A new two-person office opening next month will become the center of the state government’s sustainability efforts.
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith announced the establishment of a new Office of Enterprise Sustainability in the state’s Department of Administration last week at an event hosted by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board.
It’s small in size but it takes its inspiration from a similar approach at some of the state’s biggest corporations.
One of the office’s jobs will be to coordinate efforts across state government — and across the state geographically — to grapple with climate change and other sustainability concerns.
Department of Administration Commissioner Matt Massman, in an interview Monday, said sustainability encompasses more than energy efficiency, a big priority in new state facilities such as the Minnesota Senate Building across the street from the Capitol.
Purchasing, fleet services, waste reduction and water conservation are all issues that fall within the sustainability portfolio.
A fresh example of a sustainability initiative was launched just this week on the State Capitol campus. The cafeteria at the Minnesota Department of Transportation building now boasts recycling bins for organics such as food waste alongside receptacles for more traditional recycled materials.
Massman said the new office will help the state organize its sustainability activities so that people in diverse state agencies are “talking the same language” in areas such as implementing best practices.
Leading the office as director will be Col. Larry Herke of the Minnesota Army National Guard. He is retiring as the Guard’s construction and facilities management officer, a role in which he led a Net Zero effort for water, waste and energy at Camp Ripley.
Herke has a respected track record in overseeing military buildings and other facilities across the state, said Matt Privratsky of Fresh Energy.
And building, maintaining and operating buildings is a big part of what’s on the state’s sustainability plate, said Privratsky, who is in charge of communications and government affairs at the nonprofit organization. He praised the state for setting up the new office.
Minnesota’s government effort to slow climate change dates to goals set during the administration of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and to executive orders and other initiatives that go back to the early days of Gov. Mark Dayton’s first term.
As things stand, dozens of state agencies and interagency groups are taking on as many as 40 distinct sustainability activities, with overlapping statutory requirements as well as overlapping boards.
With the new Office of Enterprise Sustainability, Smith and the Dayton administration are trying to corral and coordinate a disparate array of efforts.
In doing so, state government is taking a page from the private sector, Massman said.
The idea for the office, which has been in the works for about the last nine months, took inspiration from similar efforts at big companies based in Minnesota such as Best Buy, 3M and Ecolab (as well as the Metropolitan Airports Commission).
Through visits and consultations with corporate sustainability executives, state officials began to shape what the new office might do in tracking metrics, assessing infrastructure and aiming at outcomes.
A centralized office to support sustainability is essential, said Emilio Tenuta, vice president for corporate sustainability at Ecolab.
“For our company, without a doubt, that was instrumental to getting the actions we needed … cascaded down [throughout Ecolab’s organization],” Tenuta said in an interview Wednesday.
Sustainability efforts in industry “really picked up steam” over the past five to 10 years, Tenuta said. “The private sector has been leading the way.” But collaborations with both government and nongovernmental organizations have also picked up over the past three to four years, he said.
“There has to be an undeniable business case when it comes to sustainability,” Tenuta said. “We don’t feel [simply] being altruistic is the way to drive performance.”
For now, the office gets its funding collaboratively by way of interagency agreements. Massman said he has hopes in the future the Legislature will see fit to pass legislation to fund the office.
But enthusiasm for the office’s function is lacking in Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who serves as chair of the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee.
“You could destroy every single carbon dioxide emitting machine in Minnesota and it would have no discernible impact on the climate,” Garofalo said by email Tuesday. “This ‘sustainability’ is more about politicians boosting their Eco self esteem and nothing to do with science.”
Amy Koch, chair of the board at Minnesota Conservative Energy Forum and a former Senate majority leader, had a more sympathetic but still critical take.
Koch said that she appreciates many of the goals of sustainability such as energy efficiency and cost savings, calling them “no-brainers.” But she questions the need for a center devoted to coordinating the efforts, calling it a “quintessentially” Democratic move.
“What’s more Democrat than starting a new office?” Koch said in an interview Tuesday.
In answer to Garofalo’s slam, Privratsky said that every individual [energy] user has their own impact, and Minnesota can be a leader nationally and among Midwestern states.
“By showing what works, Minnesota can be a model that others can adopt,” Privratsky said. “State governments have that opportunity to show that leadership. Leading by example is a powerful way to do it.”