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

Warnings about climate change are getting more alarming. The GOP-led Senate and DFL-controlled House are offering starkly different responses.

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

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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.