As they launch a new legal challenge, environmental groups are panning a federal review that says a planned natural gas power plant in Superior would reduce greenhouse gas emissions despite pumping millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.
La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative and two Minnesota utilities are seeking a loan from the US Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service to finance the $700 million Nemadji Trail Energy Center, which they say will help them transition away from coal-fired power.
While pointing out that there is always a risk of blackouts, Nowak said it would take a “perfect storm” to trigger forced outages.
Environmental and consumer groups, along with Native American tribal governmentshave challenged the plant in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, and on Thursday the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin appealed to a Dane County judge’s ruling that state regulators followed state law in approving construction of the plant, which they call “an environmental and economic disaster.”
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“Constructing NTEC would saddle Wisconsinites with decades of paying for this plant and set back home-grown renewable development in Northern Wisconsin for years to come,” said Elizabeth Ward, director of the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter.
In a new draft environmental review, Dairyland said the 625-megawatt plant would produce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to more than 2.7 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.
But because the plant would likely displace electricity from less efficient gas and coal plants, the review determined it would actually reduce net carbon emissions in the region by about 964,000 tons per year.
Alliant Energy and the WEC Energy Group announced plans Thursday to delay previously announced retirements of three coal-fired power plants amid reliability concerns and supply-chain issues.
Stephanie Fitzgerald, staff attorney for Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said the review fails to look at the lifetime emissions of the plant and contains unrealistic assumptions about coal plants running until 2050 when most utilities are already shutting them down for economic reasons.
Katie Nekola, general counsel for Clean Wisconsin said a plant that will produce billions of tons of carbon dioxide over its lifetime cannot be considered a climate change solution.
“It’s too late to use coal emissions as a baseline,” Nekola said. “It’s urgent we do far better than just cut carbon emissions in half with gas plants; we have plenty of clean, low-cost technology that emits no carbon at all, and the ability to conserve far more energy than we do.”
When burned to generate electricity, natural gas produces only about half as much carbon dioxide per megawatt as coal, but the primary component of that gas is methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The environmental review did not account for methane released during extraction and transport, saying uncertainty about the source makes it impossible to quantify leaks.
Those upstream emissions largely negate any climate benefit, said Morgan Edwards, an assistant professor of public affairs at UW-Madison who studies the impacts of energy use.
“We need to dramatically reduce our use of fossil fuels across the board to address the scale of the climate crisis,” Edwards said.
Three utility projects with a combined capacity of 574 megawatts have been delayed and face potential cost overruns largely stemming from difficulty securing solar panels and other key parts.
The new environmental assessment was prepared in response to requests from environmental groups including the Minnesota environmental center, the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin to evaluate the impact the plant would have on the climate.
Those groups have also called on the government to deny funding for the plant, saying it’s incompatible with the Biden administration’s stated position on fossil fuels.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said investments in fossil fuel infrastructure are incompatible with pathways to head off the most disastrous impacts of climate change.
Fitzgerald questioned why the Rural Utilities Service has not done a more thorough review — known as an Environmental Impact Statement — required for projects that will have a significant impact.
“Clearly a gas plant that emits 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide every year is a significant impact,” Fitzgerald said. “If building a big gas plant won’t have a significant impact, what will?”
Dairyland spokesperson Katie Thomson said the utilities have complied with state and federal permitting requirements and “extensive environmental reviews” since proposing the plant in 2017.
“Current challenges to the project only serve to compromise progress towards the lower-carbon goals shared by consumers and utilities alike,” Thomson said. “In addition to grid stability risks and reducing access to renewable energy generation, the unnecessary delays will result in cost increases to the project, negatively impacting regional energy consumers.”
The plant has been the subject of short challenges in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin on Thursday appealed a May ruling by Circuit Judge Jacob Frost, who rejected arguments that the PSC failed to consider the full environmental impact of the plant.
“The NTEC project should never have been approved in the first place, and we will continue to fight it,” Nekola said.
The groups have also challenged construction permit over perceived bias by former 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 Dairylandthough 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.