Federal climate deal poised to make history

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At a time when states and countries – including Minnesota – are struggling to cut greenhouse gas emissions at the scale needed to stave off climate catastrophe, the announcement that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Joe Manchin have cut a deal for unprecedented and transformative investment in climate action is just the kind of good news we need.

While not a perfect bill – it contains significant giveaways to certain fossil fuel interests – the Inflation Reduction Act would steer $369 billion toward protecting our future. If passed, it would invest in greening the many sectors – industry, energy, agriculture, and transportation – that are the largest sources of climate pollution. It would deliver cost savings and energy stability to consumers to combat inflation. It would make communities across the nation cleaner, healthier and safer places to live.

Most importantly, this legislation would cut carbon emissions. The bill’s authors and backers estimate that it would lead to a 40% reduction in U.S. emissions by 2030 – as Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii put it, “The planet is on fire. Emissions reductions are the main thing.” A 40% reduction in emissions isn’t enough to meet our needs or our national commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement goals, but it’s perhaps the biggest step in the right direction our country has ever taken. And it’s very good news for Minnesota.

The emissions picture

US EPA

In the United States, transportation, electricity, and industry are the largest sectors for emissions, followed by buildings and agriculture. Transportation is a particularly stubborn sector, with the nation’s car-centric (not to mention plane-centric) infrastructure making it difficult to reduce tailpipe emissions. We have an easier path forward with electricity, given the massive decreases in wind and solar prices over the last few decades.

In Minnesota, which is the nation’s fifth-largest agricultural economy, agriculture makes up a bigger part of the picture, though it also includes carbon-capturing forest regrowth. Despite passing what was then the nation’s strongest clean energy requirement in 2007, Minnesota has fallen behind in our emissions reductions goals. The recent construction of the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline is an example of poor decision-making and part of a pattern of insufficient action to confront this crisis.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

While we have technological and economic challenges to overcome to reduce these emissions to zero, the overall framework is no mystery. We need to simultaneously:

  • reduce the amount of energy we use
  • convert the energy we still need to electricity (or other clean forms of energy) everywhere it can be done
  • generate that electricity from zero-emission sources
  • eliminate stray emissions sources like methane from fossil fuel extraction, and
  • restore natural systems and carbon sinks like forests wherever we can. 

It’s a big lift, and for years, the US and Minnesota haven’t had anywhere near the investment needed to make major progress. If Congress votes the right way, that’s about to change.

A really big deal

Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Tina Smith, who has worked persistently for months to make this  deal happen, tweeted about the deal, “$370B for climate and energy and 40% emissions reduction by 2030. BFD.” We agree with that assessment, and not just because of the level of investment – how it invests matters.

As the graphs above show, homes generate a lot of emissions from heating and cooling, a problem that’s growing with more extreme weather events from climate change. Because so much of this heating and cooling is powered by fossil fuels, it’s subject to price shocks and is a big driver of inflation. For that reason, the bill invests billions in rebates, tax credits, and grants for Americans to make their homes more energy-efficient and powered by clean energy. In Minnesota, where homes are too often reliant on fluctuating natural gas supplies for heating, this is a move that will mean huge savings for consumers and families.

Efficiency goes hand-in-hand with electrification, and this bill includes billions for technology like heat pumps and other appliances. It also funds zero emission vehicles for entities like the Postal Service, waste and recycling services, and public transit agencies and helps to retrofit US manufacturing plants to produce those vehicles. Like fossil fuels, the costs of these products also impact inflation and scaling up production capacity will help to drive down costs and accelerate the industries we need.

Likewise, the Inflation Reduction Act also bolsters clean electricity generation, ramping up the production of American-made solar panels, wind turbines, storage technology, and future breakthroughs to generate power cleanly and affordably. It also makes changes to permitting procedures to help accelerate new clean energy projects.

Industrial emissions, making up about a quarter of the U.S. greenhouse gas mix, are heavy targets in the bill. Industries like chemicals, petroleum, cement, and steel are major climate offenders, and the bill would use tax credits and cleanup funds to cut these emissions  significantly.

The bill includes natural carbon solutions as well, setting aside funds for forests that resist fire and sequester carbon, as well as coastal habitats at risk from rising seas. It also funds climate-smart agriculture and biofuels. Biofuels is a thorny issue – ethanol in particular has not shown itself to be a climate solution – but can also include new low carbon intensity crops developed here in Minnesota that can support healthy soils.

A key aspect of the bill is its investment in environmental justice, bringing benefits to communities of color and low-income communities that continue to suffer the brunt of climate impacts and pollution. The bill includes grants to support equitable transportation and address health impacts due to pollution, and targets clean energy tax credits toward disadvantaged communities.

Not perfect, but a way forward

As many climate justice organizations have pointed out, the Inflation Prevention Act isn’t a perfect bill by any means. Some provisions are generous to fossil fuel companies and other heavily polluting industries and will make their needed transition away from fossil fuels more difficult. Streamlining permitting for natural gas pipelines, for example, is not part of the solution. The bill also opens up additional lands to oil leasing. If this bill passes, these provisions should be reversed and all possible oil and gas left in the ground.

