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DFL state senators just formed a ‘climate caucus.’ Will they be able to agree on anything?

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
At a news conference in the Capitol, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk called for hearings on Gov. Tim Walz’s plan to require a carbon-free energy grid by 2050.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said Tuesday that his fellow DFLers in the Legislature would try to crack the Republican blockade on much of Gov. Tim Walz’s climate change agenda next year by forming a united front in a “Clean Energy and Climate Caucus.”

At a news conference in the Capitol, Bakk called for hearings on Walz’s plan to require a carbon-free energy grid by 2050 and said Democrats would try to bridge divides on environmental issues between lawmakers from the Twin Cities metro and outside of it.

But that could be a tall task for Bakk, who the Star Tribune reported is facing a challenge for his leadership post by Woodbury Sen. Susan Kent. Liberals from the metro area have long chafed at some of Bakk’s positions on energy and mining policy while more conservative DFLers and trade unions have typically aligned with the Cook Democrat.

While Bakk and others preached common ground Tuesday, there was no newfound consensus on many searing environmental debates — such as whether Enbridge should be able to build its proposed Line 3 oil pipeline across northern Minnesota. 

Which raises the question: What can the climate caucus actually accomplish?

Move comes amid leadership challenge

At the announcement of the caucus Tuesday, reporters asked Bakk several times if its formation was an effort to appease city liberals or help keep his position as the top Senate DFLer.

Bakk insisted the announcement was unrelated to either — that the idea has been in the works for months. The purpose, he said, is to push one of the governor’s top priorities — and help leave a legacy for his eight grandchildren. “I want them to remember me as somebody who led to make sure that the future that they’re going to enjoy has a cleaner environment than the one we have today,” Bakk said.

Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, will lead the new climate group, which includes 29 of 32 Senate Democrats. Sens. David Tomassoni of Chisholm, Dan Sparks of Austin and Kent Eken of Twin Valley have not joined the bloc. House DFLers created their own climate caucus in September.

State Sen. Nick Frentz
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
State Sen. Nick Frentz said his caucus is asking for hearings on the causes and effects of climate change and will promote legislation that addresses clean energy and climate change.
Frentz said his caucus is asking for hearings on the causes and effects of climate change and will promote legislation that addresses clean energy and climate change. He also said they would hold “listening sessions around the state” and try to advance Walz’s bill that would require Minnesota’s energy grid to be powered by carbon-free sources by 2050. The measure would also make it tougher for the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to approve new fossil fuel projects — through a policy known at the Capitol as “Clean Energy First” — and would promote energy-saving projects.

Frentz said he asked lawmakers to bring other climate proposals to the group’s first meeting to “talk about where our priorities are.”

Bakk and Frentz were joined by several environmentalist legislators, as well as leaders from the company IPS Solar and the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council.

Senate Republicans didn’t have a formal response to Democrats on Tuesday, but the GOP plans to hold a hearing on its own version of a “Clean Energy First” bill in January.

A caucus divided

While promoting Walz’s 2050 legislation was billed as the climate group’s top priority, Senate DFLers don’t appear to unanimously support it, only a plan to work on it. 

Bakk said he hadn’t read the measure, which was introduced in March. But he said the bill, like most, would change as it moves through the Legislature based on input from lawmakers and others. “I do think that the governor’s bold vision here, when it results in a piece of legislation that gets to his desk, there will be bipartisan support for it,” Bakk said.

Jessica Looman, executive director of the building trades council, said Walz’s legislation was a “really great foundation” but needed changes, such as “strengthen the understanding that nuclear is part of a carbon free energy future.” Walz’s original bill would not lift a moratorium on new nuclear projects and does not classify existing nuclear power plants as a “carbon-free resource.”

But while lawmakers pledged to sort out those differences, they remain split on other climate change issues. Bakk supports the $2.6 billion Line 3 project, which would build a 337-mile oil pipeline to replace an aging and corroding one that is currently running at half capacity.

