Ever since President Obama conspicuously omitted any mention of climate change in his State of the Union address, a debate has been raging among energy wonks about whether clean energy goals can advance absent any discussion at all of global warming.

The two camps are, roughly, those who say climate change has become such a divisive issue that it’s a complete nonstarter for the public; and those who say removing climate change from the discussion takes the urgency out of clean energy policy.

A recent news story from North Dakota provides a stark illustration that supports the latter viewpoint.

Last week, the Fargo Forum wrote about efforts in the Minnesota legislature to repeal the Next Generation Energy Act of 2007, a law that, among other things, sets a 25 percent renewable energy standard and restricts the import of coal power from other states by requiring carbon offsets.

With developers of a new coal plant in Jamestown eying electricity markets across the border, officials in North Dakota are eager to see that restriction lifted. The state’s attorney general is even contemplating a lawsuit.

The law, which passed with bipartisan support and was signed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, specifically addresses climate change. From Article 5, titled “Global Climate Change; Greenhouse Gas Emissions”:

It is the goal of the state to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors producing those emissions to a level at least 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2015, to a level at least 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and to a level at least 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. The levels shall be reviewed based on the climate change action plan study.

Yet the Forum, in a 600-word story about the law, doesn’t mention “climate” even once.

Not knowing that important context, the reader is left to conclude that the law was passed because:

  • Democrats and environmental groups say coal pollutes the air
  • Minnesota wants to be a “renewable energy leader”
  • Mercury from coal emissions will contaminate fish
  • Students “want their future to include clean air”
  • That’s all fine and good, but to the outsider, that alone might seem like a pretty thin case for a law restricting an industry that, the Forum points out, employs more than 27,000 people and pays $90 million in taxes to North Dakota each year. And one would also be left to wonder why Minnesota is taking extra steps to address mercury and air pollution issues that are already overseen by the EPA.

    In a hearing last week, Minnesota state Rep. Mike Beard, who is pushing for repeal of the law, did mention climate change, only to dismiss it as a natural occurrence. Beard later said that if environmentalists are worried about mercury emissions, they should target mercury itself rather than single out coal power (yes, most atmospheric mercury comes from coal emissions, that’s another discussion for another day).

    By omitting climate change from public discussion of Minnesota’s law, the deck is stacked in favor of Beard’s argument.

    As climate change becomes unmentionable in political discussions, will it begin to retreat even further from media coverage as well?

    Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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