But this bill will get us moving at a time when we can’t afford to stand still. If it passes, it will do what it sets out to do – fight climate change, tackle inflation by cutting energy costs, and reduce the national debt by restructuring a number of federal taxes.

The fact that this bill is so close to becoming a reality is a testament to those who have worked for it. We owe thanks not just to the members of Congress that conferred in back rooms, but to the ordinary people: community members and grassroots organizations who spoke out, who protested, who voted, who made demands for climate action impossible to ignore. Their ideas, hopes, and passion have made this moment possible.

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.

Saint Paul full steam ahead on lead line removal

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Most Minnesotans in the Twin Cities don’t have to worry too much about what’s flowing through the pipes in their home. The area’s utilities filter water from the Mississippi River, carefully managing pH and chemical composition to provide clean, readily drinkable water. But for more than 25,000 households in and around Saint Paul, water isn’t always safe because of the very service lines it flows through – pipes made of lead.

The good news: Saint Paul’s water utility has announced a plan to replace all lead water service lines, both publicly and privately owned, within the next ten years.

The danger of lead

It’s no exaggeration to say that the way the world used lead in the 20th century – and in some places, continues to do so – is one of history’s greatest public health tragedies. Lead in gasoline poisoned entire generations through vehicle fumes. Lead in water pipes and paint continues to threaten millions of people, with children, low-income and communities of color suffering the worst effects.

No level of lead in the bloodstream is safe, but the higher the levels, the worse the effects. It can cause organ damage and impair children’s brain development, making victims especially likely to suffer from behavioral and other psychological problems. Some scientists have advanced a “lead-crime hypothesis,” arguing that higher levels of lead exposure can contribute to higher levels of crime.

In the United States, we’ve largely done away with using lead in gasoline (except in small aircraft), water pipes, or paint. But there’s plenty of existing and actively harmful lead in homes, especially in older housing. Water service lines are the most visible example, and one of the key targets of our efforts to get the lead out.

There are ways to mitigate drinking water exposure to lead. Utilities can control pH to help a protective film form over pipes to prevent corrosion. Families can use water filters and run the tap for a few minutes each day to minimize exposure.

But not everyone knows if they have lead in their pipes, and filters can’t always get everything. Again, no level of lead in the body is safe. The only surefire way to prevent exposure is to remove the service line and replace it with copper. That can be complicated – in most homes, the utility only owns part of the service line, while the section on the private property is privately owned.

MEP’s recent work in Duluth helped shine a spotlight on lead exposure from water pipes. Since then, the City of Duluth has expanded its effort to test, map, and replace its lead service lines. We’ve also lobbied the Legislature to Get the Lead Out, including supporting efforts to replace all lead service pipes within 10 years across the state. Today, we’re glad to see Saint Paul on the cusp of tackling their lead lines problem once and for all.

Saint Paul’s plan

Saint Paul Regional Water Services serves the city of Saint Paul and several suburban areas surrounding it. For some time, SPRWS has helped residents find out if they have lead service lines both inside and outside their house and given them options to replace them. But in most cases, the cost to replace the section on private property, including inside the house, still falls on the consumer, whether paid upfront or over time.

Now, thanks to $200 million in federal infrastructure dollars, consumers may soon be off the hook. Starting this year, SPRWS will begin replacing lead service lines entirely free of charge. Residents who wish to replace their service lines earlier can still do so.

That $200 million is money extremely well-spent. A 2019 Minnesota Department of Health report estimated that removing all lead service lines from Minnesota homes would cost as much as $365 million, but the benefits to the state would be much higher.

Getting the lead out means lower medical costs, lower rates of childhood developmental disabilities, and higher quality of life for thousands of people. In a state where low-income and communities of color are especially at risk of lead poisoning, it’s also one of the most positive actions we can take for environmental justice.

MEP will continue to advocate for Minnesota to invest in lead service line replacement around the state. For now, we’re glad to see “the most livable city in America” becoming a safer place to live.

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

Minnesota weather is getting weirder

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Most people in Minnesota have heard the famous phrase about our weather patterns. “We have two seasons, winter and road construction.” It’s not literally true, of course, but it feels that way, with snowstorms showing up for the first taste of winter in October and the last in May.

Though it gets less popular attention, the inverse – our hot summers – is also true. We often hear another saying: “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”

We joke about the weather because it’s a shared experience, and because our weather is indeed weird. The famous Halloween blizzard that blanketed the Twin Cities happened before I was born, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard about it since living here.

With a changing climate, our weather is getting stranger. As one of the fastest-warming states, Minnesota is vulnerable to big changes, changes so visible that climate science denial seems more purposefully ignorant than ever.

Right now, floodwaters are finally receding on Rainy Lake on Minnesota’s northern border. Throughout June and early July, hundreds of residents have suffered from flooding.

“Property owners have seen damage that will take years to repair, businesses have stalled or will be in financial straits at the end of the season,” said International Falls resident Megan Bond. “We live in a northwoods paradise and it is being slowly eaten by the effects of frequent, severe weather conditions caused by the climate crisis.”

