What the first two weeks of the legislative session say about Minnesota’s approach to addressing climate change

Minnesota House
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
So far, House DFLers are taking a slow path to build a case for fast action on global warming.

Since the last time Minnesota’s Legislature was in session, the warnings from scientists about global warming have only grown louder.

An October report released by the United Nations says the globe has little more than a decade to ward off the worst effects of human-driven climate change. The Trump administration followed that with its own report in November that describes what the warming Earth could mean for each region of the United States.

Then in early January, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency revealed the state isn’t reaching its own targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, weeks into the 2019 legislative session, the GOP-led Senate and DFL-controlled House are offering starkly different responses to that information. While neither has unveiled a detailed climate agenda yet, early action in committees offers a hint at their priorities — and the legislative clashes that may lie ahead on an issue that has ramifications across Minnesota.

“Right here in Minnesota, right in the heart of the North American continent, we occupy a piece of American real estate that is seeing some of the most profound changes of anywhere in the country,” said Mark Seeley, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Soil, Water and Climate, at a recent hearing in the House.

Info first, bills later

So far, House DFLers are taking a slow path to build a case for fast action on global warming. State Rep. Jean Wagenius, the Minneapolis DFLer who chairs the Energy and Climate Policy and Finance Division, told MinnPost the committee wouldn’t consider any bills before a series of informational hearings she has convened detailing the effects of global warming and the state’s current energy policies from scientists (including Seeley). The climate committee was created after DFLers took over the House in last year’s elections.

State Rep. Jean Wagenius

State Rep. Jean Wagenius

“You have to understand the big picture and know the facts before you can do good problem solving,” Wagenius said. Only then, she said, will the party translate their “good ideas” into bills.

But the DFLer did offer some clues as to what legislation the committee is likely to explore. For one, Wagenius said she is looking at making K-12 school buildings (and possibly higher-ed buildings) more efficient and having them “run on renewable energy.”

She said lawmakers should look to increase the amount of prairie in the state because it captures and stores carbon from the air — a process often referred to as carbon sequestration. Wagenius also said she has asked for state data on preventing carbon emissions through an expansion of bus transit. The MPCA report said transportation is now the biggest contributor of greenhouse gases in the state due to a decline in emissions from electricity generation.

“People have wanted to increase that [transit] system for lots of good economic reasons,” Wagenius said. “But reducing carbon is another good reason to look at it.”

GOP says move fast on bipartisan policy

By contrast, state Sen. David Osmek, a Republican from Mound who chairs the Senate’s Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee, said the Legislature should take a more narrow approach to energy policy this year by quickly passing bills that aren’t “sexy” but have earned support across the political spectrum. He said that would help avoid partisan fighting and last-minute negotiations towards the end of session.

Osmek’s committee has already advanced a bill he introduced that seeks to boost energy storage projects, which help keep solar and wind power on hand when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Two DFL senators from his committee have co-sponsored the measure, which was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton last year as part of a larger omnibus package of bills.

State Sen. David Osmek
State Sen. David Osmek
“If the House is going to be paralyzed by overthinking something and having to have every level of nauseating detail vetted out, they’re not going to get anything done,” Osmek said. “We’re going to be sitting here in May with bills piled up waiting for them.”

Wagenius said her committee would take up the broad topic of energy storage after a hearing on the state’s energy grid, but didn’t commit to passing any one bill related to it.

Osmek has his own priorities, too. He said he may try to place new restrictions on community solar gardens, an idea he anticipated wouldn’t be popular with DFLers. The Legislature approved the solar projects in 2013 as a way for power users to access solar energy without having to install panels of their own. But Osmek noted governments and big businesses have been quick to take advantage of incentives in the program, which has translated to higher costs for Xcel Energy rate payers.

A difference in philosophy

Outside of those measures, Osmek said he doesn’t expect “a lot of earth-shattering needs” for his committee to pass this year, although he said that will become more clear as session moves on.

That’s in part because the Republican said he doesn’t believe the state needs an urgent agenda to address climate change at all. He said Minnesota amounts to a small fraction of global emissions and questioned whether any new mandates to reduce carbon emissions would hamstring the state’s economy without a big enough payoff for the globe.

“It needs to be at what cost, versus what benefit,” Osmek said of regulations to cut greenhouse gases. He has been more open to the concept of incentives to coax businesses and others to follow greener practices.

Osmek said Wagenius’ idea about clean energy for K-12 schools was “laudable,” but difficult, and was quick to add that bills he views as unrealistic aren’t likely to make it through his committee.

