How much carbon dioxide would a new hockey arena emit? Or a new housing subdivision, industrial plant or highway?
Minnesotans will find out under the sweeping revisions being developed for its environmental review process. Multiple state agencies are working to integrate climate change impacts into those reviews, requiring accounting for greenhouse gas emissions and asking parties that are proposing projects to spell out how they'll mitigate them.
It's a dramatic change that will reach most corners of the state, and no doubt draw resistance from industry, as Gov. Tim Walz's administration pushes to get Minnesota back in line with emission reduction goals.
If approved, the expanded reviews would apply to all new projects that require environmental review under state rules due to their potential for significant environmental effects. On average, that's about 100 projects a year across a host of categories such as agriculture, transportation and industrial and commercial development, according to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, which is handling the revisions.
It would be up to the scores of "responsible government units" — cities, counties or state agencies — to conduct the expanded environmental reviews. Such reviews don't approve or deny projects, but give communities and governments critical information about them.
Denise Wilson, director of the board's Environmental Review Program, emphasized the recommendations are a work in progress. There will be ample time for public input, she said.
"This is the beginning of the conversation," Wilson said. "We want to hear from folks."
The draft recommendations discussed at a recent board subcommittee meeting show a significantly altered "Environmental Assessment Worksheet."
The business or other party would have to answer several new questions about how climate change will affect their project's impacts and quantify how many tons per year of carbon dioxide equivalents it will emit.
Stormwater discussion is also amped up. One new section asks about environmental effects from stormwater discharges on historic or cultural resources, "including how current MN climate trends and anticipated changes in rainfall frequency, intensity, and amount will influence those effects related to stormwater volume, discharge rate, and change in pollutants in runoff."
The subcommittee was not unanimous in support.
Alan Forsberg, a public member representing the First Congressional District in heavily agricultural southern Minnesota, told the group he's concerned the expanded reviews would be a burden — for business folks and others already navigating a robust permitting system, as well as for strapped local governments.
"Why should it be the burden of the project proposer to develop this information when it's only for awareness purposes?" Forsberg asked during the meeting. "None of the cities, counties … are even aware of this at this point and it will have quite an impact on them."
Another public member wondered whether the group should consider simply educating industry about greenhouse gas emissions.
Others commended the recommendations.
Dan Huff, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health and a board member, said they are "very appropriate" given the urgent need to track and cut greenhouse gas emissions. The global warming crisis poses graver threats than COVID, Huff said, calling the virus "but water lapping at our toes compared to the tidal wave of climate change."
The revised worksheet and guidance will be posted for public comment this spring, and then altered. Final changes are slated to go to the board for approval in July.
Depending on which recommendations get board approval, rule-making could follow, which includes more public comment periods as well as administrative hearings.
Considering climate change
Revisions to add climate change into Minnesota's reviews have been in the works for a few years, even as President Donald Trump pared back analyzing greenhouse gas emissions in federal environmental reviews.
Minnesota's effort got an electric jolt in late 2019 when the state Court of Appeals ordered the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to redo a permit it approved for the Daley Farms mega-dairy, saying the regulator failed to consider the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from the milking operation.
In a first for the state, the MPCA started disclosing greenhouse gas emissions for all future animal feedlots requiring an environmental review, primarily large ones. The agency has developed its own calculator for feedlot emissions based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.
The agency found the expanded Daley Farms dairy operation would put out nearly 34,000 tons of the global-warming gases per year, on par with industrial facilities such as Gerdau Ameristeel US Inc.'s mill in St. Paul.
Amelia Vohs, a lawyer at the nonprofit Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, told the subcommittee the changes are overdue.
"It's a bit nonsensical that current environmental review considers such things as noise, but isn't considering climate change," Vohs said.
People proposing projects are most concerned about certainty in the regulatory process, she said. Vohs also said she thinks the new program will reduce litigation in environmental reviews because it provides guidelines and a clear framework for how to do it.
"There's no way to know what a project's emissions are going to be without running their emissions through a calculator," she said. "The public needs to know what that number is."
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683