Other waters have been high, though for most of the state, flooding hasn’t been as bad as it was in the spring of 2019. That year, the valleys of the Red, the Minnesota, the Mississippi, and the St. Croix all experienced floods. Communities from Moorhead to Stillwater piled up sandbags as water inundated roads and farmland.

Last year, on the other hand, Minnesota faced the worst drought in decades. Vast swaths of grass and crops went dry, hitting farmers especially hard. It’s for that reason the Legislature passed funding in the Ag bill for grants to affected farms, up to $7500 per farmer. International Falls wasn’t spared either: according to Bond, “We experienced a record dry year with wildfires burning so badly our air quality was worse than Los Angeles in the ‘80s.”

After the drought, of course, Minnesota ended the year with our first-ever recorded December tornado.

Historically, it’s been tricky to determine how much of any given weather event is due to our changing climate. Fortunately, scientists have made big strides forward on making it easier to make the cause and effect clearer.

Regardless, we know that more heat waves, storms, droughts, and wildfire smoke are making Minnesotans’ lives worse. They’re not doing so equally, either: it’s well-established that communities of color that have suffered a history of segregation tend to suffer hotter temperatures, even within the same city.

What’s the next step?

The real question is not whether climate change is impacting Minnesota’s weather, making it weirder and worse. Our changing temperatures will have dire consequences for people and wildlife adapted to cooler temperatures. What we need to decide now is what to do about it.

For the answer, we need to build up clean energy and do away with dirty energy. As Bond put it to me, “We need to stop pulling fossil fuels out of the Alberta tar sands. We need more wind energy throughout the state. We need to safeguard the protected lands and waters in the Rainy Lake Basin. ”

Around the state, we need density in cities and restored habitat in natural spaces. We need green infrastructure to mitigate floods and more trees, especially in environmental justice communities, to mitigate heatwaves. Conversely, we need to stop expanding highways and focus on more transit and more safety for cyclists and pedestrians. And in everything we do, we must listen to low-income and communities of color most impacted by climate change and pollution.

Recent legislative efforts are a start, but we need to do a lot more. If we’re unsuccessful, future generations will reap the whirlwind. But if we commit to real climate action, we’ll improve our health, create jobs and economic growth, save us billions of dollars in direct climate change damages and protect our natural resources from more damage. Minnesota can be an example for the world to follow – and a better place for all of us to live.

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.

Court defies precedent, deals blow to EPA climate effort

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Smokestacks and power lines under a dark sky

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week the deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court announced a decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency that dealt a major blow to the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants The decision by the conservative court majority sets the stage for further limitations on the regulatory power of other agencies.

West Virginia, along with several other states, argued that the EPA can’t use its authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate climate emissions from power plants. The states said that because Congress did not specifically name these emissions in the Clean Air Act, the EPA can’t make rules that would curb them. The EPA contended that Congress clearly delegates the power to make emissions rules to federal agencies, as generally happens with environmental law.

The 6-3 ruling interpreting the Clean Air Act will keep the administration from implementing the type of wide-ranging emissions-cutting plan the EPA tried to put in place during the Obama Administration. The decision also appears to point toward major new limits on agency regulations across the economy, limits of a kind not imposed by the court for over 75 years.

The Biden Administration has vowed to move forward with other efforts to curb power plant pollution. The President pledged to put the U.S. on track to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030. But there’s no doubt that this decision is a wrongheaded step backward at a time when the nation and the world can’t afford not to move ahead. 

Power plants currently account for a little under a third of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, they’re one of the easiest sources to fix. Wind and solar power are now among the cheapest energy sources in history. Major utilities like Xcel Energy are developing plans to reach net zero sooner rather than later.

But if the EPA can’t target power plants, especially coal plants, for shutdown by regulating their carbon emissions, it becomes easier for fossil fuel backers to prop them up long past their usefulness. In the long term, that puts our livable climate and future of humanity at risk. In the short term, it means that more Americans, especially low-income and communities of color, will suffer from asthma attacks and other health threats, the very conditions the Clean Air Act was created to prevent.

The way forward

This wrench in the EPA’s plans doesn’t limit state action, however, and makes it all the more important that we act locally. States like Minnesota have had some successes in shutting down coal plants and preventing their replacement by dead-end pathways like fossil gas. But we still only get about a fourth of our electricity from renewables.

To reach our goals and protect Minnesotans from pollution we’ll need to build: more wind turbines, vastly more solar panels, energy storage, and an effective, resilient power grid. We’ll also need to target emissions sources larger than electricity generation, namely transportation and agriculture. We don’t need to rely on pipe dreams to replace coal and oil – most of the tools we need currently exist, as long as state leaders at the Legislature, Governor’s office, and Public Utilities Commission have the will to use them.

On a broader level, decisions like these, driven by ideology rather than science, call to question what can be done about the Supreme Court’s disregard of the facts. The Supreme Court is not composed of climate experts and yet seems determined to make its decisions without listening to expert agencies, like the EPA, and with no regard for scientific reality or public opinion.

