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

REUTERS/Mike Blake
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.

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.

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.

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.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/21/2015 - 12:47 pm.

    The big one in the room….

    ..if no other forces were in play and temperatures last year were totally at random, then the odds of 2014 being the warmest on record are 1 in 135…..

    ..The three hottest years on record—2014, 2010 and 2005—have occurred in the last 10 years. The odds of that happening randomly are 3,341 to 1….

    Nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred in the 21st century. The odds of that being random are 650 million to 1….

    …Thirteen of the 15 the hottest years on record have occurred in the last 15 years. The odds of that being random are more than 41 trillion to 1…..

    All 15 years from 2000 on have been among the top 20 warmest years on record. They said the odds of that are 1.5 quadrillion to 1. A quadrillion is a million billion.

    And then there’s the fact that the last 358 months in a row have been warmer than the 20th-century average, according to NOAA. The odds of that being random are so high—a number with more than 100 zeros behind it—that there is no name for that figure…


    Playing the odds, from the wrong end.

    • Submitted by rolf westgard on 01/25/2015 - 06:34 am.

      Warming trend

      The Earth is in a very slow warming trend since the end of the Little Ice Age. That is why current years are slightly warmer than those in the recent past. The trend is not related to CO2 emissions. Lower atmosphere temps are up about .8 degree C since 1880.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/21/2015 - 01:18 pm.

    With all due respect to Mr. Rovick’s considerable scientific expertise, 2014 was not the warmest year on record.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/21/2015 - 01:47 pm.

      Thanks for the reference from last month, but

      …It’s official. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) confirmed on January 16, 2015 that 2014 was Earth’s warmest year since record-keeping began in 1880. 2010 owned the title for warmest year prior to 2014, with 2005 and 1998 just behind it. It might have been cool where you lived, but most of the globe was experiencing temperatures well above average. The report also says that global oceans experienced the warmest year ever recorded, making ocean temps in 2014 the highest among all years in the 1880–2014 record, and surpassing the previous records of 1998 and 2003 by 0.09°F (0.05°C)….

      • Submitted by Bruce Pomerantz on 01/21/2015 - 06:30 pm.

        Different measurements

        NOAA measured matched 2014 against the record keeping back to 1880. The National Space Science and Technology Center matched 2014 against the AVERAGE of thirty years, 1981-2010.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/21/2015 - 03:52 pm.

      And even if it was 2nd, 3rd or 4th, it would have little or no effect on the improbability of virtually all of the “hottest” events at one end of the time frame.

      And certainly no impact on the improbability of 30 years of months that are higher than average.

    • Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 01/22/2015 - 07:36 am.

      They used science

      That report used science, but you reject science when climate is involved, yet now you cherry pick – how do you square that (I know the answer, its rhetorical).
      Was that reference part of a larger peer reviewed study, one that might have been published in a scholarly journal – cause it looks like a PDF written by some guy who might work at a university, and has no scholarly value, well except to those “intellects” who prefer to deny climate change.

  3. Submitted by rolf westgard on 01/25/2015 - 06:49 am.

    Climate change is normal

    In geologic time scales, earth temperatures have varied widely. During the past few thousand years, earth temps have swung from cool to warm in cycles of a few hundred years. The Roman era was warm, followed by the cold Dark Ages(humans do better in warmth), followed by the Medieval Warm Period, followed by the Little Ice age when the Thames froze solid for the annual Frost Fair. Since the early 1800s we have been slowly warming. It’s nature.
    The way in which certain atmosphere gases like CO2 resonate with the earth’s IR and warm us is well understood. There is about 70 times the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere than CO2. Water vapor is also a more effective IR absorber. So CO2 does a little, but not much.

    • Submitted by Joe Smithers on 01/28/2015 - 08:25 am.


      I tend to agree with this. The small amount greenhouse gasses humans are responsible for in relation to the total released likely has very little effect on things. I’m all for cleaning up the environment but don’t think we should be totally blaming the warming trend on ourselves so quickly.

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