Clean Transportation Standard: Lower emissions for MN’s transportation and ag sectors

An electric vehicle plugged in and charging. In the background, a person is walking toward the front door of their home.

A Clean Transportation Standard would speed up the adoption of electric vehicles in Minnesota and support the development of new, truly sustainable biofuels with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota. Agriculture is a close second. To protect the Mississippi River and our region from the worst of climate change, it’s imperative we find a way to significantly cut emissions from these sectors.

A Clean Transportation Standard is an opportunity to tackle emissions from both of these sectors with a single policy.

What is a Clean Transportation Standard? 

A Clean Transportation Standard is a set of rules that would help the state responsibly and equitably transition to carbon-neutral transportation.

What might a standard look like here in Minnesota? At a very high level, an effective standard would reduce vehicle emissions, fund electric vehicle infrastructure (such as charging stations), reduce consumption of gasoline and ethanol, and help restore soil and water.

This is a complex problem that touches three big sectors: transportation, energy and agriculture. Deciding on the right rules to achieve these goals is up to policymakers and interest groups across the ideological spectrum.

But as we told the governor’s administration, any proposal brought to the Legislature should:

  • Set a science-based emissions reduction goal that aligns with those agreed upon by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
  • Define "clean" to include air, water and wildlife habitat
  • Embrace clean-water crops that can be used for next-gen biofuels
  • Protect conservation and forested lands
  • Invest in equitable electrification 
  • Include realistic cropland emissions assumptions

We’ve made good progress toward emissions reductions in many important areas, including energy generation and buildings. With the Clean Transportation Standard, we would have the policy required to begin tackling these other more difficult to de-carbonize sectors.

Want specifics on the latest proposals being considered? Check out the Clean Transportation Standard section of our updates page.

The nitty-gritty of a Clean Transportation Standard

A Clean Transportation Standard would use a combination of emissions credits and agricultural incentives to speed up the adoption of electric vehicles in Minnesota and support the development of new, truly sustainable biofuels with lower greenhouse gas emissions. The purpose is to get the state as close as possible to a 100% reduction in transportation emissions by 2050.

The current iteration of the standard being explored here in Minnesota would set a timeline for emissions reduction based on carbon intensity:
• A required 25% reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels by 2030
• A required 75% reduction by 2040
• A goal of 100% reduction by 2050

To achieve those reductions, the standard would lay out a set of rules that allow fuel sources with low life cycle carbon emissions to generate credits. More carbon-intensive fuels would generate deficits — which could be offset with the purchase of the credits generated by low-emissions fuel producers.

This market mechanism rewards low-carbon fuels such as electricity, while directing a significant portion of the credit revenue toward investments in electric vehicle infrastructure and purchase rebates. This would help accelerate equitable adoption of electric vehicles across Minnesota. 

An important component of any proposed Minnesota Clean Transportation Standard is that it reward farms that embrace on-farm conservation practices, including the use of winter oilseeds. These are clean-water crops that can be converted into sustainable biodiesel and jet fuel, with much lower greenhouse gas footprints than existing options.

Another exciting aspect of the proposed CTS is that it can help advance our environmental and economic justice goals. It’s designed to direct credit funds (collected by utilities) to support transportation electrification for the primary benefit of disadvantaged, low-income and rural communities — those most impacted by the production and use of traditional combustion fuels.

Why the Mississippi River needs a Clean Transportation Standard 

Reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions is essential to avoid the most extreme impacts of climate change, which come with undeniable consequences for water quality and aquatic life

But there’s another important element to this: agriculture.

Current transportation policy has a huge say in what farmers plant. Policies such as the Renewable Fuel Standard (essentially, a federal mandate that gasoline be blended with ethanol) have created a world in which as much as 40% of the corn grown in Minnesota — the state’s most prevalent crop — is used to produce biofuels for vehicles. 

This reliance on these summer-growing crops is what leaves millions of acres of land bare from late fall, through winter and into spring, creating the pollutant-leaking “big brown spot” across our agricultural landscape.

A Clean Transportation Standard could address that by helping us shift toward more sustainable biofuels made from two clean-water crops: winter camelina and domesticated pennycress.

Planes, for example, could be powered by sustainable aviation fuel made from these winter oilseeds rather than crude oil. Certain vehicles that use standard diesel could switch to a winter oilseed-based biodiesel. These new fuels would come with dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions than what we currently rely on.

Using winter oilseeds for fuel would also benefit the river by greatly reducing the size and duration of the “Big Brown Spot.” That’s because they are planted in the fall and stay in the ground through winter and into the spring. These crops help absorb excess nutrients and anchor the soil, leading to fewer pollutants seeping into Minnesota’s waters. This winter plant cover also reduces greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector. As we found in our landmark 2023 analysis “Putting Down Roots,” these winter oilseeds could realistically be planted on 5.5 million acres of MN cropland by 2050, dramatically improving environmental outcomes across the board.

The path to cleaner transportation

The state currently has no plan in place to bring down transportation or agriculture emissions (the latter of which has actually risen in recent years). A Clean Transportation Standard in Minnesota, if done right, is our best chance to meaningfully address both.

FMR will continue to work with experts, industry stakeholders, allies and decision-makers to bring a new fuel standard from idea to reality. We’ll be counting on River Guardians to help us advocate for this new policy by sending messages, staying informed and showing up when it matters most.

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