If there was ever a moment to summon the strength of our Twin Ports communities and move toward the clean-energy future we need and deserve, it is now. This summer we experienced wildfires in our backyards, severe air-quality alerts from wildfire smoke drifting across state lines and national borders, and extreme drought and heat. And yet it felt like the calm before the storm of looming climate chaos.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report spells out what we already knew in the Northland: It is well past time to leave behind the systems and practices that are harming us. It’s time to make a swift exit from the era of fossil fuels and throw out any proposals for new fossil-fuel projects.
Disappointingly, yet unsurprisingly, our region’s electric utilities Minnesota Power and Dairyland Power would like to continue business as usual by hanging on to their proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center gas plant in Superior. The Sierra Club has conservatively estimated that this plant would add 1.7 million metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions per year, including methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas released during the fracking, transportation, and burning of gas and is more than 80 times as powerful as carbon-dioxide pollution. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report specifically highlights the role methane emissions play in adding fuel to the fire. The report also makes clear that cutting methane emissions is the fastest way to slow warming in the near term.
This is clearly no time for half-measures, yet our utilities frame the Nemadji Trail Energy Center as a “cleaner option” and a “bridge” to help us get to some future moment when we can expect something different. But we know better.
The tools we need to transition away from fossil fuels are already at our fingertips. Renewable energy — paired with improving energy efficiency, expanding energy storage, and modernizing the electric grid — are more than adequate to cover our energy needs, both today and moving forward. These climate solutions would also improve air quality and public health, provide family-supporting jobs, lower the cost of electricity, and improve the resilience of our electrical grid. It’s all connected.
More broadly, a just energy transition — moving from a fossil fuel-dominated economy to renewable, equitable energy, while supporting frontline communities and repairing the harm done — will immensely improve the quality of life for our Twin Ports communities and the entire Northland.
With all that in mind, it’s ridiculous that the administration of President Joe Biden is considering offering Rural Utilities Service loans, via a program managed by the USDA, to fund the construction of new fossil-fuel infrastructure. If granted, this goes against our national climate goals, as outlined in the Paris Agreement. This would go against Biden’s executive orders directing federal agencies to end fossil-fuel subsidies, and it would go against the reality that the climate crisis is already affecting us all and that every day that we continue to burn fossil fuels accelerates it.
Instead of giving fossil fuels a boost, the Biden administration should deny federal funding to any new fossil-fuel project and hold the federal government accountable to its promise to stop subsidizing business as usual.
Across the bridge from the proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center site, our home of Duluth has been called a “potential climate safe haven.” We know we are not immune from climate impacts, but what if Duluth could show the rest of the country what a resilient, safe, equitable city can look like in the era of climate change? What if we leaned into the framework of just transition and shed ourselves of extraction and exploitation? What if we could actually create a place of belonging — both for those of us who grew up here and those who moved here for refuge — with people-centered infrastructure, affordable and energy-efficient homes, electrified public transportation, and family-sustaining jobs for everyone? This future is simply incompatible with new fossil-fuel power plants like the proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center. The two cannot coexist.
There’s still time to reverse course. We call on Minnesota Power and Dairyland Power to drop their plans for any new fossil-fuel energy resources, including the Nemadji Trail center. We call on the Biden administration to stop using federal dollars to subsidize new fossil-fuel projects. And we call on our Twin Ports communities to use our collective power to get rid of the systems that don’t serve us and advocate for the ones that support us.
Which future is it going to be?
Jenna Yeakle of Duluth is an organizer with the Sierra Club. Jamie Alexander of Duluth is director of Drawdown Labs with Project Drawdown (drawdown.org/programs/drawdown-labs), a nonprofit working to lower greenhouse gases. Their views expressed here are theirs alone.