Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
Anyone driving on the interstate in the Twin Cities this week likely saw electronic signs reading, “Air Quality Alert – Consider Reducing Trips.” These signs, coupled with the wildfire smoke that choked most of the state, are a potent reminder that transportation is a major contributor to Minnesota’s air pollution and our number one contribution to the climate crisis that makes wildfires larger and more common. It’s also, arguably, the most challenging sector to decarbonize. 70% of its emissions come from cars and light trucks – the vehicles that most Minnesotans use to get around.
Getting to zero transportation emissions requires a two-part solution. First, we need to do whatever we can reduce the total distance that Minnesotans travel in personal vehicles (measured in Vehicle Miles Traveled, or VMT) by making it easier to use cleaner alternatives. As we covered in April, the Legislature took some great steps in the right direction this session, funding public transit, passenger rail, and active transportation infrastructure at historically high levels. Making these options safer, more reliable, and more convenient will help Minnesotans leave their cars at home and off of our congested highways.
The second part of the solution is to reduce and eliminate the climate impact of the remaining VMT. The Legislature made a historic $15 million investment in EV infrastructure in this session’s transportation budget, giving Minnesotans an easier time operating a zero-emission vehicle.
But just as significant was their creation of a Working Group to think even bigger about the emissions challenge, aiming to recommend a Clean Transportation Standard for all transportation fuels. This standard would be implemented through rulemaking by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
That brings us to last week, when MnDOT announced that the Clean Transportation Standard Working Group is accepting applications from Minnesotans who wish to serve on this important body. MEP strongly encourages our subscribers and member organizations to consider tossing their hat in the ring by the June 21 deadline.
A roadmap to zero emissions
The goal of the potential Clean Transportation Standard is defined by the law creating the Working Group: reducing aggregate carbon intensity of transportation fuel supplied to Minnesota to at least 25% below the 2018 baseline level by the end of 2030, by 75% by the end of 2040, and by 100% by the end of 2050. Transportation fuel includes the biofuels, petroleum fuels, and electricity used by the vast array of vehicles in Minnesota.
The “how” of the standard is the Working Group’s task. It’s no small feat to build a path for the state’s vehicles – many of which will be on the road for years to come – to eliminate their net emissions within a few decades. Reaching this goal will take a combination of emerging technologies, stronger vehicle emissions limits, and a big leap in electrification.
In discussions MEP has participated in regarding this standard, we’ve heard a common concern around false solutions, the most prominent being corn ethanol. This is a very real concern. Though ethanol – which consumes 31% of the state’s corn crop – has long been claimed by its backers to be cleaner than petroleum, that’s not strictly the case.
Emerging evidence points to ethanol’s lifecycle climate emissions being only modestly lower than petroleum at best or even greater at worst. The dominant practice of growing corn for ethanol has also contaminated waterways in Minnesota and downstream with fertilizer and contributed to the rapid decline in pollinating insects and loss of other habitat. And the latest industry greenwashing involves capturing carbon from ethanol plants and piping it vast distances to be pumped underground – though the fact that this CO2 will be used to extract more oil and gas is less often mentioned.
When it comes to replacing gasoline, electrification is the way to get the best climate action for our buck without harming our land and water. While there are legitimate environmental concerns about the materials used in EVs, they’re still far and away cleaner option than continuing to rely on gasoline or ethanol. That’s a big reason why we supported Minnesota’s Clean Cars Standard and expect that the Clean Transportation Standard will focus heavily on supporting EVs.
However, that’s not at all to say that biofuels don’t have a big role to play in facing the transportation challenge. Scientists at the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative are rapidly developing and releasing new oilseed crops – like winter camelina and pennycress – that have much lower carbon intensity than conventional biofuels, while providing ecosystem benefits that dramatically improve water quality and improve soil health and habitat. These crops have lifecycle carbon emissions that are at least 75% less than currently used biofuel and petroleum fuels and they make an excellent drop-in substitute for diesel and aviation fuels.
These are just some of the many interrelated issues raised with a Clean Transportation Standard, are it’s why it’s critical that this Working Group hear from Minnesotans who care deeply about long-term, effective climate and ecological solutions. Given the scale and urgency of the climate challenge, we can’t afford to waste time or money on “dead-end pathways” that won’t lead to net-zero.
Who may apply
MEP encourages our subscribers from environmental and conservation organizations to consider applying to serve on this Working Group by June 21. Here are some of the key categories of those MnDOT is looking for that may apply to you:
- general farm organizations
- environmental science organizationse
- environmental justice organizations
- electric utilities or cooperatives
- water quality interests
- organizations with expertise in renewable energy and low-carbon transportation fuel policy
- conservation organizations
- organizations representing sustainable agriculture or regenerative biofuels producers
- public health interests
- labor unions
The stakes are high: this Working Group represents one of our biggest opportunities to tackle Minnesota’s toughest carbon challenge. If we get it right, we’ll make a huge impact on climate action. As the smoke in the sky reminds us, there’s no time like the present.
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