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The cost of burning coal includes damage to Minnesota’s fisheries

Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, is the most serious threat for freshwater fish.

In the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, it’s no surprise that generations have enjoyed fishing in Minnesota’s lakes, rivers and streams. However, this great recreational gem may now be at risk. According to the National Wildlife Federations’ new report, “Swimming Upstream: Freshwater Fish in a Warming World,” climate change is already threatening Minnesota’s freshwater fish — from North Shore trout streams to walleye lakes — and putting many outdoor recreation jobs at risk.

Alexis Williams

Climate change, fueled by carbon pollution, is the most serious threat for freshwater fish. As climate change warms our lakes, rivers and streams, it causes habitat loss for many cold-water species, increased competition from warmer-water species, and exacerbates existing stressors, such as habitat loss, polluted water, invasive species and disease.

Minnesota jobs are also put at risk through climate change’s impact on fisheries. According to Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation, “Fishing is a $2.8 billion industry in this state. Over 43,000 jobs are generated and over $640 million taxes are raised each year in Minnesota.”

President Barack Obama recently announced his Climate Action Plan and called on the Environmental Protect Agency (EPA) to finalize the first-ever limits on carbon from new and existing power plants. Cleaning up dirty power plants is the strongest step Obama can take to protect us from the harmful effects of climate change and to protect our beloved fisheries. 

A historic opportunity

But Minnesota doesn’t need to wait for national carbon standards in order to begin tackling climate change. Right now, we have a historic opportunity to address Minnesota’s largest source of carbon pollution by weighing in on the future of the Sherco coal plant in Becker, Minn.

As Xcel Energy’s largest generating facility, Sherco burns the equivalent of three trainloads of coal a day and more than 9 million tons a year. But it produces more than just electricity. Sherco Units 1 and 2 pump more than 8 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year and large amounts of other dangerous air pollutants.

In 2012, Fresh Energy urged the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to require Xcel to examine the costs of continuing to burn coal at Sherco 1 and 2 compared to replacing the units with cleaner energy. The PUC agreed and required Xcel to complete a study by July 1, 2013. In its report, Xcel proposes to keep burning coal at Sherco, exposing Minnesotans to more carbon and soot pollution for decades to come.

Surprisingly, Xcel’s intention to keep Sherco running on coal contradicts its own study’s findings. In every scenario where Xcel considers a reasonable cost for carbon pollution for the plant, it makes more economic sense to retire rather than continue burning coal. Climate leadership is urgently needed, yet Xcel recommends no action on the Minnesota’s biggest source of carbon pollution.

Comment period this month

The PUC is accepting public comments on the future of Sherco 1 and 2 until Oct. 1, 2013. Fresh Energy and our partners are working to generate thousands of public comments to the PUC calling on Xcel to protect the health of our communities and natural resources by transitioning Sherco 1 and 2 to cleaner forms of energy such as wind, solar and energy efficiency.

Minnesota has a strong history of working together to find effective, common-sense solutions that address climate change and help build vibrant economies, healthy communities, and diverse ecosystems. In 2007, through bipartisan support, Minnesota passed the Next Generation Energy Act, which set a carbon-reduction goal for the state and called for economy-wide reductions in carbon pollution of at least 30 percent by 2025 and at least 80 percent by 2050.

Minnesota can continue to be a leader in addressing climate change. On Sept. 16 — at 7 p.m. at the St. Paul Student Center — there will be a public discussion about the costs of burning coal to our climate and health, and the opportunities for clean energy in Minnesota. Hear polar explorer Will Steger’s vivid, firsthand account of climate change with stunning photographs from his expeditions. J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director at Fresh Energy, will describe effective clean energy and clean-air solutions that benefit our economy.

The forum will provide information on upcoming decisions about Xcel Energy’s Sherco 1 and 2 coal plants and the historic opportunity for public comments to help move Minnesota to an innovative, clean energy future based on more solar, wind, and energy efficiency. Find out more here.  

We encourage you to join us on Sept. 16 to learn more about what we can do to tackle climate change in Minnesota. There’s no time to wait. We need to get to work so that we can tell our future children and grandchildren that we did everything we could to fight climate change — and it worked.

Alexis Williams is a policy associate at Fresh Energy and works to advance global warming solutions by promoting state and national policy to reduce carbon pollution, generate clean energy jobs, and improve human health.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Jonathan Williams on 09/15/2013 - 09:01 pm.

    Temps flat for 15 years now

    We should reduce carbon and pollution and improve efficiency. But wind turbines kill birds, dams kill ecosystems, no new nuclear plants have been built in ages. What are the practical alternatives??

    Finally some good news: Ice on the polar caps rose 60% this year over last years record low levels (although I have friends that actually thought that was bad news because it undermined their argument. Huh?)

    I view coal has an interim source…but we need to start supporting new nuclear plants pronto (or find other clean and practical sources of energy) instead of just complaining about coal.

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 09/16/2013 - 08:17 am.

    Right on, Jonathon

    Wind and solar have not replaced a base load electric power plant anywhere on earth. They are too intermittent and have too low a capacity factor. Today, we are using natural gas plants for that purpose like the High Bridge plant in St Paul and the Riverside plant in Mpls.
    Long run it has to be nuclear.

  3. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/16/2013 - 12:21 pm.

    Warmer Temps

    Actually temps have been increasing for the past 15 years. They only look flat if you cherry pick an artificially high starting point and an artificially low end point.

    Also the polar ice caps have not increased by 60% this past year, sea ice did. And that’s just when comparing it to last year’s record low sea ice. The figure is also the total area of the sea that’s covered in ice without taking into account the -thickness- of the ice, a very important consideration. Overall the trends in sea ice are still very much down, so Jonathan’s friends were correct to be skeptical of his figures. Hopefully he’s not pulling them from the Daily Mail.

    Also note that the figure covers the Artic ice cap, not both poles as Jonathan indicated in his post.

    While it’s true that wind turbines kill some birds, we kill far more with tall buildings, feral cats, and loss of habitat. On a scale of the amount of damage done, you’re looking very little from wind turbines compared to the huge amounts from habitat loss due to global warming. That’s like comparing a leaky faucet to the Johnstown flood.

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