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Environmental groups say they are banking on Minnesota’s newly installed U.S. senator, Tina Smith (D), as a reliable ally on climate and environmental issues, as she picked up a coveted slot Jan. 9 on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The former Democratic lieutenant governor’s assignment to the energy panel means she’ll occupy the committee seat held by her predecessor, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who resigned following accusations of sexual misconduct. Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is poised to work on major energy legislation (S. 1460) this year.
The freshman senator—tapped in December by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) to fill Franken’s slot—also was awarded a seat on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee. With agriculture a key industry in Minnesota, the senator already has expressed interest in the farm bill.
She also will hold seats on the Indian Affairs panel and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Smith, sworn in Jan. 3 , hasn’t had to cast votes in either of her two previous jobs over six years working for Dayton —three as lieutenant governor, three as Dayton’s chief of staff—or during an earlier stint as chief of staff for former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak from 2006 to 2010.
The senator said to expect clean energy to be a top focus, given her efforts to move Minnesota to sourcing 50 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030.
“Minnesota is a national leader when it comes to renewable energy, and during my time as lieutenant governor, that’s something I was proud to champion when I traveled across the state,” the senator said in Jan. 9 statement to Bloomberg Environment. She vowed “to keep fighting for the type of energy policies that create jobs, improve our energy independence, and address the growing threat of climate change.”
Environmental advocates say her backing of clean energy—along with her criticisms of the Trump administration’s rollback of power plant carbon pollution limits and embrace of climate change science—mean they’re getting a reliable ally in the Senate.
“She doesn’t have that voting record. But she was a leading voice on clean energy and one of the main voices [touting] the environmental benefits from clean energy in Minnesota,” Paul Austin, executive director of Minnesota Conservation, told Bloomberg Environment.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has a “good working relationship” with Smith, Bill Blazar, the chamber’s senior vice president of public affairs and business development, told Bloomberg Environment.
“She’s a pretty straightforward person,” Blazar said. “You ask her a question, you get an answer.”
Smith offered a detailed argument for a state “50 by 30” renewable energy standard—requiring that 50 percent of Minnesota’s electricity is generated by clean energy sources by 2030—in an April 2 op-ed.
“Today, the total cost of renewable energy is competitive with carbon-based fuel, and many times actually costs less,” she wrote in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, adding that “we know that climate change caused by the carbon in our atmosphere is changing Minnesota’s landscape and our weather.”
Minnesota ranks eighth in the U.S. for clean energy patents, Smith wrote, with clean energy startups attracting more than $450 million in investments over the last 10 years. A 50 percent by 2030 clean energy requirement would create an estimated 1,500 new jobs each year in the state, which pay an average of $71,000 a year.
If Smith is elected this November, she’ll have to run again in 2020 for a full six-year term. Unlike new Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, whose December election trimmed Republican control of the Senate to a 51-49 majority, Smith’s appointment and even a follow-up win in 2018 would simply hold a seat many assume would have remained in the Democratic column.
But the new Minnesota senator could still play an important role in 2018 by joining efforts to hold the line on Trump rollbacks of policies or appointments that environmental groups oppose, said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.
“Congress still has an incredible role to play in providing a green firewall of dissent,” Sittenfeld told Bloomberg Environment.
As lieutenant governor, Smith participated in or led a number initiatives related to environmental and energy issues. These include:
The repeal “won’t change the fact that wind, and increasingly solar energy, cost less than coal,” Smith said at the time.
Her state was one of 15 that launched the U.S. Climate Alliance in 2016, vowing to work to fill the vacuum in climate efforts after Trump’s June announcement that he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate accord.
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