“We should be first focusing on what we can all agree upon to make Minnesota more efficient, make energy that we receive more green but also doing it with reasonable emphasis on the things that we can all agree upon,” he said. “Not just throwing everything against the wall, seeing what sticks.”

Wagenius, however, said there is a need to “move rapidly” to mitigate climate change through policy action in Minnesota, which she maintained is possible even with a GOP-controlled Senate. “I don’t want us to be in a position of saying do what I say, not what I do,” she said.

Given the warnings in the recent climate reports, she said the state needs to be a “role model” and help the public understand the need to act fast by passing legislation. “I think with the election and with the reports that are saying we’ve got to move so much faster toward 2030 — I think the dynamics have changed,” Wagenius said.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 01/24/2019 - 11:53 am.

    The republican said he doesn’t think we need to act with urgency, while ignoring that according to global scientists…in 12 years…it could lead to catastrophe.
    Then again…repubs listen to their fossil fuel barons who fund them, while Dems listen to scientists…something unheard of in repub land.

    • Submitted by Sheila Kihne on 01/24/2019 - 06:35 pm.

      Ah ha! That’s where the new Socialist Congresswoman came up with the idea that the world was ending in 12 years.

      Please.

      • Submitted by Judy Stenger on 01/29/2019 - 02:04 pm.

        Sheila Kihne, no one has said the world would end in 12 years. The scientific fact is that unless we aggressively address climate change within the next 12 years, it will be irreversible. In other words, after 12 years of no action, climate change will occur, like it or not.

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 01/24/2019 - 12:52 pm.

    We’ll need to get a Democrat majority in the senate too if we want to make any progress on this issue. 2020 can’t come soon enough to get the ball rolling.

  3. Submitted by Victor Urbanowicz on 01/24/2019 - 01:00 pm.

    I assume each legislator is familiar with the other’s proposals. Osmek describes the DFL approach with derogatory words and phrases like “throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks,” overthinking,” and “nauseating detail.” From where I sit, the dirt he throws is landing on him more than on his target Wagenius, who doesn’t make such attacks. Not much collegiality or bipartisan spirit on Osmek’s part.

  4. Submitted by David Broden on 01/24/2019 - 01:08 pm.

    Discussion of climate change to have an impact and to ensure MN has a strong functioning economy as change evolves. MN needs action plans to shape businesses,agriculture, which provide and adapts to supply the crops for food, jobs across the state etc, Legislative action reducing carbon or other energy factors must occur but the products and jobs must be an equal focus.So here are some ideas that need to be included now not later- U of M Ag Department is evolving crops adapted to MN climate change- we need the incentives to get these into trial plots in quantities to confirm vaiblity- a companion thrust to establsish markets for the new crops and then companies and consumer products using these crops. As a catalyst how about some form of tax incentive for example for every 10 acres of the new crop the farmer receives a X percent tax incentive, for the market development similar incentives might be considered. Failure to address the production side today will leave MN behind and following others. Some of this is already in processs but an accelerated approach and visibity will be needed- perhaps an incentive plan for adapting the ag economy via the Ag Amemdment similar to the taconite amendment in the 1960s. Lets great iinnovation and creativity working across the state.
    Dave Broden

  5. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 01/24/2019 - 02:36 pm.

    The article says solar gardens were a good thing until too many people/organizations built them?

    That doesn’t make sense. If someone could expand this thinking, I’d love to listen.

  6. Submitted by Michael Miles on 01/24/2019 - 02:37 pm.

    Thank you for a timely article.

    As the sage advice goes: “when you find yourself in a hole that could threaten your life, the first thing to do is stop digging”.

    Given the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change October 2018 report of the dire consequences of not reducing CO2 pollution 45% in under 12 years, it seems that we have finally discovered the hole that we have dug.

    The most immediate plan would be to stop investments in infrastructure that continue that downward progress to oblivion. One simple act would be to not build the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline from Canada to Duluth, as it is obviously contradictory in achieving the IPCC goals for survival.

    As they stated once the planet passes the 2 degree Celsius increase, the probability of stopping a runaway climate decreases dramatically. Since scientists will always talk in terms of probabilities, and in not absolutes, interpreting their mild manner statements into layman’s terms means we are in deep kaka, and need to get out pronto.

    While some may rattle away about the jobs produced in developing the line, most of these jobs, ie those of building the line, will be temporary, and the damage done to our state will be severe and very long lasting, due to increased temperatures. The tar sands are probably one of the worst CO2 polluters due to the amount of energy required to refine this bituminous substance.

