Legislators involved in energy policy are increasingly doubtful that Gov. Tim Pawlenty will push, or even support, the kind of “bold” energy initiatives that he urged of his fellow governors in national speeches just two years ago.
Meeting in St. Paul last week, legislators were surprised when administration officials suggested that further action may not be needed to reduce carbon emissions linked to climate change, as required in a law the governor signed in 2007. At the time Pawlenty had said, “… here in Minnesota we are kick-starting the future by increasing our nation-leading per capita renewable fuel use, boosting cost saving measures and tackling greenhouse gas emissions.”
Pawlenty’s top energy-policy officials further surprised legislators by saying that millions of tons of added carbon (a key greenhouse gas) from two major coal-fired power plants being planned – Big Stone II on Minnesota’s western border and Excelsior Energy on the Iron Range – could actually reduce greenhouse gases.
An energy-policy expert – earlier appointed by Pawlenty to major carbon-reduction study groups – dismissed that assertion as “preposterous.”
Committee told that new plants would replace old ones
David Thornton, assistant commissioner for air quality at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), told the Senate Energy Committee last week that models show the two plants with state-of-the art emissions technology would replace older plants that emit proportionately higher carbon amounts.
However, Bill Grant of the Isaac Walton League and who Pawlenty named to the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group (MCCAG) and to a carbon-reduction study panel of the Midwestern Governors Association, said that when utilities were asked if they’d close older plants when – and if – Big Stone and Excelsior start up, they all said no.
Grant said utilities typically keep power plants running as long it’s profitable to fulfill energy demand by the regional energy grid. Besides, he and others have noted, if the Big Stone plant would merely replace existing plants it wouldn’t qualify for a “certificate of need” that was granted last month 5 by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
Utilities told group they wouldn’t shut down plants
Thornton cited an MCAAG work group as the basis for his statement. But Grant served on the group, which is the one that heard utilities say they would not shut down any plants.
At the Senate hearing, Thornton and the director of the year-old Office of Energy Security (OES), Bill Glahn, presented a 40-page report (PDF) that was to make specific recommendations on how Minnesota may meet aggressive carbon-reduction goals in the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act. The first of three targets – a 15 percent carbon reduction below 2005 levels – is just six years off, in 2015.
But Thornton and Glahn startled lawmakers with a graph showing that carbon emissions in Minnesota are estimated to dip slightly from 2005 to 2006, the last year for which any data is available. They testified that if the trend would continue the 2015 target may be met by doing nothing.
“This really surprises me,” said Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul. “And I’m a little nervous about projecting that this downward trend will continue.” Anderson chairs the Senate Energy and Environment Finance Division.
The energy committee’s chair and author of the 2007 Next Gen law, Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, agreed: “There are a lot of unanswered questions here.”
Recession, conversion cited
Thornton and Glahn speculated that the economic downturn, together with Xcel Energy converting three metro power plants from coal to natural gas, may account for the decline along with increased reliance on wind power (the state now has more than 1,700 megawatts of wind energy capacity, fourth highest in the nation; Iowa is third).
Other reasons may include a reduction in miles driven in the state measured by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, and increased ethanol use (refiners must blend 10 percent ethanol into gasoline, and the state is pushing to raise that to 20 percent).
Thornton and Glahn told wary legislators that they don’t fully understand the decline and they agreed that the state should move ahead with carbon-reduction efforts. So, they were asked repeatedly, if the state should move ahead, exactly which policies would they recommend?
The question comes after the Legislature took years to pass the Next Gen Act, which resulted in tens of thousands of hours of study by the 56-member MCAAG, along with added study by the independent Center for Climate Strategies of Washington, D.C., on ways to reduce carbon emissions, plus additional study by the MPCA and the OES, and on-going study by task forces of the Midwestern Governors Association.
46 policy options presented
Last April, MCCAG presented 46 policy options that together could meet the carbon-reduction targets of 15 percent by 2015 and 30 percent by 2025.
But of MCAAG’s several recommendations, Thornton and Glahn would embrace only two: for the Legislature to repeal the state’s ban on nuclear power plants (MCCAG said the issue should be studied) and for the state to require appliance energy-efficiency rules.
Glahn conceded that no state utility has shown interest in nuclear power, and that even if planning started now there would be no plant operational by 2025. When asked whether he would support appliance-standards bills that will face first hearings at the Capitol this week, Glahn said he has not yet received direction from the governor’s office.
Thornton said the market-driven “cap and trade” initiative from the Midwest Governor’s Conference – something initially pushed by Pawlenty and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle – may hold promise. Under “cap and trade,” government sets ever-lower carbon caps and emitting sources would bid (“trade”) for ever-costlier emissions rights.
Glahn said a Midwestern Governors “cap and trade” report is due later this year.
A somewhat related policy area not studied by MCAAG but advanced by Pawlenty is promotion of “green” jobs through the controversial JOBZ investment tax credits program, and by coordinating climate change actions with green job projects.
But when the joint legislative “green jobs task force” met last week, Glahn announced that he’d defer on any proposals by the group because he didn’t want his comments to be taken as a signal by the Pawlenty administration.
“That’s leadership?” Bill Grant asked.
A growing list of legislators has questioned Pawlenty’s commitment to energy policy, and most expect that his spokesmen – Thornton and Glahn – will continue to talk a lot, say little, and obstruct progress.
Example: response to Dibble bill
An example of that came in a recent meeting between Thornton and Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL Minneapolis, on a bill by Dibble to require the Metropolitan Council to incorporate state carbon-reduction goals into regional planning. Thornton said the bill could be seen by some as “social engineering.”
Among those frustrated with Pawlenty on energy policy is Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, who chairs the House Energy Committee. Hilty is assembling a Legislative Energy Commission, authorized last year in a move some see as legislative disgust with Pawlenty’s lack of action and, even, stonewalling on a major carbon-reduction report presented to legislators last month (it was a year late). Among other things, Hilty sees the commission as helping drive energy policy, including MCAAG’s recommendations.
To assist the commission, Prettner Solon is moving a bill to create a greenhouse-gas-emissions registry, requiring the MPCA and OES to inventory progress and develop strategies to meet the Next Gen carbon-reduction targets.
Also last week, major carbon-reducing legislation – the “Clean Cars” bill – was introduced by DFLers Sen. John Marty of Roseville and Rep. Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park. The bill would have Minnesota join California and 13 other states in adopting tailpipe-emissions and fuel-efficiency rules stricter than U.S. standards.
The controversial bill passed six legislative committees last year and was within a few votes of making to the Senate floor, where advocates expected they had the votes to pass it. Despite fierce opposition by the auto industry and ethanol producers, authors are confident of passage this year.
But so far Pawlenty isn’t on board.
In the carbon-reduction report presented to Senators last week, Thornton wrote that the U.S. EPA has signaled that it would make federal rules stricter, obviating any need for the legislation. It’s a position advanced by the auto industry in opposing the Clean Cars bill.
Hortman said she’s unaware that the EPA is planning new auto-emissions rules. “If anything the signal has been that states should move ahead in this area,” she said.
Thornton declined multiple requests that he specify the foundation for his report to legislators.
Ron Way reports on energy and the environment.