A Minnesota Conservation Corps member loosens the dirt from a white pine seedling in the Moose Creek watershed near Schroeder. The Environmental omnibus bill includes funding for similar reforestation projects. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

The Minnesota Legislature approved funding for two new transit lines, banned so-called “forever chemicals” in food packaging, and supported a green jobs training center in north Minneapolis as the 2021 session concluded with hurried overtime compromises. 

But major climate initiatives didn’t make the cut, such as a bill requiring 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 and new legislation to cut emissions in agriculture and transportation. Another thwarted bill would have ensured that frontline communities receive extra protections and a more robust review process for any project requiring an emissions permit, such as the expansion of a highway or industrial site. 

To climate activists and green energy supporters, the 2021 session produced familiar results: small victories and a sense the legislature missed the urgency to address climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. 

“It just doesn’t go far enough and it continues to fund what always gets funded,” said Marco Hernández, public policy director of COPAL (Communities Organizing Latino Power and Action), a nonprofit group that advocates for immigrant rights and environmental justice. 

Minnesota already lags well behind goals set in 2007 under Republican governor Tim Pawlenty to reduce emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050. Actual emissions are down only 8 percent from 2005 levels, according to a biennial state report published in January. 

Senator Patricia Torres Ray (DFL–Minneapolis) identified minor wins from the session worth highlighting. But she made clear those measures lack the scope needed to drastically curb emissions and protect communities experiencing high levels of pollution.  

“I am tired of trying to overexplain a lack of effort and responsibility in addressing climate change,” she said. 

Bus rapid transit adds lines in Hennepin, Ramsey, and Anoka counties

Legislation passed in 2021 does contain measures that will help Minnesota cut emissions and move toward a green economy. 

The transportation omnibus bill includes $57.5 million for two new bus rapid transit lines in the Twin Cities. The F Line will connect northeast Minneapolis to Anoka County along Central Avenue. And the E Line will link the University of Minnesota to Southdale Center in Edina, through downtown and uptown Minneapolis, following Hennepin Avenue. 

Replacing single-occupancy car trips is key to reducing transportation emissions. And bus rapid transit offers improvements to speed and comfort, proponents say. Compared to regular bus service, rapid transit buses are larger, run more frequently, and stop less often at more developed stations. They also allow riders to pay before boarding, which speeds up the ride. 

In 2020, the Legislature approved funding for two bus rapid transit lines, which are being built along the state’s busiest transit corridors: Route 5, from Brooklyn Center to the Mall of America; and Route 21, which runs along Lake Street in Minneapolis and Marshall Avenue in St. Paul. 

People of color constitute 44 percent of Metro Transit ridership systemwide, and officials and advocates say the development of a robust bus rapid transit network will benefit diverse neighborhoods by giving people a fast, reliable alternative to car travel.  

Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, according to the state’s Pollution Control Agency. Emissions from vehicles have fallen only 7 percent since 2005 and pollution from traffic has disproportionate health impacts on residents of color

The transportation bill also includes $10 million for a second daily Amtrak train to Chicago, $5 million for pedestrian and bike infrastructure, and $5 million for the Safe Routes to School program, which seeks to improve safety conditions for kids walking and rolling to school. 

Another small success came in the environmental omnibus bill, where a political battle had dragged on between Governor Tim Walz and the Republican-controlled Senate over an executive order to regulate tailpipe emissions, known as the “Clean Cars” rule. The dispute had led to a Republican defunding threat for state parks and environmental improvements. 

The Senate ultimately backed down, allowing Minnesota to become the 15th “Clean Cars” state. The order introduces tighter tailpipe emissions and a tax-credit system that incentivizes dealers to sell more electric vehicles. 

Banning ‘forever chemicals’

The environment bill also banned the use of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in food packaging. Known as “forever chemicals” because they never break down naturally, PFAS is commonly used in waterproofing and to make grease-resistant food wrappings. These chemical compounds have been linked to health issues such as high cholesterol, weakened immune systems, and thyroid hormone disruption, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. 

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will receive more funding for reforestation efforts. And for the first time, a provision in the bill will require the agency to establish carbon sequestration goals for state forests. Trees absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which can help offset emissions from fossil fuels. Improved forest management can help maximize the amount of carbon trees can remove from the atmosphere, according to the United States Forest Service. 

