Quirky Twists of Fate

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John Tuma’s Capitol Update – March 26, 2010

“Peculiar haze, or smokey fog … unlike anything known within the memory of man.”
– English naturalist Gilbert White, Summer 1783

Natural events in history can sometimes produce a set of coincidences which play out over the years leaving one perplexed at the twist of fate. One of those unusual twists of nature was the eruption of Iceland’s Laki Volcano in 1783. Through a series of coincidences, this faraway volcanic eruption may be in part responsible for the existence of the State of Minnesota.

The extremely powerful Laki eruption occurred over an 8-month period beginning in June of 1783. It produced one of the largest lava flows in modern-day history and spewed a vast toxic cloud which spread a haze across the Northern Hemisphere. It was this “peculiar haze” that famed English naturalist Gilbert White mentioned in his writings. Several in Iceland and England died from the toxic acid rain and particulates which resulted from this cloud. It was reported that the sun remained a ghostly red for over a year’s time after the volcano’s eruption. It was so intense that it significantly changed weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, hitting Europe particularly hard. It initially caused a significant increase in temperatures, withering most plants in England and northern Europe. Then it caused one of the coldest and driest climates ever experienced in the Northern Hemisphere. It led to significant famine and social upheaval for several years. 

The resulting famine was, according to most historians, the spark to the French Revolution . . . stick with me here. It was that French Revolution which led to Napoleon; and it was Napoleon’s lust for European dominance that led him to sell the Louisiana territory to fund his military designs. It was the Louisiana Purchase that sped up the settlement of the upper Mississippi Valley by the United States in order to break up the British fur trading dominance in the region; the need to supplant British dominance led to the construction of Fort Snelling and the push for American settlement. As a result, the Minnesota territory was eventually born.

Certainly there were a few other factors that led to the creation of Minnesota as a state, but the Laki Volcano in faraway Iceland certainly was a contributing factor, albeit after a long series of events. The legislative process in Minnesota could easily be described as a similar “peculiar haze” on occasions and, like the unusual cascade of historical events begun by the volcano, the legislative process can also produce its own quirky twists of fate. It was such a series of events that played out this last week at the Legislature which left many of us on the Green Team scratching our heads. 

The political eruption that began this series of consequences in Minnesota was the Prairie Island nuclear plant controversy which occurred in 1994. The twists and turns this week in the Legislature were around two important initiatives that essentially sprang forth from that event: the nuclear power plant moratorium and the seeds of a strong renewable energy mandate. 

We’ve talked extensively about the nuclear moratorium on this blog in the past and its direct connection to 1994 Prairie Island debate. As should be obvious, the recent attempts to repeal this moratorium are directly tied to that event. The first attempt to repeal this moratorium this session failed in a Senate committee only a couple weeks earlier. As suspected, the senators behind this attempt to repeal the moratorium were not finished and offered an amendment on the floor of the Senate this week. The bill targeted to be amended was SF3046, which allows energy co-ops to essentially double count the regulatory benefits from a large solar energy project to be constructed near Rochester to encourage its development. It would be the largest solar project in the upper Midwest if allowed to go through. Unfortunately, the chief author, Sen. Dan Sparks (DFL-Austin), is a supporter of the nuclear moratorium repeal, making the bill a good target for such an amendment.

On Wednesday when the bill came up for consideration on the floor, a series of odd coincidences took place. As is common at the end of a distinguished senator’s career, the senator is given the opportunity to preside over the full Senate for a period of time. When SF3046 came up for floor action, it happened to be the time that retiring State Senator Steve Dille (R-Dassel) was serving as honorary president of the Senate in recognition of his 18 years of service in that body. Unfortunately, Sen. Dille is a strong pro-nuclear proponent. So much so that he was the one who authored the successful moratorium repeal amendment last year that surprised the environmental community.

While Sen. Dille was presiding over the body, Sen. Ray Vandeveer (R-Forest Lake) offered an amendment to not only repeal the moratorium on nuclear power plants, but essentially require the state to actually start the process for constructing one within the next two years. Now at this point in the proceedings, someone with a backyard childhood clubhouse training in parliamentary proceedings would immediately have known how to get out of this particular fix, but Sen. Sparks proceeded on without defending his bill from this highly toxic amendment which would put the solar project in jeopardy.

Under the Senate rules, any floor amendment must actually be germane to the bill it is amending. This requires the amendment to actually have a relationship to the subject of the bill and to not greatly expand its scope. When Sen. Sparks did not offer any parliamentary objection to the germaneness of the nuclear amendment, one of our long-standing environment champions, Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul), made the obvious and appropriate procedural objection on germaneness. Unfortunately, the person who rules on the question of whether it is germane is the presiding officer and at that time it was still Sen. Dille. Not surprisingly, he ruled that the amendment was germane despite the lame arguments of the pro-nuclear proponents.

