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Are energy goals attainable?

By Scott Wente

St. Paul Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota policymakers applauded themselves in 2007 for passing historic energy legislation that started what could be a decades-long fight against global warming.

Now some lawmakers wonder if the state can fulfill goals put in place just a year ago.

Dozens of proposals are under review -- from lowering automotive speed limits to exploring nuclear energy -- as legislators start looking at ways to meet carbon-reduction benchmarks that begin to appear just several years from now.

"Now reality hits us," said Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, a Duluth Democrat, of the challenge of drastically cutting carbon emissions.

Prettner Solon and others on the Legislative Electric Energy Task Force on Thursday reviewed the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group's final report. That governor-appointed panel recommended ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent over the next four decades.

Some of the report's recommendations - and others that have been proposed - are so controversial there is not even consensus among energy task force members trying to identify what to propose during the 2009 legislative session.

The advisory group has its skeptics, including lawmakers who will play a role in acting on the recommendations.

"I just think some of this is disputed science," Rep. Torrey Westrom said.

Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said he wonders whether Minnesota policymakers really can affect the climate, especially if similar efforts are not made elsewhere.

"We're a goldfish in the big lake," he said.

Still, Westrom said he expects that at least some of the group's recommendations to become law next year if Democrats control both the House and Senate.

Some of the measures, such as limiting carbon emissions from new power plants, require legislative approval. Others would fall directly on sectors of Minnesota's economy, such as calling for more conservation practices in agriculture. Still other proposals would affect average Minnesotans, like one that calls for expanded energy-efficient residential appliance standards.

While last year's legislation set a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, the state also has a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 15 percent by 2015.

"We have a significant challenge ahead of us to achieve these goals," Ed Garvey, the state's Office of Energy Security director, told legislators.

Electricity is responsible for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota and nationwide, according to the advisory group report. Garvey said utilities are reducing emissions from their electric-generating facilities as they work toward getting 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025, another state standard.

Even task force members supportive of the carbon-reduction plan said it could be tough to meet the 2015 benchmark.

"Is that possible with current technologies? I think it would be difficult," Sen. Gary Kubly said. The Granite Falls Democrat said he believes technological advancements in the next several years will result in more economical ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, legislators could always change state law if it appears the carbon-reduction goals are not feasible, Kubly said.

"People look on the law as being cast in stone and it seems to me it has a lot of fluidity to it, too," he said.

Still, the western Minnesota lawmaker said Minnesota needs to act.

"What are the consequences of doing nothing?" Kubly asked. "Somebody needs to take the lead."

One idea - to reconsider Minnesota's prohibition on new nuclear power plants - does not appear to have widespread support. Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, said the nuclear power industry has proven to be "extremely safe" and that if the state really wants to reduce carbon emissions, it should give nuclear more thought.

That will not happen soon, said David Thornton, an assistant Pollution Control Agency commissioner. Thornton said the climate change panel recognized the political and social concerns surrounding nuclear energy

"The group acknowledged that it might have a role in the future, but it won't be in the near future," he said.