ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Minnesota senators voted Thursday to lift restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions from coal production, with supporters of the bill calling it a necessary step to keep up with growing energy needs.
The Senate voted 42-18 in favor of scrapping what supporters said has amounted to a moratorium on both new coal plants in the state and purchase of energy produced by new coal plants in neighboring states. Several Democrats joined all the chamber's Republicans in voting to lift the restrictions.
The bill undoes a key provision from a package of bills the Legislature passed and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed in 2007 that was intended to boost the state's investment in renewable energy. But the bill's chief sponsor said the coal provision was unpopular at the time with many supporters of the larger set of reforms.
"We have a base-load energy need and a situation going forward," said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont. "Man cannot live by renewable energy alone. I like renewables, I encourage them. I live in a land of renewables, but we still need that base-load energy."
Several Democrats who voted no said the restrictions help keep Minnesota's environment cleaner and that making coal more of a priority in the state's energy mix could damage efforts to create jobs and industry tied to renewable energy.
Money Minnesota utilities spend on energy produced by burning coal in other states amounts to "dollars out of our communities, dollars out of our pockets we could otherwise use to build homegrown and distributed sources of energy in Minnesota," said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis. "It would unwind a tremendous amount of economic progress we're making and could still continue to make."
Dibble acknowledged concerns about growing energy needs down the road but said there's no indication it will be a problem in the near future. "There's no huge, pressing need for this," Dibble said.
Sponsors of the bill said the immediate impetus is to allow Minnesota's Great River Energy company to sell to Minnesota customers power that's generated by a new plant under construction in North Dakota. The company is not allowed to do so under the restrictions in current law and top state officials in North Dakota, including the governor, have urged Minnesota lawmakers to drop the restrictions.
Environmental groups have lined up against the bill, saying it would take the state backward in energy production. "It doesn't make sense to encourage more dirty energy while we accelerate smart investment in clean energy," said Michael Noble, executive director of St. Paul-based Fresh Energy, which promotes renewable development.
The bill's House counterpart has been approved by a committee in that chamber but awaits a vote of the full membership. If the two chambers can agree on a bill, it will land on Gov. Mark Dayton's desk. When asked about the legislation Thursday, the governor did not commit to signing or vetoing it, but did express support for the totality of the 2007 changes.
``There's no reason why we can't in Minnesota continue to have the electricity and the energy we need at affordable prices, but in a cleaner, more responsible way,'' Dayton said.