Blog from Scott Strand, Executive Director


Read Scott's thoughts on important environmental issues in Minnesota, the United States, and worldwide.

Senator Klobuchar's Recent Climate Speech

Good for Senator Klobuchar, but sad that in 2014, a resolution saying that climate change is real, with no pesky solutions included, has to be debated in the U.S. Senate.

Minnesota's own General Mills Steps Up on Climate

This week, General Mills announced a new set of policies related to climate, which now explicitly include its suppliers and vendors when calculating its climate footprint.  General Mills has also joined the Ceres-sponsored business group advocating for comprehensive climate change legislation.  None of this is out of the goodness of the corporation's heart.  This reflects yet another giant multinational recognizing that doing what's right on climate makes good business sense.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS)

Nice background piece in today's New York Times on carbon capture and storage (CCS).  This is the idea that coal-fired power plants can capture the carbon that would otherwise go out the smokestack, inject it into the ground, and thereby reduce carbon emissions to a level that would meet the new emission standards.  

The CCS concept has been around for decades, but it has been very difficult to put into practice, particularly at the scale that would be needed.  In addition, the process is itself energy-intensive, and no one seems to be sure whether the carbon might bubble up out of the ground anyway, which would of course defeat the purpose of the entire enterprise.

The Obama Administration's "new source" standards for carbon emissions basically bans the construction of any new coal plants unless they have a genuinely working CCS system in place.  With the costs and questions so difficult, it is hard to anticipate any such new coal plant being built.  But, as the article points out, power companies and taxpayers are spending billions of dollars to develop CCS systems for existing plants.

MCEA has been pretty skeptical about CCS.  Our view is that power companies should use the same money to transition away from coal altogether. We should accelerate the retirement of coal plants, not try to keep them open longer.

The big argument on the other side is that experts say we will be dependent on coal for many more decades, and so we need to invest in finding ways to clean up coal plants.  Those predictions--and they show up in the Times article--are, however, typically based, on what will happen if we continue the status quo, and, in our view, they seriously understate the economic and technological feasibility of moving away from coal faster.  

Climate policy polling

Another set of polling results showing that the American public wants and expects serious efforts at the federal level to address climate change. Many candidates, however, continue to believe that climate is a "third rail" issue, best left unmentioned, too risky because most people are "climate deniers."  That's of course not true, and there are now a few candidates who are making climate a major issue.   Analysis from the League of Conservation Voters strongly supports candidates taking on the climate issue in their campaigns.  We'll see what happens over the next few months in Minnesota.

The poll results can be seen here.

"Waters of the US" rule

Dan Gunderson from MPR has a story on the new "waters of the United States" rule proposed by the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  This is primarily about federal jurisdiction over wetlands.  Over the past ten years, the  U.S. Supreme Court has imposed restrictions on federal jurisdiction that are very difficult to apply in practice (in part because the Court itself is divided on the issue).  Permits were getting held up while the Corps of Engineers performed "jurisdictional assessments."  So responding to pressure from farm groups, governments, developers, and conservationists, the EPA and the Corps proposed this new rule to clarify when the feds have jurisdiction and when they don't.

We at MCEA believe they did a pretty good job, and that the new rule deserves support.  But interest groups from industries like agriculture and mining are out convincing their folks that this is the greatest federal power grab of all time, that the EPA and the Corps are going to require federal permits for most normal farming practices, and that they were not consulted.  None of that is even remotely true.  There will be no new permit requirements, there will be no new waters included within federal jurisdiction, the rules were "stakeholdered" with everyone for years, and everyone--permit applicants and those who want to preserve wetlands--will benefit from greater clarity in the rules.  None of that apparently matters in today's polarized political environment.  Lobbyists feel free to just make things up to stoke irrational fears that apparently show up in focus groups and polling results.  So now EPA and the Corps are in retreat, more years are going to go by with today's confusing rules, and no one is going to be better off.

Not too far under the surface on this issue is the belief that, in some future case, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule that most if not all federal wetland protection is unconstitutional, beyond the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause.  So the strategy is to fight everything until that case finds its way up.  I think some of these industry partisans are overestimating how far the Court is really willing to go to hold federal environmental laws unconstitutional, but that viewpoint may explain some off the really beyond the pale tactics we are seeing on this issue.

More Confirmation of Threat to Drinking Water from Nitrogen Pollution

MPR reports on a new study from the University of Minnesota showing how the conversion of grasslands to crop land poses a dramatic threat to our drinking water supplies because of contamination from nitrogen-based fertilizer.  The evidence is getting overwhelming; the key now is to convince state government actors to take the necessary steps to change farming practices. 

Minnesota Carbon Reductions Getting National Attention

Friday's New York Times has a nice piece summarizing Minnesota's success in reducing carbon emissions in the last decade.  Maybe the most important part is the "without much straining" comment in the headline.  Minnesota has had, if not a perfect, at least a decent storm of coincidences that have helped get those numbers down--a severe recession, several old, dirty coal plants due to retire, and significant price drops for natural gas and renewables like solar and wind.  Now comes the hard part.  Minnesota's economic growth level is picking up, natural gas prices can be expected to rise, and the coal plants still on line are newer, involve more sunk costs, and decisions to close rather than retrofit will be harder for the utilities to make.  The laws are in good shape; the question is whether regulators will have the political will to keep pushing those carbon numbers down.

Copper Mining and Jobs

Good article on the very limited job-creating potential of the proposed copper-nickel mining projects in northeastern Minnesota.  The Duluth study that the industry (and, unfortunately, our own state and federal regulators) rely on itself makes clear that the lion's share of any future mining-related job growth will come from taconite expansion, not the new sulfide mining projects.  These projects could be "game changers," I guess, but it will be for the environment, not for jobs or the Arrowhead economy.

Switch to Renewable Energy is Feasible

Germany is doing it.  One third of their electricity came from renewables in the first half of 2014.

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