Minding the miners: How Iron Range politics stands in the way of climate change legislation

The U.N. climate-change summit in Copenhagen ended with a resounding thud. But what could anyone reasonably expect? 

When 193 nations — large and small, rich and poor, polluting a lot and not so much — are crowded into a convention center with their delegates keeping both eyes on political agendas back home, it was always a stretch to think that this latest round of climate talks could end differently.

But the chaos in Copenhagen is by no means limited to Denmark.

Consider how a divided U.S. Senate puts Minnesota’s Iron Range into a pivotal role in determining the fate of climate legislation in Washington and St. Paul, where lawmakers can think about little else than jobs, the economy and strained budgets.     
But before getting to the climate-change politics of the Range, let’s review what happened in Copenhagen. It was hoped that delegates might agree on a framework for an international accord that nations could work on next year when they meet in Mexico City. Instead, the summit that concluded last week showed how impossibly complex the climate problem is, making agreement on a worldwide accord uncertain at best. 
Even if world delegates could agree on an accord, chances are remote that the leaders in China, the United States, India and the countries of Europe could set aside growth plans and agree on a meaningful plan to curtail what scientists generally agree are serious climate-warming issues. Just look to the hostile response to the U.N.’s Kyoto Accord of 1997 to understand how remote it is that the world will ever come to accept a single accord. 
Help for developing nations
Delegates to Copenhagen agreed broadly that “rich” nations should provide $100 billion over 10 years to aid developing countries to mitigate things like sea-level rises or drying water supplies due to disappearing glaciers. They also agreed to aid Brazil and Indonesia, among others, in addressing deforestation, and they adopted a goal to hold world temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius (without securing anything close to the commitments needed to meet that lofty 2050 goal).    
Delegates left emissions-reduction targets to individual nations and, owing to China’s resistance, they failed to require nations to verify that targets are met.  Environmental advocates, joined by European nations, where dealing with climate change is a priority, were critical of what most see as the summit’s dismal performance.   
In addition, there’s the U.S. Senate’s new reality that a super majority of 60 votes are needed to advance significant legislation. The smack-down over the health bill shows that getting 60 votes will be extra difficult to pass any climate legislation, let alone getting 67 for treaty ratification.    
The political upheaval that now reigns in the Senate gets to why Minnesota’s Iron Range may hold sway in national and state climate legislation. 
A political fact in Minnesota is that DFLers simply can’t get elected to statewide office without carrying the Iron Range, as Don Fraser (1978) and Anne Wynia’s (1994) discovered in their failed bids for the U.S. Senate.     
Last year, Al Franken tasted the fickle sting of Range politics when a former DFL powerhouse in the state Senate, Doug Johnson of Cook, endorsed Republican Norm Coleman for the U.S. Senate seat that  Franken won after a protracted recount.

Franken campaigned hard on the Range, and even told a news reporter that he would not welcome the support of the Sierra Club — an organization that, like other environmental advocacy groups, has few friends among Range politicians because of disputes over  mining, forest management and protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.     
Range politicos fear that climate change legislation would drain jobs at a time when unemployment runs high because of low demand for iron ore.  Franken knows he has to mind his miners, and in the Senate he’s joined with 12 other Midwesterners — dubbed the “brown dogs” — who have warned that any climate bill perceived to hurt jobs or manufacturing will face close scrutiny. 
Franken key vote
With the Senate in super-majority status, individual senators like Franken become key votes.  Already, things like “cap and trade” (capping carbon emissions and driving up the cost of pollution through a market-based trading) and carbon taxes are a much lower priority than dealing with unemployment in an economy that’s struggling to rid the stubborn yoke of recession.    
Regardless, Franken has said he’ll take a hard look at the economic and employment effects of energy and environmental legislation (he’s an unabashed supporter of copper-nickel mining in the Arrowhead while environmental advocates raise concerns over the potential for sulfuric acid damage). 
In St. Paul, the Range delegation has united to stop environmental and energy legislation, especially in the state Senate.