Americans understood what they were supporting in 1963 when Congress passed the Clean Air Act, and in 1970 when they heavily amended it to give the federal government more authority. They saw dark clouds over their cities, choked on smog on the roads, and demanded action. Today, poll after poll shows that most Americans understand the threat of climate change and want action to end dirty energy.

At a time when both our climate and our democracy face crises like never before, we need to imagine bold solutions to protect the future of both.

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.

Forest Service report supports BWCA protection

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last fall, the Biden Administration resumed the effort toward a 20-year withdrawal of federal permits for sulfide mining on federal lands surrounding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This week, the U.S. Forest Service took a key step forward with an Environmental Assessment of the proposed withdrawal, moving closer to long-term protection for one of our greatest water and wilderness resources.

The Environmental Assessment, which will inform the process and the Secretary of the Interior’s final decision on the withdrawal, studied the possible impacts of both the withdrawal and of allowing sulfide mines such as Twin Metals to go forward. It found, unsurprisingly, that copper-nickel sulfide mines would have negative consequences on the environment and economy of Boundary Waters area communities.

It’s no secret that sulfide mining is a dirty industry. Sulfide mining can produce acid waste and sulfates that mobilize the release of heavy metals like lead and mercury into the environment that are known neurotoxins. No such mine has ever been operated in the United States without significant pollution to the surrounding environment and harm to human health.

As the assessment recognizes, in an interconnected, water ecosystem like the Boundary Waters, such pollution spells catastrophe for waters and people downstream. And that’s not just during the mine’s operation. After the mine has been shut down, runoff of toxic substances like sulfuric acid is even more likely because of a lack of guaranteed support for monitoring and containment.

The Forest Service also notes that Minnesota tribal communities would be negatively impacted by sulfide mining, perhaps most visibly through the damage to wild rice. Wild rice is foundational to Anishinaabe culture and guaranteed to their tribes in Minnesota, and a sulfide mine would certainly impact the rice beds through sulfates downstream or changes in water levels.

The economic takeaway from the assessment is also key. The Forest Service notes that while a sulfide mine like Twin Metals would result in a short-term boom – with an uncertain number – of high-paying jobs, it would only last for the mine’s operation. After that, the boom would necessarily give way to a bust.

In the meantime, pollution and land destruction would reduce the Boundary Waters’ growing recreation economy, killing long-term jobs. In their own words, “over time the economic benefits of mining tend to be outweighed by the negative impact of mining on the recreation economy.” The mineral withdrawal is far and away the more economically sustainable option.

The next step

The release of this Environmental Assessment kicks off a 30-day period in which the Forest Service will take comments on the document. After that, the Bureau of Land Management will collect, examine, and summarize the comments so that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland can then make a decision on the withdrawal. If all goes as many MEP groups hope, this action could be the final word in the saga of the Twin Metals mine, already dealt a blow when the federal government revoked permits and the DNR then ceased work on the mine’s environmental review. 

In the long-term, this ban could protect the Boundary Waters for many years to come, but it could also be reversed by a future administration. Legislative solutions, like Representative Betty McCollum’s Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act, would be more durable. And we also need protections for other vulnerable areas of the state, like the St. Louis River and Lake Superior watersheds under threat from PolyMet. Prove it First legislation, which would prevent a sulfide mine from opening in Minnesota unless a similar mine can operate and shut down safely elsewhere, would help provide permanent security for all state waters.

For now, MEP is glad to see the Forest Service move forward to keep the waters of the north clean for future generations, for wildlife and for tribal communities of today.

What you can do: Sign onto a petition to the Forest Service from WaterLegacy or the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters in support of the mining ban. 

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 by replying to this email.

In east Saint Paul, a carbon-free community is in the works

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

In a departure from our usual MEP voice, this column has been written from the author’s personal perspective.

I’ll forgive you if you’re not familiar with St. Paul’s Greater East Side, the area of the city that I call home. Though it’s an area with a rich culture and history, our landmarks aren’t necessarily the best known in the Twin Cities. Today, a new development is poised to change that, to make it the home of a bright spot in climate action: a project called the Heights. This development of an urban brownfield has the chance to be one of Minnesota’s greatest opportunities to show how to accomplish sustainable development.

A little background

The Greater East Side is a square-shaped community of about 30,000 people, or one in ten St. Paulites. It’s a working class area, one of the youngest and most diverse in the entire state. Successive waves of newcomers have made a home here for generations, most recently and notably the Hmong-American community. Once Dakota land, it features high hills on one end and the now-underground Phalen Creek on the other. There are schools, stores, parks, places of worship, and all different types of housing, intersected by roads, rails, and several bus lines.

For most of a century, it was also home to the Hillcrest Golf Course, a hilly 112-acre plot of greens and trees between residential neighborhoods and the suburb of Maplewood. For some years, starting in the years when the Twin Cities was a hotbed of anti-semitism, it was St. Paul’s only Jewish golf course. It changed hands several more times until finally being sold to the St. Paul Port Authority by the local Pipefitters union.

The former golf course is currently fenced in and closed to the public.

