Too often economic development advocates are at odds with those who stand guard over Minnesota’s beloved natural resources. But a recent compromise between two influential special interests — the state’s agricultural industry and its environmental watchdogs — is a timely reminder that job growth and resource protection can go hand in hand. It doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition.
The critical issue on which these lobbying powerhouses are plowing common ground involves a ripening technology — advanced biofuels that are derived from corn-crop residue (think leftover stalks) or other crops such as switch grass. More specifically, an accord was reached on legislation that would provide $5 million in production-based incentives over the next two fiscal years to attract new advanced biofuel plants or spur additional capacity to utilize corn residue, perennials or cover crops.
The bill includes incentives for biomass thermal energy companies and those developing “renewable chemicals.” An example of a renewable chemical: one that would be derived from crops to replace petroleum-based additives used to make plastic more flexible.
The hang-up for the legislation has been over its biofuels incentives. While economic estimates suggest that the burgeoning biotech industry could generate more than 3,000 jobs in Minnesota, water quality watchdogs raised legitimate concerns about the impact on rivers and streams already impaired by agricultural runoff. In particular, overreliance by biofuel producers on crop residue left after harvesting corn could exacerbate sediment runoff because removing the residue, called “stover,” could worsen erosion. This would be at odds with the state’s ambitious goal to clean up impaired waters and the hundreds of millions in Legacy Amendment sales tax dollars being invested in this.
The compromise targets biofuel producers and provides incentives to them to gradually increase reliance on perennial or cover crops. These guard against erosion, improve soil health and provide wildlife habitat. If scaled up, this could be a historic boost for state water quality.
Biofuel producers who don’t want to meet these cover crop targets don’t have to; only those who want state incentives do. But given new ventures’ needs for economic development assistance, it’s likely that many would sign on. That should create a growing market for crops besides corn, providing new revenue streams for farmers.
The Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP), the Bioeconomy Coalition of Minnesota and the Great Plains Institute provided welcome leadership on the compromise. MEP represents groups such as Friends of the Mississippi River, while the Bioeconomy Coalition includes the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and the Minnesota Farmers Union.
The legislation has bipartisan backing and has cleared key procedural hurdles in both chambers. Its passage would help attract new ventures to Minnesota and show other Midwestern states how to balance economic needs with robust stewardship of fertile yet fragile prairies.