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Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama EPA Overturns Big Stone II (SD/MN) Air Permit

By Kai Bosworth, cross-posted from

Just days after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the new administration is already getting to work on cleaning up some of the weak rulings from the last eight years. For those of us in Minnesota and South Dakota, the change is already being felt as the air permit for South Dakota’s Big Stone II coal plant was revoked earlier today.

The proposed Big Stone II coal plant was located right on the border of Minnesota, and 45% of its electricity would have crossed the border. However, by locating the plant in South Dakota, Otter Tail Power and the other applicants avoided the stronger Minnesotan regulations. South Dakota’s regulators approved the environmental permits for the project months ago.

The final permit needed was a Certificate of Need from the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) of Minnesota for a powerline going from Big Stone II to eastern Minnesota. High voltage powerlines in Minnesota have always been contentious, and none have been built in the state since the 1979 powerline battle (fought over the CU line, which now brings coal to Minnesota from North Dakota…very familiar). After delaying the decision last June, the PUC commissioned an independent study to determine if the dirty coal power would be the cheapest for Minnesotans. The reviewers, Boston Pacific, released their report in October, which stated that Otter Tail Power’s cost estimates for future coal power were far too low, considering an impending carbon price. Additionally, two administrative law judges both recommended to the PUC that the project be nixed. Despite this evidence (and the overwhelming organizing effort of local youth and green groups, too many to name), last week the PUC voted 5-0 in favor of building the powerline.

But what a difference a week can make. Today, Obama’s EPA revoked the original OK given for the South Dakota air permit, citing worries about the plant’s contributions to global warming and inadequate emissions monitoring. This action took place on the dead last day for review for the plant’s application. Talk about good timing!

It’s unclear whether this will spell the end to Big Stone II, a coal plant five years in the making, or the powerline, which could be rerouted or extended to bring dirty energy from another proposed coal plant near Selby, SD (“It’s probably going to be the cleanest coal plant in the nation”). Otter Tail Power has 90 days to submit a revised application. Yet this is surely a good sign for activists across the country working to stop carbon-spewing projects like this one. Let’s hope it’s the first of many.

The press release from Clean Water Action and the Sierra Club can be read below.



Virginia Cramer, Sierra Club 804-519-8449
Darrell Gerber, Clean Water Action 612-802-5372

Date: January 23, 2009

Big Stone II Sent Back to the Drawing Board
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Concerned About Pollution, Global Warming

Washington, DC – Less than three days after the Bush Administration left office, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has overturned the State of South Dakota’s approval of the massive Big Stone II coal-fired power plant. The EPA’s decision comes after the state failed to require state-of-the-art pollution controls for the coal plant that would address concerns about harmful soot, smog and global warming pollution.

“This is a great day not only for clean energy and people’s health, it’s a victory for the rule of law,” said Bruce Nilles, Director of the Sierra Club’s Move Beyond Coal Campaign. “EPA is signaling that it is back to enforcing longstanding legal requirements fairly and consistently nationwide,” added Nilles.

As the first major coal plant decision by the EPA since President Obama took office, this decision signals that the dozens of other coal plant proposals currently in permitting processes nationwide will face a new level of federal scrutiny. Sierra Club and Clean Water Action have been working to stop the Big Stone II project and ramp up clean energy investments in for more than three years.

“Today EPA took the first step toward restoring science and integrity to its work and recognizing the very real need to reduce air pollution from coal-fired power plants,” said Darrell Gerber, Clean Water Action Program Coordinator. “Downwind residents and the region’s natural resources will be better protected.”

This decision likely spells the end of Otter Tail Power’s Big Stone II coal plant. While for the past eight years the Bush Administration has refused to regulate global warming pollution, even after being ordered to do so by the US Supreme Court, President Obama has pledged that the US will cut global warming pollution and do its part to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. With coal-fired power plants accounting for almost 30% of our nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, burning less coal and investing in clean energy such as wind and solar instead is a common sense approach to helping meet global warming pollution reduction goals. The proposed Big Stone II 500-megawatt coal plant would have emitted more than 4 million tons of global pollution annually.

At a minimum, Otter Tail Power will have to go back to the drawing board and redesign the project to incorporate the best and maximum available control technology for pollution like soot and smog. Sierra Club and Clean Water Action will be pushing for EPA to set limits also for carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming.

“Otter Tail Power will now have to be responsible for the cost of its pollution,” said Nilles. “We hope that this increasing cost of coal will encourage Otter Tail Power, along with Governors Pawlenty and Rounds, to harness the clean and affordable wind resources available in the region. Minnesota and South Dakota should be leaders on the path to renewable energy independence, not laggards proposing 19th century coal plants.”

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