Golf, unfortunately, isn’t the most environmentally-friendly of land uses, despite the trees and shrubs. Decades of using mercury to manage weeds and fungi have turned most of the site into a brownfield, currently unsafe for human uses. The mercury has contaminated the soil and two of the site’s small wetlands. At the moment, the course is more or less a fenced-in, polluted hole in the community. And that empty space is a big opportunity.

The carbon-free dream

The Port Authority, the City of St. Paul, and residents like me have big dreams about how to fill it, dreams that include minimizing carbon emissions on one of the most ambitious levels ever attempted. If all goes well, this development – now known as the Heights – won’t just be a sustainability trailblazer in St. Paul, not just in Minnesota, but in the entire world. By building in solar power, geothermal heating and cooling, highly efficient buildings, and advanced management of stormwater, the Heights will be an example for thousands of other communities to follow.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a booster for this site since early in the process. I’ve showed up at the neighborhood events, filled out the surveys, and participated on a workgroup to help develop and finalize the sustainability plan for the site. My perspective on the Heights is one of many, and I’m not an expert on all of the housing and economic development aspects of the plan, but the sustainability angle has deeply impressed me.

Earlier this month, the St. Paul City Council approved the Hillcrest Master Plan and zoning updates for the site, the broad blueprint that will allow the Port Authority to move forward with more specific plans. The Council and the relevant city commissions took input from residents, local business owners, and housing and sustainability advocates on what needs to happen to make the site a success. No one has gotten 100% of what they wanted, and some of the details on housing stock, businesses, and outdoor spaces have yet to be decided. But the move forward is an exciting one at a time when climate action is more urgently needed than ever.

A climate action model

The Port Authority and the City’s intention for the development is carbon neutrality, using the U.S. Green Building Council’s platinum-level LEED certification for Cities and Communities as its framework. This certification covers the materials used, energy consumption and generation, water infrastructure, waste, natural systems, and other related categories.

In order to achieve this bold, necessary goal, the Master Plan calls for low-carbon materials (as opposed to intensive ones like concrete) in buildings wherever possible, as well as well-insulated and otherwise highly efficient construction. Wherever possible, energy will be generated on the site with solar panels and geothermal systems to avoid the use of fossil fuels, and may be managed with a district energy system to maximize efficiency. The use of fossil gas will be avoided wherever possible in favor of safer carbon-free technology.

Land use will also benefit the site’s carbon neutrality and ecological benefits. While most of the trees currently on the golf course will have to be removed as part of the soil remediation, the species that will replace them will be chosen for their ability to sequester carbon and adapt to climate change. Wherever possible, landscaped areas will be planted with native vegetation friendly to pollinators and wildlife. The wetlands that can’t be saved due to mercury will be replaced on site and integrated into parkland and a green stormwater management system.

At each stage of the public input process, transportation was brought up as one of the stickiest and most important sustainability issues the site faces, especially given that it’s Minnesota’s number one source of carbon emissions. The area isn’t yet directly served by public transit, and the bike and pedestrian connections need improvement, so in the long-term, working with Metro Transit, Ramsey County, and the city will be essential. Installing electric charges will help mitigate the vehicle miles we can’t replace with transit, biking, and walking.

The development’s land use is also projected to help with transportation emissions. By locating entry-level, well-paying light industrial and other jobs on part of the site, the Heights will provide job opportunities within walking distance to new residents and longtime neighbors. It can’t guarantee that the employees will all be local, but it will certainly help in a neighborhood where two-thirds of all workers have a commute of 20 minutes or more.

All in all, the Greater East Side will gain approximately 1,000 units of housing and 1,000 jobs, new parks and other green space, and new connections to Maplewood – all while tackling the climate crisis head on.

What needs to happen

Because this type of sustainable development is unprecedented, it’s going to take funding from various sources to get it underway. Though infrastructure like roads can be funded with sales of the land to interested buyers – who have already begun to emerge – the site will need both public and private support to get it done. The Legislature will need to be convinced that this project is worth investing in.

Whatever the final price tag, this project will be well worth it. I write that not just because I’ll get to enjoy the benefits of the site directly, but because it will be an example, a template for what the world needs to do to confront the climate crisis in a way that protects future generations. What we do on the East Side will matter to the world. It might even help to fix it.

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

Defense Production move a win for climate and energy bills

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, President Joe Biden announced that his administration would use its trade authority and employ the Cold War-era Defense Production Act to address one of the country’s most fundamental security issues: our need for clean, reliable energy. President Biden’s move would freeze tariffs on many imported solar panels and dramatically expand domestic manufacturing of products like heat pumps and weatherization components, ramping up our transition to clean energy.

At a time when Minnesota and the nation are struggling to cut emissions at the scale needed to confront climate change, this is great news – and a credit to the climate activists who have been pushing for this move. It’s also an entirely appropriate use of the Defense Production Act – study after study shows that our country’s biggest security threat is climate disruption and energy woes.

Harnessing the wind and sun are the only ecologically and economically viable path to face these challenges, and the President’s order is a step in the right direction. We were glad to see Minnesota’s largest newspaper recognize this in an editorial last week.

