Minnesota governor, citing winter tourism decline, vows to tackle climate

Source: Daniel Cusick, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, March 14, 2016

Lamenting changes to Minnesota’s way of life, Gov. Mark Dayton this week recommitted his administration to promoting clean energy and climate policies in his final two years in office.

In a 40-minute State of the State address, the two-term Democrat said thousands of Minnesotans have “made their interests clear” on how the state should respond to the growing threat of climate change. Rising temperatures, he noted, have manifested themselves in a variety of ways — from shorter winters to more erratic growing seasons for the state’s 75,000 farmers.

“It’s clear that we need to do more to protect Minnesota’s climate — and the lungs of our children and grandchildren — by developing thousands of innovative clean-energy jobs,” Dayton said.

Speaking to a divided Legislature and other public officials gathered at the University of Minnesota on Wednesday night, Dayton also chided detractors of the Obama administration’s signature climate change regulation, the Clean Power Plan.

“Some have questioned our decision to continue developing a plan to tackle the worst impacts of climate change,” he said. “However, developing clean energy has never been about satisfying federal bureaucrats.”

Dayton also stressed that climate change has historically not been a partisan issue in Minnesota. His predecessor in St. Paul, Republican Tim Pawlenty, also supported greenhouse gas reduction aims and oversaw the implementation of some of the state’s signature clean energy laws in 2007.

The governor credited the state’s electric utilities, including Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy Inc., for being “national leaders in developing wind, solar and other clean energy alternatives.” Under a proposal rolled out last year, Xcel said it would provide 63 percent of the electricity in its Upper Midwest service territory using renewable resources by 2030.

Goodbye, sledding season

Xcel, a Fortune 500 firm, also this week received the 2016 Climate Leadership Award from U.S. EPA, the Climate Registry and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions for cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent from 2005 to 2014. Most of those reductions were attributed to fuel switching at coal plants and increasing wind and solar power.

But Minnesota’s climate stressors may be worsening even as the state shrinks its emissions profile.

In northern Minnesota, wildlife experts have tracked a more than decadelong decline in the state’s moose population, a condition exacerbated by rising average temperatures across the iconic mammal’s forest habitat.

For 2016, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimated the state’s moose population at just over 4,000 animals, a slight increase from 2015 but dramatically lower than 10 years ago, when moose numbered more than 8,800, according to annual state surveys.

Other factors in the moose decline include predation from wolves, which have largely recovered across northern Minnesota. But scientists remain concerned that more moose are perishing due to a complex series of habitat changes, many of which are linked to higher average temperatures and shorter, milder winters.

These include increased incidence of brainworm, a parasite spread by deer that is fatal to moose, as well as winter ticks, liver flukes and other diseases. Last month, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources proposed strategies to try to reduce deer populations in prime moose habitat, but they face an uphill battle as northern Minnesota’s higher temperatures improve habitat conditions for deer.

Dayton did not address the moose decline in Wednesday’s speech, but he did reference a letter from the owners of a northern Minnesota lodge who warned that the region’s winter tourism economy is at risk from rising temperatures.

According to the governor, Paul and Susan Schurke of Ely wrote that their winter sledding season has shrunk by 20 percent over the last three decades, from an average of 116 operating days to 94 days. Meanwhile, other winter tourism businesses — such as cross-country skiing and snowmobile outfitters — have seen even deeper operating losses as their seasons shrink from several months to a few weeks in length, they said.

“Let us proceed, not by politicking with the health of future generations, but rather by protecting them,” Dayton said.