Where coal comes from, evidently.

As you’ve probably heard by now, the Minnesota House voted yesterday to approve a bill that would weaken the state’s renewable energy law.

The bill, SF 86, which as amended would allow for some coal power to be imported from out of state, ultimately passed. But only after nearly three hours of debate that, to no one’s surprise, wandered down the ol’ rabbit hole a few times.

Democrats introduced a series of amendments designed to delay the changes from taking effect. One of the more creative, from Rep. Kate Knuth, would have required waiting until the Department of Defense rescinded its findings recommending action to prevent climate change. Another, from Rep. John Persell, would have tied the bill to first achieving goals for lowering mercury pollution in lakes. And a third, from Rep. Thomas Huntley, would have required the state Public Utilities Commission to assess the health impact of new power plants.

All of these amendments failed, but the ensuing discussion revealed some interesting political overlaps between energy and other social issues.

One recurring theme was downplaying the health impacts of burning coal. While discussing Huntley’s amendment, Rep. Peggy Scott said that while coal emissions may cause asthma attacks, so can cat dander, therefore if the PUC is going to study coal plants, it should also study cats.

The mercury conversation (which, at times, danced tantalizingly close to becoming a light-bulb debate) focused on prenatal health. Persell tried to draw out abortion rights opponents by insisting that a vote for more coal power was also a vote against the health of fetuses, which visibly angered some Republicans.

Rep. Mike Beard, who has been leading the charge to repeal the state’s coal restrictions, acknowledged that mercury pollution can damage fetuses, but said the electricity produced by those coal plants has led to better prenatal health care, so it all sort of evens out.

But perhaps one of the more awkward moments came when Democratic Rep. Andrew Falk asked Beard where coal comes from.

Beard, an evangelical Christian, hedged. “There are several theories to where coal comes from,” he replied, and suggested Falk look up the answer on Wikipedia. Falk persisted with the question, and Beard, recognizing that he was being baited for a statement on creationism, refused to answer. “I’m not going to go there with you,” he said.

Other Republicans were more straightforward with their interpretation of coal’s origins. Rep. Sondra Erickson called coal “a great resource that our Creator has given us,” and Rep. Joe McDonald said “we have 300 years of coal … God put it here for a reason.”

Beard received national attention in February for his comment to MinnPost’s Don Shelby that “we’re not going to run out of anything” because “God is not capricious.”

While energy and climate are complex subjects, they’re grounded in science, and to the scientific-minded, the level of controversy over basic realities can seem absurd.

At one point, Republican Rep. Mary Franson decried the “climate change religion,” which she said is “all about control and fear.”

Is it possible the reason there’s so much disagreement is because rather than debating energy, we’re actually debating religion instead?

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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