Category Archives: Political/Legislative

Good News: PUC Sets New Values for Health & Environmental Cost of Energy

Train derailments, pipeline spills, explosions – it feels like the energy sector is just one bad news story after another, but that’s not the case in Minnesota. We’ve got a little celebrating to do!

At the end of December, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted 4 to 1 to update (or set) environmental cost values for sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, fine particulate matter and carbon dioxide when it comes to electricity planning.

They did so in response to a petition from Fresh Energy, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Department of Commerce, the American Lung Association in Minnesota, the City of Minneapolis, and a lot of concerned citizens.

This change in how the PUC looks at proposals from energy companies could have a big impact on the most polluting power plants in our state. That, in turn, can have a big impact on the health of Minnesotans who live near those plants and all of us who breathe in polluted air. These pollutants are strongly linked to increases in heart attacks, strokes, asthma and lung diseases.

This change was made possible by legislators back in 1992 who, with bipartisan agreement, required the PUC to consider the health and environmental costs of producing electricity when it made its decisions. A dollar value for some of the damaging pollutants was set in 1997 but those values were low and were never updated.

In September 2013, economist Stephen Polasky, from the University of Minnesota, estimated that the real annual damages to human health and the environment caused by the generation of electricity were at least $2.1 billion. The numbers the PUC was using in energy resource planning were far too low.

While petitioners asked that the PUC use the numbers provided by Dr. Polasky, it will ultimately be an administrative law judge who will provide the PUC with a recommendation on the appropriate new range of cost values for electricity planning.

According to Fresh Energy, when the full cost of damage to human health and the environment are considered in planning for future energy investment, clean energy options will finally be on a level playing field.

If you’d like to keep up to date on developments in Minnesota energy, Fresh Energy has a variety of daily, monthly and occasional publications. Sign up to receive info at the Fresh Energy website.

The Focus of Year 3: Learning and Political Action

So we’re two-plus years into this adventure. The first year we worked on energy usage and reducing our carbon footprint. The second year we worked on food production and food preservation. This year we’re focusing on learning more about the issues of sustainability from an academic and informational standpoint, and becoming involved in political action.


Sustainability-s-Earth01In January, I discovered Coursera, a free online university! Of course, I got carried away. I signed up for Energy 101, Intro to Sustainability, Climate Literacy, and Sustainability of Food Systems.

I just completed the Energy course and learned SO much from the lectures of Dr. Sam Shelton, retired professor from the Strategic Energy Institute. I knew next to nothing about the big picture of energy or, for that matter, the micro picture of oil, gas, biofuels and therms. This class covered energy at all levels and I learned some surprising things.

For example, I didn’t know that every unit of energy from different energy sources are not “equal.” When it comes to ethanol, that’s a real problem. It requires .8 units of fossil fuel (natural gas and coal) to produce 1 unit of corn ethanol, so even in the best of circumstances, we achieve only a 20% gain. But it gets worse. A gallon of ethanol produces only 2/3rds of the energy of a gallon of gasoline, so adding ethanol to gas actually reduces fuel efficiency. A car that would get 30 miles per gallon on gasoline, will get 28 miles per gallon with a 10% ethanol fuel blend. WHAT!? But it gets worse still because 40% of all corn grown in the US is used to create ethanol fuel. So we are taking farmland and water resources away from food production and this is having an impact on global hunger.

Lobbying at the State Capitol

Minnesota State Capitol


There is only so much an individual or a family can do to impact our carbon footprint. At a certain point, you need to join together with others to take bigger action at the policy and law level.

We have attended rallies and signed petitions in the past. Occasionally we would write to our representatives at the state and national level. This year we did something we’ve never done. We began attending hearings at the state capitol and we met with our legislators.

We attended the House Energy Policy Committee hearing on the 2013 Energy Omnibus Bill, which might have increased the renewable energy standard to 40% by 2030, and included a solar energy jobs act and a solar power cost reduction act. That was a fascinating meeting. I wish I had a play-sheet or someone sitting next to me who could have explained why legislators would say the things they did. For example:

  • There appeared to be a move to define hydro electricity coming to us from Canada as local renewable energy because the rain fell in Minnesota before it flowed to Canada.
  • There was concern that we were “rushing” to set new energy standards when, in fact, the standards we have were set like two or three decades ago!
  • And the supposedly pro-business party was very worried that farmers and businesses might install larger solar installations than they need and would then sell that electricity. That was anti-competitive, but buying power from a North Dakota coal-burning plant was not anti-competitive.

