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Why Greater Minnesota lawmakers aren’t thrilled about the state’s new ‘Clean Cars’ rules

Skeptical lawmakers in both parties ripped the proposal as misguided, particularly for rural Minnesota.

MPCA
California has long held authority granted by the federal government to set its own standards for tailpipe emissions and has required increasingly tough pollution regulations, known as the Low Emission Vehicle Standard.
The administration of Gov. Tim Walz is getting closer to finalizing its plan to adopt a set of auto emission and electric vehicle regulations aimed at fighting climate change. But while it doesn’t need the Legislature’s approval to move forward, skeptical lawmakers in both parties ripped the proposal on Wednesday as misguided, particularly for rural Minnesota.

MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop
MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop
Sen. Tom Bakk, a DFLer from Cook who was recently ousted as Senate Minority Leader, told state officials that an auto plan relying on tax incentives would face less “anxiety” than imposing new regulations to make cars pollute less. Bakk also said energy rates can be more expensive for people in rural Minnesota compared to the Twin Cities, while he said gasoline prices are fairly consistent. “Let’s make sure we create some parity across the state,” he said.

Bakk’s comments came at a joint meeting of two Senate committees at the Capitol on Wednesday, a panel convened to hear testimony from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency about the “Clean Cars” rules.

MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop defended the plan, which is modeled on California’s auto regulations, saying it will create more consumer choice for Minnesotans, reduce carbon emissions to help meet state goals and improve public health. Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., have adopted some or all of California’s rules, though Minnesota would be the first state in the Midwest. “We are not alone in pursuing this,” Bishop said.

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The hearing showed, however, that Bishop will likely have to move ahead without consent from the Republican-led Senate and perhaps a handful of DFLers from rural areas. “There’s some concerns, well a lot of concerns actually, of the movement of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the administration going in this direction,” said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria. “Certainly one of the issues is Minnesota is kind of a stand-alone.”

An assault on the Legislature’s constitutional authority? 

In September, Walz announced he would ask the MPCA to consider adopting California’s rules that promote low- and zero-emission vehicles. 

California has long held authority granted by the federal government to set its own standards for tailpipe emissions and has required increasingly tough pollution regulations, known as the Low Emission Vehicle Standard, that apply to cars, light-duty trucks and medium-duty vehicles. Car manufacturers must also meet quotas for producing electric cars and plug-in hybrids for sale in the state, known as the Zero Emission Vehicle Standard.

President Donald Trump’s administration has been fighting in court to revoke California’s power to set its own rules and is also working to roll back national LEV standards. The federal LEV rules are currently in sync with California. For now, other states can choose to follow the federal government or match California’s regulations.

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.
Bishop said the MPCA has authority to copy California without new legislative approval because of laws dating back to the 1960s granting her agency the right to adopt rules that control air pollution. The regulations, Bishop said, will help kickstart Minnesota’s electric vehicle market, which lags behind national leaders, and help lower emissions from the transportation sector, which account for the state’s greatest share of greenhouse gases.

Bishop said Minnesota would get more electric options at dealerships if the ZEV rules were adopted, making it easier for the growing number of people interested in electric cars to find and buy one. 

She knows the existing hurdles personally. Bishop said she tried to buy a Subaru Crosstrek plug-in hybrid last year, but was told by dealers the model wasn’t available in Minnesota and manufacturers wouldn’t provide one. “It’s very difficult at this time to get a ZEV or plug-in SUV,” Bishop said. “There aren’t that many models, but they aren’t available here in Minnesota, the models that are there.”

The MPCA has yet to roll out an official proposed rule. The agency first held several public meetings throughout the state along with a public comment period that closed in December. 

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But many on the Senate panel said they were opposed to the effort anyway. Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, criticized Bishop for not yet holding a public hearing within a two-hour drive of her northern Minnesota district and Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, said Minnesota shouldn’t cede control of its auto policy to California, which wrote the rules without Minnesota input.

State Sen. Bill Weber
State Sen. Bill Weber
Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, criticized the MPCA’s plan because of a 2016 EPA projection that says California LEV rules could increase the up-front cost of buying a new car by more than $800. Weber said a price hike  could drive away car sales, particularly at dealerships along Minnesota borders. (The rules require technology that is expected to save consumers money over the life of a car, however, because owners have to buy less gasoline.)

Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, said the MPCA would have more support “outside of the 494/649 bubble” in the Twin Cities area for a policy that creates voluntary incentives for electric cars rather than hard mandates for manufacturers. “We’re already struggling in parts of this state economically,” Eichorn said. “Our blue collar workers up there are going to be the most greatly affected up there by these increased costs.”

Mathews pressed the MPCA to submit its plan to the Legislature, where it can be debated by elected officials, rather than try to adopt it unilaterally. “I see this as one of the strongest Article 1 grievances against our constitutional authority that we’ve seen from this administration,” Mathews said.

Intervention unlikely

Bishop and her staff rebutted many of the lawmakers’ points. Minnesota has some wiggle room to design its own system that allows vehicle manufacturers to bank credits to meet yearly ZEV quotas for delivering electric vehicles to Minnesota, for instance, or buy and sell credits from other manufacturers. This gives the companies flexibility to maintain compliance without only relying on sales in a given year, according to the MPCA.

If California rewrites its emissions rules, the MPCA would have to go through another rulemaking process to consider those individually, said Frank Kohlasch, the agency’s climate director. “Certainly we’re not doing the full extent of what California is doing,” Bishop said. “We are taking the LEV and the ZEV part of the California rules.”

The commissioner did not commit to seeking approval from the Legislature to adopt the Clean Cars rule, however. Lawmakers can always change or revoke the MPCA’s authority, though that is unlikely given that many DFLers in the majority Democrat House support the effort and Walz has veto power. The MPCA expects to roll out an early version of its rules soon, and then plans to hold more public meetings and allow another public comment period. The agency hopes to adopt the final rule in December.

“The Legislature granted the authority for the MPCA to go ahead with rule-making,” Bishop said. “We believe that we are following that authority.”

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Some Democrats and environmental advocacy groups also defended the MPCA at the hearing on Wednesday. But GOP lawmakers and some DFLers from rural areas were not moved.

“I’m fine with people buying electric vehicles, don’t get me wrong,” Weber said. “But to me forcing this on people is not a proper function of government.”