public Service Commission failed to consider the full environmental impact of the plant, which would be jointly owned by Dairyland Power Cooperative and two Minnesota utilities.

In his ruling, Frost wrote that the PSC simply needs evidence on which to base its decision, not a specific burden of proof, and he declined to second-guess the commission's evaluation.

"The PSC alone gets to weigh the evidence and assess credibility of witnesses," Frost wrote.

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Environmental groups say the 625-megawatt plant is not needed and will result in the release of heat-trapping gasses at a time when scientists say emissions must be rapidly eliminated.

"Building a new gas plant would be an environmental and economic disaster that would leave communities saddled with climate-disrupting emissions and a bad investment, both of which we'll be paying for for decades," said Elizabeth Ward, director of the Sierra Club's Wisconsin chapter.

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The report comes as the Biden administration prepares in the coming months to unveil new safety-related rules to curb methane emissions from pipeline systems that transport gas from production to local distribution.

The groups have also challenged the construction permit over perceived bias by former PSC commissioner Mike Huebsch, one of two commissioners who voted to approve the plant shortly before leaving the PSC in early 2020. Huebsch later applied to lead Dairyland, though he did not get the job.

Frost has delayed ruling on the conflict-of-interest charge pending a state Supreme Court ruling in a similar case involving Huebsch.

The plant also faces ongoing scrutiny in Minnesota, where regulators are reviewing the long-term plans of Minnesota Power, one of the plant's owners.

Dairyland issued a statement praising the ruling and defending the plant as necessary to the La Crosse-based utility's plans to phase out coal-fired power plants.

"Current challenges to the project only serve to compromise progress towards the lower-carbon goals shared by consumers and utilities alike," said spokesperson Katie Thomson.

© 2022 The Wisconsin State Journal

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Related Topics: ENERGY AND MINING
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