    The economic measures used to find benefits in infrastructure projects such as this one do not measure the environmental loss and damage to crop production due to temperatures above 2 degrees Celsius. Those losses are just one that we will have to live with if the IPCC goals are not met. Being in the center of the continent we will probably warm much faster and see the damages much sooner than others. Evidence of such warming already occurred in 2017 in the American high plains when we lost half of our nation’s wheat crop to a flash drought. Such occurrences will only increase with the temperature.

    It’s time to make a stand and stop digging.

    • Submitted by Judy Stenger on 01/29/2019 - 02:13 pm.

      I so agree with you: the Enbridge 3 pipeline is the last thing Minnesota needs. Not only will it contribute to global warming, but it has a great risk of polluting some of the freshest waters in Northern Minnesota. Our outdoor businesses – fishing, camping, hiking, hunting, skiing, etc – rely on fresh water. Imagine the economic impact when the pipeline leaks– and it will, sometime, somewhere.

  7. Submitted by Albert Gustaveson on 01/24/2019 - 02:42 pm.

    After watching the recent hearings in the house I am so disappointed in the in the quality of the questions from the members and even more so in the performances of Seeley and company. We are at a dire crossroads with respect to climate change and yet the “experts” pussy foot about the question. It’s like they don’t want to upset any one by drawing out exactly what’s happening. Fact: If we were to stop all co2 emissions today it would make no difference in the degree of warming we are going to see. We are past the point of mitigation and remediation what we need to be discussing is adaption. What are the plans for a complete destruction of our social fabric when dislocations of millions due to excessive heat, rising sea levels, crop failures, and the complete end of fossil fuel electrical grids destruct? Consider this from Aldo Leopold: ” One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” Climate change is no longer lineal, it’s progressing much more rapidly than any have predicted with the addition of factors most have never even considered. We need to make some hard decisions and quickly because even by 2030 there is going to be so many drastic changes as to put everything we have at present at risk, and “soft balling” the presentation ala Seeley & Co. is doing us no favors.

  8. Submitted by David Broden on 01/24/2019 - 03:20 pm.

    It is interesting that the two articles which follow the comments i wrote suggesting that energy and carbon emissions etc. alone solve or address little of what is needed — each touches on the need to adapt crops and societly life to the rapidly change environments. Emphasis on how U of M AG work can be accelerated and related activities moved concurrently forward are alluded to in both comments which followed the suggested outlined. Let’ state a meaningfull dialogue on adapting vs. simply cutting the emissions both of which we all must accept and commit to making a meaningful difference. Do we all agree the legistature must address both factors and incentives for change are required not only penalities.

    Dave Broden

  9. Submitted by cory johnson on 01/24/2019 - 09:01 pm.

    And yet if we do everything the Democrats want in this state it won’t make one bit of difference. China plans to continue increasing CO2 emissions until 2030 and India can’t be counted on to do anything meaningful. I’d rather continue on like this as opposed to destroying our economy.

  10. Submitted by Geo. Greene on 01/25/2019 - 10:23 am.

    Not to pick on the wonderful, MinnPost, but I’ve wondered why the climate crisis is referred to in the media as “climate change”.

    Climate change is a legitimate scientific term and may be more inclusive of what’s going on, but there’s a back story here. “Global warming” was the initial term and it had been doing quite well at gathering public support for action. Republican strategist Frank Luntz counseled Republicans to switch to climate change instead, because it was “less threatening”. They did, it caught on and the issue lost some traction and opened up conversations about how climate always changes, change is natural, etc. etc.

    Luntz is pretty clever and it’s easy to fall for his linguistic tricks, but I’d like to see journalists use “climate crisis” which is backed up by the science and is far more descriptive of perhaps the greatest danger we face.

  11. Submitted by David Broden on 01/25/2019 - 10:34 am.

    The comment regarding continuing as is and worrying about the ecomony if we do something- please consider the WORD ADAPT for Changes in climate so we have an ecomony- regardless of who and how we reduce fossile fuel and related emissions we MUST adapt the economy and life styles ot the changes. MN has only a few Luddites to hold us back the majority of Minnesotans look to adapt — we are Risk Aware and seek solutions that are real– so what if we faili in a few steps forward that is better than the Luddites world which ended quickly. it is simply time for action and leadership not waiting for others .Some of us see a bright and strong future for MN and region but that requires a full team effort. Join us as we move ahead.
    Dave Broden

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