Last week’s declaration by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that greenhouse gases endanger public health was a wholesale turn-about in national policy on the role of human-induced carbon and other pollutants in promoting climate change.
But the EPA action may have driven a dagger into chances for passage of the so-called “Clean Cars” bills in the Minnesota Legislature, and it may have exposed a timid vein in Congressional Democrats and Minnesota DFLers when it comes to acting rather than just talking about dealing with carbon reduction.
Two years ago, DFL legislators in St. Paul led the fight to commit Minnesota to specific carbon-reduction targets when it passed, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty eagerly signed, the landmark Next Generation Energy Act. It called for an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions below 2005 levels by 2050 with interim reductions in 2015 and 2025, and put in place a broadly represented Climate Change Advisory Group that adopted some 60 specific ways to meet the mandated targets.
But now some of the same DFL legislators are standing in the way of the Clean Cars bills seen as the beginnings of the painstaking effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a cause that was so popular in 2007.
The recent EPA declaration that greenhouse gasses are dangerous — a one-eighty shift from the Bush administration policy — carries with it an implication that EPA regulations will for the first time limit carbon emissions from cars and even tighten fuel-efficiency standards.
That’s exactly what the Clean Cars bills in the Legislature would do.
“EPA’s action both helps and hurts,” admitted John Tuma, a former legislator from New Prague who now lobbies for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.
Helps and hurts
Helps, Tuma said, because for the first time it puts the weight of the U.S. government behind limiting the long-term dangers associated with emissions linked to climate change.
Hurts, he said, because opponents of the Clean Cars bills have ammunition for their argument that Minnesota should not advance legislation dealing with something the federal government has indicated it might do.
The EPA action triggered a 60-day comment period that will be followed by a determination on what specific carbon-reduction regulations should be considered. The likely targets are coal-burning power plants and carbon from passenger vehicles.
“This will light a fire under Congress to act,” said Bill Grant of the Midwest Office of the Izaak Walton League. “Because without Congressional action, there will be EPA regulation.”
And given the high-stakes politics of coal-producing states — including neighboring North Dakota and its vast lignite fields — and reliance on coal to produce electricity, coupled with the still-potent lobby of the auto industry and its allied unions, a safe bet is that Congress will step in and act ahead of any EPA regulations. But that’s where Congressional Democrats may show, as they have for more than 20 years, that coal and auto interests are given uncommon status.
“All during the Clinton administration, the Democrats in Washington did nothing about auto fuel-efficiency standards,” Rep. Melissa Hortman told a legislative committee earlier this year. Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, is House author of the Clean Cars bill; the Senate author is fellow DFLer John Marty of Roseville.
Few give the Clean Cars bills much of a chance to succeed in this year’s Legislature, and it’s more than the recent EPA action that appears to have done them in.
Pressure by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and other farm interests have raised concern about the effect of the Clean Cars bills on ethanol production, and not even the high-profile lobby support of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar has been enough to allay rural fears.
Threat of job losses
But the big hurt apparently has come from the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association that has had its members all across Minnesota tell legislators that the Clean Cars bills would shut down dealerships already stung by the economic downturn.
The specter of job losses was apparently enough to bring Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, to bottle up the bill in his House Governmental Operations Committee. Another DFLer on the committee, Paul Marquart of rural Glyndon, also opposes the bill.
“Real or not, the perception that this or any bill would affect jobs is a real concern,” Pelowski said.
In the Senate, a cast of DFLers on the Senate Environment Committee, chaired by Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, has stymied the Clean Cars bill in that body. Anderson is a strong advocate for the Clean Cars legislation and other carbon-reducing efforts, but five DFLers on her committee — Lisa Fobbe of Zimmerman, Ken Kelash of Minneapolis, LeRoy Stumpf of Plummer, Tom Saxhaug of Grand Rapids and Dan Skogan of Hewitt — have joined with Republicans to prevent the bill from moving out of that committee.
Last year, DFLers Tom Baak of Cook, Rod Skoe of Clearbrook and Jim Metzen of South St. Paul provided the “no” votes to keep the bill from emerging from Metzen’s Senate Business and Industry Committee.
But the Obama administration has, perhaps unwittingly, caused still more damage to nation-wide efforts to get states to move ahead with bills similar to Minnesota’s Clean Cars legislation.
A major issue has been whether to grant a waiver to California to regulate carbon emissions and enact stiffer standards than those of the federal EPA. California, which has long led the nation in strict pollution controls on cars, has already enacted tough rules that would be adopted by Minnesota and other states that enact the Clean Cars measures.
In fact, 13 states have already followed California’s lead, while bills are pending in Minnesota, Illinois and Florida. Together, those states would constitute over 50 percent of the U.S. population, pushing the stricter California standards to be adopted nationally.
The EPA has indicated that the California waiver may be granted, likely in May. But by then, legislatures in most states — including Minnesota — will have gone home for the year.