Paul Austin

Paul Austin is the director of Conservation Minnesota, a statewide non-profit. In that role, he gets to hear and share Minnesotan’s stories about our lakes, lands and way of life. Paul’s past lives include election as a small town mayor, serving at the US Agency for International Development, and managing a small marketing firm. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, two small children and one very large dog.

Posts about Government

What’s the Score?

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: February 20, 2014 - 3:41 PM

For the past 43 years, the League of Conservation Voters has issued an annual scorecard on how members of Congress voted on issues that are important to the conservation community.  The votes that were tracked ranged from public health protections to clean energy to land and wildlife conservation.   

This year’s scorecard was recently released, and it showed that Minnesota’s Congressional delegation is basically split right down the middle along party lines, with one big exception.  

Our Senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, each received perfect scores from LCV on the 13 votes that were tracked in the Senate.  That made Minnesota one of only nine states where the Senators each received perfect scores.  

In the House, more than twice that many (28) votes were counted, and the scores ranked from a high of 96 for Rep. Keith Ellison to a low of 0 for Rep. John Kline.  The rest of the Republicans stayed in the bottom 20 percentile with Rep. Paulsen scoring a 7 and Rep. Bachmann scoring an 11.  All but one of the democrats stayed in the top 20 percent, with Rep. McCollum at 93 and Representatives Walz and Nolan each receiving a score of 86.  Rep. Colin Peterson, a democrat who represents a traditionally republican district along the state’s western border, was the true outlier in the results when he received a score of 14. 

With all the budget wrangling and polarizing social issues being debated in Washington, it is easy for people to lose track of how members are voting when it comes to these critically important votes.  While some will decry that this scorecard is nothing more than a cynical partisan attack on republicans, the scores are based on votes, so each member earned their own score with their own voting record.  And, as is clear with Rep. Peterson, votes against the environment are not in the sole ownership of either caucus.  

Annually, the organization also creates a, “Dirty Dozen” list of members who are the worst of the worst.  While in past years Minnesotans have made this list, this year, none were included.  Nationally, new members who defeated inhabitants of the 2012 Dirty Dozen list have an average 2013 score of 92 percent, while the members that they replaced had an average lifetime score of just 12 percent.

On its website, the League of Conservation Voters has created an interactive tool that allows people to search scorecards going back to the first one in 1971 to see how individual members have voted and been ranked on these key issues.  The website is available at 

The Truth Can Be Worse Than Fiction

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: January 27, 2014 - 4:02 PM

We should learn from events in West Virginia

A brand new company leaks several thousand gallons of toxic chemicals into a watershed that is the primary water source for approximately 300,000 people. Upon noticing its liability, the company declares bankruptcy, and next thing you know, the residents who were harmed by the leak are asked to pay to clean it up with their tax dollars. 

This scenario actually played out in with the chemical spill in West Virginia a few weeks back.  But its an important reminder for all of us that bankruptcy is an easy and quick option for companies when disaster hits.  If were not careful, taxpayers are left to pick up the pieces…and pay for them.

Tomorrow night the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will be facilitating its third and final public hearing on the environmental impacts of a proposed copper nickel mine which will rest on the watershed that feeds the City of Duluth and its surrounding areas with the majority of its drinking water. The population of the Duluth metro area is also right around 300,000.  

Copper nickel mining has never been done in this state, and it has never been done anywhere in this country without leaving a history of water pollution in its wake.  While some point to the relatively clean history of iron mining as proof that type of mining can be done safely, the truth is, iron mines have little in common with this proposed mine.  When tailings from iron mines are exposed to the elements, they create rust.  When tailings from a copper-nickel mine are exposed to the same air and rain, it produces sulfuric acid.  

 The hearing, which begins at 5 p.m. at River Center in St. Paul, will give people the opportunity to learn more about the proposals, and, if they so desire, share their thoughts on the project in either written form, or as a speaker at the public forum.  In the two previous public forums, one in Duluth and one in Aurora, hundreds of people showed up to make their concerns known. 

I am concerned that the plan put forward by the mining company, Polymet, will require treatment of polluted water at the site for hundreds of years after mining stops.  I am also concerned that the company has no plans in its 2000+ page document for what it would do if something predictable goes wrong like a pipeline break or wastewater treatment failure.  Finally, I am concerned that there are no details as to how taxpayers will be protected from   paying to clean up if the company decides not to stay and manage its waste for 500 years after they finish mining.  

Just like in West Virginia, at any moment a company can use bankruptcy to hide from its cleanup responsibilities.  Our state leaders shouldn't wait until the last minute of this public process to let Minnesota taxpayers know how they will protect us from ending up like folks in West Virginia. What good can come from avoiding the issue?

