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Split government could curtail progress on climate change

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This summer, environmental groups and DFL lawmakers were generally optimistic about getting back on track with the Minnesota's climate change goals. In July, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith declared support for raising the state's renewable energy standard from 25 to 50 percent. 

"The truth is, we not only want to be making progress on this, I think Minnesota wants to be leading on this again," she said at the time.

Then came the Nov. 8 elections. Voters gave the presidency to Donald Trump, who has rejected the scientific consensus on climate change. And in Minnesota, they gave Republicans control of the state House and Senate.

Now that Republicans control Minnesota's Legislature, they'll have to find common ground with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton on both budget and policy, and that could leave little room for progress on climate change.

Minnesota is falling short of the emission reduction targets lawmakers made a decade ago to address climate change, but there's little consensus how or even if the state should change course. 

Legislative Republicans talk about the environment and energy a lot differently from Democrats. 

The incoming chair of the Senate's Environment and Energy Committee, Sen. David Osmek,R-Mound, said he wants to focus on making energy "affordable, dependable and balanced.

"And there is a place for coal in Minnesota," he said.

The view that coal should continue serving Minnesota's electricity needs is often paired with arguments about keeping good-paying power plant jobs, and worrying whether wind and solar can be reliable enough. 

"The most important variable we need to keep in mind with energy is diversification," said the House energy committee chair, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington.

"You don't want to put all your money in one stock. What you do want is a diversified portfolio, and it's the same thing with our energy."

There will be more debate at the Capitol this year over coal versus clean energy jobs and whether wind, solar and batteries will be ready to replace energy behemoths like Xcel Energy's Sherco plant.

But even if lawmakers find places to agree on those issues, there's still climate change.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, is sure of his stance: "Climate change is real, it's caused by people and it's getting worse."

But many of his colleagues in the Legislature aren't. 

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said lawmakers should think about the effects policies have on future generations. 

"We've got to start taking a look, all of us, both parties, every corner of the state not just the impacts of what happens this year, but what the impacts are going to be on our grandchildren and their grandchildren," Marty said. "I think that's something that's sorely missing from all of our environmental discussion."

If lawmakers do find a way this session reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a significant way, transportation might be where it happens. 

Garofalo said he wants to give alternative fuel vehicles a boost. 

"Convert diesel vehicles to propane, electric, natural gas and in each of those cases this is going to reduce operating costs for those that have them and it's going to result in a substantially reduced emissions profile," he said.

One way to do that, Garofalo said, is by tapping into a pot of $44 million dollars Minnesota is set to receive over the next decade from the settlement in the big scandal involving Volkswagen's vehicle emissions.