Climate change group votes

Smokestacks
Emissions from factories and power plants that use coal and oil contribute to air pollution and climate change.
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It's a long, hard slog. The 50-person group met for eight hours, including some members participating by telephone. And they barely made it through half the items on the agenda.

This was the first time the group has tried to vote on any of the 55 ideas they've been studying.

Technical work groups concentrate on certain subjects, like transportation, agriculture and energy supply. They reported to the full group, which either gave a thumbs up or told the technical group to go back and do more work.

"We're just trying to understand what the numbers are, and whether they're feasible and realistic."

The biggest chunk of carbon savings will come from measures already enacted by the Legislature, such as the mandate that utilities help their customers conserve 1.5 percent of their electricity each year.

The advisory group talked about that for a long time, and ultimately approved it.

The task force agreed to recommend extending the state building code to all counties, and they calculated carbon savings from green building techniques.

They agreed to plant more trees. Planting trees in cities not only captures and stores carbon, it more than pays for itself by cooling buildings and cleaning the air.

One of the many ideas they put off is whether to lower the speed limit on interstate highways.

None of these decisions came without a lot of wrangling. Mike Robertson, environmental policy consultant with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, cast his vote in favor of many of the items with a reservation -- He wants more details about how much they'll cost and who will pay for them.

"It's a very complex analysis. It takes lot of time to try to understand it," he says. "And anybody can create numbers. We're just trying to understand what the numbers are, and whether they're feasible and realistic."

A lot of people were skeptical about the numbers presented by the group working on energy supply. Their job is to sort out what are the best sources of energy for the state. The larger group sent nearly all of its proposals back for reworking.

Bill Grant of the Izaak Walton League is on the energy supply group. He says there's a reason the numbers are fuzzy.

"The things that we're talking about in the energy supply group, in a lot of cases, rely on technologies that are either under development, or are still a gleam in someone's eye," Grant says. "Estimating what those costs are going to be, how they're going to impact other aspects of the system and the economy, are harder to judge."

The questions just kept coming. Rick Evans, director of Minnesota Government Affairs for Xcel Energy, wonders exactly what the group will end up with.

"Is it going to be a definitive set of policies? Is it going to be a recommendation of the group as a consensus? Is it going to be a catalog of possible options, some good, some bad, some cheap, some expensive? Probably all of that," says Evans.

Evans points out, no matter what the group recommends, the governor and the Legislature will have their own ideas about how to reduce Minnesota's contribution to global warming.

One participant went away happy from Wednesday's meeting. Eric Olsen is with Great River Energy. It's a co-op power company, and many of the people on his board of directors are farmers. He says they're worried about proposals to encourage conservation of carbon in the soil by using certain tilling techniques.

"The answers were a little unspecific," Olsen says, "but the basic answer was, 'We're talking about a suite of crop management possibilities that might work, that might help the problem. We don't know which ones will work, but we're not going to tell farmers which ones they have to do.' And that was really the answer I was looking for."

Many of the proposals are not very specific. Apparently that's the way it has to be, for now.

The technical work groups are back at it Thursday, and the larger group meets again in early January.

They're scheduled to make their final recommendations to Governor Tim Pawlenty in early February.

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