On December 23, 2019, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed and remanded a decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (the “Commission”) approving affiliated-interest agreements permitting Minnesota Power and its Wisconsin affiliate to move forward with the construction of a large natural gas facility – the Nemadji Trail Energy Center (“NTEC”) – in Superior, Wisconsin (the “Order”). The result of the Order may complicate the already complex issue of state permitting, specifically a state’s ability to regulate activity occurring in another state.
Honor the Earth and certain Clean Energy Organizations sought additional review of the Commission’s order based on concern about the lack of a Commission-ordered environmental assessment worksheet (“EAW”) pursuant to the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act (“MEPA”). During the initial Commission proceeding, Minnesota Power, and indeed the Commission, determined that an EAW was not necessary because (1) MEPA does not apply to the affiliated-interest agreements because NTEC does not meet the definition of “project” under MEPA, and (2) the Commission does not have authority to order an EAW for a project located in Wisconsin. In its Order, the Court of Appeals addresses each point, in turn.
The Order holds that MEPA applies to affiliated-interest agreements. Contrary to the Commission’s interpretation, the Court of Appeals concludes that the NTEC affiliated-interest agreements are “projects” as defined by MEPA. The Court’s definition of “project” is “a definite, site-specific, action that contemplates on-the-ground environmental changes.” The Order notes that the construction and operation of NTEC are definite and site-specific actions that will affect the immediate location as well as the surrounding environment (including Minnesota – 2.5 miles away – and Lake Superior). The Court went on to note that because the construction of NTEC is an environmentally significant event that may not occur without Commission approval of the affiliated-interest agreements, Commission approval of such agreements constitutes indirect governmental action manipulating the environment and triggering MEPA. Therefore, the Court concluded that MEPA “applies to the governmental action of approving the NTEC affiliated-interest agreements.”