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Legislative panel mulls ways to eliminate fossil fuels

Charley Shaw//June 20, 2013

Legislative panel mulls ways to eliminate fossil fuels

Charley Shaw//June 20, 2013

John Marty (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

As part of this year’s omnibus energy bill, state lawmakers passed into law the goal of transitioning the state to a renewable energy economy that doesn’t use of a drop of gasoline or a lump of coal to power itself. This type of legislating, which involves a seemingly impossible goal, is often referred to in the parlance of Capitol habitués as “aspirational language.”

While the legislation is not a mandate, it calls for the creation of a framework that can be used to make the goal a reality, albeit with the vague timeline of “within the next few decades.”

The energy bill directs the Legislative Energy Commission to work with the state Department of Commerce and other agencies to “develop a framework for the state of Minnesota to transition to a renewable energy economy that ends Minnesota’s contribution to greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels within the next few decades. The framework and strategy should aim to make Minnesota the first state in the nation to use only renewable energy.”

Now that the ink has dried on the legislation, lawmakers that serve on the LEC, which is a little-known joint House and Senate commission, are starting to put their operation together to make progress on the goal. On Thursday, the LEC met at the state Capitol to discuss staffing and the commission’s rules. The panel is chaired by Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who are the chairs of the House and Senate energy policy committees respectively. Marty said he hopes the group will be able to hash out complex and controversial energy issues that are difficult to broach in the midst of a legislation session.

“We’re going to have disagreement on everything. But the point is to start pulling people together. Rather than the annual fights at the Capitol, to the extent we can bring people together, [it’s all] the better,” Marty said.

By tasking the LEC with the job of devising a way to change the basic types of energy that make cars run and light bulbs turn on, lawmakers are increasing the profile of an entity that has been fairly moribund for most of its nearly 20-year existence. While other joint commissions like the Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement have a complement of staffers, the LEC is just now in the process of hiring an executive director to provide the administrative backbone to assist in the undertaking.

The LEC traces its history back to 1994 as part of the Prairie Island nuclear legislation and was originally called the Legislative Electric Energy Task Force. For much of its history, it was largely concerned with nuclear energy generation and storage issues. In 2007, Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, successfully sought to rename and expand the commission to energy issues related to agriculture and transportation. Hortman credited Hilty’s approach of addressing energy across all sectors of the economy and said that will be a focus for this summer’s meetings.

“I would really like to be exploring the ag piece and the transportation piece, because those are things that are very difficult to do during a session,” Hortman said.

The LEC is required in the new law to report to the Legislature on Jan. 15 on an annual basis about the progress made toward achieving the renewable energy goal.

While the LEC is supposed to be a venue for thoughtful deliberation, the group at its meeting on Thursday displayed some of the partisanship that is typical of a legislative session. A proposal at Thursday’s meeting to hire an executive director passed on an 8-5 party line vote.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, balked at spending roughly $90,000 in salary on the new position instead of using existing staff. “I think this creates a position we don’t need,” Hackbarth said.

DFLers on the panel defended the hire, saying that the commission needs coordination to make progress on achieving the energy goal. They also said the executive director should be a person that’s trusted by both parties. “I do think we need a third [-party] person who is less partisan and more policy driven,” said Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin.

The LEC’s funding comes from an assessment on Minnesota utility companies. The panel has a $250,000 budget for the 2014 fiscal year that starts July 1 and the same amount for 2015.

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