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Legislators outline grand ideas, but little consensus, for environmental progress

Shifts in committee leadership under the House’s new Republican majority are a source of division; so is renewed attention to a metro-outstate regional split.

Rep. Jean Wagenius suggests that a test of the coming session’s commitment to stewardship could be found in its willingness to act on issues like the systemic insecticides killing off bees.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

In a non-election year, with the budget in surplus, you might think the outlook would be bright for progress on environmental goals that too often get sidelined by political posturing and price tags.

But at a legislative preview session convened by Environmental Initiative last Friday morning, I heard little to indicate that 2015 will be a year of great strides out of gridlock.

For about three hours, 10 of Minnesota’s most environmentally focused legislative leaders conducted panel discussions before a few hundred people with personal and professional stakes in policy outcomes, from engineers and regulators to planners and business executives.

It wasn’t a rancorous discussion for the most part, though there were moments when the session turned testy, in the phrasing of the Strib’s brief coverage (the only mention I’ve seen in Minnesota media). Shifts in committee leadership under the House’s new Republican majority are a source of division; so is renewed attention to a regional split between metro and outstate interests.

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For this listener, though, it was a conversation that too often was a trifle too mannerly. The speakers were less likely to engage over their important, substantive differences than to simply talk past each other,  preferring to stake out positions in the vast valleys of detail rather than on the ridgeline of philosophical divide.

Environmental Initiative’s organizational mission is to promote consensus on environmental policy, and from time to time Mike Hartley, EI’s executive director and emcee for this forum, made a point of asking participants to identify their areas of accord.

A small handful of these came forth: That Xcel Energy and its customers shouldn’t suffer, under new federal pollution rules, for past progress on reducing carbon pollution, and the Legislature should give the governor the tools to prevent that. That the state’s pheasant population needs propping up. That the state Capitol ought to comply with the same recycling requirements as the law applies to businesses.

In a host of other areas, though, from water quality to energy infrastructure to imperiled pollinators, Friday’s discussions suggest that the outlook this session for significant action – or even significant debate – may be murky at best.

Jean Wagenius’ big four

State Rep. Jean Wagenius
State Rep. Jean Wagenius

As often, the most cogent exceptions to thinking small were offered by Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis. She suggested that a test of the coming session’s commitment to stewardship could be found in its willingness to act, rather than pretend to be acting, in four key areas:

  • Global warming, in particular a willingness to restore funding from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources for projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Air quality as a public health concern. “Minnesota’s policy has been to stay just under the federal limits” on ozone and soot, she said, even though the state health department estimates the health-care costs of current air pollution at $30 billion annually. The costs of doing better – for example, by expanding transit to reduce vehicle use – are “trifling” by comparison.
  • Drinking water quality, especially in private wells and small municipal systems around the state, where nitrate and pesticide contamination from agricultural chemicals are a longstanding concern that lawmakers prefer to treat “like a crazy relation, kept up in the attic.” About 10 municipal systems already exceed federal drinking-water standards, with 65 more approaching them; the extent of problems with residential wells is undetermined but certainly widespread. “The problem is not created by the people who have to live with and have to pay to fix it,” she said; only the Legislature can craft a meaningful, fair solution.
  • Systemic insecticides killing off bees and other pollinators. The European manufacturers of neonicotinoids have succeeded in portraying the problem as one afflicting only commercial honeybees, and the solution as habitat restoration. But the impacts reach far beyond managed bees and the 5 percent of Minnesota’s land area on which they are used, and habitat improvements alone can’t offset the harm.

Wagenius and Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, have placed high priority on pollinator protection, and both spoke up Friday for the notion of replanting an estimated half-million acres of available acreage along state roads to improve habitat. Even that, Wagenius said, would be tiny percentage of the foraging area that wild pollinators must rely on.

Wagenius, of course, is among the longest-serving and best-informed of the Legislature’s environment-minded members. Last session she chaired the House committee on environment and natural resources policy, and this year would have been its ranking minority member, but for a decision by the Republicans to remove her from the committee altogether.

McNamara’s civics lesson

That will no doubt make life easier for her successor as chair: Rep. Denny McNamara of Hastings. He, too, is a respected legislator of long standing, and he spoke knowledgeably on a range of issues Friday.

State Rep. Denny McNamara
State Rep. Denny McNamara

Stirringly, too, about past successes in cleaning up the Mississippi and Vermilion Rivers, and passionately about what he sees as examples of wrong-headed environmental regulation. And I had to laugh out loud at his dry response when asked how the Legislature would conduct its affairs after the return of divided government:

Well, the House will pass a bill. Then the Senate will pass a bill. Then we’ll have a conference report. We’ll send that to the governor, and he’ll sign it.

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Funny stuff, folks, but if the House’s leading Republican lawmaker on environmental issues has a big idea for Minnesota’s environmental future, I did not hear it on Friday.

Pat Garofalo’s big three

Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington, who spoke for the Republicans during a section on “Energy, Transportation and Climate Change Mitigation,” said he thinks the Legislature’s policies should be shaped by three game-changers: the falling cost of renewable energy, efficiency gains in electricity consumption, and a revolution in gas and oil production driven by fracking.

It was unclear, however, what directions he thought those policies should take, except to make sure that the existing grid is maintained and protected. He said he has little interest in policies to promote distributed generation – identified earlier by Hansen as a necessary policy shift – or to expand mass transit.

Somewhat oddly, I thought, he spoke at length on the self-driving cars that he said will be coming onto the market by year’s end; he sees these as a solution to rush-hour congestion on Minnesota highways. Which I suppose they may indeed be in some distant year.

Other big ideas

A selection of other big ideas that gained a moment in the spotlight Friday, then quickly faded:

  • Preparing for rapid restructuring of the electricity sector, which Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said is already “in a transition period that will move faster than most people realize.” Echoing that, Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the sector faces the same level of upheaval that telecommunications has gone through in the past 25 years or so.
  • Resurrecting the strategies for greenhouse-gas reduction and renewable-energy development that were drawn up late in Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s  administration and, Hortman said, have been gathering dust ever since.
  • Reshaping programs of local aids and agricultural support in ways that stop encouraging, even subsidizing, environmentally destructive practices that, in Hansen’s words, “are degrading the infrastructure we’ve all paid to upgrade.”
  • Redirecting portions of the agriculture budget to programs that create more jobs per acre, instead of eliminating them (mentioned by both Wagenius and Hansen), and link producers with consumers who, Hansen said, hunger for “a closer connection with how, and where, and by whom their food is produced.”
  • Revising Minnesota building codes to support higher energy efficiency as well as to ensure that commercial structures can support vast solar-power installations. This was offered by Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, who said it’s better to retrofit rooftops than consume raw land in expanding renewable power.