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Legislature faces some hard choices in fighting global warming

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Emissions from factories and power plants that use coal and oil contribute to air pollution and climate change.
Photo by Getty Images

One of the key tools for reducing greenhouse gases is a cap-and-trade market.  The state, or some combination of states, would set a limit on greenhouse gases, and companies would be able to buy and sell carbon allowances.  It's supposed to be a fast and efficient way to reduce emissions.

But there are some big questions about how to design the market.

For one thing, should the allowances be given to companies that produce greenhouse gases, or should they be sold off, for example, in an auction? 

Charging for the permits would cost businesses between $2.5 billion and $5 billion a year, according to Mike Robertson of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, who served on the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group, that studied these issues for nearly a year.  

It's the public's air. Large emitters ought to pay to add pollution to it.

"It's a lot of money, it would have huge impact on business and consumers, and I don't think we've fully analyzed that," says Robertson. "So we're very concerned about making a decision so quickly that there should be an auction."

An auction is the only fair way to do it, according to Steve Morse with the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, an umbrella group that represents 80 organizations.

"It's a real simple concept. It's the public's air. Large emitters ought to pay to add pollution to it.  And what we want to do is lower that over time," Morse says.

He says the state could rebate some of the money from the auction to help people and businesses invest in energy-saving measures and cope with higher energy costs.  

Another issue is whether companies should be allowed to use offsets -- that is, instead of reducing their own emissions, can they pay someone else to do some climate-friendly activity like planting trees?

No, says Steve Morse.

"What we want is a system that doesn't have loopholes, so that there's not some phantom offset that occurs someplace, that may or may not get the global warming impacts that we really want to see," says Morse. 

But many businesses say offsets would make the market more flexible. Everyone agrees -- the larger the market, the more effective it will be.  

Gov. Pawlenty is working to set up a market that could cover as many as nine Midwestern states and the province of Manitoba.  Some industry groups want to wait and see what that market looks like. 

The Legislature should set the basic design for any market, says Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St.Paul, who chairs the Senate Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources budget division.  

"We know what good policy is that works for our state. So let's try to set the bar high, and hope the governor can negotiate with the other states to get them to follow," Anderson says.

On another climate change issue, environmental groups are for the first time getting behind a push for transit.  

The Minnesota Environmental Partnership's Steve Morse says nearly one-third of greenhouse gases come from transportation.  His group is backing a package that includes a half-cent local option sales tax to pay for improvements in rail lines and buses statewide.   

"It's become pretty well-accepted knowledge that you need that additional revenue stream in order to make it work, and it pays off in the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the metropolitan areas. We're falling behind in this one pretty badly," says Morse.

Last year Gov. Pawlenty vetoed the measure, and legislators were two votes short of an override.  

It won't be all global warming all the time at the Capitol.

Sen. Anderson plans to introduce a bill on toxic chemicals in cosmetics.  And she expects discussion about how to preserve clean water in the state, given increasing demands from residents and industry.  

Other legislators are talking about how to reduce solid waste.  One proposal would ban aluminum cans from landfills; another would encourage recycling. 

There's talk of a ban on open burning of household garbage.  Burn barrels in rural areas release dioxins and other dangerous chemicals.

Environmental groups, sportsmen and arts organizations are all hoping for quick passage of the Great Outdoors and Heritage Amendment.  

It would allow voters to decide on a constitutional amendment to dedicate a three-eighths percent sales tax increase to conservation, clean water, parks and trails, and the arts.