The PUC has repeatedly said the line is necessary, but environmental groups and some DFLers argue that new long-term infrastructure for fossil fuels will exacerbate climate change in a time of crisis and risk spills.

Jessica Looman
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Jessica Looman, executive director of the building trades council, said Gov. Tim Walz’s legislation was a “really great foundation” but needed changes, such as “strengthen the understanding that nuclear is part of a carbon free energy future.”
Minnesota regulators released a new court-ordered environmental review of the pipeline on Monday that analyzed the effect an oil spill could have on Lake Superior. The assessment found it would be unlikely that a worst-case spill into a tributary of the St. Louis River would reach Lake Superior.

“I think the issue with the pipeline is there’s a 50-year-old pipe that is at the end of its life cycle,” Bakk said. “Something bad is going to happen if the structure doesn’t last forever.”

Sen. John Marty, a Roseville DFLer and staunch opponent of Line 3, said the climate caucus is a “huge sign that people are beginning to take climate seriously.” He also said he maintains “if you care about climate, you’ve got to stop these projects.”

Brett Benson, a spokesman for the climate advocacy group MN350, said the caucus and Walz’s recent creation of a climate subcabinet are “great steps,” but not enough. “Any kind of plan or caucus that doesn’t take into account the misguided Line 3 pipeline and doesn’t take a firm position against it is not really bold leadership.” 

Kent, the Woodbury DFLer challenging Bakk, said at the Tuesday news conference she has not decided if Line 3 should be built. “That’s the point of why we’re here today,” she said. “These are important questions and we need everybody to have a chance to have these conversations and talk about where they stand.”

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 12/12/2019 - 09:12 am.

    This article shows why response to climate change is not a political issue. Even among Democrats, there is no plan that treats climate change as the ‘crisis’ it is advertised to be. Many DFL’ers want the pipeline. And proposing a carbon neutral plan by 2050 may be noble, but a 30-year plan is not a ‘crisis’ response.

    Why don’t we quit yelling across the aisle accusing the ‘other’ side as the bad guy, lay the actual facts on the table, and have a mature discussion.

    • Submitted by richard owens on 12/12/2019 - 10:40 am.

      You’re right Mr. Wallin, problem solving does require maturity in discussion.

      It also requires that both parties agree that there IS a problem.

      However, when one side speaks with one voice while crying “HOAX”, they seem to be saying there is no problem.

      More suggestions are needed for “how to work with those who will not engage on the facts.”

      • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 12/12/2019 - 11:48 am.

        Yes, this problem easily becomes political and you have quickly brought in the Republican Party and ‘hoax’ believers.

        But as I stated, even within the Democratic Party, no immediate solutions are being proposed. I’m not sure how you can blame that on the another party.

        • Submitted by richard owens on 12/12/2019 - 02:35 pm.

          MinnPost has hosted many fact-based articles on the subject of Enbridge, on Alberta Tar Sands, and on the many many reasons this especially toxic “dilbit” form of fossil fuel pumped at high pressure across tribal lands and waters should instead be LEFT IN THE GROUND.

          Since the last article, we have found that the Arctic has probably reached the tipping point for its ability to hold permafrost carbon. We also have witnessed a summer of the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet at rates SEVEN TIMES what was previously predicted.

          North Dakota had another spill (Keystone) in November that ruined yet more farm fields and wasn’t even detected by the company. The cleanup there hasn’t even been done on LAST YEARS’ spills. Try growing wheat or anything, even after a so-called cleanup.

          Now we’re told Lake Superior’ waters will not be affected by another spill on Line 3. The idea of “no effect” tells you the fix is in for the money and the hell with our environment.

          What does it take to demonstrate “maturity” in matters of the air land and water that sustains us?

          Pipeline construction is very profitable for Enbridge, as it fluffs up their balance sheet to have “capacity”. They only have one purpose: money-making for their shareholders.

          • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 12/12/2019 - 04:26 pm.

            You can write paragraphs about climate change data, but that does not address my question.

            How do we have a mature conversation about the solution? What do you suggest? What immediate drastic action should we take to thwart the climate ‘crisis?’

