This week’s report from the Capitol by MEP’s lobbyist John Tuma:
“Climbing up onto the edge of the Coteau, he discovers that the water from the plateau flows down a deep ravine and into Big Stone Lake. He says that from this point one enjoys a fine view.”
This is from the August 18, 1839 journal entry of the French explorer and cartographer Joseph N. Nicollet describing the report from Lt. John Charles Fremont, his 25-year-old United States military assistant. Fremont was describing the beautiful view of the expanse across the Whetstone Valley spreading across the sprawling hills of eastern South Dakota as the land sweeps down from the plateau to beautiful Big Stone Lake on the Minnesota/South Dakota border. This view is truly one of the finest in the Midwest if you have ever seen it. Something that Fremont would not have observed is the man-made landmark that now dominates the Valley view in the 21st century – the Big Stone powerplant. In 1839 as Nicollet and Fremont journeyed over the very spot where the coal-fired electric power plant (Big Stone I) presently resides, they surely could not have imagined the significance this location would play in one of the greatest environmental struggles of the 21st century. This struggle centers on the MEP effort to pass the Global Warming Mitigation Act in this session of the Minnesota Legislature and its relationship to a proposed new coal-burning power plant at this very site known as “Big Stone II”. The bill in the House is HF375 authored by Rep. Maria Ruud (DFL- Minnetonka) and in the Senate SF192 authored by Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL -St. Paul). HF375/SF192 calls for a cap on new emissions of global warming pollution such as carbon from many sources including electrical power plants. It proposes the development of a regional cap and trade program to manage these new emissions. Until the development of that new regional cap and trade program, the bill has a provision stating that any new electrical utility emissions of carbon must be offset by reductions someplace else.
This offsets provision in section 5 of the bill is cited by the investors in Big Stone II as a significant impediment to construction of this second power plant in the beautiful Whetstone Valley. Those proposing this new power plant claim that Minnesota would be facing blackouts in the near future if we don’t allow the construction of tried-and-true coal-burning electricity generation. Several Minnesota utilities have contracts to purchase power from the new Big Stone II. Even the Governor of South Dakota weighed in last week claiming Minnesota would be “cold and in the dark”.
The Clean Energy Minnesota (CEM) team had a chance to respond to these and other challenges from the opposition in three marathon hearings in front of the House Energy Policy and Finance Division on Monday and Wednesday. Last week the CEM team survived the first and what we hope to be our stiffest test on the House side by securing the passage out of the House Environment Policy Committee on a close vote.
The Energy Committee did prove to be a far friendlier forum despite the lengthy testimony. The CEM team was anchored by excellent concluding testimony by Michael Noble from Fresh Energy. He pointed out that Big Stone II investors had a weak case before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. They failed to show they could not meet their baseload energy needs through cleaner alternatives than coal. He made it clear that continual reliance on any dirty and old coal technology for baseload electricity lacks the vision of American ingenuity, technology, markets, and innovation. To give up and rely on bad past technologies was simply “un-American”.
By a strong majority, the House Energy Committee showed foresight in passing the Global Warming Mitigation Act on to the full floor with a recommendation that it pass. The Committee only made small changes to the bill to provide comfort language for some legislators which had minimal impact on the bill.
What was most impressive while observing the difficult and lengthy debate in the Energy Committee was how well the hearings were handled by the chair, Rep. Bill Hilty (DFL–Finlayson). As a former committee chair, I appreciate the challenge one faces in leading a committee, particularly with such a controversial issue. Chair Hilty showed the patience of Job and the fairness of Solomon. He had a timely dry wit and a strong grasp of the issues before the Committee. The role of chairman certainly fits Bill Hilty well.
We have faced all the difficult committee hurdles in the House and the bill has survived maintaining its clear objective of reducing global warming pollution. Now we move on to the more challenging Senate committees for votes and amendments. Hopefully we can use the challenges we faced in the House to build for a successful Senate strategy.
We can probably take a lesson from the 25-year-old U.S. Army Lt. John Charles Fremont. According to Nicollet, he learned quickly from his Dakota Indian and French fur trading guides. He took the lessons he learned in Minnesota and the Dakotas to become one of the most renowned Rocky Mountain military guides in American history. He later moved on to California to help lead the independence movement that brought California into the United States. He also went on to help found the Republican Party and became the Republicans’ first nominee for president in 1856. He led the way for the nomination of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 which brought about one of the most significant changes in American history with the abolition of slavery. Hopefully we’ve learned our lessons and can guide the Minnesota Legislature to a great environmental victory of national significance with the passage of a strong Global Warming Mitigation Act.
A couple of other tidbits of interesting news:
Next Generation of Biofuels. Sen. Gary Kubly (DFL – Granite Falls) has been the Senate champion on the development of the next generation of ethanol from prairie grass. This week, the Senate began to put together their omnibus finance bills. The Agriculture and Veterans Affairs Committee included several of Sen. Kubly’s prairie grass ethanol provisions in their omnibus bill. This bill included all our producer incentive payment program language, the revolving loan fund and research funding. Even though the committee had tight budget targets, the next generation provisions received $4.9 million. Unfortunately, the committee diluted some of the planting restrictions and local ownership requirements. Sen. Kubly skillfully avoided an attempt to delete the next generation program and substitute it with a study. There will still be a study, but policy framework and funding remained in the bill. The next step is to secure funding for the Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) energy dollars and other related BWSR/PCA appropriations in Sen. Anderson’s Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Division. We are also waiting on the House Agricultural Finance Division targets expected to come out next week.
Dedicated Funding. The Speaker of the House, Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and the House Majority Leader, Rep. Tony Sertich, provided some positive news for the dedicated funding proposal at the Ducks Unlimited (DU) banquet on Wednesday. The House leadership had been indicating reluctance to consider a constitutional amendment to dedicate funding from an increase in the sales tax to invest in conservation and the Clean Water Legacy. We have been hearing rumors since last week that the House leadership was having a change of heart and might possibly consider letting the constitutional amendment move through the House committee process. The Speaker and the Majority Leader confirmed the change of heart with short speeches at the DU banquet. There were no promises that it would pass, but they indicated they would work to see it proceed through the process. The Senate leadership has also indicated they have worked out details between the key committee chairs. They hope to roll this out next week at the Senate Finance Committee. The broad framework of the proposal is to increase the sales tax by 3/8th and dedicate it 1/8th to conservation, 1/8th to Clean Water Legacy and 1/8th to culture and parks. This year the advancement of the bill seems genuine and the signs of possible success this session keep growing each week.