By Michael Rockhold
IT executive, writer and volunteer with MN350's Communications Team

This commentary was published initially by the Minnesota Reformer on May 13, 2021.

Minnesota is the anchor state in what political pundits often refer to as the “blue wall,” a collection of 18 states that Democrats have mostly dominated in presidential elections since 1992.

In the past 11 presidential elections, Minnesota has chosen the Democratic nominee, the longest active streak in the country. Minnesota is considered liberal and pro-environment, yet there is a chasm between its ideals and its politics, which fossil fuel interests are eager to disguise. These are the fossil fuel interests that operate assuredly among the state’s institutions, whose agenda is anything but pro-environment, and whose tactics are so cunning that most Minnesotans are unaware how far behind the state is in fighting to protect our climate.

In a 2019 Wallethub study that ranked each state on eco-friendliness, Minnesota scored second and fourth in the categories of environmental quality and eco-friendly behaviors. The criteria included solid waste generation, along with energy, gas and water consumption per capita — predominantly measures that result from the responsible actions of Minnesota citizens.

A gas flare from a petroleum refinery. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

More recently, the environmental group MN350 this month released a poll of 573 registered voters and found that two-thirds of Minnesotans think the No. 1 goal of our energy policy should be transitioning to 100% clean, renewable sources.

In contrast, the same Wallethub study ranked Minnesota 19th in climate change contribution, measured principally by greenhouse gas emissions per capita, and reflecting the sad fact that 50% of Minnesota’s energy is still generated from fossil fuels.

The gap between ideals and political reality comes as no surprise when considering that 30% of all U.S. crude oil imports come through the state of Minnesota, and that Flint Hills’ Pine Bend Oil Refinery in Rosemount is the nation’s largest oil refinery in a non-oil producing state. These two facts are central to the influence the fossil fuel industry has on the state and call into question the most effective strategy to challenge the fossil fuels interests and move Minnesota to a clean energy future. Some tout lawmaker pressure and legal channels while others trumpet market driven forces and innovation.

With Minnesotans maintaining strong pro-environment values, fossil fuel interests often subvert environmental policy through a Trojan Horse strategy, successfully infiltrating influential organizations, government agencies and the Legislature. Flint Hills Resources stands as an example, with one of its lobbyists prominently placed on the board of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which happens to be the No. 1 spender on lobbying in the state. The second largest spender in 2020, after years in first place, was Enbridge Energy, builder of the pipelines that hoist Minnesota to its dubious distinction as a critical gateway for oil imports into the United States.

Unfortunately, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has stood opposed to nearly every piece of environmental legislation, even the more recent Energy Conservation and Optimization (ECO) Act, a bill that is designed to reduce climate pollution and limit fossil fuels, but also to reduce energy costs and create jobs. It has gained vocal support by Minnesota’s utilities, business groups and labor unions, and yet the Chamber of Commerce stands mysteriously opposed.

Flint Hills has successfully adopted its Trojan Horse approach to oppose electric vehicles as well. Along with oil industry companies Marathon Petroleum and Covia Holdings, and operating under the name Xcel Large Industrial Customers, Flint Hills and company have launched numerous legal tactics — including a lawsuit against the Public Utilities Commission — that have kept Minnesota a sluggish 25th in the nation for adoption of electric vehicles and 36th in cost of electric vehicle refueling.

The fossil fuel industry appears to be winning the battle to influence Minnesota lawmakers. The last significant climate legislation passed in Minnesota, the Next Generation Energy Act, came more than a decade ago. The state has failed to meet even the outdated greenhouse gas emission standards set forth in that bill — proof that it is not enough to simply think and act eco-friendly as individual citizens.

There are those who contend market-driven solutions and innovation are more virtuous paths to clean energy than legislation and litigation. And while a multifaceted approach is necessary, more often the high costs of research and development for companies considering investment in clean energy technologies — as well as the potential spillover benefits to competitors — dissuade the pursuit of innovation. More success in clean energy innovation has come from government funded initiatives than reliance on the market economy, and fossil fuel interests continue to invest more in lobbying and legal channels than in innovative energy solutions.

As a result, Minnesotans need to enlist the same tactics as the fossil fuel industry, putting pressure on lawmakers to demand environmental justice.

Fortunately, there are significant climate bills currently in flight within the Minnesota Legislature — the 100% Clean Energy Bill, the ECO Act and a number of bills that promote wider adoption of electric vehicles — all opportunities for Minnesotans to voice support to lawmakers and to make state climate policy match the values of its citizens.

By exposing the profit-motivated destruction of the planet by the fossil fuel industry and getting engaged in the political process, we stand a chance to move Minnesota beyond individual action to broader social action and to fight climate change.