Climate politics: Key takeaways from climate change action at the Legislature

Pollinator-friendly plants
Pollinator-friendly plants grow at the site of the solar array at Pine River-Backus High School in Pine River in the fall of 2019.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News 2019

A recent state House committee hearing offered a telling example of just how far apart some Republicans and Democrats are on climate change. 

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, tried to amend House Democrats' big climate and energy bill, to redefine "clean" energy — like wind and solar power — as "dirty, inefficient and expensive." 

"This is the Obamacare of electricity rates, and it's going to hurt our citizens and our businesses," he decried. "And I pray that people will come to their senses, especially on the other side of the aisle."

Jamie Long, a Minneapolis Democrat and the bill's chief author, called Gruenhagen’s proposal "a total joke." 

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"We are at a place in our nation's history where we are seeing clean energy move forward, and it is moving forward, whether the folks on the other side of the aisle want it to or not," Long said.

The exchange underscores a deep divide between many Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature when it comes to climate change. The issue has emerged as a top priority for the Biden administration on the federal level, as it tries to push the country more quickly toward a carbon-free future.

In Minnesota, the Democrat-led House is also pushing for sweeping climate legislation. But there’s a significant gulf in the state Senate, where many Republicans don’t see climate change as an urgent threat.

“You won't get Republican elected officials generally to even use the word ‘climate,’ ” lamented Ellen Anderson, a former state legislator who’s now with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “It's just not part of their vocabulary.”

But others have a more optimistic view of the Legislature’s ability to tackle climate change, noting several areas where there’s at least some bipartisan agreement. “I think, if anything, I've grown more optimistic over the course of the session as the budget picture has improved,” said Chris Conry, who directs the 100% Campaign, a coalition of over 50 groups advocating for equitable clean energy and climate solutions in Minnesota. 

There’s still a long way to go before lawmakers come to an agreement on climate change-related bills. Both the House and Senate are still debating their omnibus bills. The two sides will meet in conference committee to hash out a compromise by May 17, when the legislative session ends. 

In the meantime, here are three important takeaways so far from the debate over climate change at the Legislature. 

House Democrats are pushing transformational climate proposals 

Depending on your perspective, the House energy and climate bill is either a groundbreaking effort to make Minnesota a national leader in the transition to a green economy, or a massive overreach that replaces market-driven technological advancement with government mandates. 

Either way, the legislation would fundamentally transform Minnesota's energy future. One provision, backed by Gov. Tim Walz, would require the state to produce all its power from renewable, carbon-free sources like solar and wind by 2040. 

Another would phase out greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors — not just electricity, but also transportation, buildings and agriculture — by 2050. That’s significant, because while greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector have dropped precipitously in the past decade as utilities replace coal-fired power plants with wind and solar, emissions in other areas have increased. 

The package also targets emissions from buildings. One proposal would aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing commercial and residential buildings by 50 percent. Another would implement a net-zero standard in new commercial buildings by 2036. 

And the proposal would spend more than $30 million toward electrifying the transportation sector, through electric vehicle rebates, and investments in charging stations, buses and auto dealer training. 

"We know that this is the future, for our state to move towards clean energy, clean vehicles,” said Long, the bill’s chief author. “And so the question is, do we want as a state to be leading and creating new opportunities for Minnesotans? Or do we want to be falling behind and let those jobs go to other states and other parts of our country?"

But none of those major climate change proposals are expected to pass this year; none have even gotten a hearing in the Senate. 

Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, the chair of the Senate energy committee, said technology isn't quite there yet to switch to generating 100 percent renewable energy within 20 years. 

"We kind of call it the bumper sticker bill,” he said. “It's maybe the feel-good bill. It's certainly aspirational.”

Senjem said the state’s big utilities have already made major progress reducing their emissions. Both Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power have already committed to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050. He said advancements still need to be made in energy storage before he will commit to an earlier date. 

 "We know right now that clean energy can be affordable, because it's the cheapest kilowatt you can make.” But, “because the sun doesn't shine all the time, and the wind doesn't blow [all the time], it's not reliable. So we have to find some method to store that."

There is bipartisan agreement

While Republicans and Democrats seem unlikely to agree on major climate change legislation, there is bipartisan agreement on a number of smaller proposals that would make more incremental progress in the transition to a renewable energy economy. 

Both the Senate and House bills include programs to put solar panels on schools and state buildings; funding for a clean energy job training center in north Minneapolis; a revolving loan fund to retrofit state buildings to make them more energy efficient; and funding to create an energy transition legacy office to assist communities that host coal-fired power plants that are slated to close. 

There’s also some level of bipartisan support for electric vehicles. Senjem said Republicans plan to propose an alternative to Walz’s “clean cars” initiative, which would require auto manufacturers to sell a certain percentage of electric cars and trucks in the state. 

“We need charging stations, we need consumer confidence in these kinds of vehicles,” said Senjem. “But I think that will come quickly. It may not be the next car you buy, but I think the car after that, for most people, will probably be electric.”

More broadly, there are Republicans, like Senjem, who agree that transitioning to a renewable, green economy is not only necessary, but also offers a huge economic opportunity for the state. 

The disagreement lies in how quickly we need to get there, and the role that government should play in the process. 

"A number of us Republicans have taken up the slogan, ‘cleaner, cheaper, and reliable,’ ” said Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City. “We always want to be cleaner, better stewards. We want to keep prices in check, and we need our system to be reliable.”

The two sides also differ in how they approach climate-related legislation. Rarick, for example, is sponsoring the Senate version of a major rewrite of the state's energy efficiency program. The bill has major climate benefits — it would increase energy efficiency targets for the state’s largest utilities, and also allow utilities to help their customers with what's known as "fuel switching," to switch from, say a gas furnace, to electric heat, that could utilize renewable energy from the grid.

But Rarick has been pushing the legislation for three years largely because it gives more flexibility to rural electric co-ops in his district. 

“I don’t really mind,” said Democrat Long. “If we get to the same answer, and we're coming at it from different reasons, that's fine with me.”

A central question is whether we’re moving quickly enough 

While there is optimism over bipartisan support for incremental steps in addressing climate change, others argue they don’t move quickly enough toward a clean energy future. 

"It doesn't go nearly far enough,” said Anderson, who as state legislator helped pass the Next Generation Energy Act in 2007, which set aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals for Minnesota — goals the state has not come close to meeting. 

“It is not addressing the urgency of action on climate that we've seen expressed by people all over the country and the world,” she said. “It’s about time that climate action would rise above this political divide. We were able to get beyond that in 2007. And we need to do it now, again." 

There are signs that’s happening. Senjem pointed to independent polls showing wide support for clean energy in rural and urban Minnesota, especially among young voters. 

Anderson and others also find some comfort at the federal level, where President Joe Biden is pushing for a standard even more far-reaching than what Minnesota Democrats have proposed — to produce all of the country's electricity from carbon-free sources by 2035 — only 14 years from now.