The Environmental Quality Board (EQB) solicited comments on its Report Card, developed per Gov. Dayton’s Executive Order 11-32. I sent some in, which are below, and would encourage people to send something in. The so-called “Environmental Congress” is happening on march 15th in Bloomington (public apparently not invited).
[Emails I have for Board members are: Dave.Frederickson@state.mn.us, Spencer.Cronk@state.mn.us, John.Stine@state.mn.us, firstname.lastname@example.org, Ed.Ehlinger@state.mn.us, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org]
Note also: this post is slightly cleaned up from the original email.
Mr. Dave Frederickson, Chair, Minnesota Environmental Quality Board
Dear Mr. Frederickson and Board members:
The EQB has solicited comments and here are mine. I would be happy to try to answer any questions they might raise.
On November 16, 2011, Governor Dayton issued Executive Order 11-32, “Directing the Work of the Environmental Quality Board.” This had a number of provisions, but the overall theme was to weaken protection of Minnesota’s environmental protections, on the theory that protecting human health, quality of life, and natural resources keeps people from having jobs & etc. This, of course, is nonsense, but politically popular nonsense…. I wrote at the time:
“The wording of this, and the reasoning behind it, is so appalling one hardly knows what to say.
Does the Governor really think Minnesota will benefit by giving out environmental approvals like airline peanuts, without regard for the consequences? During the campaign I heard Dayton refer to the MPCA as the “Minnesota Pollution PROTECTION Agency.” There was sarcasm in his voice and most of the people in the green-oriented audience probably assumed he was referring to a problem needing a fix. I sat there wondering if he perhaps meant something different and more menacing. This question now seems answered.”
One provision of E.O. 11-32 is:
“3. By November 15,2012, the EQB shall prepare an environmental and energy report card that identifies metrics which the State of Minnesota can use to measure its performance and progress protecting Minnesota’s valuable air, water and land resources. Once initially established, the environment and energy report card shall be an annual report with renewed priorities, initiatives, and goals and an updated report card.”
This “Report Card” was prepared by state agencies, with little public input, and presented at six “Citizen Forums” around the state. Many more people turned up than expected by the organizers. Attendance was approximately: Rochester: 300, Bloomington: 400-plus, Duluth: 200-plus, St. Cloud: 240. (I attended the Rochester gathering.) The message her is that Minnesotans have not lost their concern for their environment. In Rochester, there seemed to be a lot of concern that government has lost that concern.
Here is Carol Overland’s report on the one in Rochester. Here are two reports on the one in Bloomington later the same day: “Governor Dayton Environment Public Forums A Fraud.”(Michael Calvan); “Environmental Citizens Forum provides a ray of hope.” (Aaron Klemz)
So far as I can determine, the comments by the public weren’t accurately recorded and so far have had little impact on the Report Card as previously approved on Nov. 14, 2012.
The next, and perhaps final, step in implementing the Executive Order is supposed to be the Environmental Congress itself.
“4. By January 15,2013, the EQB shall organize and host an environmental congress focused on the current state of Minnesota’s environment, utilizing the elements in the report card.”
The date and location have been withheld. The Executive Order called for it by January 15th. We’ve now been told it will take place on March 15th at the Ramada Inn in Bloomington. My sense is that it will be an invitation-only event, without public participation. “State leaders will meet in a one-day summit to review report card findings, discuss public feedback received at citizen forums, and begin planning a blueprint for Minnesota’s environmental future.”
Even worse, the event’s for sale:
“Sponsorship of the Minnesota Environmental Congress is a great opportunity to promote your organization or business and help support the Environmental Congress! Watch for more information coming soon about donation levels and benefits.”
The EQB should immediately withdraw the invitations for “sponsorship” of the Congress, and open it to public participation. Otherwise, the perception will be that it is just another special-interest celebration.
[Update: As of January 17, 2013, the sponsorship link is no longer active. Possibly this message has been heard.]
Back to the Report Card:
The idea makes sense. How IS Minnesota doing? But the present “final” Report Card looks more like a whitewash (greenwash?) than a balanced effort. It’s a product of agency staff, who cannot be expected to focus on the shortcomings of the activities they are managing. Should people accept it as a valid indicator of how Minnesota is doing? If one is satisfied with the way our environment is being managed now, one may be OK with it. If not, maybe not so much.
The Environmental Congress is supposed to be about “…planning a blueprint for Minnesota’s environmental future,” but the Report Card is mostly backward-looking, rather than forward-looking. In general, that look backward shows that regulatory programs under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Minnesota Environmental Policy Act, etc., have been somewhat effective, and more-than-worthwhile, but have many loopholes and weaknesses. There is a lot more to be done. Lets look at a few areas.
