Year in Review: Five stories that had an outsized impact in Greater Minnesota in 2021

28December 2021

It was a year of upheaval, renewal, protest, tragedy and challenges in Greater Minnesota. A new wave of COVID-19 gripped many parts of the state after a summer marked by drought and wildfire. The Line 3 oil pipeline was built by Enbridge Energy, bringing jobs to northern Minnesota and also protestors worried about the environmental impact of a new pipeline. As the economy was revived after pandemic-related closures, new problems arose, like a shortage of workers. 

Looking back, here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of some of the most memorable developments in Greater Minnesota in 2021. 

1. Line 3 gets built

After more than half-decade of debate and scrutiny by state regulators, Enbridge Energy moved ahead with its Line 3 project, building the 337-mile crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota. The construction didn’t occur without controversy, though. Though initially dampened by cold weather and COVID-19, protests by those who opposed the pipeline grew as the year went on, drawing national attention. President Joe Biden was criticized by some for cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline but allowing Line 3 to move ahead (though there are differences between the projects) and opponents of Line 3 objected to Enbridge mud spills and water use. Meanwhile, others touted the economic boost from the pipeline and said the newer pipeline would be safer than a smaller, leaky old one it replaced. While lawsuits over the project remain, oil started flowing through the pipeline in October.

2. COVID-19 becomes even more of a rural issue

Last year, COVID-19 killed more than 2,300 people in Greater Minnesota. But even with the development of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines, the state reported roughly 2,700 deaths in Greater Minnesota in 2021. In fact, of deaths reported by the state between Dec. 31, 2020 and Dec. 22, 2021, roughly 55 percent were among Greater Minnesota residents, though less than 45 percent of Minnesotans live there.

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Critical care workers insert an endotracheal tube into a coronavirus disease patient.

Many factors could explain the split, but far more Minnesotans outside the Twin Cities have declined vaccines, which sharply reduce deaths from the virus. And now, as the state faces another wave of cases due to the omicron strain, many health systems across the state say they’re facing devastating shortages of staff and a high number of patients.

3. Cash came rolling in for child care and broadband

Between state COVID-19 relief money, the $1.9 trillion federal American Rescue Plan stimulus package and a $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package signed by President Joe Biden, a lot of government money has flowed this year to help with issues caused or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, including for things like hospital capacity and rent assistance.

While many things critical to Greater Minnesota have received money over the last year, broadband infrastructure and child care are among two of the more important. Minnesota stands to get at least $170 million for subsidizing construction of broadband infrastructure from Minnesota’s share of the ARP and the federal infrastructure bill. That would be more money than the state spent since 2014 in its own broadband grant program. The state could potentially be in line for $280 million or more for high-speed internet.


MinnPost file photo by Walker Orenstein

The child care industry was already struggling before the pandemic with a business model where parents face high tuition costs but providers get paid little for important work. The pandemic only made the challenge harder as cleaning costs rose and many parents pulled their kids from programs. In 2020, state and federal programs distributed at least $322 million for the industry, but in 2021 that rose even higher to at least $537 million.

Many child care advocates say the cash still hasn’t been enough to stabilize the industry or help it grow or become sustainable. Congress is also debating new plans to cover the cost of child care for more families as part of Biden’s Build Back Better plan.

4. Drought and wildfires wreaked havoc

By early August this year, more than three-quarters of Minnesota was considered to be in severe or extreme drought. That lack of rain led to low water levels in lakes and rivers and was especially hard on cattle and dairy farmers who can’t rely on crop insurance in the same way farmers for traditional row crops like corn and soybeans can.

Cattle and dairy farmers had less feed because of the lack of water, making some sell cattle early, burn through food reserves or buy feed elsewhere at higher prices. The drought also hurt many small-scale and specialty farmers who grow fruits and vegetables and also can’t rely on crop insurance.

At the same time, a political fight over the job status of Jan Malcolm, the state health commissioner, stopped Gov. Tim Walz from calling a special session, which stalled a $10 million drought-relief package from being passed.

U.S. Forest Service – Superior National Forest
Firefighters battling the Greenwood Fire in Superior National Forest.

In northeast Minnesota, intense wildfires burned tens of thousands of acres of forest, closing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to visitors and forcing the evacuation of nearby homes.

Climate experts expect Minnesota to get hotter as human-caused climate change intensifies, though they also expect the state to get more rain on average. The combination of drought and wildfires aren’t likely to be a regular occurrence, but there is some evidence that climate change will increase risk of wildfires.

5. Job vacancy rates set records

As Minnesota exited the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines became more widely available, the state’s economy underwent a transformation. Reopened businesses wanted workers but often couldn’t find them.

Job vacancy rates are higher in Greater Minnesota and hitting record levels in many areas. In a recent survey of job openings across Minnesota, the southeastern part of the state recorded 21,510 vacancies. That was nearly double the 11,887 openings from just a year ago, and set a new high for the region.

Photo by Michael Browning on Unsplash

State officials say Greater Minnesota has more older residents on average than the Twin Cities metro, and more are dropping out of the workforce because they’re retiring or because of burnout or pandemic risks. While the uptick in job vacancy rates started before the pandemic, the tight labor market has gotten worse since the pandemic began even as wages rise in many sectors.

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