There was rejoicing in St. Paul when Minnesota's new climate law was signed earlier this year. And relief, because it took so dreadfully long to get the state onto sensible footing in dealing with the galloping calamity of climate change.
But one group was noticeably absent, again. Agriculture, the state's major industry, was allowed to voluntarily partake in climate goals that electricity producers are required to meet. This, even though greenhouse gas from power production is declining as more damaging ag emissions — from chemical fertilizer, corn-ethanol and livestock — are increasing.
The new state law mandates carbonless electric-generation by 2040, and sets levels of renewables (mostly wind and solar) to replace fossil fuels. It's doable but challenging, say industry reps.
Along with major federal funding, another state law availed $60 million for solar panels on public buildings, support for electric vehicles, and installing electric heat pumps. The actions put Minnesota in league with a dozen other states committed to address climate in line with increasingly urgent recommendations by the International Panel on Climate Change.
"We worked long and hard to get these passed," said former state Sen. Ellen Anderson, a climate-policy leader with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. "We've more to do, but Minnesota's new climate laws are the most transformative in years."
Still, the disappointing reality is that despite broad public consensus for action, moneyed special interests have frustrated every effort to strengthen climate policy, here and nationally. For an example, it took nearly two decades to overcome auto dealers' stiff resistance to requiring manufacturers to allocate more electric and hybrid models to Minnesota.
Allowing agriculture to voluntarily comply means the state won't meet its legislated goal of halving greenhouse emissions by 2030, said former state Rep. Jean Wagenius, citing data by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. She urges Gov. Tim Walz to ensure that ag, now the state's top emitter, does its part.
Fat chance, given the history of agriculture's tepid treatment by Minnesota and every other ag state.
Agriculture is a colossal special interest supported by national and state groups with tentacles into every rural hamlet. Plus, ag partners with powerful chemical industries that produce farm fertilizers and pest-control agents. One activist said the combined mega-force "makes the coal and oil lobbies look like the Little Sisters of Mercy."
Special ag treatment came in the Clean Water Act of 1972 that exempted "non-point" (cropland) sources from regulation, leaving states to take on problem polluters. But like every jurisdiction that's genuflected before ag/chemical interests, Minnesota allowed voluntary compliance — and is paying for it. Nitrate pollution rises as the state's 8 million corn acres are over-doused with chemicals to restore crop-depleted soil nutrients.
Farmland nitrates are a reason why America's long-sought goal of "fishable and swimmable waters" won't ever be met, why Minnesota's list of impaired waters keeps growing, and why rural communities spend millions to remove nitrates to make water drinkable.
Little has been done to reduce groundwater nitrates, a decades-known problem. Even the state's nitrate plan of four years ago has seen slight action ("Nitrate cleanup plan slow to start," Sept. 3).
Nitrates derive from the same nitrogen fertilizer that's a greenhouse gas. Soil microbes convert nitrogen to nitrous-oxide, a colorless gas 300 times carbon's potency. Then, too, cropland plowing exposes soil carbon, another gas source.
And methane — 30 times carbon's potency — is abundant in livestock manure. While Minnesota's Department of Agriculture has guidance on, and incentive grants for, reducing harmful emissions, the farmland gases keep rising. Much less harmful, cost-effective practices are well known, as some smaller-scale farmers, including vegetable growers, have shown.
Still more: Fully 30% of Minnesota's corn yield goes for ethanol, long fingered for excessive energy and water use. While touted as a clean-energy alternative to gasoline, a March report in the National Academy of Sciences says ethanol production emits up to 24% more carbon.
Over time, ethanol has pushed higher corn prices that caused converting "marginal" (erodible) land reserves to crops, putting millions more acres into production nationally and producing still more harmful gases.
Long a political pet, ethanol producers enjoy a federal mandate that refiners blend ethanol with gasoline, ensuring a market. That's on top of $20 billion in taxpayer ag subsidies, 80% of which goes to large-scale growers.
Greenhouse gases continue increasing worldwide, unleashing a cavalcade of natural disasters. As "One Minnesota" and other ships of state ply troubled climate waters, all hands are needed on deck. But some hands remain below deck, sitting on theirs. Time's long past for Big Ag to be part of the solution.
Ron Way lives in Minneapolis and is at firstname.lastname@example.org.