Environmental laws are facing fresh scrutiny at the Capitol as a new Republican majority in the House and the sway of Iron Range DFLers in the Senate make their power felt.
House Republicans are eager to scale back environmental regulation, believing that the rules are heavy-handed, costly and a hindrance to economic growth. “I hear a lot not just from agricultural business, but from business in general that we are overregulated,” said Paul Anderson, the Starbuck Republican chairman of the House Agriculture Policy Committee.
Meanwhile, the Senate is controlled by Iron Range DFLers who often have taken a similarly skeptical view of environmental rules as they’ve watched good jobs vanish over the years. In the past, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has voted to lift the cap on carbon emissions and end the moratorium on nuclear power plants. By his side is fellow Ranger Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisolm, who chairs the Finance Committee budget division for environment, economic development and agriculture.
That’s the new political dynamic that will play out this session as agribusiness, mining and other industries and their legislative allies try to press their new advantage while environmental activists play defense.
That, in turn, could lead to conflict with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who already has proposed tougher clean water rules.
Interviews with legislators, administration officials, lobbyists and activists who shared their ideas on what to expect when it comes to environmental legislation this session show a broad consensus about the policy areas — water quantity and quality, wetlands, clean air and transit, and the role of Minnesotans in the environmental regulatory process.
But that’s where the agreement ends.
The issue drawing some of the most passionate response on both sides is the status of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens Board. That’s the board of Minnesotans appointed by the governor that can step in and make permitting decisions on controversial projects. Republicans and their business allies are openly discussing eliminating it or restricting its authority.
They still seethe about a board decision last year requiring Baker Dairy to obtain an environmental-impact statement for a proposed 9,000-head operation near Chokio. An environmental-impact statement provides a comprehensive review of the potential environmental impacts, but takes more time and money. Rep. Denny McNamara, the Hastings Republican who is chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, said the operation would use state-of-the-art technology to prevent pollution, and he said he expects to hear legislation on the future of the citizens review board.
The MPCA opposes changes, said Kirk Koudelka, an assistant commissioner: “We believe the citizen board adds value” in the form of transparency and public input, he said. The board reviews just a handful of projects out of the roughly 3,000 the MPCA permits every year.
Water water everywhere …
“It’s so bizarre to be in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and to be talking about not having enough water,” said Bob Meier, a Department of Natural Resources assistant commissioner. “But we are there, and if we don’t remain vigilant on this issue, my gosh, look at California,” he said.
DNR has pilot groundwater management programs in the north and east metro, the Straight River area and the Bonanza Valley to manage shortages. Anderson, the House agriculture committee chairman, said he wants a voluntary water conservation program for irrigators rather than enforceable rules.
The bigger issue, however, is quality, as water tainted by sulfates from mining and nitrates from farm nutrients pose a danger to wild rice, bird habitats and drinking supplies.
Dayton has offered a major policy proposal that would broaden and toughen an existing buffer zone requirement around all waterways, employing the DNR to enforce it.
Business interests and legislators are waiting for more details but are skeptical.
“We have to look at how practical a solution it is,” Tomassoni said, adding that a one-size-fits-all approach would not work. Anderson said he wants the counties, not the DNR, to enforce any buffer proposal. Conservationists counter that the counties are failing to enforce the current requirement, which is the only one of its kind in the nation.
Environmentalists and business interests alike fear the repercussions of poor air quality pushing the metro region into what’s called “nonattainment” — the bureaucratic term for such cities as Houston and Los Angeles that face federal oversight to clean up their dirty air.
Tony Kwilas, environmental policy director for the state Chamber of Commerce, said his organization is eagerly awaiting the governor’s budget proposal, due out Tuesday.
He said they hope to see support for the 24 recommendations of Clean Air Minnesota, a group that includes businesses like 3M and Xcel Energy, government officials and environmental groups like the Sierra Club. Among the recommendations are retrofits to reduce emissions from diesel engines and reforestation of some urban areas.
Environmentalists say poor air quality costs Minnesota $30 billion in health costs and want support for transit, which is cleaner than cars. Dayton proposed a half-cent sales tax hike in the seven-county metro area as part of his larger transportation plan released Monday.
The Dayton administration touts its work cutting down permitting time, with the pollution control agency setting a goal of issuing permits in 150 days. The agency is meeting that goal 99 percent of the time, Koudelka said, and has begun a two-tiered system to deliver permits for simpler projects within 90 days. House Republicans want to drive it down further, but Koudelka said the agency would prefer some time to work with its new schedule before more changes.
It’s not just Republicans challenging the Dayton administration, however.
Tomassoni, the Iron Range DFLer, acknowledged the MPCA’s efforts to improve permitting times, but added: “If we’re going to have a rural Minnesota session, part of it needs to be a discussion of permitting getting done in a timely fashion.”
He specifically cited the highly controversial PolyMet copper-nickel mine that is under review and drawing fierce resistance from environmentalists.
If it all sounds like a coming stalemate, Sen. John Marty, the DFL chairman of the Environment and Energy Committee and an environmental ally, said he prefers not to think of it that way: “Instead of an all-out fight, I’d like to see long-term strategic thinking.”