Rep. Tim Walz mixed in lessons on economics and politics during a Wednesday stop at Mankato West High School to pitch a bill that requires oil companies to pay to use public land.
Walz wanted the 45 or so students in Eric Koser's physics classroom to see past the partisan ideology that has held up the bill.
The bill, as Walz describes it, is an attempt to compensate taxpayers for the companies' use of public land while not charging so much that American oil and gas become uncompetitive as energy sources. The income would be used for research into renewable fuels, on transportation infrastructure and to help pay down the debt.
But being a moderate can be perilous.
Walz said he ends up being characterized as either a tree-hugging environmentalist for worrying about global warming or being in bed with the oil companies for supporting the Keystone XL pipeline.
Basically, Walz wants these students to take a nuanced view, even if the political culture in Washington, D.C., so frequently fails to. The students should be able to break out of "rigid political expectations," he said.
In other words, Walz was out to explain to these students how he could be both a "big fan" of natural gas and someone who believes climate change is an "existential threat."
The students also gave the congressman an update. They have been working on replacing the cafeteria's disposable trays with a reusable variety.
Students pitch in
About a half-dozen of the visitors to Koser's class are part of the Youth Energy Summit, or YES!, a partnership of the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center and the Southwest Initiative Foundation.
Walz's advice to the group was to frame the energy savings in terms of what it could buy. So, instead of saying "We've reduced energy use by X percent," say something like "We've been able to buy X new helmets for the football team with the money saved."
"Make it so it's tangible for them and it makes a difference," he said.
Walz said projects like this one are the "low-hanging fruit" of energy reforms. It's called "low-hanging" because it actually saves money; doing the hard work of making renewable energy competitive with fossil fuels will cost untold billions of dollars.
Walz was optimistic that the transition to renewable energy would not only be painless, but that it would be an economic opportunity.
"We can have both," he told the class. "You don't have to suffer."
Walz likes to say that America doesn't need to send billions of dollars to the Middle East to earn their enmity.
"They'll hate us for free," he said.
Instead, he'd like to spend money on renewable fuels. He said the First District produces the fourth-most wind energy and the third-most biofuel energy among congressional districts nationwide.
Walz said the country will rely on coal and oil for "at least the foreseeable future" while, hopefully, renewable fuels are given a chance to become competitive.
"I don't demonize the oil companies," he said.
He suggested renewables could supply 20 percent of our energy by 2030. (Whether this progress would be enough to prevent the most devastating consequences of climate change is a more complicated question.)
One student gave him a tough question: Do you support fracking?
Walz said yes, basically, as long as it's done safely.
"I'm a big fan of natural gas," he said. Gas is among the lowest-polluting fossil fuels, by greenhouse gas standards.
Walz said some people who oppose the bill, which he hopes to get re-introduced this session, complain that the government "distorts the market."
Economists, though, note that it isn't that simple.
When a person buys a gallon of gas, for example, they're compensating a long chain of companies for the drilling, refining, transportation and sale of that fuel. However, when that gas is burned it releases carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change. But the cost of the fuel doesn't compensate people harmed by climate change -- those problems are external to the original transaction.
Walz, who said climate change is "almost irrefutable" as a scientific phenomenon, believes the bill can reduce externalities by requiring oil and gas companies to pick up some of the tab for renewable energy research.