Blog from Scott Strand, Executive Director


Read Scott's thoughts on important environmental issues in Minnesota, the United States, and worldwide.

Climate policy polling

Another set of polling results showing that the American public wants and expects serious efforts at the federal level to address climate change. Many candidates, however, continue to believe that climate is a "third rail" issue, best left unmentioned, too risky because most people are "climate deniers."  That's of course not true, and there are now a few candidates who are making climate a major issue.   Analysis from the League of Conservation Voters strongly supports candidates taking on the climate issue in their campaigns.  We'll see what happens over the next few months in Minnesota.

The poll results can be seen here.

"Waters of the US" rule

Dan Gunderson from MPR has a story on the new "waters of the United States" rule proposed by the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  This is primarily about federal jurisdiction over wetlands.  Over the past ten years, the  U.S. Supreme Court has imposed restrictions on federal jurisdiction that are very difficult to apply in practice (in part because the Court itself is divided on the issue).  Permits were getting held up while the Corps of Engineers performed "jurisdictional assessments."  So responding to pressure from farm groups, governments, developers, and conservationists, the EPA and the Corps proposed this new rule to clarify when the feds have jurisdiction and when they don't.

We at MCEA believe they did a pretty good job, and that the new rule deserves support.  But interest groups from industries like agriculture and mining are out convincing their folks that this is the greatest federal power grab of all time, that the EPA and the Corps are going to require federal permits for most normal farming practices, and that they were not consulted.  None of that is even remotely true.  There will be no new permit requirements, there will be no new waters included within federal jurisdiction, the rules were "stakeholdered" with everyone for years, and everyone--permit applicants and those who want to preserve wetlands--will benefit from greater clarity in the rules.  None of that apparently matters in today's polarized political environment.  Lobbyists feel free to just make things up to stoke irrational fears that apparently show up in focus groups and polling results.  So now EPA and the Corps are in retreat, more years are going to go by with today's confusing rules, and no one is going to be better off.

Not too far under the surface on this issue is the belief that, in some future case, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule that most if not all federal wetland protection is unconstitutional, beyond the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause.  So the strategy is to fight everything until that case finds its way up.  I think some of these industry partisans are overestimating how far the Court is really willing to go to hold federal environmental laws unconstitutional, but that viewpoint may explain some off the really beyond the pale tactics we are seeing on this issue.

More Confirmation of Threat to Drinking Water from Nitrogen Pollution

MPR reports on a new study from the University of Minnesota showing how the conversion of grasslands to crop land poses a dramatic threat to our drinking water supplies because of contamination from nitrogen-based fertilizer.  The evidence is getting overwhelming; the key now is to convince state government actors to take the necessary steps to change farming practices. 

Minnesota Carbon Reductions Getting National Attention

Friday's New York Times has a nice piece summarizing Minnesota's success in reducing carbon emissions in the last decade.  Maybe the most important part is the "without much straining" comment in the headline.  Minnesota has had, if not a perfect, at least a decent storm of coincidences that have helped get those numbers down--a severe recession, several old, dirty coal plants due to retire, and significant price drops for natural gas and renewables like solar and wind.  Now comes the hard part.  Minnesota's economic growth level is picking up, natural gas prices can be expected to rise, and the coal plants still on line are newer, involve more sunk costs, and decisions to close rather than retrofit will be harder for the utilities to make.  The laws are in good shape; the question is whether regulators will have the political will to keep pushing those carbon numbers down.

Copper Mining and Jobs

Good article on the very limited job-creating potential of the proposed copper-nickel mining projects in northeastern Minnesota.  The Duluth study that the industry (and, unfortunately, our own state and federal regulators) rely on itself makes clear that the lion's share of any future mining-related job growth will come from taconite expansion, not the new sulfide mining projects.  These projects could be "game changers," I guess, but it will be for the environment, not for jobs or the Arrowhead economy.

Switch to Renewable Energy is Feasible

Germany is doing it.  One third of their electricity came from renewables in the first half of 2014.

Response to Times Op-Ed on Wilderness Act

Eric Biber posted a response to last Sunday's editorial on the need to permit more active management of wilderness areas due to human-caused negative effects, such as those associated with climate change.  Biber contends, appropriately I think, that there is no need to amend the Wilderness Act, since it already permits more active management of wilderness areas when needed, subject to procedural protections.  He also notes the sometimes slippery slope from "active management" to "resource exploitation," which the Wilderness Act was enacted to prevent.  This will continue to be an active debate.  The most prominent local example may be the ongoing debate about fire prevention and control in the BWCA, although the debate over intervention on behalf of the wolf on Isle Royale poses the same kind of issues.

Wilderness Act at 50--What comes next?

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, many are questioning whether the basic strategy of leaving wilderness alone is going to be good enough, given the sometimes dramatic effect human activity is having on wilderness lands.  This will be a difficult issue for much of the environmental movement as well as for policymakers.

NRDC and the Clean Power rules

Interesting article in yesterday's New York Times on the impact of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in developing the Obama Administration's rules regulating greenhouse gas emissions at existing power plants.  The structure of the rules--giving states targets and then giving them flexibility on how to meet them--is consistent with NRDC white papers, and was obviously persuasive.  At the same time, however, the NRDC is today one of the stronger critics of the rule, arguing that it set the bars for the states way too low.

"Alarming losses" in wetlands in Prairie Pothole region

Important new report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, using new technology to show how we have been losing tens of thousands of acres of important wetlands in the prairie pothole region of Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas, with the largest losses in emergent wetlands occurring in Minnesota.  At a time when ag and local government groups are violently protesting simple clarification of the federal government's jurisdiction over wetlands, this report demonstrates again just how high the stakes are.  Minnesota is a bit unusual because it has its own comprehensive wetland conservation act, but Minnesota's WCA has not been meeting its "no net loss" objective either.

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