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

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and South Dakota, the change is already being felt as the air permit for South Dakota’s Big Stone II coal plant was revoked earlier today.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, since the 1979 powerline battle (fought over the CU line, which now brings coal to Minnesota from North Dakota…very familiar). The Big Stone II line has been characterized as the “first major transmission project” in Minnesota since that time, although a number of smaller projects have been completed. After delaying the decision on the Big Stone II line, 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.”

19 Responses to “Obama EPA Overturns Big Stone II (SD/MN) Air Permit”

  1. 1 Jesse Jenkins Jan 23rd, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    Great news (and great post Kai)!

  2. 2 A Siegel Jan 23rd, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    These initial steps are quite positive. Momentum, on a range of fronts, moving the nation back toward a more sensible path forward. Almost makes one breathless waiting for the next smart action …

    Thanks for this post.

  3. 3 jennybedellstiles Jan 23rd, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    This post is timely, critically important, and written by a local author. For me, this is an example of IGHIH working at it’s finest level. Thank Kai. I hope our new EPA continues to keep the PUC of MN in line. I look forward to more proof from this administration that we are entering a new era of climate protection!!

  4. 4 Bryan St. James Jan 24th, 2009 at 1:12 am

    And now a word from those that have lived life a bit longer and seen a few more things:

    Kai- If you stay in MN, what will you do when your energy costs rise 200%-300% (or more) and we end up like CA with rolling brown or black outs? The more our society advances, the cleaner it has become. To progress, or at least keep our current standard of living, our increasingly energy intensive society needs affordable and actually viable energy resources. We are rushing towards serious failures of our society if we cut off all of core energy portfolios while rushing into alternatives that will never be non-core energy sources (ex: Wind is terrible as we don’t have it in any steady fashion so it’s only gives about 20-30% of it’s possible output).

    So this is not a pro-coal pitch or an anti-wind pitch. I am an environmental science major that has studied all of the alternatives at length. We need to develop all and any sources of energy so we have a deep and diverse portfolio of cheap energy. You want to see an economic recovery or help the poor? Give them cheap energy as a foundation and watch life blossom and Minnesotians smile when they don’t have to pay 40% of their income just to survive a winter.

    I admire your passion and effort to blog and speak out for our planet. If you want to do well by our planet and bring sanity to this issue, flush all the ‘global warming’ alarmism and similar hype and blog on things that are demonstrably beneficial like conservation, recycling, use of natural products, cleaning up your local environment, etc. This is what will eventually re-emerge as ideas and a outlook that real people in the public will agree with and, more importantly, act upon.

    Best Regards.

  5. 5 Michael Noble Jan 24th, 2009 at 2:49 am

    hi Kai,

    Great post on the BS2 case. This is their worst nightmare, having the US EPA issue a lengthy ruling citing so many deficiencies in their permit. Is it the death of the plant? It’s anybody’s guess, but I think so.

    BSII lead player Otter Tail also knows that it faces a hard grilling from shareholders about the risk of carbon costs. One condition the PUC applied was that CO2 charges above $26/ton would be eaten by shareholders, not passed on to customers.

    In addition, the cost of the power just keeps rising: first the unknowns of the construction, then the PUC saying that carbon costs as high as $26 per ton could be allowed, but the independent analyst said to expect carbon costs up to $60, now with new clean air permit requirement by EPA—-it just keeps adding up.

    Here my question: although everyone should now understand that Big Stone CEOs have no idea what power will cost from the plant, (and frankly they really dont care as long as PUC requires customers to pay them back), what happened to the PUC ‘s role of protecting consumers? Dont be surprised if the PUC upon reconsideration or the courts upon appeal decide that MN laws mean what they say: you cannot build a fossil plant unless you prove its cheaper than all options, including the costs to the environment.

    If this plant first costs $60-80 per megawatt hour, (a sticker price to which Office of Energy Security bureaucrats charged with protecting consumer reacted with bug-eyes) they are less interested still when carbon dioxide is $30 per ton (as environmental intervenors predicted) or even $60 per ton as independent analyst Boston Pacific warned. For those doing the math, each MWh of coal electricity produces about 1 ton of CO2, so an $80 per Megawatt hour plant facing $40/ton CO2 charges, is now trying to sell electricity at $120 per megawatt hour, an unthinkable price.

    Lots of efficiency at $20 per Megawatt hour, lots of wind, and a little gas-fired power: cheaper, cleaner, and better for consumers than this beast. Until the rising carbon prices are in place driven by a declining cap, we are stuck with debates over hypotheticals.

    This is what is so awful about the PUC ruling last week: even though the company only compared alternative options at their original outrageously expensive price, and two ALJ rulings said, nope, you didnt prove it was cheaper, the PUC said okay, even though no study was done, no modeling was done for a coal plant even more outrageously expensive than proposed, you can have your powerline permit.

    Its an appeal made in heaven.

    Michael Noble
    Fresh Energy, blogging at http://www.fresh-energy.org/blog

    P.S. I especially like your link to 1979 powerline battle (really 78) and a wild young professor at Carleton College named Paul Wellstone in front of a class room. I was at Carleton 73-77. Paul was a mentor to me and to an army of clean energy activists and progressives across the US.

