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Legislature must seize the chance to make bold changes on climate and environment

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Legislature must seize the chance to make bold changes on climate and environment

Nov 30, 2022 | 7:00 am ET
By Aaron Klemz
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Legislature must seize the chance to make bold changes on climate and environment
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Wetlands just of north of the tailings dam at the PolyMet site. The author argues Minnesota needs to update its mining regulations. Photo by Rob Levine/Minnesota Reformer.

In November 2012, I attended a Minnesota Environmental Congress event just a couple of weeks after the DFL won control of the Legislature, with DFL Governor Mark Dayton already in office. On my way out, I ran into Rep. Melissa Hortman, who at the time was an emerging DFL lawmaker from Brooklyn Park. I asked her what needed to happen on environmental issues.  

Her answer: “I think it means we have to be bold.” 

Six years later, Gov. Tim Walz took office. Three days into his term, a group of over 100 young climate activists piled into the governor’s reception room to meet with Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. Walz, while telling these young climate advocates that climate change was an “existential threat,” also told them executive action wouldn’t be enough, and implored them to help him get a Legislature he could work with on climate action. 

A reelected Walz, Hortman, who is now the House speaker, and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic can now seize the chance to be bold on environmental policy. After a decade of blockades in the Legislature, the opportunity is there. With narrow majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate, the path forward will be filled with twists and turns. But the recent success of the Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S. Congress shows that real action is possible with the thinnest of majorities. 

The top of the agenda must be climate change. After four years of climate denial blocking legislative action, there is a lot to do. Walz’s Climate Action Framework, released in September, provides a clear blueprint to work from. Legislation that has been blocked by the formerly GOP-controlled Senate — including bills that require carbon-free electricity by 2040 and set Minnesota’s climate pollution targets in line with international targets — are now on the table again. 

Since the best strategies for reducing climate pollution from industry, transportation, and residential and commercial buildings rely on electrification, continued progress on clean electricity is essential. 

An expensive, misleading and ineffective campaign by the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association against new auto emission rules failed during this election. This should show it’s time to tackle pollution from the transportation sector. This is a crucial moment to get Minnesota oriented toward the transportation revolution that is coming. Legislative action to build out the electric vehicle charging network statewide, increase electric school buses and commercial vehicles, and get public transit back on track after the COVID-19 slowdown should be key priorities.  

Tackling questions about water quality and water quantity across the state should also be on the legislative agenda. Understanding of the breadth of contamination and the harm of PFAS “forever chemical” pollution in groundwater and lakes continues to grow. Thousands of Minnesotans, mostly in cities, are drinking water contaminated with lead from old pipes. Meanwhile, thousands of Minnesotans, mostly in rural areas, are drinking well water contaminated with nitrates and pesticides. Fully leveraging federal funds in the 2021 infrastructure law to replace lead water service lines, and policy changes to protect well owners whose water is contaminated by agricultural pollution should be top of mind for this Legislature. 

Copper-nickel mining has been the third rail of Minnesota politics. The result has been to freeze Minnesota’s mining rules adopted in the early 1990’s while the rest of the world has been raising its standards. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s metal recycling rates are low, and reusing metals that are already mined is cheaper, cleaner, and faster than risky mines that could cause environmental catastrophe. The Legislature can and should take on common sense improvements to Minnesota’s outdated mining laws, and work on enhancing Minnesota’s metal recycling and electronic waste recovery industries. 

Lastly, one of Minnesota’s popular and successful dedicated funds for environmental projects needs to be reauthorized by the voters. Since 1988, Minnesota has set aside a portion of Lottery profits in the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which now generates over $60 million a year for trails, clean water research, and more. A proposal to send this to voters stalled during the last session and should get a full vetting this legislative session. That should include improvements to the program, such as including climate resilience in the areas that can be funded and opening the door to smaller community groups to apply for grants.  

Like so many other areas, environmental policy at the Minnesota Legislature has been polarized and politicized, and this has prevented progress on climate, clean water and dedicated funds. With a fresh start and clear guidance from voters that they want their elected officials to work together, the next two years offer a chance to be bold for our future. It’s up to legislators to seize the opportunity and make it happen.