Environment and Energy Issues in 2011

12/30/2010 / Peder Larson

The Minnesota legislature and Governor Dayton will address tremendously important environment and energy issues in 2011. Regulatory reform, new mining ventures, nuclear power and renewable energy are all major items on the docket. And this session, more than any in the last two decades, will see environmental and energy policy decisions running hard against a universal priority of job creation and the painful need for state budget austerity.

Expect early discussions of environmental regulatory reform. Leaders of both House and Senate majorities say it’s a priority and Governor-elect Dayton, who once lead the state economic development agency for Governor Perpich, has recognized the need for changes. Proponents say that attracting capital and creating jobs requires faster project approvals and a more predictable regulatory system. The simplest changes will focus on environmental permitting. Reform proponents want clear deadlines for state agency permit actions and explanations if deadlines cannot be met. Discussions might also focus on whether Minnesota should depend more on federal environmental standards, limiting adoption of more stringent state standards only when national standards are insufficient to protect health and the environment.

Environmental review reform will also be addressed. Minnesota’s system for preparing environmental assessment worksheets and environmental impact statements was created almost 40 years ago, preceding nearly all of the current environmental laws and regulations that impose strict obligations for environmental protection. Expect a diligent search for changes that can be made to speed up and simplify system.

The biggest jobs story in the session will also be one of the biggest environmental stories. New nonferrous mining proposals in Minnesota would provide a solid base of thousands of well-paying jobs. Environmental review of one project has taken years and cost tens of millions of dollars. The legislature will address a variety of issues important to those projects, from obscure water quality standards to the level of financial assurance required to ensure that funds are available to address any long-term environmental concerns.

State law bans new nuclear power plants, a remnant of past policy compromises on nuclear waste storage. A bill repealing the ban is likely to pass. Supporters of the ban will fight for environmental protections and argue that nuclear power costs are too high for Minnesota. Underlying the discussion will be the clear need for new base load power in Minnesota and a variety of policy provisions in Minnesota that severely limit planning of new coal-fired plants.

Bring your dictionary for hearings on $86 million in funding recommendations from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. The constitutional amendment providing the money through a dedicated sales tax requires that funds be used to “supplement” traditional sources of funding for these purposes and cannot be “used as a substitute.” That’s a particularly difficult distinction when traditional sources of funding are being cut to solve a state budget deficit. Strong feelings exist regarding that language and related funding decisions by groups that worked hard to create the funding. The legislators will work through the issues carefully and interested groups could very well ask a judge to decide whether they did it correctly.

The Great Recession wreaked havoc on many legislators’ hopes that Minnesota government would lead the way in fighting global climate change and subsidizing alternative energy sources. All the most involved legislators see energy issues as jobs issues. Some see green jobs as a key to Minnesota’s economic future, promoting solar and wind energy sources. Others say our economic future requires policies that encourage affordable, reliable energy. Don’t expect great strides on renewable energy issues this year. Future sessions will undoubtedly provide debate and action on these critical issues.

Perhaps the most important issue for the New Year is Governor-elect Dayton’s appointments to key environmental policy positions, including new commissioners at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources. They will manage budget constrained agencies and be expected to lead on many critical issues for Minnesota, including water policy, mining regulation and implementation of a raft of new federal clean air regulations.

2011 will be in interesting year.