Legislators talk energy policy at pre-session forum

Rep. Frank Hornstein (left) and Sen. Scott Dibble

Investments in transportation and land-use planning are two key ways legislators can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Rep. Frank Hornstein said at a forum this month.

Transportation is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, said Hornstein, a DFLer who represents Southwest Minneapolis. Implementing more purposeful design in cities could help curb emissions, too, he added.

“That’s where we’re going to get the biggest bang for our buck in terms of reducing greenhouse gases,” he said.

Hornstein’s comments came at the annual legislative preview event hosted by the nonprofit Environmental Initiative, which looks to collaborate on environmental action to strengthen the economy. Ten Minnesota legislators participated, including Hornstein, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and several prominent Republican legislators.

The Republicans advocated for an energy policy that includes renewables and traditional sources such as coal and nuclear. They called for regulatory reform of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, among other agencies, noting that many regulations are burdensome for businesses in their districts.

“The EPA has promulgated a lot of rules that have hurt companies,” said Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin. There are good reasons for some federal regulations, he said, but “who better to make the best decisions than those people right here?”

The DFL panelists, meanwhile, said climate change is something on which society needs to take action. They said climate change could have disastrous affects on future generations and expressed concern about environmental progress under a Donald Trump presidency.

“As long as we’re in denial, we can’t make the policies that are necessary to move us forward,” Hornstein said.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said he expects the federal government to shed responsibilities under Trump, which could lead to regulations differing state by state. He also predicted the state Legislature would be reacting to the federal government’s changes during the upcoming session.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said society should be more concerned about fossil fuels and climate, noting that 97 percent of climate scientists say change will have a catastrophic impact on future generations.

He said the federal government would not be able to throw out sustainable-energy policies, however, because of the number of jobs they have created.

Minnesota alone employs more than 15,000 people in the clean-energy sector, according to the state’s Environmental Quality Board. The state’s use of coal and nuclear energy decreased 21 percent from 2005 to 2015, while the use of renewable energy increased 15 percent.

The MPCA projects the state will be at 37 percent renewable energy by 2030, well ahead of the 25 percent goal set in the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act. Dibble said he thinks the state should increase that goal.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said the push toward natural gas and wind energy in Minnesota had come at the expense of coal and natural gas. He cautioned against relying too much on one source of energy, something with which Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, said he agreed.

“There is a place for coal in Minnesota,” he said. “There is a place for solar. There is a place for wind.”

Legislators also addressed the rural/urban divide in Minnesota politics, after a presidential election in which Democrat Hillary Clinton won just nine of Minnesota’s 87 counties, all of them in more urban areas. The state Legislature has also become increasingly divided, with metro-area Minnesotans voting for Democrats and outstate Minnesotans voting for Republicans.

Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said his constituents feel like people in the Twin Cities don’t care about their opinions. Rep. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, said people have to be able to put themselves in each other’s shoes in order to bridge the gap.

Hansen said the rural-urban divide is a successful campaign mechanism that will be intensified as long as it’s rewarded. He said he doesn’t see it changing unless “we acknowledge there are differences in how money is raised.”

There were areas on which Democrats and Republicans agreed, however. Garofalo said he’s an enthusiast for clean technology in automobiles, noting that the Department of Justice’s settlement with Volkswagen provides incentive opportunities to convert diesel engines to clean engines.

Hornstein, also an electric-car enthusiast, talked about the importance of providing the infrastructure to allow people to utilize electric vehicles.

“This is the kind of thinking we need to have in order to move this fledgling industry forward,” he said.

Garofalo said natural gas and propane-powered vehicles should also be part of the solution. He said he was frustrated the state is “wasting” $15 million on the Made in Minnesota solar program, money he said should be repurposed.

The Legislature in 2013 established the program, which gives incentives to people who install solar panels manufactured in Minnesota. It has an annual budget of up to $15 million for 10 years.

Garofalo said he’d expect the program would generate 120–130 megawatts of energy, enough to power about 20,000 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Instead, the program has produced five megawatts of energy, he said.

“That is just plain stupid,” he said. “There’s no other word to describe it.”

Legislators from the two parties also appeared to be at odds over how to pay for any transportation improvements. Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said sales tax revenue from car parts would be appropriate and that a gas tax would be worth talking about.

Dibble said he was glad Torkelson thought the gas tax was worth talking about and said a public-private partnership, such as toll roads, is not a solution.

Hornstein said there is potential for compromise on the issue but said any compromise cannot pit roads and bridges against transit in the metro area.

“That is a losing strategy,” he said, “and as long as we do that, we’re not going to move forward.”

The 2017 Legislative session begins Jan. 3.