            • Submitted by richard owens on 12/13/2019 - 12:14 pm.

              Thanks Ray for the question. Your goals to work together are noble. Republicans however are not seeking collaboration. They don’t even like their own RINOS who are insufficiently anti-immigrant, anti-safety net, anti-government, anti-tax, anti-people of color, anti-DEMOCRAT.

              Personally, I favor FACTUAL agreement followed by good-faith exchange of ideas.. If anyone wants to engage on the facts (e.g. those surrounding the problem of the climate crisis), then as we use shared facts, we have cooperative discussion and perhaps even collaboration.

              That said, you do not wish to engage me on climate and why we would be making a big mistake to approve fossil fuel pipelines carrying some of the worst, then we can talk about something else.

              What is the basis for your efforts to unite with the right? I find them trafficking in misdirection, falsehood and ad hominem. They do not engage on the facts. They do not like people like me. They don’t respond to people who press on topics of conscience, social justice, democratic values, honesty or science. They defend indefensible behaviors of our President and the cruelty he spreads as policy.

              “Triggering the libs” is their idea of engagement.

              How is it done Ray? How do you engage with the Trumpers? Is there any progress in your efforts? I expect nothing from those 38-40% and wonder why they write off 60% of us who were educated differently.

              And why does it fall to ME to fix their inability to address issues honestly with the good of the people at heart? Do you think they will change?

              • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 12/13/2019 - 01:21 pm.

                Ok, you don’t want to talk to the Right. I get it. What climate solutions do you propose for Democratic strongholds, like Minneapolis or Massachusetts, where Democrats can pass proper climate legislation? What immediate drastic action should they take today and in the next year?

                • Submitted by richard owens on 12/13/2019 - 03:52 pm.

                  Let’s hear your ideas. Do you have any suggestions in mind?

                  • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 12/13/2019 - 07:12 pm.

                    My point is that neither the left or the right has solutions to climate change. That is evident from this article. Blaming the other side only masks the truth.

                    • Submitted by Allen Frechette on 12/15/2019 - 05:49 pm.

                      One science based way to identify the best options for generating electricity in our state to replace fossil fuels is to take advantage of our excellent environmental review laws under the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act, which created the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (MEQB). Let’s ask the legislature to order and fund the MEQB to prepare a Generic Environmental Impact Statement to compare the options reasonably available in Minnesota for the production and distribution of electrical energy. The alternative is to keep arguing our ill informed opinions while the planet burns.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/12/2019 - 09:41 pm.

    They better hurry – we only have 11 years!

  3. Submitted by Alan Muller on 12/15/2019 - 10:12 am.

    To me the real message here is that the Legislature is too broken to make the decisions needing to be made.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/15/2019 - 11:16 am.

    I would assume that these Democrats understand that if this caucus is to be productive, they need to promote truly effective policy and win enough elections to overcome Republican resistance.

    Anyone who thinks they’ll get Republican participation at this point needs to go take a nap or something.

    My only reservation is that Mr. “Let’s not over-reach” Bakk is probably not the guy to lead such a caucus. He’s more likely to dial back and dilute any truly effective proposals than be a champion of them. But maybe he’s turning a new leaf?

  5. Submitted by Jess Reese on 12/23/2019 - 02:32 pm.

    It sounds like the ability of our state leaders to work on climate issues on a results based, bi-partisan basis is practically non-existent. Policies and caucus’ are getting proposed but deadline based action is not. The energy caucus doesn’t even unanimously agree with it’s top priority, promoting Walz’s 2050 legislation. The GOP proposing their own version of the Clean Energy First bill undermines the provisions of the bill, murks up regulation proposals and wastes precious time. Also, I’m sure the Clean Energy First Bill signers had Line 3 in mind when writing that policy. How would securing a pipeline now help to make Minnesota’s energy grid 100% renewable by 2050? When policy is made there should no longer be argument to discuss other options. The lack of deadline based proposals and research into clean energy innovation is going to leave Minnesota in the dust on climate change.

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