The solar energy portion of this order will help stabilize an industry facing challenges with securing parts from East Asia and bring solar projects all over the country to the building phase. That will both reduce carbon and money – thanks to new technology and economies of scale, solar is now considered the cheapest source of electricity in history.

In Minnesota, solar is only about 3% of our electricity mix, but that number is growing alongside wind power, which generates about one-fifth of our power. More panels, storage, and upgrades to our electrical grid through this executive order will allow us to take advantage of homegrown energy and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. After all, Minnesota has no major reserves of natural gas, petroleum, or coal. It’s also a move in favor of reliability – as we saw from Texas’s recent energy woes that spilled into Minnesota customers’ bills, natural or “fossil” gas is by no means a safe or stable source of electricity.

With our electricity generation mix getting cleaner, the simultaneous challenge is replacing the ways we heat our buildings with electric power. That’s where heat pumps come in: these devices can both heat and cool a home far more efficiently than gas furnaces. To be effective in hot-summer/cold-winter states like Minnesota, however, they must be paired with better insulation, another product covered under the President’s decision.

At a time when progress on clean energy and reducing building emissions is struggling to get legislative traction, we need all the help we can get from the President’s executive pen.

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 

Special session may follow after Legislative fizzle

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Minnesota’s 2022 Legislative Session reached its constitutional deadline after a frantic but ultimately unfruitful week of activity at the Capitol. From MEP’s perspective, more progress was left on the table than passed despite a record-high budget surplus, but a few bright spots on MEP priorities did make it through the gridlock, and a special session may follow to get more done. (For more, see MEP’s Legislative wrap-up)

What passed

Of major importance to MEP and our members this session was the Agriculture Omnibus bill. MEP spoke out in support of higher levels of funding proposed by the House of Representatives, but the final number was far closer to the lower level offered by the Senate. Despite this, MEP was pleased to see investments passed to support longtime priorities, namely the development of crops and practices that protect Minnesota’s lands and waters.

The Legislature passed additional funding for the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, which works to develop crops that provide food and other products and generate farm income while also supporting soil health and water quality and helping to fight climate change. The bill also supports the development of supply chains for those crops so that they can achieve economic success and broaden their reach. Combined, those investments will total $1.26 million from 2024 to 2025.

The Agriculture bill also supports soil healthy farming practices, small farms and processing operations, and new and emerging farmers and related businesses. These farmers are often early adopters of sustainable land use and MEP is pleased to see them get support.

The Legislature also passed a bill to spend money from the funds created by Minnesota voters with the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Constitutional Amendment. While it should be par for the course for the Legislature to pass investments from these voter-created sales tax funds, it’s still encouraging to see them make it through to approval. The Outdoor Heritage and Clean Water Fund dollars in particular will support numerous vital habitat, conservation, and clean water. MEP expressed concerns earlier in the session that the final Legacy bill wouldn’t respect the Clean Water Council’s role in directing funding and instead use Clean Water funds for unvetted projects, and we are pleased to see that the final bill aligns with our values.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened with Minnesota’s other major dedicated environmental fund, the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. While the Legislature did pass a bill to spend ENRTF dollars, mostly on worthy environmental projects, it contained funding for projects that have not been recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR.) That may seem a technical point, but the LCCMR exists to make sure that the public has a clear role in how ENRTF dollars are spent. By bypassing the LCCMR and funding their own projects, the Legislature diminishes the public trust in this voter-created lottery fund and sets a bad precedent for future raids. 

What didn’t pass

Compared with the productive investments of two years ago and the hopes that MEP had for this session at its beginning, the Legislature left a mountain of money on the table at a time when Minnesota’s climate, people, and natural resources need urgent investments.

The session reached its end with no energy and jobs bill, which could have funded investments in solar energy, electric vehicle infrastructure, and job training that would help put Minnesota on the path to a decarbonized economy. No environment bill, which had the chance to invest in natural landscapes and improved waste programs while setting policies that would rectify environmental injustices, protecting communities disproportionately harmed by pollution. And no state government finance and transportation bill, the failure of which will shortchange Minnesota’s public transit, making it harder to access federal funds.

On the other hand, policies that would have taken Minnesota backward – mostly proposed by the Senate – also failed to pass. These proposals included giveaways to the mining, plastics, and factory farming industries, restrictions on the public voice and open access to information, and a rule to prevent local communities from banning new natural gas connections.

The next chapter

Governor Walz and House and Senate leadership are currently discussing the possibility of a special session. Unlike in 2020, they won’t be automatically called back at a regular interval as there is no longer a legal state of peacetime emergency, so the Governor must call the two houses back once an agreement is reached.

MEP believes that Legislators should return to the Capitol to finish their work. We may not like all possible outcomes of the omnibus bills still on the table, but at this critical time, Minnesota needs investments in our lands, our infrastructure, and our communities in order to tackle the climate crisis. Leaving money on the table until next year is not a responsible option when every month matters to provide a livable future for Minnesotans.

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.

Minnesota has every reason to reforest and re-prairie

Posted by

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Monday, the City of Minneapolis and the city’s Parks and Recreation Board unveiled a $1 million plan to plant 200,000 trees throughout the city. City and Parks officials said that the plan represents a key investment in Minneapolis’s climate action and resilience efforts and in environmental justice.

