Minnesota’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Start to Decline

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One state down, 49 to go?

Not exactly, but take a look at the accompanying chart. It tells a true story we’ve all been waiting to see: greenhouse gas emissions reaching a peak and starting to decline. Please feast your eyes.

The chart comes from a January 2009 progress report submitted to the Minnesota Legislature (attached below) by the state’s Department of Commerce and its Pollution Control Agency. Here’s what it says on page 6:

GHG emissions from Minnesota sources peaked in 2005 at 154 million CO2-eq. tons. Of this, about 80 percent is associated with fossil fuel combustion or the production and transportation of finished fuels like refined petroleum products.  As noted above, between 2005 and 2006 GHG emissions declined about 2 million CO2-eq. tons.

That puts Minnesota on track to reach the goal stipulated in its Green Solutions Act of 2008 of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 15% below 2005 levels by 2015. That’s roughly equivalent to reaching 1990 levels of emissions by 2015 — five years ahead of President Obama’s current goal.

But will the state be able to follow the dotted line and continue on the same trajectory? Or will 2005 be another bump on a steadily rising curve?

We had a chat with David Thornton, Assistant Commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, to find out.

Since 2006, we’ve seen gas at $4 a gallon and the economy fell apart, so I would imagine emissions are not going to be growing, and they may even be dropping.

And otherwise, there’s nothing that would cause it to go up. The question is, how much farther down can we get it, and how fast.

Thornton can’t be sure because there is no formal emissions reporting requirement in the state, so the reasons emissions drop or rise are not always clear. For example, after 2000, the state noticed that the rate at which VMT — vehicle miles traveled — was increasing, dropped by 50%. The state’s department of transportation is seeing less gas tax revenue as a result, and no one quite knows why.

It could just be frustration with traffic congestion. We’re seeing increases in use of public transit and a light rail line opened up, but we don’t know for sure.

But Thornton says the agency is quite certain about the reason Minnesota’s emissions peaked in 2005 and declined by 2 million tons in 2006. Three measures that Thornton calls "extra base hits" are laid out in the progress report.

The first is the Conservation Improvement Program (CIP) that requires the state’s utility companies to dedicate a portion of their revenues for projects that reduce the consumption of electricity and natural gas. The CIP program was stiffened in 2007 so that starting in 2010 utilities must reduce consumption annually by 1.5 percent of the utility’s annual retail sales. The report indicates the CIP program accounted for about a quarter of the reported emissions reduction, and Thornton believes it will continue to deliver results.

The second large source of reductions is Minnesota’s Renewable Energy Standard. Established in 2001 and ratcheted up in subsequent years, the standard has brought clean energy to the state at a fast pace. Minnesota now ranks No. 4 in the nation in installed wind capacity. By 2020, Xcel, the state’s largest utility, must deliver 30% of its power from clean sources; other utilities must deliver 20%. Thornton says renewables will be a major contributor stabilizing and reducing the state’s emissions going forward.

The third source of reductions that is highlighted in the report is the biggest. Called MERP for Metropolitan Emissions Reduction Project, the program essentially makes it easier for utilities to retire, replace, or improve dirty coal-burning power plants and thereby substantially reduce emissions. The MERP program allows utilities to propose emissions reductions projects to the state. If, after scrutiny, they get the green light, they can go ahead with the project knowing they can pass on the cost of improvements to ratepayers without going through rate case hearings.

The program allowed Xcel to replace two coal-fired plants with natural gas plants. One of the coal plants was retrofitted for natural gas; the other was demolished and a gas plant was built in its place. Xcel also improved a third plant by rebuilding its boiler so it burns far more efficiently, and by installing state-of-the-art controls for other pollutants, like mercury. Thornton said the changes were highly popular even though electric rates rose slightly. One coal plant had been right smack in downtown St. Paul; another was just north of Minneapolis. Now both are burning cleaner natural gas.

Despite the good looking chart, the Pollution Control Agency is taking heat from both sides of the climate issue — those that think global warming is a hoax and those that think action is too slow. The state is in a tough spot to deliver on a requirement contained in the Green Solutions act of 2008: by August 2009, to have in place a comprehensive, enforceable plan to reduce emissions 15% below 2005 levels by 2015, 30% by 2025, and 80% by 2050.

Minnesota just finished a stakeholder climate planning process that delivered 46 policy recommendations, but that won’t fulfill the law’s requirements. Some measures can be enacted immediately, some will require time, and some just cost too much for Minnesota to foot the bill all by itself. Regional or national action is required.

Thornton says there is a lot that can be done with forestry management, biofuels, waste management and a low carbon fuel standard to keep the emissions arrow pointing down, but he also has an ear to the ground and is looking to Washington. He’s sure action will come from the nation’s capital, he’s just not sure if it will come fast enough to help him hit his targets.

One down, 49 to go? Hardly, but it’s a start, and there’s a chart now that like so many treasure maps of yore, has a dotted line to a goal that can be reached in the next five years. The more of them the better, until they lead us to the mother lode — the low-carbon economy.