“We need to do much more than we did, but at least we have a concrete investment in reforestation,” Torres Ray said. 

The Minnesota energy omnibus bill included $16 million for the Solar on Schools program and $5 million for solar in community colleges. Proponents say these provisions will help develop clean energy and create learning opportunities for students. 

One of the few bills to pass outside of a large omnibus compromise package, the ECO Act, updates the state’s energy efficiency goals and requires utilities to invest more for improvements to help energy burdened households lower their bills. The bill will boost aid to low-income households, which disproportionately include people of color in Minnesota. 

Disappointments

Hernández said organizers are used to seeing watered-down measures emerge from Minnesota’s divided government. COPAL is already planning strategies for the 2022 session to take on trash incinerators statewide and remove waste-to-energy burners from being classified as renewable energy, as they are in Minnesota today. The group plans to work with other activists of color to grant stronger regulatory powers to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Hernández said. 

Environmental justice advocates were thrilled to see a pair of provisions pass the House.  The Frontline Communities Protection Act would boost regulatory protections for low-income areas and communities of color. And the 100 percent green energy bill would have required utilities to generate all of their electricity from carbon free sources by 2040.  But neither cleared the state Senate. Hernández believes that DFL seat pickups in the 2022 election will be key to ultimately passing those bills.   

Torres Ray has been in the Legislature since 2007. The Next Generation Energy Act passed with bipartisan support during her first term. Since then, she’s rarely seen parties come together to take significant action on climate change.  This year’s compromises around the Clean Cars debate were forced by a looming government shutdown and the potential closure of state parks, a recreational and economic attraction throughout the state. That unpopular possibility helped bring legislators to the table.

Torres Ray says she’s nervous about a lack of action in the 2022 session, when legislators won’t be pressured into passing budget bills to keep the state operational. 

She believes legislators who want to see climate action need to do a better job communicating with constituents statewide. People are smart, she said, and will listen to direct outreach telling them about the dangers of nearby polluting facilities like trash incinerators. This, in turn, can lead voters to pressure their representatives to take action.  

This year, Torres Ray said, the Senate debate ran into Republican resistance barriers over terms like “environmental justice” and an inability to recognize the economic benefits of transitioning away from fossil fuels.

“We’re going to pay the price as a state if these individuals continue to prevail with their antiquated arguments that reject the science and miss out on economic opportunities,” she said. 

Solar job training in north Minneapolis: ‘A huge opportunity’

One funding line item that activist groups like COPAL believe can make a big difference is the $2.5 million being allocated to the North Minneapolis Clean Energy Training Center. The initiative received bipartisan support in the Legislature from Senator Roger Chamberlain  (R–Lino Lakes) and Representative Jamie Long (DFL–Minneapolis). 

The center was founded by Jamez Staples, a north Minneapolis resident who is the president and CEO of solar company Renewable Energy Partners. 

Staples launched his solar company in 2014 in part to address the stark economic disparities between people of color and white residents in Minnesota. Solar represented a newish industry and he wanted to make sure the same disparities didn’t arise there. 

So in 2017, Renewable Energy Partners acquired a 22,000-square-foot property on Plymouth Avenue in the Near North neighborhood. Today, that building is the North Minneapolis Clean Energy Training Center, where Staples hopes to provide hands-on education and work opportunities in the green energy industry. For the first four years, the development of the training center has been a labor of love, with an unsure path to success. Now with the new state funding and a growing list of partners, it is on the verge of becoming what Staples set out to create. 

“It’s a huge opportunity, but at the same time it’s a huge undertaking,” he said 

The center is working with various groups such as Avivo, the Project for Pride in Living, and Minnesota STEM Partnership to develop a curriculum that prepares people for jobs as solar installers, energy efficiency auditors, and specialists in energy-efficient construction. The site also serves as an interactive lab where students can learn about solar, virtual reality, and robotics. 

With the new ECO Act requiring more investment in energy-burdened households, Staples believes the timing is right for diverse workforce training in an industry that needs workers.  

Renewable Energy Partners is a for-profit company, but Staples says his goal is for projects to improve the environment, reduce racial disparities, and create economic opportunities. 

As solar grows in Minnesota, Staples is hopeful resources like the training center can help communities that have borne the brunt of climate change to reap the benefits. 

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...