The Senate’s Business, Jobs and Industry Committee, chaired by Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul,  killed the so-called clean cars bill and has shown distaste for environmental initiatives.  Metzen lays jurisdictional claim to environmental and energy bills, and these measures are often shredded by Metzen and Iron Range DFLers Tom Bakk of Cook and David Tomassoni of Grand Rapids. 
It’s likely that at least two energy bills will be pushed in the upcoming legislative session: a “low carbon fuel” initiative patterned after one adopted in California and a “cap and trade” bill that’s been tried several times before. 
The early line is that energy bills in the Legislature stand little chance of progress. In addition to the blunt force of Metzen’s committee standing in the way, several legislators are running for governor and will try to avoid tough environmental votes that could be portrayed as anti-job. 
Through it all, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has all but disappeared.  In 2007 he made headlines when he signed major energy legislation and took time to criticize the Bush administration and Congress for doing little to address climate change.  Pawlenty also joined with Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle in initiating an energy policy task group through the Midwestern Governors’ Association (MGA).   
The MGA’s report was issued last spring, and since then Pawlenty has been stone silent on anything to do with energy.  Bill Glahn, head of the state’s Office of Energy Security, declined to answer questions about what, if anything, the governor may do to advance the MGA’s recommendations. 
But doesn’t a green economy produce jobs?
It can, as Denmark has shown. That country has reduced reliance on coal for power production and turned to natural gas and alternative energy like wind, becoming an exporter of windmills. 
But the unions that dominate the Iron Range don’t give importance to “green” industry initiatives because those jobs tend to be lower paying and non-union.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Charlotte Neigh on 12/23/2009 - 12:48 pm.

    There is a genuine and understandable tension between economic development and environmental protection on the Iron Range when mining is involved. If there is a market for the Range’s natural resources they can be mined only where they occur. However, sometimes the myopic drive for jobs jobs jobs fails to adequately consider the damage and degradation that can result, or the essential protections that should be required.

    While the advisability of mining can be reasonably debated, less of a case can be made for the Mesaba Energy Project, a coal-fired power plant proposed to be built on the Scenic Highway in Itasca County. There is no good reason to build this plant in a location far from the coal fields, where its output is not needed, and capture and sequestration of its carbon dioxide is not feasible, as admitted by the Department of Energy in its recently released final environmental impact statement.

    Nevertheless, thanks to the personal relationship between Mesaba’s developer, Excelsior Energy’s Tom Micheletti, and Senator Dave Tomassoni (not from Grand Rapids as stated in the report), Excelsior Energy benefited from special enabling legislation in 2003, and $9.5 million in unsecured loans from Iron Range Resources. Excelsior has been unable to pay the interest as it came due, and there is little hope of recovering this money from a corporation without assets.

    Sen. Tomassoni has been supported in his efforts by most of the Iron Range delegation, with the notable exception of Rep. Tom Anzelc, in whose district the project would be built. Special support came from Sen. Bakk at the end of the last legislative session when he used his position as chair of the Senate Tax Committee to slip in an amendment during the final hectic days in the conference committee to further benefit Excelsior Energy.

    Even in the context of heightened awareness of global climate change and the necessity of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the DOE supports allowing Unit I of the Mesaba Project to emit 5 million tons per year of CO2. This smells like more politics and questions should be put to Representative Oberstar and Senators Klobuchar and Franken.

    Charlotte Neigh is Co-Chair of Citizens Against the Mesaba Project

  2. Submitted by Aaron Brown on 12/23/2009 - 02:28 pm.

    An interesting piece, with some merit. I write a newspaper column and blog on the Iron Range (http://www.minnesotabrown.com). First, Sen. Tomassoni is from Chisholm, not Grand Rapids. It is valid to say that Sens. Klobuchar and Franken are pulled away from environmental measures by Iron Range influence. I’ve seen that happen. However it’s not entirely true that it’s miners or unions doing all the influencing. The Steelworkers in particular are very open to “green” initiatives having been a big part of the “blue green” coalition you heard
    about four years ago. The real push against environmental measures often comes from developers and a particularly strong pushback from the region’s largest newspaper. Not much changes in this regard since the Range’s modern era began 120 years ago. It’s facinating to watch developers use environmentalists as straw men in public policy debates, such as with coal burning technology, because it taps into the area’s deep distrust of urban conservationists and creates a ready made narrative. That said there needs to be some understanding that the Range is an industrial area that provides important materials in a way far more environmentally friendly than most places in the world. If the blood sport of “hippies vs. tycoons” could be set aside a moment there would be less call for observations hypothesized in this article.

