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Big oil tries, and fails, to block an electric vehicle program in Minnesota

We may have just seen the first skirmish in a war between Big Oil and clean energy in Minnesota. And clean energy won.

Stu Henry of Minneapolis is a volunteer leader with the environmental advocacy organization MN350, which is affiliated with 350.org.
Stu Henry of Minneapolis is a volunteer leader with the environmental advocacy organization MN350, which is affiliated with 350.org.
Courtesy of the author

We may have just seen the first skirmish in a war between Big Oil and clean energy in Minnesota. And clean energy won.

In 2018, Minneapolis-based electricity and natural gas utility Xcel Energy announced a $25 million pilot program for electric vehicles, or EVs.

As part of the plan, Xcel would support 350 new public charging stations in Minneapolis and St. Paul, serve an all-electric bus line through North Minneapolis, and help enable 100 Xcel customers to make the switch to EVs by providing new charging technologies and allowing cheaper rates overnight and on weekends, which are off-peak hours. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved the project in July, and Xcel began to move forward.

A quick response

The response from the fossil fuel industry was swift. In August, a group of Xcel’s large industrial customers filed a petition with the commission for reconsideration. One backer was Flint Hills Resources of Wichita, Kansas, which operates the Pine Bend Refinery in Rosemount, and is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, the oil empire that has spent millions waging regulatory and lobbying battles across the country to keep utilities from building charging stations. Another backer was Marathon Petroleum of Findlay, Ohio, the largest oil refinery operator in the United States.

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The petitioners argued that the commission had no authority to regulate “behind-the-meter” infrastructure such as charging stations — charging in places such as parking lots and garages — and that the utility’s ownership of such infrastructure would not provide a benefit to the public.

The commission disagreed on both points and on Oct. 7 allowed the project to go forward. Among groups submitting comments supporting Xcel’s project were electric vehicle companies, the Minnesota Department of Commerce, five Minnesota environmental groups, and St. Paul Chief Resilience Officer Russ Stark.

“We were pleased that the PUC stood by its original approval of the project,” Stark said. “St. Paul sees this as an important step toward significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Cost differences

It’s easy to imagine why oil companies would want to stop the building of Minnesota EV infrastructure before it starts. Beyond the catastrophic effects on climate change from the burning of their products, any companies that provide fuel for gasoline-powered engines may be at a distinct cost disadvantage the more EVs are priced to compete with gas-powered cars. According to the Idaho National Laboratory, electric vehicles that operate at 4 miles per kilowatt hour are 78% cheaper to fuel than the average gasoline-powered vehicle in the United States.

I own an EV, and find it much cheaper to maintain than a gas-powered vehicle. I also regularly field questions from other drivers, who may have the same sense that this is where driving is headed. In March, EVs made up 58 percent of all new cars sold in Norway — a country that, ironically, holds a majority stake in the world’s 11th largest oil and gas company. This may be a sign that they know what’s coming.

The commission’s decision may set the stage for future legal battles over EVs in Minnesota — not to mention political battles. Last month, Gov. Tim Waltz announced that the state’s Pollution Control Agency will require car dealers to carry more hybrids and EVs, starting with the 2023 model year. “If you want to drive your F-150 (pickup) to take your ice house out to the lake, continue to do that,” he told the Star Tribune. “But we’re going to also make sure that there’s ice on that lake in January.”

Joining with other states

By setting car emissions standards at a more stringent level than the federal government’s, Minnesota has followed the lead of California, Colorado, and 12 other states in addressing climate change without help from the president of the United States, who famously and embarrassingly called the crisis a “hoax.” Our state has also joined 20 others in a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for not enforcing its previously established greenhouse gas emissions standards.

In response to these regulatory moves, U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn — Walz’s Republican successor in the 1st District — took to mass email to call Walz’s new dealership rule “socialist nonsense.” The same phrase was once used to describe government interventions such as Social Security. Hagedorn claimed that EVs have been “rejected” by Minnesotans who vote with their pocketbooks. This is a bit like saying that nobody wanted the Internet in 1994, or that soccer would never catch on in 2004.

On the Star Tribune opinion page, the president of the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association suggested that EVs don’t work well in cold weather. It’s true that cold temperatures reduce the distance one can drive with the same charge. But the mileage range of EVs has been increasing with each year to make charging stops less frequent, and newer models can go 300 miles on a full charge. Meanwhile, charging stations are popping up everywhere — far beyond Xcel’s modest contribution so far.

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Car dealers that provide maintenance may worry about potential revenue loss for the simple reason that electric vehicles don’t break down as much. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance estimates that electric car drivers save as much as $10,000 on scheduled maintenance and fuel costs. But our leaders might do better to address how making the EV transition could benefit workers beyond, for example, the electric conversion business (like Clean Ride Electric Vehicles in White Bear Lake restoring classic Volkswagen Beetles with electric motors).

Savings will be passed on

Fuel savings will be passed on to other industries. Quality of life will improve. And taking carbon out of the air will lengthen life on earth — the wealth of time, in which our kids will share.

Nobody wants to hear that they have built their livelihoods on ending all life. Few could face the comparatively minor tragedy of throwing good money after bad. But the oil industry must do both. If it doesn’t, and continues to block the rollout of electric vehicles, it is effectively going to war with all of us. And we’ll win, because we have to.

Stu Henry of Minneapolis is a volunteer leader with the environmental advocacy organization MN350, which is affiliated with 350.org.

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