On Earth Day, I attended a Ways and Means committee meeting at the State Capitol to see what was in store for the energy bills. That was a lively meeting. I talked to my legislator later in the day and that was helpful in understanding some of the arguments being made. Or rather, I understood why the arguments didn’t make sense but were being made anyway.

The legislature kindly went into party caucus just as hundreds of people would have seated themselves to watch them debate the energy bills. How convenient. We had all taken time away from work to see our government in action and they spent an hour closed up in separate chambers. They didn’t hear the bill that day.

A Few Lessons I’ve Learned

  • In most cases it is absolutely clear who is with which party. This fact is really sad. Whoever says “they’re all the same,” has never attended a legislative hearing.
  • Committee meetings do not begin on time.
  • Meetings can change rooms without notice and without direction for where it will actually take place.
  • Eat before you go or bring your meal with you.
  • Expect to be there a long time.
  • Bring a guide, if you know one — someone who can explain the background.
  • Take notes. You’ll want to refer back to them to understand what has happened and, honestly, you’re going to hear some pretty unusual things.
  • It’s a lot more interesting than it is painful.
  • Go with friends.
  • You’ll want to do it more often.

Take Action Today: PUC Comment on Enbridge Pipeline Expansion

Immediate Action Needed: Enbridge Energy has filed a Certificate of Need permit with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to increase the capacity of its Line 67 pipeline by 26%. The PUC accepted public comments and Enbridge made a response. The PUC is now accepting rebuttal comments from the public UNTIL MAY 3.

Please review the information below and send your comments to: Comments ARE public and are available online.

Background: Enbridge Energy extracts and exports oil from Canada. (You can learn more about Enbridge, its pipelines and some safety concerns here and here.) It has more than five pipelines crossing northern Minnesota, including Line 2 (in the news recently because of an oil spill (see the De Smog Blog to learn more)), and Line 67, which carries diluted bitumen (DilBit/ tar sands oil). This is the first of its planned capacity increases to Line 67, although it is not currently operating at full capacity.

In its response to public comment, Enbridge has acknowledged the risks posed by oil and gas pipelines, including accidental oil and gas spills and air pollution. They have said that the pipelines “emit air pollutants as would any other machine.”

Those wishing to make rebuttal comments may want to highlight the actual impact of oil spills by pointing out the health impacts of (Exxon’s) Mayflower, AK, oil spill, and Enbridge’s responsibility for the 2010 pipeline rupture near Marshall, Michigan that resulted in 850,000 gallons of crude oil being spilled into the Kalmazoo river, which is still not cleaned up.  The National Transportation Safety Board issued a highly critical report on Enbridge as a result of that pipeline rupture.

Furthermore, while the pipeline itself may have limited emissions, the dirty oil it carries will have life-threatening consequences when it is burned. This oil is intended for foreign markets that have even fewer environmental precautions than the US and Canada.

Enbridge’s Convenient Climate Math

Enbridge submitted this statement, from Docket 12-590 Document 9: Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (provided by researcher Kathy Hollander.)

“Worldwide demand for crude oil is generally projected to grow over the next 25 years unless countries, including developing economies where the majority of the growth is projected to occur, take substantial steps to address climate change. But even if there is a worldwide decline in crude oil consumption, projections indicate that there will be an increase in consumption of crude oil from unconventional sources, primarily from the Canadian oil sands, over the next several decades (EIA 20 12; IEA 20.12)

“… Differences in oil sands production between … different scenarios give an indication of how substantial changes in worldwide policies and energy could impact oil sands production:

  • The Current Policies Scenario, which assumed no change from policies in place in mid-2010,
  • New Policies Scenario, which assumed that countries act on their announced policy commitments and plans to address climate change; and the
  • 450 Scenario, which sets out an energy pathway with the goal of limiting the global increase in temperature to 2°C by limiting concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to around 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide, 3.4 million barrels per day production.

“Although the different scenarios had substantial impacts on projections of total oil sands production in 2035, the projected consumption in each of these scenarios represents a substantial increase from 2011 consumption of approximately 1.6 million bpd (barrels per day) of oil-sands-derived crude oil (CAPP 2012).”

Never heard of these various Scenarios? Learn more here, here and here.

