GOP plans broad environmental, energy reforms in Legislature

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House Republicans are putting together a comprehensive environmental and energy agenda that they say will promote business and cut down bureaucratic red tape while protecting water, air and other natural resources. Among the provisions: expanding nuclear and coal energy in Minnesota, speeding the permitting process for facilities that discharge pollutants or manage waste products, and promoting the use of “greener” chemicals by farmers. Environmental groups are expressing concern over some of the measures.

“We have to go above and beyond what some other states may do in order to protect our natural resources, just because they’re so vast and so unbelievable,” said Rep. Denny McNamara (R-Hastings), who chairs the committee on environment, energy and natural resources, in an interview with The Minnesota Independent. “That being said, we currently have built a model that’s not necessarily doing what’s best for Minnesota in terms of creating jobs.”

McNamara pointed to the state process, which he describes as slow, for issuing permits to industry to discharge air or water pollution and manage wastes. Companies must obtain such permits in order to construct new facilities or continue to operate old ones.

But environmentalists have reservations about the GOP’s plan, especially on coal-fired energy and permitting.

“The people at [the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] that are there work super, super hard, but the last thing you want to do is tell people to speed up the process,” said Ken Bradley of Environment Minnesota in an interview, explaining that he is particularly concerned about the environmental review for new mining projects.

“These projects are significant. There’s a reason why they’re going through a permitting process,” he said.

A bill (pdf) by Rep. Joyce Peppin (R-Rogers) would lift the state’s moratorium on new nuclear plants passed the environment and energy committee this week. No one has yet introduced a bill to do the same for coal, but McNamara says such a measure is in the works.

“We have a moratorium, a restriction on importation of coal-fired power and a moratorium on the construction of clean coal plants in Minnesota, and we’d like to revisit that moratorium and see if there are some things that we can do to look at the option more openly in the future, including what are the implications when we import power from North Dakota,” McNamara said.

But Bradley says the legislature should support renewable energy such as solar instead, since such policies would provide an immediate boost to hundreds of businesses already in the state. He says that both coal and nuclear power would require importing ore, equipment or electricity.

“Where do you want to create jobs?” he said. “Do you want to create them here in Minnesota, or do you want to create them in Europe, Asia and North Dakota?”

In the next few weeks, the committee will take up a bill by Rep. Dan Fabian (R-Roseau) to streamline environmental permitting, said McNamara, who called it a “first step” in reforming the process.

The bill (pdf) would set a goal for the state to reduce permitting processes to a 150-day period, but would leave the Pollution Control Agency in charge of coming up with a plan to reach that goal. The bill would require the agency, twice a year, to submit reports to the legislature tracking progress in making permitting more efficient, as well as identifying sources of delay.

The bill would allow developers to write Environmental Impact Statements, a role currently played by state agencies or local governments, and repeal state rules that prohibit construction before a project receives its water discharge permit.

Fabian says the bill would attract businesses to the state.

“The length of time that it takes to get a permit, the amount of time and money spent in court, in district court, litigating these types of things becomes very expensive, and very, very time consuming,” Fabian told The Minnesota Independent. “And the bottom line is rather than even going through the process they just choose to not even come to Minnesota as a place to expand their business.”

The bill also includes measures to improve air quality by requiring the state agency to promote methods of generating energy and disposing of waste that pollute as little as possible.

It allows the agency to adopt air quality and other environmental standards that vary across the state according to different criteria, such as whether an area is residential or industrial, and then prohibits local governments from setting standards that are more stringent, a measure that worries some municipal officials. Fabian says the measure is necessary to create a “uniform code” for the state, but adds that he’s open to compromise.

“I’ve talked to the governor. I’ve talked to his new commissioner nominee for at least the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and in conversations that I’ve had with them we have a lot of common ground with this bill,” Fabian said.

But Bradley worries that the bill would weaken environmental reviews, similar to what a recent presidential commission report documented had happened in off-shore drilling in the lead-up to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year. And he worries about what a leak of sulfuric acid from a mining project, for example, would mean for people whose livelihoods depend on tourism from the state’s lakes.

“They’ll say ‘Oh it doesn’t matter,’ just like these fisherman don’t matter in the Gulf Coast,” Bradley said. “We’re looking at a situation like that.”

But the Chamber of Commerce says Fabian’s bill doesn’t compromise environmental safeguards.

“It finds duplication and overlaps in the permitting and review system and makes it more efficient, effective and easier to navigate for businesses in the state while also protecting public health and environment and natural resources,” wrote Tony Kwilas, the Chamber’s director of environmental policy, in an email.

Also on the GOP’s environment agenda is considering recommendations recently submitted to the legislature in a report by the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center.

The report (pdf), formally presented to the House environment and energy committee Jan. 4, outlines several legislative recommendations, including mandatory statewide rules to decrease nutrient runoff from agriculture and promote “greener” chemical use.

McNamara pledged to advance initiatives to protect water, but also noted that agricultural practices have evolved to a much lower environmental footprint than in previous decades.

“We’re interested in working with agriculture on them continuing on their journey to use less [chemicals], to use it better, smarter,” he said.