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Reducing carbon emissions: Legislators see lots of interest from public, special interests

With a new state law calling for controls on greenhouse-gas emissions and the Obama administration reversing federal policy and forcefully advocating reducing carbon emissions linked to climate change, the transition from setting policy to implement

With a new state law calling for controls on greenhouse-gas emissions and the Obama administration reversing federal policy and forcefully advocating reducing carbon emissions linked to climate change, the transition from setting policy to implementing it has begun at the Capitol in St. Paul. 
And if last week’s first hearing on carbon reduction is an indicator, the several bills being considered by legislators will be dogged by a phalanx of special interests at every hearing. To accommodate the huge crowd at last week’s hearing on a bill to reduce the carbon content in fuel for passenger vehicles, Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, had to move her Energy Committee to a larger room and then set another hearing date to listen to all who wanted to testify. 
The carbon-fuels bill, by Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, would require refineries and other fuel suppliers to reduce carbon in their product by 1 percent per year for 10 years, which may seem easy enough. However, Diane Schmidt of Flint Hills Resources in Rosemount, Minn., which daily refines 320,000 barrels of mostly Canadian crude oil, testified that the technology and alternative fuel sources needed to meet the carbon-reduction targets are not currently available.  Refinery union workers were at the hearing, waiting their turn to oppose the measure.

Sheran said that if industry shows that targets in her bill are not attainable, its requirements may be modified.  But the bill’s backers say that carbon limits in fuel are critical if the state is to meet the carbon-reduction targets of the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act.  
More on the way
There are other carbon-reduction bills on the way, and each one brings along its own herd of opponents.   
One, by DFLers Rep. Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park and Sen. John Marty of Roseville, would make Minnesota the 15th state — the first in the Midwest — to adopt California tailpipe emission limits for cars and small trucks that are more stringent than national standards.  The bill was narrowly defeated in a Senate business committee late in the 2008 session. 
Already the auto manufacturers, the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association, the ethanol industry and the Minnesota Corn Growers Association are primed to scuttle the measure, but the bill’s authors and environmental advocates appear confident that they have legislative support to get the bill to Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s desk. What happens there for the “Clean Cars” bill and other carbon-reduction legislation is shrouded in quiet mystery.  
A year ago, as chairman of the National Governor’s Association and a high-profile backer of Sen. John McCain’s Republican presidential bid, Pawlenty gave speeches across the country calling on states to enact “bold initiatives” to reduce carbon emissions. But ever since conservative columnist Robert Novak ripped Pawlenty’s green stance and Pawlenty was dumped for the vice presidential slot for Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, Pawlenty’s green boosterism has flamed out. If legislators work their will, however, he will have an opportunity to be as bold on environmental laws as he once called on his fellow governors to be. 
A bill to reduce miles driven by commuters
Another carbon-reduction bill that’s certain to grab attention is by Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, which would seek to reduce miles driven by commuters who live in far reaches of the Twin Cities metro. Widely scattered housing patterns are seen as driving up carbon emissions by commuters who must drive long distances to work and services. 
The “VMT (for vehicle miles traveled) reduction” measure would require the Metropolitan Council to incorporate carbon-reduction targets in its comprehensive planning process and impose similar requirements on other government planning agencies, and it would provide financial incentives for communities to adopt goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 
Dibble said that development can and should be directed to keeping people in proximity with their jobs, shopping and recreation, reducing the energy it takes for people to move about.   
Each of the measures has been endorsed by Gov. Pawlenty’s 56-member Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group (MCAAG), despite the timid and sometimes-hostile actions by the governor’s own Office of Energy Security and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). 
During a recent visit to Dibble’s office, the MPCA’s assistant commissioner for air quality, David Thornton, told the senator that his VMT-reduction bill is “social engineering,” a phrase of denigration often used by social conservatives.  Thornton said he recalls saying that “some would see the legislation as social engineering,” but either way Dibble took it as a negative comment by a public official who might be expected to be working for, not against, air quality improvements. 
Legislators determined to move forward
But the coolness of the Pawlenty administration to carbon measures doesn’t appear to be tempering legislative interest in moving ahead. 
Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said that the Obama administration’s strong statements for carbon-reduction policies have given new life to proposals that she and other legislators have long sought. Wagenius chairs the powerful House Environment Finance Division. 
Meanwhile, Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, who chairs the House Energy Committee, is working with Sen. Prettner Solon to assemble a newly authorized Legislative Energy Commission whose job, in part, will be to coordinate energy initiatives. 
A key proposal in the recent MCAAG report is for the state to adopt a “cap and trade” system to set limits (cap) on carbon levels and a market-driven auction system (trade) that would set a price on carbon emissions.  In late 2007, Pawlenty teamed with Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, to set up a Midwestern states initiative to develop carbon-reducing plans including a cap and trade system. 

That effort has become bogged down, however, and its report — originally due last fall — isn’t expected before spring.  Still, a “cap and trade” system and other measures that would place costs on carbon emissions, are expected to get full attention from the Obama administration and, locally, in the 2010 Legislature.