After intense lobbying by Great River Energy, the compliant Republican-led state Legislature approved lifting the restrictions on coal-fired power plants. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the measure, but last-minute negotiations left in place a provision that allowed electricity from North Dakota’s coal-fired Spiritwood plant to be imported into Minnesota.
Now, despite the political maneuvering, the Spiritwood plant is being shutdown. Great River Energy, which spent $437 million to build the lignite coal plant, says an unforeseen set of economic conditions in the energy field and customer base makes the project impractical to operate.
State Rep. Kate Knuth told me, “We spent a lot of time in the Legislature debating and passing the lifting of restrictions on the importation of coal fired electricity — just for this project.”
Knuth is in her third term in the Legislature. She is a DFLer from New Brighton. She voted against lifting the restrictions. Knowing her background, one has a right to have expected her opposition. She is a rare sort of politician. She is a scientist.
She is getting her doctorate at the University of Minnesota as a conservation biologist. Her science resume is full of interesting things. She was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Oslo and picked up her masters of science at Oxford. She currently coordinates the Boreas Environmental Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
Her knowledge of science, as well as her party affiliation, usually finds her in the minority. In her position on Energy Subcommittee, as well as the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, she is often disregarded by her Republican colleagues.
I asked her if she really liked it in that political kitchen.
“I’ll tell you why I’m a politician,” she said. “I think we need politicians who are willing to look at the evidence and think about our values and future. We need more politicians who are proud to be working together to create a better future.”
Ideology ahead of science
Politicians in Minnesota’s Legislature and in the U.S. Congress grab headlines by openly taking positions against established science. According to Shawn Otto in his book “Fool Me Twice — Fighting the Assault on Science in America,” politicians are putting party ideology ahead of scientific evidence.
I asked Knuth whether she sees that at the Minnesota Capitol. “I don’t think our elected officials are looking at the evidence clearly about the physical realities in which we live. To not look at that evidence is a disservice to the public. It can have serious consequences for our country and our world.
“Our national security depends on looking at the evidence and understanding it,” Knuth adds.
As an example, polls continue to show that the majority of Americans believe there is still a scientific debate over global warming, while polls of published climate scientists show a 97 percent agreement that the planet is warming and humans are causing it by burning fossil fuels and poor land practices.
Scientists have been trying to figure out what that is happening. More and more information is coming out showing a direct link between the anti-science political motives and contributions from the fossil fuel industry. It seems big oil and coal have better public relations agents than scientists. The belief in the idea that there is still a debate over the fundamentals of climate change has also been traced to fossil fuel front groups. Knuth says she and her colleagues regularly receive publications denying the science from the conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation, among others.
‘Politics requires patience’
I asked Knuth if she sometimes wanted to pull her hair out when she is forced to listen to her opponents in the Legislature misrepresent the known science. “Politics requires patience,” she says. “The whole system is set up to allow huge numbers of politicians to deny physical reality.”
Knuth says she hopes she can continue to have an open conversation with her science-denying colleagues. “I keep hoping we will see heroes emerge in this debate. Am I sometimes angry and frustrated? Yes. But I intend to work with individuals to help shift the system.”
But is Knuth willing to take on Republicans on the battlefield of the economy? I asked her whether the scientific argument isn’t falling on the ears of people who are only listening to news of an improving economy.
“If we don’t have to go to other states and other countries for our fuel, that is a great economic advantage for Minnesotans,” she says.
Knuth points out that Minnesota has no natural gas, no coal, no oil and no uranium. “But we do have abundant wind, a surprising amount of solar energy and a bunch of really smart people who want to go to work to build the next generation of energy,” she says.
The opposition at the Legislature to renewable energy leaves Knuth puzzled. “So I don’t get, as a legislator, why you would promote sources of power that we have to import from out of state, and send our money out of state, and be reliant on other places for our energy systems.
“If we can concentrate on energy-efficiencies and conservation,” she says, “we don’t have to build expensive, old technology power plants. That would be a savings for us in both the long and short term.”
She adds: “I haven’t even mentioned the benefits to our lakes and rivers and to our agriculture. The health benefits of cleaner energy are an economic savings in itself.”
Knuth is sometimes frustrated and angry as a scientist working among non-scientist politicians — but she is happy to be in the statehouse. “I don’t think there is a better time to be a politician in this country than right now,” she says. “There are big problems facing us, and we are being asked to come up with the solutions. So while it is often frustrating, it is incredibly invigorating to be there. And when we turn it around, it is going to be really fun.”
Kate Knuth says she believes in politics and leadership. She says, “I hope more young people see that being a politician is something they might strive for — and to see it as something noble.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell Rep. Knuth that her last statement was not based on the current state of the evidence.