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Franken discusses energy conservation during visit to BSU

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., visited Bemidji State University on Thursday afternoon to meet with students and talk about college affordability and retrofit/sustainability. Shown above, Franken congratulates Erika Bailey-Johnson on her sustainability successes on campus. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI- Sen. Al Franken visited Bemidji State University Thursday afternoon to congratulate the school for making the Princeton Review's Green Colleges and talk about energy conservation and college affordability.

"We know what's happening with our climate and there are people who actively deny it for one reason or another," Franken said to students at the Hobson Memorial Union Thursday. "Some for political reasons, some for economic reasons and it is very disturbing because 97 percent of climate scientists say the climate is warming and is being caused by man."

Franken said that the other three percent are likely ignoring the facts because they are being paid by oil and coal companies.

As part of Franken's support for sustainability and energy conservation he launched a "Back to Work Minnesota Initiative" last October, which retrofits buildings by renovating them to become more energy efficient.

"In my mind it's a way of creating jobs in this state and jobs that really pay for themselves through the energy that isn't used," Franken said.

Franken said there are a number of models to get capital to do the retrofits that require no upfront cost by the building owner. He said the program can start with municipal buildings, universities, schools and hospitals but it can also expand to commercial and residential buildings.

BSU Sustainability Coordinator Erika Bailey-Johnson presented Franken with an overview of the university's efforts, which include projects involving landscaping, transportation, waste, food and energy saving. Johnson also noted the school's involvement with the American College and University President's Climate Commitment, a program that the school signed in 2008 to make efforts to becoming a carbon free campus.

Bailey-Johnson thanked Franken for his efforts and support for the environment, specifically with his rejection of the Keystone Pipeline and his support to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainability and the environment remained a hot topic when Franken answered student questions. Franken was asked about hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which is a technique used to release natural gas that can cause damage to the water reservoir.

Franken said he thinks there could be a kind of fracking that does not jeopardize the water table and the environment and still helps get the natural gas and oil. He said proper research needs to be done and it should not be paid for by the federal government, but by the oil and gas companies. The National Resource Committee faced an item in the budget asking for $43 million to pay for the fracking research, which Franken is against.

"Are you telling me that the oil and gas companies aren't doing well? Are they in trouble? Do they need help," Franken said. "This irked me because I don't understand why oil and gas companies aren't paying for it, not that they shouldn't be doing the research; don't be mistaken there, but I think they should be paying for it."

Franken was also asked about ethanol and whether the cost and energy used to make it is worth the energy it puts out. He said that there are some tradeoffs in ethanol production as fertilizers and plows are needed in the corn production, but the amount of energy that ethanol produces still outweighs the energy used to make it.

"It is a complicated equation but I believe that ethanol is getting more and more efficient and I believe that we should be using more of it," Franken said.

Aside from energy conservation and the environment, Franken addressed the rise in tuition costs, crediting it to the drop in college aid on the state and federal levels. Minnesota took more than a 10 percent hit last year in state funding, which he said is absorbed by the students and their parents through tuition costs.

He also said that education costs have gone up because of technology and the tendency of colleges and universities to think they have to have everything. Some institutions are addressing this problem by cutting programs.

Franken said that Pell Grants used to pay as much as 80 percent of the tuition for a four year public college, which now has fallen somewhere between 30 and 35, while the House of Representatives is talking about cutting the grants all together.

"That is incredibly significant," Franken said. "To me that is penny-wise foolish."

Franken announced the "Understanding the true cost of college act," which would require colleges to use easier to understand language in financial aid packages. He also is backing legislation that would keep federally subsidized Stafford student loan rates at 3.4 percent.