Climate change, nuclear power, Next Gen on legislative energy agenda

Windmills
Photo by Joe Kimball
Windmills dot the Grand Meadow area of southern Minnesota.

The politically charged task of reducing carbon emissions linked to climate change will have a spotlight in center ring at the Capitol when the 2009 Legislature convenes, but it remains unclear whether or where Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration will be in the tent. As well, the current economic downturn may dampen political interest in pushing ahead with legislation that could add to short-term business and consumer costs.
 
Even before lawmakers convene in St. Paul in January, two major events are certain to shape the energy agenda: one is a decision by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) on whether to approve power lines to enable construction of the Big Stone II coal-burning — and carbon spewing — power plant, and the other is that work on the much-anticipated Midwest regional “cap and trade” carbon-reduction program may not be finished before the Legislature adjourns next spring.  
 
To add emotional spice to the energy mix, it’s expected that hearings will be held on whether to lift Minnesota’s 16-year ban (PDF) on new nuclear power plants. As well, Xcel Energy will seek legislative approval on a related hot-button issue: expansion of output at its three nuclear reactors at Monticello and at Prairie Island near Red Wing, something that would increase the on-site radioactive waste storage.

“I expect we’ll be busy,” said Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, chair of the House Energy Committee. 
 
Added gusts to the usual political headwinds
But it’s also expected that there will be added gusts to the usual political headwinds on energy matters as consumers face economic uncertainty with each day’s news and are anxious about anything that increases energy costs, as would be one result of some aspects of carbon-reduction measures like carbon taxes and “cap and trade.”   
 
The concern over rising costs seems to be at the root of the governor’s sliding interest in climate change; last year it was a Pawlenty priority as he headed up the National Governor’s Association and skipped across the country calling on states to undertake “bold initiatives” to reduce carbon emissions.  As part of that effort, Pawlenty joined Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, to form the Midwest Energy Initiative to craft what was billed as an aggressive market-driven “cap and trade” plan to create incentives for utilities and other industries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  
 
After years of sometimes-intense debate, in 2007 a bipartisan legislative majority passed the Next Generation Energy Act that included an aggressive mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent (below 2005 levels) by 2050, with interim reductions of 15 percent by 2015 and 30 percent by 2025. 
 
Pawlenty appointed a 55-member Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group (MCCAG) to work with a consulting group he hired to develop specific ways to meet the mandated carbon goals with the objective of completing an “action plan” that was to be sent up to the Legislature last February.   
 
Cautions about the costs
But also last winter, Pawlenty’s talk of “bold” steps gave way to cautions about economic costs of dealing with climate change. It happened at about the time he was pilloried by columnist Robert Novak and local radio talk show host Jason Lewis for challenging prevailing Republican orthodoxy over the human influences on climate change and the need for government to actively undertake corrective actions.   
 
After the dust-up with the conservative commentators, the governor not only tempered his “bold” talk but his minions at the Capitol steered clear of debates on the issue and in one prominent case stonewalled on providing legislators with an “action plan” on ways to meet mandates of landmark energy bill that the governor eagerly signed last year.   
 
That means that the Legislature will focus on the MCCAG report that was completed last April.  It calls for sweeping actions in transportation, agriculture and industry to reduce carbon emissions on a scale that will be felt throughout the economy, and there is spirited debate on the full costs of the recommended actions. 
 
To Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, and Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who chair Senate and House environmental finance committees, the carbon-reducing changes will promote a “green economy” with thousands of jobs created as commercial sectors undertake to retool buildings to operate more efficiently and use less energy, to redesign systems — including home appliances — that consume less, to build solar systems and wind turbines and geothermal systems to produce carbonless energy. 
 
The costs of doing nothing
They also argue that doing nothing has its own costs, a view underscored last month week when the National Conference of State Legislatures issued a report (PDF) warning of significant added future costs by delaying climate-change solutions.    
 
The chair of the Senate Energy Committee, Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, said the Legislature must act on the Next Gen mandates in the next session to give affected industries some direction in actions they must take to comply with the new state law. 
 
To help drive the process, the new Legislative Energy Commission becomes operational in January.  Its full-time staff will coordinate energy legislation and provided added research staff for Hilty, Prettner Solon and others making up an expanding core of legislators with an interest in energy affairs. 
 
But it’s more than that. 
 
In important part, say Capitol insiders, the commission represents a lack of confidence in the Pawlenty administration on energy affairs. 
 
They point to the carbon-reduction “action plan” that was to be sent up last February by the Commerce Department’s Office of Energy Security (OES) and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). 
 
Preliminary letter sent instead
OES Director Edward Garvey and MPCA Assistant Commissioner David Thornton instead sent up a letter they said was “preliminary.” It listed some issues sent up by MCCAG and some — like lifting the ban on nuclear power plants — that were different from what the group recommended. 
 
