Minnesota is heavily reliant on fossil fuels. We don’t need to be.

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

As of this writing, the average price for a gallon of unleaded gas in the state of Minnesota is about $3.92. That’s not the highest price our state has ever experienced – 2013 saw even higher peak prices – but it’s more than a dollar higher than this time last year.

Many people are questioning why this price increase is happening. Certainly, the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic in many places, the rate of inflation, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have all had effects – though the profiteering  of oil companies themselves can’t be discounted. Whatever the cause, these prices are impacting many Minnesotans, especially those with lower income who may face tough choices about when and where to travel.

Ultimately, that points to a question more important than “why are the gas prices so high?” The question we need to ask for the sake of our economy, the livability of our communities, and our climate is: “why are we at the mercy of gas prices in the first place?”

Policy choices that may lead to gas price fluctuations are heavily scrutinized, but what about the policies that got us here? Most Minnesotans get to most of their destinations in gas-powered cars and trucks, which generate the bulk of the transportation emissions that are Minnesota’s largest source of climate pollution. But is that by choice, or by design?

Minneapolis and St. Paul, for example, once hosted a popular streetcar system that linked vast swaths of the cities together. It was dismantled in the 1950s and replaced with a bus system, which, while still more efficient in terms of fuel and climate than cars, represented a hollowing out of the transit network.

In close proximity, interstate highways were constructed that ran right through the heart of major cities around the country That made it easier to drive from one end of a metropolitan area to the other, but it notoriously obliterated neighborhoods – especially those home to communities of color – like Rondo in Saint Paul. New roads were constructed – and still are to this day – that leave plenty of room for cars but little room or safety for bicycles or pedestrians. Speed limits were set to ease vehicular travel, but have often proven deadly to those trying to cross the road on foot.

On the most basic level, we’ve grown so used to car-dependent infrastructure – deliberately designed to favor the automobile – that it often escapes notice. Shopping mall entrances often lack sidewalks or a safe means to bike to the entrance. Big box stores often have one or two bike racks and upwards of one hundred parking spaces. Vast swathes of valuable land in urban areas are taken up by parking lots and garages. Transit service arrives at inconvenient or infrequent times and may require multiple connections for Minnesotans to get where they want to go – an especially uncomfortable issue in our bitter winters. Amenities like shopping are placed far away and across highways from housing, especially in suburban and exurban areas. Gas stations are in abundance, but electric vehicle rapid charging is only just becoming common.

The result has been that even Minnesotans who might prefer to get around without a car if they tried it are left with few options to do so, even in areas like the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Rochester. Vehicle dependency has overtaken the landscape so completely that even modest steps in favor of clean alternatives are met with cries like “bike favoritism” or “a waste of tax dollars,” ignoring that cars have been subsidized for decades. Fossil fuel companies have been happy to fan the flames, reinvesting their record profits in lobbying and propaganda against clean transportation.

Transportation is the most visible example of this deliberately constructed fossil fuel dependency. The way we weather our winters is another. Most homes in Minnesota are heated by methane – so called “natural” – gas. That’s usually not the fault of the people who live there – many homes in the state are many decades old, making it expensive to replace their gas furnaces with heat pumps or other electric heat. That leaves Minnesotans vulnerable to spikes in the national price of gas, like the reverberations from the Texas winter storm and power crisis last year.

Electric heat pumps are now viable for many Minnesota homes, especially new and well-insulated homes, and can help eliminate this instability. Places like California are banning gas hookups on new homes entirely as a climate action and price management step. Fossil fuel companies, of course, won’t go down without a fight: the fossil gas industry is now investing in media campaigns in favor of gas stoves to try and slow the rapid rise of safer, cleaner, low-carbon induction cooking technology.

The story that rises out of all of this is simple: most Minnesotans have to worry about the price of gasoline and heating gas not because of personal choices, but because of decades of policy choices. Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to take reliable, frequent transit to the places we need to go, or to use a bicycle or electric vehicles, or to upgrade our homes to electric heat, but for many, these steps are far more difficult to reach than driving or living with a gas furnace. In the long run, these “easier” options end up costing us all in traffic, air pollution, and a worsening climate.

The good news is that these policy choices aren’t set in stone. We can chart a different course, and there are examples of how to do so all over the state. MetroTransit is building a Bus Rapid Transit network that will connect thousands of Minnesotans to fast, reliable transit (you can use our action system to speak up in support of these investments.) Duluth Transit Authority is experimenting with using electric buses in a cold climate. Many people are waking up to alternatives to interstate highway dominance in our communities, such as those working to reconnect Rondo in St. Paul or remove a stretch of I-35 in Duluth.

On the gas heating front, projects like the Heights development on St. Paul’s East Side are planning to demonstrate how homes and businesses can be heated entirely through geothermal energy. Legislators have proposed massive investments in energy efficiency to make electric heating more feasible for thousands of homes.

When we choose to invest in alternatives to fossil fuel-centered infrastructure, we provide Minnesotans with freedom: freedom to choose how we get around, how we stay warm, and how we enjoy our neighborhoods. We believe most Minnesotans want to do their part for climate action – let’s make it easy and rewarding for them to do so.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

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