We more commonly hear about a carbon goal of 350 parts per million (ppm). That is the goal that leading climate scientists have agreed is the safe upper limit to avoid irreversible, runaway climate change. 450 ppm is the “goal” set in 2010 at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. That is the level of carbon they imagined we could reach while still giving ourselves a 50-50 chance of stabilizing the climate at a 2º increase in temp.

Here’s what has to say about that number 450.

“Science doesn’t actually know if 450 ppm and 2 degrees are the same thing, and no one knows how much change they would produce. Again, these were guesses for the point at which catastrophic damage would begin—they were more plausible, but still not based on actual experience. They also reflected guesses of what was politically possible to achieve. They were completely defensible, given the lack of data…

In the summer of 2007, though, with the rapid melt of Arctic ice, it became clear that we had already crossed serious thresholds. A number of other signs pointed in the same direction: the spike in methane emissions, likely from thawing permafrost; the melt of high-altitude glacier systems and perennial snowpack in Asia, Europe, South America and North America; the rapid and unexpected acidification of seawater. All of these implied the same thing: wherever the red line for danger was, we were already past it, even though the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was only 390 parts per million, and the temperature increase still a shade below 1 degree C.

“In early 2008, Jim Hansen and a team of researchers gave us a new number, verified for the first time by real-time observation (and also by reams of new paleo-climatic data). They said that 350 parts per million CO2 was the upper limit if we wished to have a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” That number is unrefuted; indeed, a constant flow of additional evidence supports it from many directions. Just this week, for instance, oceanographers reported that long-term atmospheric levels above 360 ppm would doom coral reefs worldwide.

“It is, therefore, no longer possible to defend higher targets as a bulwark against catastrophic change. The Global Humanitarian Forum reported recently that climate change was already claiming 300,000 lives per year—that should qualify as catastrophic. A new Oxfam report makes very clear the degree of suffering caused by the warming we’ve already seen, and adds “Warming of 2 degrees C entails a devastating future for at least 600 million people,” almost all of them innocent of any role in causing this trouble. If the Arctic melts at less than one degree, then two degrees can’t be a real target. This is simply how science works. New information drives out the old.

“You could, logically, defend targets like 450 or 2 degrees C as the best we could hope for politically, especially if you add that they represent absolute upper limits that we must bounce back below as quickly as possible. But even that is politically problematic, because it implies—to policy makers and the general public—that we still have atmosphere left in which to put more carbon, and time to gradually adjust policies. We don’t—not with feedback loops like methane release starting to kick in with a vengeance.”

The Enbridge pipeline is dangerous. It is dangerous in its transport of a highly toxic product and it is dangerous in the effect that its product will have on our atmosphere. Please take time today, tomorrow or Friday to write a rebuttal.

Bill Could Allow Energy Companies to Substitute Dirty Biomass for Electricity Savings

Alan Muller, with Neighbors Against the Burner, posted an interesting notice in a Transition discussion group about House File 780 and Senate File 642. This is important information that was new to me so I asked for his permission to edit his post (for length) and repost it here.

An unwise bill would allow dirty biomass heating to substitute for electricity savings.
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ALEC at Work in MN Senate to Support Pipeline?

While tens of thousands go to Washington to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, PRWatch, from the Center for Media and Democracy, tells us that legislation has been introduced in four states to support the pipeline. This includes the Minnesota Senate.

SF479 urges the President and the US Department of State to approve the Presidential permit application allowing the construction and operation of the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline between the United States and Canada.

The bill was introduced by Senators Bill Ingebrigtsen (R) District 08, Julie A. Rosen (R) District 23, Bill Weber (R) District 22, Karin Housley (R) District 39, and John C. Pederson (R) District 14.

Resolutions proposed in Mississippi, Minnesota, and Michigan are identical to each other and can be traced directly to a TransCanada Corporation media backgrounder. For example, talking points for this resolutions say that the pipeline will REDUCE greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 19 million tons by replacing the need for 200 ocean tankers to transport oil. Of course, this utterly fails to note that the oil being transported will, when burned, generate hundreds of tons of greenhouse gases, leading to runaway climate change.

Minnesota’s resolution differs slightly from language approved by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), an organization of corporations and politicians that drafts corporate-friendly legislation that is then introduced in state legislatures. (To learn more about what ALEC is up to, see ALEC Exposed.)

The Minnesota Senate resolution is now with the Environment and Energy Committee.