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Walz wants to revamp Minnesota’s auto emission standards. But it’s Trump, not the Legislature, that may stand in his way

Walz wants to increase the supply of electric vehicles and reduce emissions. But the agenda’s centerpiece — joining California in setting rules that promote low- and zero-emission vehicles — hinges on a court battle with the Trump administration.

Gov. Tim Walz
The California-style rules would be Tim Walz’s biggest initiative to fight climate change as governor so far.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

Greenhouse gas emissions from cars, trucks and buses have been difficult to cut in Minnesota, and transportation is responsible for the largest share of the state’s climate change-causing pollution.

In response, DFL Gov. Tim Walz has begun rolling out new plans to increase the supply of electric vehicles and reduce emissions. But there’s a catch: The fate of the agenda’s centerpiece — joining California in setting rules that promote low- and zero-emission vehicles — hinges on a court battle with President Donald Trump.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration said it plans to reverse California’s authority to set its own limits for tailpipe emissions — and for other states to follow — saying the Golden State’s rules give it disproportionate power over the country’s auto industry. More than 20 states, including Minnesota, have since joined a lawsuit to challenge the administration’s decision.

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In an interview, Walz said automakers don’t have enough incentive to market electric vehicles in Minnesota. “If we do this, they will sell them,” Walz said of car manufacturers. “People will buy them and the market will work.”

The California-style rules would be Walz’s biggest initiative to fight climate change as governor so far, and he says they can be implemented by state agencies without approval from lawmakers.

The DFLer has had trouble moving any climate-change policies through the Legislature, due to opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate, and GOP leaders have already said they oppose the governor’s latest plan. “This is an emotional response to fear-mongering by the left,” said Sen. Paul Gazelka, the Senate’s majority leader. “Like the federal Green New Deal, it might make you feel good, but it’s really expensive and unworkable for most people.”

What California’s emission standards do

California’s power to set its own standards for tailpipe emissions dates back to the 1970s, and the state has since required increasingly tough pollution regulations for cars and trucks, known as the Low Emission Vehicle standard. Under the state’s rule, auto manufacturers also must meet quotas for producing electric cars and hybrids, known as the Zero Emission Vehicle standard.

Not counting Minnesota, 14 states and Washington D.C. have adopted a low-emission standard while 11 have approved a zero-emission standard. When California said it wanted to keep stricter regulations on auto pollution that Trump intends to relax, the president revoked California’s Clean Air Act waiver to set its own rules.

California, the federal government argued, was effectively setting standards for the country because its auto market is so big. Trump also claimed that removing California’s authority would make cars less expensive to produce and safer since more people would buy new cars with better safety features if they’re cheaper. (The EPA has, however, estimated cutting the regulations would increase highway deaths each year by 17.) Oil companies like Marathon Petroleum also quietly supported the rollback, because it would help them sell more fuel.

Walz believes the Trump administration will lose the lawsuit, and his decision to adopt California-type standards came from research by the state Department of Transportation, which has studied how to best to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector.

Transportation is the largest source of emissions in the state, mainly because Minnesotans are increasingly buying large vehicles that have poorer fuel efficiency. Minnesota failed to hit a 2015 benchmark in state law to cut emissions 15 percent below 2005 levels, and is not on track to reduce emissions to meet future goals either.

Share of greenhouse gas emissions by Minnesota sector, 2016
Source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

The clean-car rules were not MnDOT’s only recommendation. The agency said Minnesota should consider new incentives for people to buy and use electric vehicles, while building new infrastructure like charging stations. The agency also said Minnesota should promote the use of biofuels, which can support jobs in rural Minnesota.

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Last week, Walz issued an executive order to create a council on biofuels. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) also announced it would use $1.5 million from a settlement with Volkswagen to pay for electric heavy-duty vehicles and equipment, roughly $630,000 of which is earmarked for electric school buses. Separately, the MPCA has put up $1.2 million in grant funding for projects to reduce emissions from diesel-powered equipment from off-road sources like construction equipment and boats.

