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

DFL Senate Minority Tom Bakk said the purpose of the group is to push one of the governor’s top priorities — and to leave a legacy for his eight grandchildren.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk
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.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

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. 

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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.

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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.”

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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.”