  3. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/23/2009 - 04:47 pm.

    And let’s not forget the pressures and constant advertising from the “clean coal” industry.

    Or, on the other side, union-and-environmental-group-sponsored programs such as The Apollo Project, by which creating a new non-polluting energy industry over ten years or so, we can not only get America OFF fossil fuels but can create tens of thousands of good, permanent union jobs in the process.

    This used to be described at http://www.ourfuture.org, and probably still is. There’s no reason a good share of those jobs can’t be centered in Northern Minnesota and any other place with high unemployment.

  4. Submitted by david granneman on 12/23/2009 - 10:39 pm.

    hello all
    instead of wasting money on projects that have no future or possible return for minnesota. i have a solution to minnesota’s budget problems. two large oil fields have been discovered in north dakota and montana – how can minnesota profit from oil in north dakota. minnesota should eliminate environmental laws to allow private investers to build oil refineries in northern minnesota. oil could be pumped by pipeline or trucked from north dakota and the canadian oil sands. the oil could be refined into gas and oil and pumped to suppliers. this would not only ensure minnesota has cheap and abundant energy but also create thousands of high paying jobs. it would create all kinds of jobs everything from truck drivers to doctors. where there is energy developement there is growth and prosperity. there is no recession or deficits in texas. texas is creating jobs and has a budget surplus. minnesota could be the texas of the north. northern minnesota could be changed from a depressed area to a place where children could remain where they grew up and raise a family, instead of having to leave home and go to more prosperous areas to find a job. LET US NOT LET ALL THE WEALTH IN NORTH DAKOTA TO SLIP THRU OUR FINGERS.

  5. Submitted by William Pappas on 12/26/2009 - 10:28 pm.

    This project has been tainted from the start when former Pawlenty Chief of Staff Charlie Weaver left that job to help Excelsior Energy secure the necessary favors from State government and key legislators they needed. That kind of revolving door syndrome should be outlawed. In addition, there should be a moratorium on any new coal plants as other cleaner forms of energy are available in Minnesota. Do we need to be reminded that acid rain is still a very real danger to Minnesota’s lakes?

    Is anyone else tired of seeing corporate lobbying trump the will and greater good of the public majority?

  6. Submitted by Alan Muller on 12/27/2009 - 10:49 pm.

    This piece presents a grim picture. If the political analysis is correct, it seems unlikely that Minnesota will be able to improve its energy and environmental policies anytime soon. How could this be changed? What would environmental interests need to do to be more effective?

    In view of all that is now known about Excelsior Energy, its disgraceful that any elected officials continue to support it.

  7. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 01/05/2010 - 05:58 pm.

    I agree that northern Minnesota legislators stand in the way of development that is good for our most valuable resources – clean water and clean air. Mr. Way also states that no one can get elected to statewide office from Minnesota without the northern Democrats. On this second point I would disagree. Sentiment is changing. Minnesotans are beginning to recognize that there are jobs to be attracted here that are also compatible with our water; that we don’t need to put our lakes and rivers at risk. Many of our northern legislators are only looking at an allegedly quick economic fix with likely long-term economic damage. We need to put the millions we have put into sulfide mining into other job opportunities and save our waters in the process. I have always considered myself an independent voter who happened to vote for Democrats. However, until we get legislators who put our water first, as state law requires, I won’t be voting just Democrat again – nor will many others who live here. The stranglehold of that party is slipping in northern Minnesota. The control of any legislator, regardless of their party, slips when they support a project like PolyMet without even waiting for the EIS. More and more voters are recognizing the greed and power that must be driving the blind support of jobs, support given regardless of the impact of those jobs on our greatest wealth – our water.

  8. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 01/05/2010 - 06:10 pm.

    I also wanted to respond to one of Aaron Brown’s comments, whose opinions I largely respect. To use the the argument that the sulfide mining will be done here in a more environmentally friendly way is to miss the point that the mining companies choose how they mine and choose to mine poorly elsewhere. These are the same companies who ultimately will be coming here. Our regulatory agencies do not have the resources, or in some cases, the will to police companies that have no interest in doing it right everywhere they mine. I’ve heard the statement used by sulfide mining supporters that it is not right to “export the pollution somewhere else”. I knew what they meant but it was an interesting choice of words. My response would be that it is not right to import it here either.

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