This nation's political leaders are too often followers, slow to advance policies that a majority of Americans favor. A fresh illustration of that pattern appeared this week as President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants — something that large majorities of Americans support and, according to a Sierra Club poll, 56 percent of Americans believe the feds already do.
Increasingly, Americans recognize that the climate changes caused by greenhouse gas emissions are a threat to their way of life and that reducing those emissions from their largest categorical source — aging coal-fired power plants — is essential to bending the climate trend lines in a more positive direction.
Yet in Washington, the proposed EPA rule has been a long four and a half years in the making, and the final rules will be set by each state. When it was announced, partisans rushed to their usual opposite corners. Obama's Clean Power Plan was hailed as a historic breakthrough by former Democratic Vice President Al Gore and denounced as "nuts" by Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
Fortunately, Minnesotans aren't as easily divided. The proposal to reduce the nation's carbon emissions from power plants by 30 percent from their 2005 levels was received in stride by this state's utility companies and elected officials alike.
Already in 2007, they had agreed to reduce carbon emissions from Minnesota power generators by 25 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. The landmark Next Generation Energy Act approved by the 2007 Legislature had bipartisan backing and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
By 2011, carbon dioxide emissions from Minnesota power plants had dropped 18 percent from their 2005 levels, even as the amount of electricity generated grew slightly, according to World Resources Institute, an environmental watchdog organization. "Minnesota can reduce its carbon dioxide emissions 31 percent below 2011 levels by 2020 just by complying with its current policies and taking advantage of existing infrastructure opportunities," the institute said.
And already in 2012, Stanford University pollsters reported that 73 percent of Minnesotans believe government ought to do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, either via regulations or tax incentives.
Clearly, Minnesota does not present Obama's critics with a ripe opportunity to score political points with the emissions issue.
What Minnesota presents the nation is a pilot project of sorts, demonstrating the advantages of reducing power plant emissions. The Obama plan allows states considerable flexibility in choosing how to meet the new 2030 emission goals. Rather than seeking ways to resist the EPA order via Congress or the courts, other states should examine the benefits Minnesota is already deriving. For example:
• More jobs and lower electricity costs. New wind and solar energy industries have blossomed in Minnesota. Wind alone has created 2,000 jobs in the state and spawned 17 manufacturing facilities. Low-cost alternative energy generation is holding down electricity rates, saving the customers of just one utility, Xcel, an estimated $30 million to date.
• More Minnesota dollars are staying at home. Payments for electricity generated from coal, gas or oil flow to states and investors that extract those resources. Relying on wind, solar and biomass keeps those dollars here.
• Reducing carbon emissions has eased suffering from asthma and cardiovascular disease. It's notable that Obama emphasized public health, not climate change, as he rolled out the new EPA regulations. The administration stands on firm legal ground when employing executive authority to limit pollution in order to safeguard public health.
• Minnesota is demonstrating that the reliability of electricity service does not suffer when coal-based generation is replaced with lower-emission natural gas and renewable sources like wind, solar and biomass. That's the story in other cutting-edge states as well, according to a study by the Boston-based Analysis Group, a private consulting firm.
Minnesota's lead in carbon emission reductions does not mean its work is done. Coal is still the state's dominant source of electricity generation (see accompanying text). A dozen coal-fired plants in the state either have been closed or are on the docket for retirement. Others have been retrofitted for natural gas.
The future of others, including Xcel Energy's giant plant in Becker, hangs in doubt. One Public Utilities Commission tactic has proved particularly useful in hastening change. It requires regulated utilities to analyze the cost of retrofitting or retiring coal plants vs. maintaining them. The utilities have discovered, often to their surprise, that the status quo is not the cheaper option, said J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director of Fresh Energy.
Carbon emissions from sources other than electricity generation also need Minnesota attention, said Ellen Anderson, director-designate of the new Energy Transition Lab at the University of Minnesota. While this state's regulated utilities are ahead of emissions goals set in state law in 2007, the state does not appear likely to meet its 2015 goal for reducing overall emissions. The transportation sector in this state is a likely culprit, though more analysis is needed.
Minnesota's next steps will be Topic A at what's billed as a Minnesota Clean Energy Economy Summit, to be convened by Gov. Mark Dayton's administration on July 17 at the University of Minnesota. The new federal rules underscore that session's importance. But, characteristically, Minnesotans were not waiting for a federal nod to proceed.