Great Pick for PUC

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: January 8, 2014 - 12:04 PM

In the first week of the year, with the mercury fighting to break its way out of the bottom of the thermometer, it's a fitting time for Governor Dayton to make an important appointment to the Public Utilities Commission.  After all, if the PUC is doing its job well, we can all keep warm when the high temp outside is –17. 

The PUC is the state’s agency responsible for the regulation of public utilities such as electric, natural gas and landline telephone service. The PUC also has oversight of the construction or modifications to large energy facilities such as electric power plants, transmission lines, wind power generation plants, and large natural gas and petroleum pipelines.  When they are doing their jobs well, few, if any, of us ever hear about them.

Governor Dayton’s should be applauded for his appointment of Dan Lipschultz to this important but unsung post.  By naming Lipschultz to the Commission, he has given us someone with the diverse experience to make good decisions and a record of protecting consumers.  Lipschultz formerly served as the attorney for the commission, and also has experience as a ratepayer advocate for the Attorney General’s Residential and Small Business Utility Division. He understands how vitally important the work done by the PUC is, and he should be able to utilize his career experience to the betterment of all Minnesotans.  

 So while we all wait for the thermometer to go above zero, I wanted to make sure that the news of this appointment got a bit of extra attention.  The selection was about as far from controversial as one can get.  But with an agency this important to all Minnesotans, that is a really good thing.

The Importance of Regulation on Health, Jobs and the Environment

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: October 18, 2011 - 11:24 AM

There’s been a lot of shouting lately. At Tea Parties. On Wall Street. And a lot of all the talk from the far extremes of both sides seems to be about regulations. Rules. When we were kids, we had to follow rules. Raise your hand. Don’t eat the paste. Stuff like that. And, ok, some are silly.  There’s the one about cars and trolleys must pass a horse by more than 20 feet. Actually, there may be some wisdom to that one. 

Other needed regulations, however, are in danger of being repealed. Laws we need to prevent people from getting sick. Regulations hold companies to standards that keep them operating so that the public remains healthy and safe. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, writes regulations that pertain to clean air, water, and land. Some members of Congress are trying to reduce the authority of the EPA to regulate mercury and clear air standards. They have voted a total 168 times this year alone to minimize clean air and water laws. 

Some lawmakers claim that regulations cost jobs, but it’s quite the opposite. There are landfill operators and builders who keep our drinking water safe from contamination and people who design new technology or scrubbers at power plants. The result of these newly created jobs is a safer public that is spared the damages of environmental clean up, liability lawsuits, and health-care costs.

The new EPA rules that regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants alone, for example, could save 34,000 people from premature deaths a year, according to Grist. That’s one statistic especially important to parents of kids with respiratory illnesses. Not to mention, with the new rules, sulfur dioxide emissions will be reduced by 73 percent, which could result in $280 billion less in healthcare costs per year.  Americans enjoy a a clear economic benefit from having regulations in place, as well as the health benefit associated with them.   Now that’s something to shout about.


Capitol Campout

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: July 5, 2011 - 2:09 PM

For thousands of Minnesota families, the Fourth of July weekend was supposed to include a visit to one of our 68 treasured state parks. But during the very time when most of us want to camp, hike or bird watch, our elected officials didn’t resolve the state’s budget crisis in time to prevent a government shutdown. Other popular family activities such as fishing, boating and hunting are also now off-limits to anyone who doesn’t already have a license because the Department of Natural Resources is closed and can’t issue new ones. 

Come to the Capitol Campout on Saturday, July 9, 10:00-Noon and let your lawmakers know it’s time to put aside partisan politics and get our parks open again. Bring your family and friends and pitch your tent right on the Capitol lawn. You can even bring your fishing reel (but leave the hook at home!) and help us fish for budget solutions. We’ve invited Governor Dayton and are waiting to hear if he’ll be able to join us.

We look forward to seeing you on Saturday!

Bad Idea: Logging Our State Parks

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: March 24, 2011 - 8:31 PM

It is a ridiculous idea that shows just how out of touch some in the legislature have become.  And it passed the House Environment Committee last night by a vote of 10-6.    If you are like me, you’ll say enough is enough.

This new law would require the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to harvest Black Walnut and other timber from our State Parks. The state would cut trees that took 50 to 100 years to grow.  They would cut them in parks that have been specifically created to “preserve and manage Minnesota's natural, scenic, and cultural resources for present and future generations”.

Why you ask?  Its a one-time revenue gimmick that will be imperceptible in the context of a solving $5 billion deficit.  

It is truly unprecedented.  For over 110 years, Minnesota has had both State Forests for managing timber and State Parks to preserve our natural resources for Minnesotans to enjoy.   We have both because State Parks aren’t supposed to be logging operations.  

110 years of past precedent.  100 years to replace the trees in our State Parks.  It’s all being thrown away for a one-time budget gimmick.  I would call that the new definition of shortsighted.   At the capitol, proponents think it is leadership.

It is up to each of us to let them know they are wrong.


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