Public Comments Reveal Big Oil and Koch-backed Opposition to Minnesota's Clean Car Standards

Read time: 5 mins
A man and little boy charge a Nissan Leaf electric car

As Minnesota begins the rulemaking process to adopt a pair of clean car standards, citizens and organizations weighed in with their comments and concerns, through an official Request for Comments portal.

A DeSmog analysis found that a majority of the hundreds of comments received were supportive of the initiative, which aims to reduce the state’s transportation-sector emissions.

However, opposing comments also poured in from industry groups and citizens borrowing a script provided by a right-wing think tank tied to the petrochemical billionaire Koch network. 

Center of the American Experiment

This think tank, Center of the American Experiment (CAE), has been a vocal opponent of Minnesota’s proposed clean car standards. As a member of the Koch-funded State Policy Network (SPN), the center regularly attacks clean energy and climate initiatives, just as other SPN-member organizations do in other states. Records reveal that Donors Capital Fund, one of the largest philanthropic funders of climate science denial organizations, contributed over $180,000 to the Center of the American Experiment. 

CAE misleadingly claims that Minnesota’s clean car standards would have no meaningful impact on reducing both global warming and harmful pollutants, and would force auto dealers to offer more expensive electric vehicles that consumers are unwilling to buy. These arguments appear aimed at undermining the whole point of the initiative.

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), which is administering the rulemaking, “The purpose of the Clean Cars Minnesota rulemaking is to reduce emissions from passenger vehicles: [greenhouse gas] emissions as well as other harmful air pollutants including fine particles and the pollutants that form ground-level ozone.” MPCA notes that the state is legally required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by certain amounts under the Next Generation Energy Act, and transportation is the state’s largest source of emissions. 

Minnesota would be joining over a dozen other states that have chosen to adopt two rules from California addressing vehicle emissions. The Low-Emission Vehicle (LEV) standard requires auto manufacturers to meet stricter tailpipe emissions standards, while the Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) rule mandates that a certain number of non-polluting vehicles like electric cars and plug-in hybrids be made available in the state. States have the authority under section 117 of the Clean Air Act to adopt California’s standards. 

Campaign Against Minnesota Standards

Many of the comments opposing the proposed standards are identical in wording, which comes from a script written by CAE’s Isaac Orr. They question the legality of Minnesota adopting the standards and requests a hearing be scheduled before an administrative law judge. Out of the more than 600 comments received (not including one supportive letter with 685 signatures and over 300 additional comments), DeSmog estimates that roughly 13 percent of them borrowed the script that Orr provided.

We need as many people as possible to sign the letter below and submit it to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency via normal U.S. mail, or at the email address provided below,” Orr urged on the CAE website. 

Besides coordinating this letter-writing campaign, CAE submitted its own commentary, a document of over 20 pages filled with anti-electric car talking points and questionable claims about the clean car standards’ expected impacts. 

Other comments opposing the standards came from industry trade associations both inside the state and nationally. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said, “the rulemaking is neither needed nor reasonable.”

The Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association (MADAraised similar concerns. “Minnesota is not California,” it wrote, noting “the open question whether Minnesota even has the authority to set its own vehicle emissions standards.” MADA says there is a lack of consumer demand for electric cars, and that the LEV standard “will make the price of all new vehicles sold in Minnesota more expensive.” Instead of regulations, MADA says Minnesota should consider financial incentives to promote electric cars.

The Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, a national auto industry group that has lobbied for weakening federal fuel efficiency standards, also submitted commentary opposing the measure. The alliance argued Minnesota should not adopt California car standards and suggested the state instead propose legislation or incentives to bolster the state’s electric car market. Another national industry group, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), which represents the majority of U.S. oil refiners, weighed in on the Minnesota rulemaking. AFPM claimed, “Minnesota does not have the legal authority to adopt the planned rules.”

Citing climate, pollution, and public health concerns, many other commenters expressed strong support for Minnesota to move forward with the vehicle pollution standards. Supportive commentary came from public health professionals and organizations, clergy and people of faith, environmental NGOs, government entities, and ordinary citizens. Two environmental organizations, 350MN and the Sierra Club, led grassroots efforts to collect hundreds of comments and signatures, acting as a counterweight to the CAE campaign. 

According to MPCA, this comment period “is the first of several opportunities for public comment and input on this rulemaking.” Additional rounds of public input are expected in the coming year. MPCA hopes to finalize the rule by the end of next year. 

Main image: Charging up a Nissan Leaf electric car. Credit: Fresh Energy

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