Minnesota faces unprecedented environmental threats, including climate change, frac sand mining, and sulfide (copper-nickel) mining. The first of these is certain to change the landscape of Minnesota. At this point, major climate change can’t be avoided. The only real question is how drastic it will be. The Report Card has a whole section on Climate (pages 19-22) , and does seem to try to alert readers to the reality that our climate is changing. But the Report Card ignores the reality that many of the measures promoted as helping reduce climate change, such as corn ethanol production, “biomass” burning, and garbage incineration, actually tend to accelerate climate change, as well as damaging air and water quality. Thus, for example, Minnesota’s Renewable Energy Standard needs to be changed to stop combustion processes from being considered “renewable.”
The Report Card notes
“recent loss of acres in land retirement programs and other habitat acres converted to cropland,” (page 9) and that “… more cropland that had been idled through conservation programs is put back into production” (page 10)
but fails to make the connection between this and subsidies for use of grain to make fuels. The Report Card also fails to note that burning crop residues for fuel is certain to cause increased erosion–harming water quality–and reduced soil fiber. Likewise, burning poultry litter, rather than field-applying it, reduces soil fiber and increases use of chemical fertilizers.
These are politically difficult issues in Minnesota because the industries involved have political power. But reality is reality and one can’t make good decisions with bad information. Policy decisions made with insufficient information, or otherwise in error, need to be revisited. The EQB needs to provide leadership in identifying where such revisiting is needed.
Unlike climate change, the impacts of new mining types aren’t inevitable. To these, Minnesota could “just say NO.”
Two sorts of mining, both new to Minnesota, threaten to “alter the landscape” of the state. Hard rock mining obviously isn’t new to Minnesota, but sulfide-ore mining, if it happens, will be. This is fundamentally different because the waste materials are chemically reactive and will discharge sulfuric acid into the waters of Northeast Minnesota. Whether this sort of mining could be done safely seems almost beside-the-point, because the mining industry has never done it safely anywhere else and is not interested in beginning in Minnesota. Rather, the industry focus has been on weakening the environmental protections.
Early in 2012 the MPCA advertised for a new position:
“Job Description: The incumbent will be the mining subcabinet point person who will maintain relationships with state/federal agencies on mining regulatory matters, and will help coordinate among state agencies; Economic Development Mining Coordinator and mining companies to ensure mining regulatory issues and processes are addressed in a timely and complete manner. [Need I say, no mention of “coordinating” with health or environmental interests? After all, this is the “pollution control” agency!]”
A version of the Report Card dated 11/20/2012 says:
“With increased demand for electronics and other products, interest in extracting Minnesota’s extensive reserves of non-ferrous metals has never been greater. With advances in processing technology and environmental impact mitigation, extraction is now economically and environmentally viable.” [page 10.]
This is an interesting conclusion given that Polymet, for example, has been unable to demonstrate compliance with Minnesota’s requirements in spite of the expenditure of millions of dollars and thousands of hours of consultant and agency staff time.
Some people objected to this and a version dated 1/2/2012 now says:
“With increased demand for electronics and other products, interest in extracting Minnesota’s extensive reserves of non-ferrous metals has never been greater. If extraction is economically and environmentally viable with advances in processing technology and environmental impact mitigation, it may open new mining opportunities in Minnesota.” [page 10]
This is an improvement but what does “environmentally viable” really mean? Minnesota should consider the sort of show-us-first legislation adopted in Wisconsin.
“Frac sand” mining
“Frac sand” mining, equally, threatens to change the landscape of parts of Minnesota. Again, mining of sand (silicon dioxide) isn’t new, but the scale of mining for frac sand is unprecedented. Even the most casual investigation shows that Minnesota does not have in place an adequate regulatory framework for frac sand mining, either to protect the health of workers or the public, or to address potential environmental impacts and socio-economic dislocations. For example:
- The workplace levels of crystalline silica allowed by the OHSA and the MSHA are double those recommended by the NIOSH, and demonstrably inadequate, in that occupational silicosis is still being diagnosed. This is the case because industrial interests have opposed tightening the standards. Thus, workers are not adequately protected.
- There is no Federal ambient air quality standard for crystalline silica, and Minnesota has not established one at the state level. Thus, the public is not adequately protected.
- Other impacts, such as to surface and groundwater resources and agricultural productivity, need to be considered, not only in light of present circumstances but in light of other impacts expected from accelerating climate change. For example, would this industry compete for increasingly limited water resources?
Minnesota residents, and public entities such as the Mississippi River Parkway Commission, have repeatedly sought assistance from the Environmental Quality Board, yet the Report Card doesn’t even mention this subject. (Nor is it adequately addressed in the EQB’s draft “Report on Industrial Silica Sand.”)
If this industry wants to operate responsibly in Minnesota, it should support, not block, the enactment of such an adequate regulatory framework.
It follows from these circumstances that Minnesota should establish a moratorium on the permitting of new or expanded sand mining operations until an adequate regulatory framework is in place. It also follows that a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS), with a comprehensive scope, could be an effective approach to defining an adequate regulatory framework. The EQB should be pro-active in causing such a GEIS to happen.