  6. 6 Brian Jan 24th, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    There could be no better investment in America than to invest in America becoming energy independent! We need to utilize everything in out power to reduce our dependence on foreign oil including using our own natural resources. Create cheap clean energy, new badly needed green jobs, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. OPEC will continue to cut production until they achieve their desired 80-100. per barrel. The high cost of fuel this past year seriously damaged our economy and society. Oil is finite. We are using oil globally at the rate of 2X faster than new oil is being discovered. We need to take some of these billions in bail out bucks and bail ourselves out of our dependence on foreign oil.If all gasoline cars, trucks, and SUV’s instead had plug-in electric drive trains, the amount of electricity needed to replace gasoline is about equal to the estimated wind energy potential of the state of North Dakota. Jeff Wilson has a really good new book out called The Manhattan Project of 2009 Energy Independence Now. He explores our uses of oil besides gasoline, our depletion, out reserves and stores as well as viable options to replace oil.Oil is finite, it will run out in the not too distant future. WE need to take some of these billions in bail out bucks and bail America out of it’s dependence on foreign oil. The historic high price of gas this past year did serious damage to our economy and society. WE should never allow others to have that much power over our economy again. I wish every member of congress would read this book too.

  7. 7 Change Dominion Jan 24th, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Great news, and great post! I’m eager to know what the implications might be for Dominion Resources’ Wise County coal-fired plant in southwestern VA. On top of the pollution and greenhouse gases generated by this proposed plant, it will be fueled by mountaintop removal mining coal, which destroys the watershed AND eliminates the class A wind sites we will need in the coming era of zero-carbon renewable energy. I hope IGHIH will provide updates on the implications for Wise Co. and other pending coal plants.

  8. 8 Jake Brewer Jan 25th, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Well written and important post, Kai.

    Glad to see the EPA taking such immediate, bold action.

  9. 9 ZZT Jan 26th, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Bryan St. James is correct. The only solution is a balanced one. That does include coal.
    As much “progress” as everyone thinks we’re making by swatting down projects like this…I simply can’t wait until the opponents begin to feel the results of this and other decisions. Solar, wind, rainbows and unicorns. Once you realize your electric bills will SKYROCKET as we begin to depend on more alternative energy sources you all wont be as hyped about it. The rest of the world (India, China) will continue to build coal plants b/c its CHEAP. All youre doing is making the US UNCOMPETITIVE with the rest of the world. China will be paying $40 bucks a ton for coal b/c we’ve stopped using it and we’ll be paying thru the nose for wind power, unable to compete with China on anything b/c so much of our GDP will be going towards energy. Think electric cars are the solution? Where are we going to get the electricty to charge those cars if we’re not building cheap, reliable baseload generation from coal, or – god forbid – nuclear? Environmentalists ride unicorns in their fantasy worlds.

  10. 10 keith Anderson Jan 29th, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    If you want to do your part in stopping global warming quit importing all those Chinese consumer items. The buying of these “bargains” at your favorite store Walmart and the resulting hot Chinese economy and massive growth of coal fired electrical production in China should be your first concern. Yes the Big Stone 2 project has its short comings but it will replace energy imported from the mideast and will be cleaner that existing coal plants. When those opposed to Big Stone 2 give up their cheap Chinese made computer laptops, then you will have more credibility with me. Our economy needs the jobs from this ready to go construction now. Those people out of work in this recession have more immediate concerns – like eating and heating their homes.

  11. 11 R Gonzalez Feb 18th, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Having been a transmission planner for the past 25 years, the statement that no high voltage transmission lines have been built in Minnesota since 1979 strikes me as wildly incorrect.

    — The Winnipeg-Twin Cities 500 kV line was completed in 1980.
    — The Sherco-Benton Co 345 kV line was built in 1983.
    — The Split Rock (Sioux Falls, SD)-Lakefield Jct (Lakefield, MN) 345 kV line was completed in 2008.
    — Many miles of lower-voltage (161 and 115 kV) line have been build during the past 25 years, in urban and rural portions of Minnesota.

    I would hope that the balance of the article was developed with a higher degree of information checking applied.

  12. 12 Kai Bosworth Feb 18th, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Hi R Gonzales,
    Thanks for the info and your concern. According to this MPR article and a number of others, this is the “first major transmission line project” since the mid-1970s. I apologize for being unclear, and the problem has been fixed and cited.


  13. 13 Joni Apr 24th, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    This is good news, good news, good news! My family is craving air that does not burn our eyes and lungs and food and water supplies that are not loaded with massive amounts of toxins. Coal kills. As far as I’m concerned, Minnesota wind can take the lead in clearing the air.

  14. 14 MaryB Aug 11th, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    They need to check into the new clean coal technology from Bixby Energy http://www.bixbyenergy.com/ and where they wanted to site the Bigstone plant is also very close to Buffalo Ridge which is one of the better wind resources in the US. Why build coal when wind can be built for less these days. Research needs to be done into storage so excess wind can be used on calm days.

    Bixby’s process is a sealed conversion to gas with 0 atmospheric carbon emissions and the main byproduct is partially activated charcoal. The gas produced when we have excess wind generation could be stored for use on non-windy days. The burning of the gas isn’t totally clean but it is far and above dirty coal.

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