Plan criticized as unrealistic

Still, the most controversial move by the Walz administration is likely to be the auto standards.

Walz, who has championed a new gas tax to pay for infrastructure spending, said the decision would lead to more fuel-efficient cars that would save Minnesotans’ gas money and offer a boost to an electric car market that he said has lagged in Minnesota. The MnDOT report says there were just 19 models of electric cars available in Minnesota in January of 2019, while there are 43 models available in the marketplace as a whole. “If we had more choices and there were more used low-emission vehicles, we’d buy those,” Walz said.

Laura Bishop, commissioner of the MPCA, told reporters on Wednesday the rule-making process to finalize Minnesota’s auto-emissions standards should be finished by December of 2020. Walz predicted they would be similar to California’s.

The announcement Wednesday was met with celebration by a wide range of clean-energy advocates and fellow DFLers. Bree Halverson, Minnesota Program Manager at the labor and environmental collaboration BlueGreen Alliance, said Walz is “showing true leadership to grow jobs in the auto industry in the United States, clean up our air and help address climate change, and save consumers money at the pump.”

Laura Bishop
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Laura Bishop, commissioner of the MPCA, told reporters on Wednesday the rule-making process to finalize Minnesota’s auto-emissions standards should be finished by December of 2020.
Republicans were less enthused. Gazelka, the Senate Majority Leader, warned against unilateral decisions by the governor and said the plan was unrealistic. State Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said Walz “is trying to by-pass the voice of the people of Minnesota to enact his own radical agenda.” Torkelson is the top Republican on the House Transportation Finance and Policy committee.

Walz’s proposal even started a spat over the future of pickup trucks. “If you need an F-150 to take your ice house to go to the lake, go ahead,” Walz said. “I’m just making sure there’s ice there for you in the winter.”

Gazelka retorted on Twitter: “If you like your F-150, you can keep your F-150. We’ve [heard] that one before.” (Ford does expect to release an all-electric F-150, though the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association, which opposes the rules, said Walz’s regulations would likely take trucks, minivans and SUVs off showroom floors.)

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Automakers and business groups, two influential parts of the conversation, have been cautious so far about Walz’s plan. Bryan Goodman, a spokesman for the national Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told MinnPost that adopting the zero-emission vehicle mandate “would be a huge financial commitment for Minnesota” because it would require a “massive” investment in infrastructure.

That includes tax incentives, HOV lanes, and charging stations across the state, Goodman said. The Alliance represents automakers that produce a majority of cars and trucks sold in the U.S., including General Motors, Ford and Toyota.

“Additionally, it’s important to note that 80 percent of vehicles purchased last year in the state were pickup trucks, CUV, SUVs and vans,” Goodman said. “That will make it particularly hard for the state to meet California’s mandate. Minnesota policymakers should keep all of this in mind before they move forward with California’s standards.”

Laura Bordelon, senior vice president for advocacy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said it will share MnDOT’s report with the group’s members at an upcoming meeting, but hasn’t taken a stance on the clean-car rules. The Chamber has often opposed clean-energy regulations at the state Capitol. “We’re looking forward to getting a better understanding of [the MnDOT report] recommendations and potential impacts on businesses, consumers and the economy,” Bordelon said.

For Walz, the clean-car plan represents a way to meaningfully cut carbon emissions by government action.

His efforts to require a carbon-free energy grid by 2050 and buy a slate of new electric city buses were stymied in the Legislature this year. A host of other climate-change policy, such as a more modest measure directing power companies to use clean energy and a revolving loan fund for electric vehicle charging stations proposed by Republicans, did not pass at the politically divided Capitol either.

“It’s part of the solution,” Walz said of the auto rules. “We’re trying to stay under that 2 degrees Celsius number that we think is catastrophic.”