Realizing the inappropriateness of the ruling and the awkwardness of having a pro-nuke Republican in the chair, Sen. Anderson asked for an appeal of the ruling of the chair. This allows the body to overturn a ruling of the presiding officer by a majority vote. One would think overturning this inappropriate decision by a minority member would be simple enough with overwhelming DFL majority in the Senate. Not so on this strange energy day in the Senate. The vote to overturn the decision failed with 32 senators, including several DFL members, voting to support the chair and 31 voting to overturn the ruling; thus failing by one vote to get out of this awkward fix.

Adding to the strangeness of the vote was the fact that Senator Sparks and Senator Ann Lynch (Rochester-DFL) argued not to allow the amendment to go on so it would not put the solar project in peril. The legislation would mean real green jobs now. Yet when it came time to vote on overturning the ruling of the presiding officer, minority member Dille, they voted to support the ruling. Had either of them voted to overturn the ruling, this awkward matter could have ended. To make it even stranger, the biggest pro-nuclear proponent in the Senate, Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing), gave a passionate speech for nuclear power but told the members to vote against the amendment so as not to put the project in peril. He too voted for upholding the chair’s ruling that the amendment was germane. At this moment I asked one of my fellow Green lobbyists to pinch me really hard to make sure I wasn’t having one of those strange dreams you suddenly wake up from in total confusion and wonder if it was real.

After that strange set of circumstances, the Senate was in the position of having to vote again on a nuclear moratorium repeal which now included requiring the actual construction to start within a couple of years. Fortunately, Sen. John Doll (DFL- Burnsville) stepped to the forefront to save the Senate from itself. He offered the same amendment he did in committee to the Vandeveer amendment on the floor. This amendment to the amendment would have still allowed repeal of the moratorium, but before any new nuclear power plants could be constructed there would need to be permanent storage for the waste and ratepayer protection. Sen. Sparks recognized this maneuver from the earlier committee and knew it would again succeed. Therefore, he progressed the bill which essentially tabled it. This means he now has to find another course of action to get the solar project approved because his bill now sits parked with a lot of toxic activity surrounding it.

The nuclear debate was only the warm up to what was expected to be the real battle in the Senate on Wednesday: the repeal of the coal plant moratorium. Building off the renewable energy goals started back in 1994, the Legislature in 2007 developed a very forward-looking energy policy which relied heavily on conservation and clean renewable energy. One of the central pieces of that legislation was the prohibition on building dirty coal power plants in the state and any long-term purchase agreements for electricity coming from similar dirty coal facilities from our neighboring states.

The chair of the Senate Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Committee, Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon (DFL-Duluth), had a technical bill modifying some utility reporting requirements (SF2971) that followed in the order right after Sen. Sparks’ bill. Sen. Julie Rosen (R – Fairmont) offered an amendment to allow out-of-state utilities to ship in to Minnesota electricity from new dirty coal power plants, repealing the policy established in 2007. This amendment would greatly empower North Dakota, which has been threatening to sue Minnesota over our coal plant moratorium. Therefore, instead of standing up for Minnesota’s right to have clean electricity which has been improving our local economy, some senators wanted to wave the white flag of surrender to North Dakota’s desire to burn their dirty coal at our expense. A strong floor defense was given in support of this sensible moratorium by Sen. Anderson, Sen. Prettner Solon and Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis). By a close vote of 29 yes and 34 no the amendment was defeated – a major victory in defending Minnesota’s nation-leading efforts for clean and locally produced energy.

These amendments could still come up in the House when they take up their energy bills later in the session. Fortunately, under the leadership of Rep. Bill Hilty, Chair of the House Energy Committee, the House has remained far more committed to the positive course of clean electricity and energy conservation that was laid out in 2007.

I don’t know if it was a coincidence, but this week another series of volcanic eruptions in Iceland started at the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano that has been dormant for nearly 200 years. There is concern that this could lead to an extensive fissure event like the Laki eruption back in 1783. Who knows how this will affect Minnesota history down the road.  Maybe it will even lead to an early and bipartisan resolution to the legislative session.  Pinch me, I must be dreaming again. 

Stay tuned for next week as the Legislature pushes to get the omnibus supplemental funding package resolved before their spring break which starts next Monday, March 29. This will include the budgets for the major environmental programs. As of the writing of this post, the legislative conference committee is in the process of coming to a final resolution. Therefore, we should have more details on the budget for next week’s Update. If the Legislature is successful in reaching a compromise that is acceptable to the Governor, they will have resolved about one-third of the budget shortfall they are facing this session. Once they have numbers from the federal government on the health care package and the second stimulus package, which they expect soon, you can expect the session to move quickly towards a conclusion. More on that next week.

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