This program is a good example of one of the best investments that we can make in Minnesota’s future: the restoration of our forests, prairies, and wetlands. Putting money into revitalizing these ecosystems, sometimes mistakenly identified as “non-productive” land, will help reduce and absorb climate emissions, protect our species as climate change continues, and improve Minnesotans’ health by helping to clean our air and water and cool our communities.

The state of our trees

Paul Bunyan may be only a legend, but it’s no exaggeration to say that various activities have been cutting down and otherwise reducing Minnesota’s forests. Forests now cover just over a third of Minnesota’s land area; prior to the ramping up of European colonization in the mid-19th century, it was nearly two-thirds. Trees were cut in vast swaths for timber, farmland, and development, and further reduced by wildfires.

A tree affected by emerald ash borer

Today, Minnesota’s trees face these same old threats along with new ones. Climate change is putting pressure on many of Minnesota’s tree species, especially conifers like pines. Emerald ash borer and Dutch Elm disease have gutted community tree cover, stripping boulevards of vital shade and cooling and forcing municipalities to choose between planting new trees quickly or letting communities get hotter. 

Back to the Minneapolis program – in the overall scheme of Minnesota’s forests, 200,000 trees isn’t much compared with the more than 360 million currently estimated in the state, but this program will have meaningful impacts on the lives of residents. Tree planting under this program using American Rescue Plan dollars will help to reduce the urban heat island effect across the city, and is especially targeted to Green Zones – areas that face concentrated poverty, pollution, and racial, political, and economic marginalization. A recent study found that former redlined areas – predominantly communities of color historically excluded from other parts of Minneapolis – suffer temperatures on average 11°F hotter than non-redlined areas due to a lack of tree cover and proximity to heat traps and sources like highways.

To keep building on this and similar programs, MEP recently worked with our member oreganizations to speak out in favor of legislation funding $11 million to replace ash trees and $8 million for an accelerated conservation tree planting program to help advance this work around the state. As of this time, the fate of that funding is still undetermined.

The once-proud prairies

The tale of prairies in Minnesota is yet another of destruction after European settlement. Minnesota’s tallgrass prairies were once a place of abundant food for the Dakota people, teeming with bison. But after colonizers stole the land and killed off most of the bison, that rich prairie soil was converted to grow crops like corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. These crops feed a lot of people and fuel millions of vehicles, but their repeated planting over generations has stripped the soil of carbon and nutrients – previously held in by prairie plants – and contributed to climate change and species loss. Less than 1% of the prairies that used to cover vast acres of Minnesota remain.

We can’t wind the clock back to 1850, but we can work to restore prairie where possible, and to make cropland act more like prairie in the environmental benefits it provides. Also among the environment provisions MEP and our members support this year is $10 million for the Conservation Reserve Program State Incentive to keep or enroll land in conservation, $30 million for the federally-based Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program for similar efforts, and one-time funding of $5 million and ongoing annual funding of $1.25 million for Lawns to Legumes, a program that helps Minnesotans replace turf grass lawns with plants that provide habitat and hold water and carbon in the soil.

Wetlands and peatlands

Finally, there are the watery, carbon-rich ecosystems of our wetlands and peat soils. These lands are among the most vital carbon-capture treasures Minnesota has, and they’re under threat by development.

For decades of Minnesota history, wetlands were considered by many to be useless, swampy tracts of wasteland to be drained for farmland, which significantly reduced their ability to help mitigate climate change. The 1991 Wetlands Conservation Act helped to stop further damage to these vital carbon sinks by requiring developers to either avoid wetland destruction or replace wetlands destroyed. A new wetland, however, is not of equal value to an older one even given the same acreage. Major projects that destroy vast acreages of wetlands are a net carbon bomb, even if they create new wetlands elsewhere. The PolyMet mine, for example, would threaten our water and destroy more than 900 acres of mature wetlands; its permit to do so is currently suspended due to water-related objections by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

MEP worked with our member organizations to speak in support of legislative provisions to create a peatland protection program and to invest $5 million in enhancing grasslands and restoring wetlands across the state.

The way forward

In order to stave off climate change and its ill effects on our health, Minnesota needs to get serious about ramping up efforts to restore natural vegetation. We need a new paradigm that recognizes and respects the role that plants, trees, prairies, wetlands and peatlands play within our ecosystem and for the well-being of humanity. Just because we don’t directly harvest it, doesn’t mean it’s not sustaining our lives. 

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.

Where things stand at the Capitol in session’s final days

Posted by

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Much like the arrival of warm weather here in Minnesota, the final week of the 2022 Legislative Session has snuck up on many of us. With the regular session’s constitutionally set last day landing on May 23rd, the House and Senate are working to negotiate a final set of bills to send to Governor Walz.

The dynamics in play this year can make it tricky to predict what will happen. Minnesota has a large budget surplus and plenty of needs, including infrastructure investments, drought relief, and public health. But it’s also an election year for the Governor and both legislative bodies have new district maps, which means that each lawmaker is feeling the pressure from their respective parties and constituents.

