What’s going on in Saint Paul? Divided government is a challenge: while the GOP lead legislature is busy reshaping energy policy for Minnesota, Governor Dayton has named Sierra Club endorsed Senator Ellen Anderson as the new Chair of the powerful  Public Utilities Commission.

Here is an update from Bill Glahn, former Director of Energy Security under Gov. Pawlenty.

Bill Glahn

 While most of the attention at the state legislature is on budget matters, progress is still being made on energy and environment issues.  Looking to build on the success of the environmental permitting reforms included in House File 1—which Governor Dayton signed into law earlier this month—the legislature continues to work on coal, nuclear, utility rate, and environmental funding bills.

Coal Power:   Bills to overturn the state’s 2007 ban on new coal-fueled power plants are awaiting votes on the floor of each house.  House File 72 has added two additional co-authors after its successful trip through the House Commerce Committee.  The Senate companion, SF86, moved through the Senate Energy Committee and awaits action by the whole Senate.

The bills’ immediate impact would be on the newly constructed Spiritwood plant in North Dakota.  The plant is expected to enter commercial operation in January 2012, and the utility owner—Great River Energy—would like to import some of its power into Minnesota to provide its customers with reliable, baseload electricity.

Nuclear Power Ban:  With events in Japan dominating the headlines, many opponents of the effort to overturn the state’s 1994 ban on building new nuclear power plants are claiming victory.  However, the bill (Senate File 4) is very much alive, with the conference committee holding its first meeting earlier this month, to merge the different versions passed by each house.  To the extent there has been a delay in moving forward, it stems from a lack of progress in negotiating changes with the Governor.

Multi-Year Utility Rate Plans—The utility-backed bill (Senate File 548) to allow multi-year rate plans has moved through the Senate Energy committee and on to the Senate floor.  When tried in other states, multi-year plans have proven controversial when monopoly utilities are guaranteed annual rate increases, without any scrutiny on costs.  The House companion awaits its first hearing.

LCCMR Monies Re-Directed—The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR)—which spends about $26 million a year in lottery dollars on environmental projects—introduced its 2011 bill (House File 400) to the legislature this week.  New LCCMR members Rep. Denny McNamara (R-Hastings) and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria)—both environmental committee chairs in the Legislature—have been working with holdover LCCMR members to revamp the package to reflect the priorities of new members.  In the end, the holdovers stuck with the original pre-election-2010 slate of recommendations.  The House Environment committee is considering deleting 20 projects from that list, shifting funds from renewable energy, climate change, and education projects to more direct impact projects.

New Public Utilities Commission Chair Appointed:  Governor Dayton has named Senator Ellen Anderson as the new Chair of the Public Utilities Commission.  The five-member Public Utilities Commission regulates rates for electric and natural gas utilities and permits new power plants, electric transmission lines, and pipelines.

Sen. Anderson (DFL-St. Paul/Falcon Heights) is currently the ranking minority member on the Senate’s Energy and Utilities Committee and was formerly the Chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Natural Resources finance committee.  Her nomination is subject to confirmation by the state Senate.

In 2010 Sen. Anderson received a rating of 8 percent (out of 100) from the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and holds a lifetime rating of 9 percent.  She received a score of 0 percent from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce last year, and stands at 0 percent so far in 2011.  In 2010, Sen. Anderson received the endorsement of the Minnesota Sierra Club-North Star Chapter for re-election.  PUC Commissioners serve six-year terms.