Legislators and energy advocates said at the time that the letter was unacceptable, and Garvey and Thornton promised a completed plan when the MCCAG formally completed its work in April.  Garvey left state government in August, and his replacement at OES, Bill Glahn, has avoided discussions about the plan, which legislators see as crucial to building political support for the mandated carbon-reduction goals. 
 
Glahn recently met with Senate staffers and promised that he’d begin work on the plan and other legislative energy reports for delivery by January 15, nearly a year past the due date for the Next Gen report. 
 
The delay “shows that the Pawlenty administration either lost interest in the process and simply walked away, or never intended to fulfill its obligation,” said Jim Erkel, a transportation advocate with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and member of MCCAG. 
 
It’s not only the governor who shows reticence in pushing ahead with the kind of carbon-reduction plans called for in the Next Gen law and the MCCAG report. 
 
DFLers helped scuttle fuel-efficiency bill
Earlier this year, as lawmakers were considering legislation to advance fuel efficiency in passenger cars, several powerful DFL senators were among those who helped scuttle the bill, which appeared to enjoy majority support in the House and full Senate.   
 
Late in the 2008 session, the “clean cars” bill, by Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, was killed in the Senate Business and Jobs Committee, chaired by James Metzen, South St. Paul. 
 
Metzen opposed the bill because, he said, he had many auto dealerships in his district that didn’t want it.  Metzen was joined by two other DFLers who also said they responded to local economic concerns: Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook and Rod Skoe of Clearbrook. 
 
The “clean cars” bill is expected to be back again in 2009. 
 
But before legislators get to that, they’ll have a decision — expected in January — by the PUC on whether to certify power lines into Minnesota from the power plant on the South Dakota shore of Big Stone lake.  Even though administrative law judges have twice recommended against the certification — which would effectively kill the project — there is a strong likelihood that the five-member PUC will approve the plant. 
 
Meanwhile, the WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) issued a new report, “Climate Change: Faster, Stronger, Sooner” (PDF) which warns that global warming is accelerating far beyond forecasts made by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Among other effects, the WWF said that rising emperatures have already led to a loss of 40 million tons of grain annually and sea temperatures have risen to the highest levels since record keeping began. 

Ron Way, a former reporter for several Midwest newspapers, covers the environment and energy issues. He can be reached at rway [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/11/2008 - 11:58 am.

    What a shame it would be for Minnesota and America if we were to not merely stand still but move BACKWARD by allowing the Big Stone power lines and/or new nuclear plants.

    The governor’s plans no doubt include some favorite large corporations who would build solar panels or wind towers here and take the profits back to wherever INSTEAD of fostering home-grown, small-town and big-city entrepreneurs who would establish industries with permanent, good jobs that would contribute to the switch to renewables.

  2. Submitted by Matty Lang on 11/11/2008 - 03:10 pm.

    Yes, let’s remember the costs involved with our decisions. And what might a new nuclear plant cost? How about $5 billion to $12 billion a plant?

    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/05/nuclear-power-plants-more-expensive-5-12-billions.php

    Of course there are other kinds of costs associated with extending the life of Monticello and Prairie Island which were designed to safely opperate for only 30 years. Nukes are not the answer.

  3. Submitted by Dick Saunders on 11/11/2008 - 09:35 pm.

    And let’s not forget that on-site dry cask storage of partially radioactive spent fuel was never designed to replace Yucca Mountain as the permanent solution for all nuclear plant waste, beginning in the mid-1980s. Yucca Mountain won’t have an operating license until 2011, won’t be operating until 2017 — and may never open if Hevadans have their say.

    Worst of all there is no — no — Plan B for an alternate central site at this time.

  4. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 11/12/2008 - 09:24 am.

    Complaining about the advent of new nuclear power plants is completely pointless unless you’re willing to weigh them against the alternatives. “They cost money” and “they pollute” is a completely non-quantitative analysis. All power planets cost money; hell, wind kills birds and solar panels take oil to make.

    Does this mean I’m against wind and solar? Absolutely not, because the benefits outweigh the costs a million to one; if I had my way we’d have simply covered Arizona and Nevada with solar panels by now and be done with it. But I can’t have my way, and Americans won’t do a damn thing if it means they have to buy a smaller SUV this year. If nuclear power offers a cheaper, transitional alternative to stack up alongside the true clean renewable, then I’m all for it if it adverts disaster. Nuclear waste is nasty stuff. However, it’s nasty stuff we can at least contain; nuclear waste will not change the earth’s climate as we know it in twenty years.

  5. Submitted by Don Gulseth on 11/12/2008 - 04:28 pm.

    Simply, you have to pick your poison and support it.

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