When Minnesota passed the Next Generation Energy Act in 2007, it was hailed as landmark legislation for setting renewable energy standards that would lower harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
Supported and signed into law by then-Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and with strong bipartisan support, the act set the table for a decade of lower emissions, greater use of renewable energy such as wind, and a burgeoning clean energy sector. When he signed the bill, Pawlenty said that “the best time to have taken action on energy issues would have been 30 years ago. The second-best time is right now.”
Pawlenty was correct then, and Gov. Tim Walz is correct now in directing his administration to adopt California’s cleaner vehicle emission rules. The new rules would require car manufacturers to offer more electric and hybrid models in Minnesota. Consumers here currently get to choose from fewer than half the models available. Walz said that is because the broader choice goes to the 13 states that adhere to lower emission standards. In proposing the rule change, which first would go through public hearings and take about 18 months to go into effect, Walz said consumers would continue to be able to purchase gas-powered vehicles if that is their choice.
“If you want to take your F-150 and tow your icehouse to the lake, you can do that,” he said in an interview with an editorial writer. “What we want to do is open up choice for consumers and drive down emissions.” Minnesota would become the first state in the Midwest to adopt the lower standards.
And lowering emissions more rapidly is important. Minnesota continues to lag behind the goals set in the Next Generation Energy Act. The improvements made — and there have been some — have come largely from the electricity sector, as it switched increasingly to renewable sources. In transportation, cheaper gas has driven demand for larger vehicles and more driving. As a result, the transportation sector is now the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the state.
Republicans are pushing back on the Walz plan. That is their right, but along with the criticism it would be good to hear what their plans are for lowering emissions that science shows are harming the environment.
Scott Lambert, president of the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association, said Minnesotans have shown a preference for bigger, heavier vehicles, noting that more than 80% of new vehicle sales are trucks, SUVs and minivans. To make room for more electric vehicles on the showroom floor, he said, dealers would likely have to reduce other offerings.
Car manufacturers may actually be ahead of the curve on this one. Not only have several manufacturers sided with the California standards against the Trump administration’s proposal to go back to a lesser federal standard, they are rolling out more electric vehicles. Ford even has an electric version of the F-150 in the works for its 2021 model year, and General Motors has an electric pickup truck in development.
Lambert’s other concern, that electric vehicles are more vulnerable to colder weather, deserves closer consideration. Extreme cold does draw down electric batteries faster. But your gas-powered vehicle also has poorer mileage in extreme cold. Every change under consideration will have pluses and minuses. The average car is considerably lighter than it used to be — and safer — because of changing requirements for fuel efficiency and safety.
Consumer Reports, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, has said the Walz plan would “save drivers money on fuel, improve the kinds of vehicles consumers already like to drive, and increase buying options for consumers at their local car dealerships.” A recent survey by the organization found that two-thirds of prospective Minnesota buyers want to pick from a broader range of electric vehicles, including SUVs, pickups and minivans.
As public hearings get underway, it will be important to have a fact-based discussion. What’s important here is a recognition that the status quo won’t do. We can discuss how we make changes that reduce carbon emissions and forestall the most dramatic climate effects, but changes must be made.