Pawlenty critics say administration derailing efforts to keep Ford Plant open

St. Paul Ford plant
St. Paul Ford Plant, which has been teetering on closure for years.

While Gov. Tim Pawlenty is urging Minnesota to “do all we can do to help” keep the St. Paul Ford Plant open and protect nearly 1,000 jobs, critics say his administration is working behind the scenes on a plan that would hasten the plant’s demise. 

In his final State of the State address Thursday that focused on jobs, Pawlenty asked legislators to create a special “CARZ” zone around the 84-year-old plant that Ford Motor Co. has said will close next year because of waning demand for the light-duty Ranger pickup built there. Pawlenty’s plan is tailored after his controversial JOBZ program that targets tax breaks to stimulate economic development in depressed areas. 

But last fall in Washington, D.C., Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson led — and is still pushing — an effort critics say would dismantle an alliance of auto manufacturers, labor unions and the Obama’s administration to improve fuel efficiency of American-made vehicles — a plan seen as a bright ray of hope to keep the St. Paul plant open.

Hugoson is supporting a proposal by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to strip the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of authority to regulate green-house gas emissions, the bulk of which come from passenger vehicles.

Critics of the Murkowski proposal say it could derail the alliance that has taken years to put together and slow down a paradigm shift by auto industry to bring build smaller and more fuel efficient cars that produce less carbon and other emissions linked to climate change. 

“Pawlenty’s positions and rhetoric are inconsistent,” said state Rep. Jeremey Kalin, DFL-North Branch, a member of a national coalition of state legislators formed to promote initiatives to address climate change.

Kalin said that the Ford Plant, which has been teetering on closure for years, is a candidate to produce of the kind of fuel-efficient vehicles that automakers and the Obama administration see as the future of car-making. Supporters say the Ford Plant line could be easily adapted to build small, fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

Kalin said Murkowski’s proposal endangers the future of the Ford Plant.

‘Uncomfortable’ with EPA rules
Hugoson, first appointed Minnesota agriculture commission by Gov. Arne Carlson in 1995, crafted a resolution supporting the Murkowski plan and won endorsement from the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

Hugoson said he and other ag commissioners “are uncomfortable with the EPA putting together regulations that could affect agriculture.”

Hugoson noted farmers use small trucks in their operations, that food is delivered nationally in trucks and that these vehicles would be subject to regulation.

Hugoson said he informed Pawlenty’s office that he planned to offer his resolution supporting Murkowski’s efforts to stop the EPA’s rulemaking, “and I didn’t hear back, so I just went ahead and did it.”

Hugoson said he did not consult with the Minnesota Office of Energy Security or the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, both of which have led the Pawlenty administration’s involvement in energy policy matters.

“I didn’t think I needed to consult with them,” Hugoson said.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung did not directly address Hugoson’s position on the Murkowski proposal, but said in a statement that the governor opposes another major environmental proposal, so-called cap-and-trade legislation, before Congress.

Update: McClung issued another response — which is on the right of this page — after this story was posted.

How agreement came about
Responding to a U.S. Supreme Court decision three years ago ruling that the federal Clean Air Act required the EPA to regulate carbon emissions and to the 2007 Energy Security Act that requires improved fuel-economy in passenger vehicles, the Obama administration in May put together the alliance of automakers, unions and the EPA to promote a cleaner car industry. The objective is to require an average fuel efficiency of 35.5 miles per gallon in 2016 model-year vehicles. 

Passage of the Energy Act, signed by President George W. Bush, was the first time in nearly 30 years that the auto industry was unable to resist improved fuel-economy standards, requirements initiated by President Gerald Ford in 1975 in response to the Arab oil embargo

The law, together with massive federal subsidies to the auto industry to retool its lines to build cleaner cars, spawned a concerted push by Obama, automakers, unions, several states and environmental advocates to build smaller cars with much improved mileage.

The push gave a boost to supporters of the St. Paul Ford Plant, who have long seen clean-car production as the plant’s best hope to remain open. 

But the counter-push by Murkowski could throw a wrench in the effort, and the Obama administration, together with clean-air advocates and the auto industry, have worked to derail the senator’s plan.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said legislation containing Murkowski’s language would be vetoed by President Obama, and that threat helped Democratic leaders block an amendment Murkowski offered in September that would have prevented the EPA from issuing greenhouse-gas regulations for one year.

The Murkowski amendment has been criticized by automakers. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said [PDF] the senator’s plan could “subject automakers to a patchwork of state and federal regulations.”

Kalin said that Murkowski and her Congressional supporters — which, she says, number more than 30 senators and representatives — will now seek to block the EPA through the Congressional Review Act that can overrule any regulation by passing a House-Senate joint resolution.

Ron Way covers the environment and energy issues. He can be reached at rway [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 02/12/2010 - 01:27 pm.

    How much irredeemable damage are Pawlenty and his appointees, like Hugoson, going to be able to accomplish before they are finally removed from office in November?

    Senator Murkowski is obviously on the side of corporate polluters instead of that of the American people and the earth itself. And so is Hugoson, apparently, and his boss-of-whom-I-am-more-tired-than-I-can-express.

  2. Submitted by Brian Simon on 02/12/2010 - 03:25 pm.

    Is McClung working for the taxpayers of Minnesota, or for the presidential campaign of Tim Pawlenty?

  3. Submitted by Mark Radosevich on 02/12/2010 - 07:38 pm.

    I have a strong instinctual skepticism of anything Pawlenty or his administration says or does, but I’m with McClung on this: the Governor’s office deserved more time to respond. The article feels deeply one-sided and poorly constructed: I can’t tell if the point is to allege that he isn’t really supporting the Ford Plant, or that he isn’t an environmentalist.

    I have a couple specific problems with this article. The actual quotes from Hugoson explicitly state that he made his support for Sen. Murkowski’s proposal public without any say-so from the Pawlenty administration. Does Pawlenty support Hugoson’s actions? Is this part of administration policy? If Hugoson was acting on his own, then the most you can blame Pawlenty for is having loose control over his appointees.

    Additionally, Murkowski’s proposal is only a threat to the future of the Ford plant if you believe that small, fuel-efficient cars will necessarily be more profitable in the near future. That may be, but if there’s a evidence for that, it doesn’t appear in the article. Instead, there’s merely a reference to “supporters of the St. Paul Ford Plant, who have long seen clean-car production as the plant’s best hope to remain open.” Who are these supporters? Why do they believe this? Without telling me that, there is no reason to see a contradiction between opposing the EPA’s regulation of CO2 and supporting efforts to keep the Ford plant open.

    Now, it may be that the assumptions in this article can be supported: that Pawlenty does want to prevent the federal government from encouraging production of fuel-efficient vehicles, and that such vehicles would prove more profitable. But the article doesn’t address this.

    I don’t think McClung needed to stick a personal attack in his letter, but he’s not a reporter. I don’t hold political spokespeople to any particular standards. I do hope for better from MinnPost.

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