For Minnesota’s natural resources, health of our communities, and climate action, MEP is feeling cautiously optimistic at this stage, and our team is actively communicating with legislators to support bills that will move us forward, not backward. Here’s where things stand on our community’s key priorities:

Agriculture

MEP is impressed with provisions in both the House and Senate versions of the Agriculture and Housing Omnibus Bill this year. Both versions invest supplemental funding in a longtime MEP priority: the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative. Forever Green conducts vital research and development of environmentally-friendly crops that will be a game-changer for Minnesota’s water, soil, and economy. The bill also includes support for the economic development that needs to happen to keep scaling up Forever Green crops and related supply chains.

Both versions also contain provisions for supporting new farmers and processors, boosting soil healthy farming practices, and providing training. In many cases, these provisions will advance equity by especially benefiting people of color and immigrant farmers.

MEP’s key point of advocacy at this stage is asking that the Conference Committee negotiating this bill adopt the higher House-proposed funding levels; we sent a letter of support for our coalitional position earlier this week.

Energy and Climate

There’s a lot to like in the large Jobs, Energy, and Commerce Omnibus bill (SF 4091) as well, though once again, we find that the House bill is closer to MEP’s priorities. Both versions contain significant investments in solar energy on public infrastructure like schools. The House language also contains significant funding for solar on housing, electric vehicle charging stations around the state, weatherization for homes, equitable energy job training, and access to federal dollars for infrastructure. In most cases, we hope to see the House provisions adopted, as they advance the Minnesota Climate Action Plan released earlier this year.

On the other hand, we are concerned about Senate provisions in the bill that would be hazardous for Minnesota’s energy future and could threaten the health of our people. One provision lifts Minnesota’s moratorium on issuing a certificate of need for new nuclear generating plants. At this point, Minnesota and the nation have still not adequately addressed the issue of nuclear waste storage. This directly threatens the Prairie Island Indian Community due to the nuclear power plant – and its highly radioactive waste – already sitting in its community.

Another harmful provision would prevent cities, counties, and other local governments from adopting a ban on new natural gas and propane. Climate science tells us that we can’t afford to keep building new fossil fuel infrastructure like gas lines, no matter how much gas companies claim their product is “clean.” Zero-emission alternatives to gas exist and are effective in Minnesota’s climate, and communities should be able to ban new gas hookups if they choose.

MEP will be submitting a letter expressing the positions of our coalition and keeping in close contact regarding this legislation.

Environment and Natural Resources

The Environment and Natural Resources Bill is a true study in contrasts, with little overlap between the House and Senate versions.

The House language contains boosted funding for land conservation, prairie and forest restoration, composting, and healthy soils. It also prioritizes environmental justice with provisions that would make permitting decisions more responsive to the needs of communities disproportionately affected by pollution, which tend to be communities of color, Indigenous  and low-income communities. It advances a key MEP priority of lead service line replacement so that no Minnesotan will have to worry about lead poisoning in their home water pipes. And it begins to create protections against lead for wildlife, requiring nontoxic hunting ammunition in certain areas and helping support safe disposal for lead tackle.

The Senate bill is far less friendly to the environment, proposing rollbacks to key protections for our people and natural resources, and several provisions are simply giveaways to polluting industries. One provision would essentially push state agencies to assume that all mining proposals should be permitted and force them to review and approve them on an accelerated timeline, running roughshod over public process. Another would create a new category of recycling for the chemical plastic industry and exempt it from existing rules. Still another would create new, specific rules for the sugar beet processing industry with the likely effect of making it less regulated.

Clean water is treated almost as an inconvenience in the Senate version. It would attack protections for calcareous fens – a rare and vulnerable wetland habitat – weaken the state’s definition of “sustainable” use of groundwater, and strip away the DNR’s ability to manage the state’s Public Waters Inventory, a vital tool to protect the state’s water resources.

These provisions and several others would have the effect of chilling public participation and oversight of environmental decisions, reducing the information that agencies may provide to the public, restricting who may petition for environmental review of a project by their county of residence, and preventing agencies from issuing guiding information on statues and rules.

We hope that the final environment bill will take Minnesota forward, not backward. MEP has developed a letter expressing the positions of our coalition and will be keeping in close contact regarding this legislation

Transportation and Capital Investment

At this stage, the House and Senate is negotiating a transportation package under its State Government Finance bill and has yet to pass bills necessary for a conference committee for capital investment, which will mainly concern bonding.

As the Star Tribune article below notes, the House transportation bill invests heavily in clean transportation, including buses, passenger rail, and electric vehicles. This would help Minnesota reduce our emissions and protect public health. The Senate bill mostly doubles down on highway expansions and interchanges while deliberately attacking light rail and bus rapid transit. MEP strongly supports investments in transit and will be communicating our priorities to the Conference Committee when one is established. 

We also hope to see a capital investment bill that further boosts replacement of lead service lines in homes across Minnesota.

With only a few days of negotiations remaining, the Legislature faces an uphill task. As they enter their hardest week, we’re encouraged by the Minnesotans across the state asking them to put our people and planet first. 

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.