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Jul 09, 2021

2021 Legislative and Special Session Update

A very long and very strange session comes to an end

by Aaron Klemz, Director of Public Engagement, MCEA St. Paul

After a very long and very strange 2021 Minnesota Legislative session, it’s a good time to reflect on the results. These summaries often sound the same - some good things happened, some bad things happened, and we didn’t go far enough. Certainly this is true here in Minnesota, where we have the only Legislature with divided control in the U.S.

But the real story is about you. Thank you for taking action and reaching out to your legislators during this session, because your voice made a difference. Your actions during a legislative session where COVID restrictions pushed work online were absolutely critical. Hundreds of you reached out to your legislators - pushing for the Next Generation Climate Act, for environmental justice, for science and habitat projects funded by the Minnesota Lottery. Conversely, hundreds of messages against environmental law rollbacks were instrumental in blocking the worst ideas we saw this session. Thank you. 

We also want to thank outgoing Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop, who resigned on Tuesday when it became clear that the Minnesota Senate planned to fire her for the MPCA’s Clean Cars Minnesota rule. As leader of the MPCA, climate change was something she cared deeply about, and she took several steps that MCEA supported. 

One was the Clean Cars Minnesota rule, which is a good policy that received thousands of public comments, several public meetings and a full hearing ending in a recommendation by an administrative law judge that the rule be adopted. It’s an example of how executive action can engage all Minnesotans and Governor Tim Walz and Commissioner Bishop are rightly proud of it. MCEA has been supporting this work every step of the way as this rule has been developed. 

But the Clean Cars Minnesota rule is one step toward climate action; alone it’s not enough. We need bolder steps to bring climate justice to our society and economy. Last week, an unprecedented heat wave caused Lytton, a small town in British Columbia, Canada to record a Canadian record of 118 degrees - higher than the all-time record in Las Vegas, Nevada. Days later, 90% of Lytton was destroyed by a wildfire. Dramatic action is needed to forestall the worst impacts of climate change. But as Commissioner Bishop noted in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, when this year’s budget was being negotiated, Senate Republicans refused to include even the words “climate change,” “equity,” and “environmental justice.” 

Given the scale of the climate crisis and the legacy of decades of environmental injustice heaped on people of color and low-income communities - this can’t stand. The Senate’s refusal to act on these priorities means it’s up to Governor Tim Walz to use his authority to take action. The ousting of Commissioner Bishop should motivate him to do even more, especially since it’s clear that meaningful change in the Senate is unlikely soon.  


The Nasty Nine

Back to some good news - here are what we call the “Nasty Nine” - nine bills or provisions the Senate Majority pushed this session that would’ve harmed our environment had they passed into law. Many of these were blocked because you took action through MCEA this session: 

  1.  Repealing vehicle emissions standards: This proposal would have repealed the authority of MPCA to set standards for automobile emissions. Not only would this repeal the Clean Cars Minnesota rule, it would prevent future state regulations on automobile pollution. Transportation is a top source of greenhouse gas pollution in Minnesota.
  2.  Repealing manure spreading changes: With nitrate pollution on the rise in Minnesota, the MPCA added several conditions to permits to limit manure spreading at times of year when pollution is most likely. The Senate attempted to change MPCA’s feedlot permit to prevent these common sense changes. While one change was included in the final budget, we hope that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will disapprove that limited change. 
  3.  16 years to comply with water quality standards: This bill would have given industrial polluters a blanket 16-year exemption from complying with stronger water quality standards after building a wastewater treatment facility. 
  4.  Threats to calcareous fens: This provision would have threatened some of the rarest wetland habitats in Minnesota. High capacity wells near these wetlands can drain them of the groundwater they depend on. Applicants whose permits are denied because of damage to nearby fens would have been given new avenues to challenge permit denials, even requiring taxpayers to pay for outside analyses to dispute the scientific analysis conducted by the Minnesota DNR. 
  5.  Restrictions on Public Waters Inventory (PWI) changes: This bill would have undermined the DNR’s authority to correct errors in the PWI because counties would be able to veto listing a waterway, even if it meets the statutory definition of a “public water.” The DNR should determine what waters meet the definition of “public water,” protected from being dammed, ditched or drained without a permit. This would directly impact MCEA’s work to protect Limbo Creek. 
  6.  Limits on who can petition for environmental review: This provision would have limited petitions for environmental review only to residents of the county (or adjacent county) where a project is proposed. Currently, any Minnesota resident can sign a  petition. Air and water pollution do not respect county boundaries. Projects undertaken in one county can significantly impact people downstream or downwind across the state.
  7.  Groundwater management gag rule: This gag rule would have prevented DNR from providing the public information about a groundwater management plan under development. Preventing a state agency from communicating with the public is just poor public policy. State policy should be to support greater, not less, transparency. 
  8.  Limiting Clean Air Act standards: This legally dubious attempt to change how Minnesota implements the Clean Air Act would have limited the enforcement of air quality standards. Ambient air quality standards are critical to protecting public health, and must be applied uniformly for all facilities to be effective. 
  9.  Removing rules on “waste to fuel” facilities: This broad language would have created a new industrial category in Minnesota statutes for facilities that convert plastics into fuel. It would exempt this new industry from rules and statutes that apply to similar recycling operations in Minnesota. Recycling operators testified against these provisions, because there is no reason to exempt “waste to fuel” operations from standards that others in the recycling industry have to meet.


