During the 2007 legislative session, a clean car bill made it through several committees, but failed under opposition from the auto industry, the ethanol lobby and legislators who said they didn't want to give over authority to a regulatory body in California. The legislation basically would have tied Minnesota's emission standards to California's standards, the toughest in the nation.
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, sponsored the bill in the Senate, and he plans to introduce it again in the next few days. The disarray in Detroit has diminished the auto industry's credibility on the issue, he says.
"After all the turmoil in the past year and the new turnover in Washington, I'm very hopeful we'll pass it."
Marty's bill would require manufacturers to meet increasingly stringent standards for emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. They can use any combination of technologies or cleaner fuels. The standards apply to new cars. The aim is for each manufacturer to reduce its emissions, on a fleet-wide basis, by 18-percent in 2020 and 27-percent in 2030. That's the California standard.
The auto industry needs a federal standard, not different rules in Minnesota and other parts of the country, according to Scott Lambert, with the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association.
"I think the manufacturers can comply with strong federal rules. I think it's right for the Obama administration to take a look at this issue, but I hope that when they get down to it and look at all the pieces, they realize it makes more sense to do this on a national scale. And I think the manufacturers have shown a willingness to do that," Lambert says.
But people who back the California standards say nearly half the country's population would be covered if all the states that have signed on follow through. Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, is sponsoring the clean car bill in the Minnesota House. The auto industry could just meet the higher standard and sell the cars everywhere, she says.
"Many of the cars that are produced today are called 50-state cars: they don't have an EPA version and a California version. In other words, the vehicle meets the strictest standard that's out there, whether it's EPA for a certain pollutant, or California for a certain pollutant, and then they sell the same vehicles in all 50 states."
It's not just car dealers and manufacturers who are worried about adopting the California standards in Minnesota. The ethanol industry is worried too. California has done little to encourage flex-fuel vehicles and has restrictions on light-duty diesel trucks that would discourage the use of biodiesel, according Tim Gerlach, executive director of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.
"Currently the technology does not exist or it becomes too difficult over time as the California regs ratchet down. The automakers -- given time and money -- might be able to overcome those issues but as we all know, that industry has neither of those right now."
The association commissioned a study that says Minnesota would do better sticking with existing federal standards.
On the federal level, the so-called cafe standards, the fuel-efficiency rules, are supposed to be updated in April. Observers say the Obama administration could make those rules stricter and kick in sooner than the Transportation Department recommended last fall.