- Associated Press - Monday, August 7, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Aug. 4

Stick with Minnesota’s biodiesel mandate

The biodiesel news that two members of Gov. Mark Dayton’s cabinet shared with an appreciative audience at Farmfest on Thursday really isn’t new. An increase from 10 percent (B10) to 20 percent (B20) in Minnesota’s required blend of plant- or animal-derived oil with petroleum-based diesel sold in the state has been on statute books for nine years.

The May 1, 2018, implementation date announced by Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson and Pollution Control Agency Director John Linc Stine already comes three years later than the 2008 law originally planned. It will apply to summer sales; a B5 mandate will remain in place during cold-weather months.

The Dayton administration’s intention to keep the B20 mandate on schedule next year was well-received at Farmfest, for good reason. Soybeans, Minnesota’s second-largest crop, are the nation’s largest source of biodiesel. A soybean industry study found that the use of biodiesel had propped up the price of soybeans by an average of 63 cents per bushel between 2006 and 2015.

The move to B20 is good news for other Minnesotans, too. Biodiesel is a $1.7-billion-per-year industry in Minnesota, a recent state analysis reported, accounting for 5,400 jobs. It burns cleaner than petroleum diesel, emitting fewer airborne particulates that damage lung health. That’s why the American Lung Association’s Upper Midwest chapter vigorously backs Minnesota’s move to B20. Biodiesel is also sometimes touted as a climate-friendlier substitute for fossil fuels, since the plants used to produce it consume from the atmosphere some of the carbon dioxide that’s released when it is burned.

But the biodiesel mandate has some powerful detractors, too. Representatives of the Minnesota Trucking Association, Flint Hills Resources’ Pine Bend Refinery (a Koch Industries subsidiary) and Magellan Midstream Partners L.P., an Oklahoma-based petroleum transport and storage company, recently told the Star Tribune Editorial Board that Minnesota lacks the fuel-blending infrastructure to make a B20 mandate workable. They warned of higher costs and a disruption to fuel supplies, and said they will ask the 2018 Legislature for a delay and/or financial help with the transition.

If those complaints sound familiar, it’s because they are much the same arguments raised from the same quarter when Minnesota’s biodiesel requirement went from 2 percent in 2005 to 5 percent in 2009 and 10 percent in 2013 - and, for that matter, when adding ethanol to gasoline was first proposed in the state 30 years ago. The petroleum industry has long resisted Minnesota’s efforts to be a national leader in biofuel use.

The mandate schedule was enacted in 2008 in part to give the petroleum industry ample time to prepare for new blending requirements. Magellan’s admission that none of its six Minnesota distribution terminals is ready for B20 suggests that the company’s strategy has been to drag its feet and argue that the mandate is bad policy. If lawmakers grant Magellan’s request for delay on that basis, they would be setting a precedent for an indefinite delay and send the message that similar state directives in the future can be ignored at will.

The trucking association was among a group of B20 critics who took their resistance to Minnesota’s mandate to federal court. Last October, Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim ruled against the critics’ argument that federal law pre-empts Minnesota’s mandate. Frederickson, the ag commissioner, said last week that the Dayton administration is ready to defend the mandate again in court if necessary.

Frederickson noted that the policy decision to make Minnesota the first state in the nation to require a biodiesel blend has deep bipartisan roots. The first biodiesel law was passed in 2002 by a divided Legislature and signed by Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura. The ramp-up from B2 to B20 was enacted by a DFL Legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Opponents of the mandate might think that Minnesota politics have changed since 2008 and that a new governor in 2019 might be more in tune with their objections. To that, we’d observe that replacing diesel with biodiesel is one of the few policy goals that unites both environmentally conscious voters in the metro area and agricultural interests in greater Minnesota. That’s a potent urban-rural coalition that ought to be more than a match for the fossil-fuel industry at the Minnesota Legislature.


Mankato Free Press, Aug. 4

Bridges: Feds need to get serious on fixes

This week marked the 10th anniversary of the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. That tragedy, in which 13 people died and 145 were injured, was seen as a wake-up call to the nation about our aging and deficient infrastructure.

Unfortunately, despite a decade in which to act, most of the nation has done very little to upgrade its infrastructure.