Hidden Gems

While the Commerce & Energy and Environment budget bills were underwhelming in the policy they adopted, many legislators did important work to include what they could to advance climate justice and clean water. Some provisions passed into law provided incremental advances that will help our environment. Some of these noteworthy “hidden gems” include: 

  1.  $130+ million in lottery-funded science and habitat projects: After being held hostage for nearly two years, and coming right up to a deadline that would have cancelled over $60 million in projects, the Legislature finally approved two years’ worth of funding. They also avoided unconstitutional uses of the funds and largely stuck to the projects vetted by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. MCEA protects these constitutionally dedicated funds, preventing a raid of $167 million a few years ago.
  2.  A start toward restoring water balance in the Minnesota River valley: Language to begin projects that restore the normal flow of the Minnesota River was included in the final bill. It has been suffering from increased erosion and pollution from unwise agricultural drainage practices. Many people have worked for years to achieve this progress, and it’s a good start. MCEA is working hard for better drainage practices in the Minnesota River Valley. 
  3.  Banning PFAS in food packaging: Many people are unaware these “forever chemicals” have been used for years in food packaging. After being used once, many end up in landfills, where they can pollute groundwater. Minnesota will phase out PFAS in food packaging with a full ban in 2024. MCEA has actively worked on PFAS issues at the Legislature and MPCA. 
  4.  Preventing unlimited exports of Minnesota’s groundwater: Two years ago, a company proposed a “water train” to pump groundwater in Dakota County and ship it to the desert southwest. These provisions limit permits so that they provide benefits to Minnesotans, not profits for exporters. Hundreds of you took action through MCEA when the “water train” was proposed, and this action will prevent a similar attempt in the future. 
  5.  Establishing an office focused on a just transition: The good news for our climate is that Minnesota’s last coal power plants are all nearing the end of their operations. That dislocates workers at these plants, and language in the Commerce and Energy bill establishes an office in the Department of Economic Development to help these workers. MCEA’s climate team has pushed for coal plant retirements and a just transition for decades. 
  6.  New ways to value school trust lands: While logging and mining have been the primary ways the School Trust lands in Minnesota have generated revenue, they also are valuable for clean water and carbon sequestration. New language allows School Trust lands to seek revenue from these valuable activities (such as through carbon offsets). MCEA was part of a planning process for school trust lands last year and supports this change. 

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but a few “hidden gems” related to MCEA’s work that made progress in this legislative session. As we mentioned at the beginning, it’s not surprising that progress is slow and frustrating, given the gridlock on nearly every issue at the Minnesota Legislature this year. We know that our work is supported by Minnesotans of all political parties, and we believe that durable change takes everybody pitching in. No matter how challenging it gets, we know that securing climate justice and clean water for the next generation is too important to stop working for. 

We know you are with us for the long haul, and thank you again for all you do to help us move our legislators to take needed action. 

The Legislature is likely to meet again in September, and we’ll be in touch.