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Minnesota backers praise EPA carbon rules

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Gina McCarthy
EPA administrator Gina McCarthy.
Rick Bowmer/AP

Cutting power plant carbon emissions should be a first step in addressing climate change, nearly two dozen Twin Cities residents and officials told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today.

Minnesota is not among the four places the EPA scheduled hearings on its plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants, so supporters of the proposed rules held their own session at the State Office Building in St. Paul.

The EPA made the proposal last month and is collecting public comments until Oct 16.

"I'm here because I care about what we're leaving for my kids and my grandkids - these guys," said Les Rogers, holding up a photo of his grandchildren. A retired engineer from Falcon Heights, Rogers said he was surprised to learn that power plants account for the largest share of carbon emissions in the United States, about 40 percent.

"So I really came today to ask all of our leaders and all the people in this room to strongly support the clean energy plan and ask the EPA -- let's just get it done," Rogers said. Nearly all of the two dozen speakers praised the rules. Many, including Macalester College student Abby Raisz, were young people.

"Climate change is not just an environmental problem, it's a public health issue, it's an economic issue," Raisz said. "A lot of people don't really want to address that. They think it's just about the polar bears but it really does address basically everything about  human existence."

There wasn't much talk at the hearing about what it will take to cut carbon emissions in Minnesota, which is already a national leader in renewable energy. Despite embracing wind and solar, the state could still have to reduce emissions by 40 percent by 2030, by some estimates.

Officials with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are still analyzing the rules to see whether  the EPA gave Minnesota credit for acting early.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said Minnesota should be thinking about how to free itself from fossil fuels altogether. No matter what the final reduction target is, the state is well-positioned to meet it, he said.

"It's interesting to hear that maybe they're not counting right," Marty said. "But even the way they are counting, Minnesota is going to do well, and I think it's important we do well, not because we have to do well because of a federal regulation, but because we have to do well for environment, public health and economic reasons, as well."

Utilities and business groups are holding off sending their comments to the EPA until they understand the details better. 

Tony Kwilas of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said there are a lot of unanswered questions about how the EPA calculated the goal in emission reductions for Minnesota. He said it matters because parts of Minnesota's economy, such as the taconite industry, are energy intensive.

If reducing carbon emissions results in higher electricity costs, that could be a roblem, Kwilas said.

"We have to remain competitive with Brazil, Chile and all those other foreign countries in terms of steel, and if we keep increasing the costs on our guys, it kind of hurts them to be competitive."

Renewable energy advocates counter that the state has reached a point at which wind and solar energy can compete against fossil fuels and win out on price. They cite the example of the 100-megawatt Geronimo Energy solar project, which state regulators decided was a better deal than natural gas to meet peak electricity demand.

Meanwhile, Minnesota cannot ignore the climate change impacts it has already witnessed, said J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director for Fresh Energy. For example, she said, four 1,000-year storms have caused damage since 2004.

"We know that there are costs being incurred because of our inaction on global warming and climate change," she said.