According to the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE), the United States has 614,387 bridges. Four in 10 are 50 years old or older. In 2016, just over 56,000 of the nation’s bridges were considered structurally deficient. A highway bridge is classified as structurally deficient if the deck, superstructure, substructure, or culvert is rated in “poor” condition by the Federal Highway Administration. A bridge can also be classified as structurally deficient if its load carrying capacity is significantly below current design standards or if a waterway frequently overflows on the bridge during floods.

The ASCE estimates that on average there are 188 million trips across a structurally deficient bridge each day. The average age of America’s bridges continues to rise. Many are approaching or have reached the end of their design life. According to ASCE, the nation would need to invest more than $123 billion dollars to repair or replace those bridges.

In 2008, in the aftermath of the bridge collapse, the Minnesota Legislature passed a program to repair or replace all of the state’s crumbling bridges. The state has made significant progress. In 2008 172 bridges were rated as structurally deficient. Since then, 120 bridges have been completed, including 100 new bridges. Thirty-five have been sufficiently repaired and 18 more will be completed by the end of 2018.

Minnesota’s aggressive action on infrastructure repair will make it safer for all who drive or ride on Minnesota roads. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the country has done very little to update their structurally deficient bridges. Some states, like Minnesota, are beginning to address the problem on their own. But many need help from the federal government.

That is why we hope that President Trump and Congress are serious about an infrastructure improvement program for the nation’s roads and bridges. It should not take another tragedy with more lives lost before the government acts.


Post Bulletin, Aug. 2

New standards may help curb opioid abuse

Has a doctor ever asked you to “rate your pain” on a scale of 1 to 10? And did you struggle to answer that question, wondering whether your aching back qualified as just a 6 or truly deserved the solid 9.5 rating that you wanted to give it?

If so, you’ve gotten at least a glimpse of how difficult it can be for medical practitioners to prescribe pain-killing medications.

Earlier this month, the medical journal Annals of Surgery published a study of the prescribing habits of Mayo Clinic doctors in Minnesota, Arizona and Florida. The research analyzed records of more than 7,000 surgical patients from 2013 through 2015, and the authors concluded that 80 percent of prescriptions exceeded new state guidelines for opioid use.

That’s worrisome information, especially in light of the well-deserved attention being paid to the nation’s epidemic of opioid addiction and abuse, but this isn’t a “smoking gun” moment that discredits Mayo Clinic and its doctors.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

For starters, the study of these 7,000 surgical patients was performed by Mayo Clinic researchers, including a general surgery resident and the scientific director of surgical outcomes research at Mayo’s Robert D. and Patricia E. Kern Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery.

So Mayo studied the prescribing habits of its own doctors, then published the results. On a “transparency scale” of 1 to 10, that should qualify as a 10.

Then there’s the fact that the new guidelines, drafted by the state Department of Human Services Opioid Prescribing Work Group, attempt to apply general recommendations for a wide variety of procedures that can vary widely in terms of post-operative pain. Patients who’ve undergone knee replacement, for example, need higher levels of opioid painkillers in the days immediately after surgery than patients who’ve undergone less-invasive procedures.

Mayo isn’t downplaying the results of this research. The clinic acknowledges that over-prescribing opioids is a problem on its campuses, and Mayo is beginning to develop tiered guidelines for various procedures so that doctors have better protocols to guide them in managing patients’ pain. “For some of the procedures, the guideline is probably appropriate and we have an opportunity to reduce the amount prescribed,” said Dr. Elizabeth Habermann, the study’s senior author.

We have no doubt that over time, Mayo doctors will prescribe smaller doses of opioids. But the fact is that today, much more so than in the past, medicine is a partnership between the patient and the physician. Gone are the days when patients were expected to sit quietly, listen to the all-knowing doctor and blindly follow his or her orders.

Modern medicine requires communication, and patients can and do play an active role in determining the best course of treatment.

That’s why patients need to fully understand the risks of opioids and have realistic expectations regarding pain management. They need to ask their doctors to explain any possible alternatives to opioids, and they must accept that in some circumstances, a certain level of temporary pain is to be expected.

Mayo, in other words, is declaring that pain management doesn’t necessarily mean pain elimination. Just because a pill can make pain go away doesn’t mean it should be prescribed, no matter how eagerly the patient might ask for it.

But the sad fact is that even if Mayo becomes the new model for how to manage pain with the minimum of opioids, we’ll lose the battle against opioid abuse unless other doctors and health systems across the nation unite behind the same goal.

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