Today’s lesson for new or forgetful government employees comes courtesy of what appears to be a low-level cog working for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in Brainerd: Be careful of what you put in your e-mails because they might well go public.
That means your brilliant prose, as well as your randomly dashed off thoughts, are subject to inquiry from nosy journalists, politicians looking for a conspiracy and corporations, maybe one wanting to build an expensive pipeline through the woods.
Because of an initial report in the Pioneer Press, the MPCA is now looking into e-mails sent by their employee, Scott Lucas, to an environmental group about the proposed Sandpiper oil pipeline, which would run across northern Minnesota. Gov. Mark Dayton has called them “unprofessional.” House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, called them “highly inappropriate” and said that they “indicate a strong desire to delay and undermine the project, rather than abide by a fair and impartial regulatory process.”
Daudt wants the legislative auditor to dig into the situation because one guy in Brainerd seems a little too chummy with the tree-huggers. Daudt has repeatedly accused Dayton of trying to slow down the building of the project, even though Dayton has said publicly that he supports the pipeline.
Lucas certainly seemed to offer his opinions on the pipeline when he suggested that environmentalists read a report on another project, the Keystone pipeline, adding, “This … could be a very useful tool for us to use when making our case against Sandpiper in this area of the state.” He later wondered in a note to the group if there was “much BS on behalf of Enbridge” at a public meeting. Enbridge is building the pipeline.
The rest of the message adds context. Lucas said the Keystone document has very relevant spill risk assessments and looks at “the likely damage that would occur” in the case of a pipeline spill in Minnesota.
There is no law against a public employee having an opinion on an issue, but if you work for an agency looking into the safety of such a project, a certain amount of objectivity is expected. You also might not want to share those opinions with opponents of the project in a public e-mail account.
That said, it seems by the mission statement of the MPCA that its job is to ask tough questions and detect BS when someone wants to put a pipeline through your wilderness. The job definition of the agency is to control pollution, not assist it.
Lucas’ role in determining the fate of the Sandpiper pipeline is minimal, the MPCA said in a statement Tuesday, perhaps 10 percent of his workload. He is not, according to the agency, “a key decisionmaker.”
In other words, he’s got a voice, but he’s not someone likely to be sabotaging the efforts of the evil oil industry at the secret behest of the governor. For all we know, Lucas is just one of thousands of state employees with an opinion contrary to his boss who is simply careless enough to express it. This is a $2.6 billion project backed by Republicans and, supposedly, the governor. I doubt a watershed project manager from Brainerd is going to throw enough sand in the gears of capitalism to stop this thing.
Nevertheless, he offers an opportunity for pipeline proponents to chum the waters to see what they can catch. Reporters ask for public e-mails all the time, and it’s easy to conclude by them that there is a whole lot of dumb going on, but not nearly as much conspiracy as we suspect.
I’m going to make a wild guess that had someone used their public e-mail to tell Enbridge that previous studies showed similar pipeline projects went swell and that information would help them, no one would be criticizing them for being too cozy with the company.
Asked for specifics on how else Dayton dragged his feet, Daudt’s office provided a timeline that said the governor, through the DNR and the MPCA, pushed for separation of two processes — the certificate of need and route selection processes, which normally would unfold simultaneously. That resulted in a successful lawsuit that put the project “back to square one,” according to Susan Closmore, director of public affairs for the House Republican Caucus.
Matt Swenson, press secretary for the governor, said Dayton isn’t exactly a shrinking violet when expressing his opinions. “They can spin this until they are blue in the face, but he really wants the pipeline,” said Swenson.
Dayton also immediately called for an investigation into the e-mails. “It’s important to the governor that [a pipeline decision] is conducted in an impartial manner.”
Swenson points out that the MPCA employee is “one of 34,000 employees” of the state and only speaks for himself.
We are weeks away from the start of the 2016 legislative session and so far we have conspiracy theories and calls for investigations. Why do I get the feeling they are just warming up?