City of Superior Braces for Legal Challenge over Planned $1 Billion Natural Gas Plant

Superior leaders are bracing for a legal challenge after its planning commission recommended the city deny local approvals for a nearly $1 billion natural gas plant there. An attorney for one of the project’s owners told the commission that utilities can move forward without the city’s blessing.

The Superior City Council, some of whose members have signaled opposition to the plant, will have the final say on local approvals for the proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center, or NTEC. Several utilities want to build the 625-megawatt plant to maintain reliable and affordable power as they shift from coal to renewable energy, including Minnesota Power in Duluth.

Minnesota Power requested the city vacate streets and change zoning to allow the project to move forward. Even so, Justin Chasco, an attorney for the utility, said it can build the plant without any zoning changes because the Wisconsin Public Service Commission has already approved the project.

“Wisconsin law is crystal clear that when that determination has been made, the city has no power to undo it,” Chasco said.

Wisconsin law says no local ordinance can prevent or hinder construction when the PSC has issued power plants a certificate to build — and the project received approval from the state in 2020. The planning commission voted 4-2 in opposition to the utility’s requested changes. Shortly before its vote Wednesday night, Superior Mayor Jim Paine said he didn’t appreciate veiled or direct threats, adding he expects the utility to respect any final decision.

“If it’s not, I cannot be bullied out of that. We will see you in court,” Paine said. “I’m not afraid to defend the decisions of the city or its governing bodies.”

Paine told WPR the city is prepared for any legal challenge. He said he doesn’t expect the city council to take up the commission’s recommendation until sometime in May. If the council denies local approvals for the project, Minnesota Power spokesperson Amy Rutledge said the utility has “legal remedies” it could pursue.