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Pioneer Editorial: State 'energy czar' an idea worth study

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Now is the campaign season, and the Minnesota public should be presented with a basketful of ideas for setting the state on a path for prosperity and success. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty has already thrown a few ideas in the ring, albeit an argument arises whether he should have done it on his own campaign time rather than state time, but nonetheless they add to the public discourse.

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Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch, the DFL-endorsee who'd like Pawlenty's job, is also pitching his ideas -- and one he threw on Monday on shaping the state's role in energy deserves more than a passing glance.

Hatch, if elected, would create an "energy czar," raising energy as a cabinet-level position, something not done since the 1970s by then-Gov. Rudy Perpich at a time when energy prices soared and supply tightened with an Arab oil embargo. Energy conservation was taken seriously then, with Perpich himself inspecting thermostats in state buildings to make sure they were turned down to save heating costs. But after the embargo, the problem went away and the Energy Department was moved into the Commerce Department, where it serves today to give the public "tips" on wise energy use.

The department Hatch envisions, though, would take a more active role in upgrading homegrown energy while downgrading dependence on foreign oil. He'd want the energy czar to require the use of more renewable and more efficient fuels, through promotion of such things as E-85, wind turbines and coal gasification, and by implementing more efficient energy conservation programs perhaps through tax credits or through revamped building codes. Incentives to the private sector could come in the form of tax credits for purchasing hybrid and clean-diesel vehicles. The department could spearhead research efforts by the state's colleges into alternative energy.

Hatch would also push for a 20-20 standard -- requiring that 20 percent of Minnesota's energy come from renewable fuels by 2020 -- a stronger dose of the current weak standard of 10 percent by 2015.

Gov. Pawlenty has been no slouch, either, in moving Minnesota forward in alternative energy. But his focus has been primarily in expanding the use of ethanol, which will directly benefit Minnesota agriculture, and not as all-encompassing as Hatch's plan. Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Peter Hutchinson has also recognized the importance of moving Minnesota away from dependence on foreign oil, but hasn't proffered specific plans other than the need to diversify Minnesota's energy market.

Minnesota, a cold-weather state, has much to lose over rising energy costs, both at the pump and in home heating. But it also has much to gain with a state policy that can research and develop new alternative and renewable energy sources. A new state department directing those efforts, which would both bring new energy as well as new industry and jobs, is certainly a campaign proposal worth discussing.

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