The law at issue is Minnesota's Next Generation Energy Act, a key element of which was to reduce the state's use of fossil fuels by 15 percent of 2005 base levels by 2015, 30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. Utilities were not to be allowed to buy more coal-fired electricity unless emissions were completely offset. North Dakota sued in 2011, saying the law violated the Constitution's interstate commerce clause.
If any or every state were to adopt similar legislation (e.g., prohibiting the use of electricity generated by different fuels or requiring compliance with unique, statutorily-mandated exemption programs subject to state approval), the current marketplace for electricity would come to a grinding halt. In an interconnected system like [the Midwest Independent System Operator], entities involved at each step of the process—generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity—would potentially be subject to multiple state laws regardless of whether they were transacting commerce outside of their home state. Such a scenario is “just the kind of competing and interlocking local economic regulation that the Commerce Clause was meant to preclude.”North Dakota generates 79 percent of its electricity with coal and plans to build more coal-fired plants without emissions offsets.
[...] For these reasons, the Court finds that, while the State of Minnesota’s goals in enacting [the statute] may have been admirable, Minnesota has projected its legislation into other states and directly regulated commerce therein. Accordingly, [the statute] constitutes impermissible extraterritorial legislation and is a per se violation of the dormant Commerce Clause.
At least one environmental advocacy group, Fresh Energy, which promotes renewable energy, isn't majorly upset by Nelson's ruling. The group's executive director, Michael Noble, told Minnesota Public Radio: "The world is moving on from coal now. It's uneconomical, it's impractical. Consumers don't want any more coal." And they won't need it, he said, because installation of wind- and solar-generating facilities will provide all the new electricity that is needed.
North Dakota's Republican Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem doesn't agree with that point of view: "We are continuing to look at the prospect of additional generation here because we're living in a nation that needs it. Most of our electricity does come from coal, and that's likely to be the case for a long time to come," he said.
Stenehjem needs to catch up. The United States generated 39 percent of its total electricity with coal during the 12 months ending in January this year. In 2007, the year Minnesota's Next Generation law was enacted, coal generated 49 percent of the nation's electricity. Minnesota generated 46 percent of its electricity with coal in 2013, 21 percent with nuclear power and 15 percent with wind power.