Legislation that prohibited new coal plants was signed into law nearly four years ago by former Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, who is weighing a possible presidential bid in 2012.

State Representative Mike Beard, a member of the GOP, said his moratorium-busting bill—House File 72—had an excellent chance of emerging from a House committee and winning support from both the full House and Senate.  But it was unclear whether the current governor, Mark Dayton, a Democrat, would sign the bill if it wins final approval from the General Assembly, setting up the possibility of a potential veto override.

Beard said he was not looking forward to such a scenario. “I’m confident I can get it past the committee,” Beard said. But though Republicans now command a majority in both legislative chambers, he conceded H.F. 72 would be unlikely to receive the two-thirds majorities needed to override a gubernatorial override. “I’m not fishing for a veto…I’m looking to overturn the moratorium.”

In late January, the bill was in the House Environment, Energy, Natural Resources, Policy and Finance Committee chaired by State Representative Denny McNamara. Beard said it was possible however the measure would be referred to the House Commerce Committee. “At some point, we’ll probably have a vote” on the bill, said Mike Harris, McNamara’s legislative assistant. “At some point, we’ll probably have a vote to lift the moratorium.” He declined to handicap the bill’s outcome.

Environmentalists, led by the Sierra Club and its “Beyond Coal Campaign,” want to keep the moratorium intact.  Besides banning new coal plants, Minnesota utilities also are prevented from entering into new agreements to import coal-fired power from other states. The 2007 initiative was driven by opponents of Otter Tail Power’s 600-mw Big Stone II coal plant proposed for South Dakota. Some of its power would have been sent to Minnesota, but the project was canceled a couple of years ago.

Great River Energy, which supplies power to 28 distribution cooperatives in Minnesota and Wisconsin, is building the Spiritwood Station, a 76-mw lignite-fired facility, near Jameston, N.D. The company wants to use some of the power to serve its Minnesota customers.  The plant is scheduled for commercial operation in 2012.

The success or failure of H.F. 72 should be known by mid-year. “It’s a part time Legislature,” said Harris. “We’ll be in session through May.”