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Minnesota state Reps. Pat Garofalo of Farmington, left, and Chris Swedzinski of Ghent listen Monday, Dec. 10, 2014, to railroad expert Dave Christianson tell a legislative commission that coal-fired power plants remain short on fuel. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minn. is one polar vortex away from energy crisis

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota is one polar vortex away from a winter energy crisis.

With a warm-up predicted for coming days, bitter cold may be a memory, but experts say propane and wood for heating and coal for generating electricity could be in short supply if this winter begins to look like last winter.

"We are at the whim of mother nature at this point," Dave Christianson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation told the Minnesota Legislative Energy Commission Wednesday.

Christianson said that power plants' coal supplies dipped to 10 percent of capacity earlier in the year, a situation blamed on crowded rail lines. Now, he said, coal stores average 30 percent to 40 percent of capacity and rail congestion has eased. If the weather cooperates, the stockpiles may build to more normal levels.

However, he and representatives of the wood and propane industries warned legislators that a repeat of last winter's polar vortex deep freeze could lead to problems.

Many Upper Midwest power plants use coal from northeastern Wyoming's Powder River Basin. In written testimony to the commission, BNSF Railway Co. reported that coal demand "suddenly reversed in 2013," unexpectedly increasing and placing a new demand on the railroad to transport coal to power plants.

BNSF reported that it is working with customers to make sure they have sufficient coal, and have plans to expand capacity to improve coal delivery.

"They were faced with a traffic load they couldn't handle," Christianson said.

Some coal plant operators are preparing for potential brownouts or blackouts, Christianson said, in case a polar vortex visits the area.

The incoming chairman of a state House energy committee blamed part of the rail problem on North Dakota crude oil for taking up much of Minnesota's railroad capacity.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said in an interview that ever-increasing numbers of trains loaded with oil from western North Dakota's Bakken oilfield are crowding out coal, farm commodities and other goods.

However, he said, "this is a correctable situation."

Garofalo and others in the Legislature, especially Republicans, are strong supporters of building more pipelines to move North Dakota and Canadian oil through Minnesota. He said pipelines are safer, less expensive and pollute less than moving oil over the rails.

Christianson said that if every proposed pipeline is built in the next few years, the rapidly increasing amount of oil coming from the Bakken would require the same number of railcars as today.

Nine or 10 trains, often 100 cars long, go through Minnesota each day full of crude oil, he said.

Propane supplies look better than last winter and wood supplies are down, the commission learned.

Executive Director Roger Leider of the Minnesota Propane Association said his industry is happy this year, but needs further work to avoid a propane shortage, and price spikes, like occurred last winter. He also warned that a return of last winter's weather could produce a problem.

"We're in a much better place than we were a year ago," Leider said.

More propane storage at consumer locations, such as farms, and at sales outlets has helped, he said, but still more storage is needed. The propane industry may ask legislators to approve incentives, such as tax breaks, to encourage more storage.

While the propane situation has improved, a state Department of Natural Resources official said firewood is in short supply and expensive.

The DNR's Mark Lindquist said that although evidence shows a short supply and high prices, "we are not even sure how much firewood is being used in the state."

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates that 130,000 Minnesotans use wood for their primary heating supply, with a similar number using it as a secondary heat source.