The section on Air (page 12) begins with:
“Our air is healthy to breathe … Most air pollution in Minnesota today comes from mobile sources, like cars and trucks … and from fuel combustion for things like home heating.” “Large, stationary sources of air pollution (such as … coal-fired power plants … are known as point sources. Once seen as the prime contributors to air pollution, they bear far less responsibility today.”
This is a line the US EPA has promoted all over the country, state regulatory agencies echo it, and it sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? No need to go after the big, politically connected polluters like Xcel and 3M; our real problems come from nasty citizens driving to work and heating their homes….
But how true is this? Well, there is a kernel of truth in it. But looking slightly deeper, we see that the emissions of one “stationary source,” the Xcel “SHERCO” coal-burning power plant, are credited with killing 92 people each year, causing 150 heart attacks, 1600 asthma attacks, and so on. SHERCO also harms air quality in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyageurs National Park, and Isle Royale National Park. Perhaps this is not surprising when one considers that SHERCO burns thousands of tons per day of coal and emits tens of thousands of tons per year of health damaging, visibility-impairing, air pollutants.
In spite of this, the MPCA has avoided requiring Xcel to clean up SHERCO, over the objections of the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, and various environmental advocacy organizations including Earthjustice. For more on this, see my previous piece “MPCA betrays air quality in the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park.”
The MPCA has also sought to exclude the public from participation in its bad decisions. Janette Brimmer, of Earthjustice, noted, in re SHERCO, that:
“Minnesota’s actions, combined with EPA’s simultaneous consideration, plainly deprive the public of a meaningful opportunity to review and comment on this significant decision.”
SHERCO, of course, is only one example, if a gross one. We should also note that the MPCA has actively sought to increase incineration of both “hazardous” and “municipal” wastes in Minnesota, in the face of abundant evidence that incineration is a key source of ultrafine particles with disproportionate health effects.
The Report Card notes that tonnage of many pollutants has decreased, and this is good. But it fails to note that present-day insights tell us that the health effects of airborne particulates are probably more a matter of particle size distributions that gross weight. As particle sizes decrease, they stay in the air longer, go deeper into the lungs, and their surface area/unit weight ratio increases dramatically. The are able to pass through the lungs into the bloodstream, causing strokes and heart attacks. It’s the little guys that kill us.
The smaller the particles are, the more difficult they are to capture in air pollution equipment. Present requirements are not effective in controlling emissions of these most health-threatening emissions. Therefore, Minnesota air regulators and public health officials should enhance programs to give adequate attention to primary and secondary particle size distributions, and sources, such as incinerators, known to emit small particles.
The Report Card states(page 17): “… our consumption of electricity and natural gas was growing at a rate of 3 percent per year. State-mandated energy efficiency programs enacted by utilities have cut those growth rates in half.” Obviously, “enacted” is not the correct term for what the utilities have done. More important, the Report Card fails to note that electricity consumption in Minnesota peaked in about 2007 and subsequently dropped by about ten percent. So there has been no need for additional generating capacity, and a number of old units have or are being shut down. This drop has given Minnesota “breathing room” to reorient its policies and energy supply mix, but this opportunity has yet to be fully taken up.
Minnesota’s investment in conservation and efficiency is only a fraction of what it could and should be. Perhaps this is partly because the legislative mandate of a 1.5 percent annual savings has been interpreted by utilities as a maximum rather than a minimum. Almost invariably, “demand side” resources prove to be least cost–often around 3 cents/kilowatt hour–as well as, obviously, having the fewest environmental impacts. But they may not fit best into utilities’ business plans. This is why we need a strong PUC to make the public interest prevail.
Performance should be evaluated against the “technical potential” for savings in energy and capacity. It is likely, based on evaluations in other states, that this technical potential is on the order of 30 percent for energy.
In all regulatory proceedings involving a “certificate of need,” the “demand side” alternative should receive truly fair and symmetrical treatment, involving real bids for equivalent-sized blocks of demand-side investment.
It is my impression that the technical work done on energy policy questions in the Department of Commerce is unsatisfactory, perhaps because the Department has a certain natural alignment with the agendas of the utilities, and NO mandate to protect health or the environment. An extreme example of foolishness was a Commerce report claiming to identify a need for a new coal generating unit in Minnesota. Energy policy and planning is so important to our future that Minnesota needs to establish an independent, forward looking, not-utility-controlled entity to do this work. (See comments on “regulatory capacity.”)
Transmission: Minnesota lies between sources of wind and coal generated electricity to the west, in the Dakotas and Iowa, and large loads in the East–Milwaukee, Chicago, etc. The electricity industry has evolved towards treating electricity as a commodity to be traded, speculated in, and moved around. These developments have made Minnesota a target for the location of numerous transmission projects not needed by or beneficial to Minnesotans, although they may be profitable to Minnesota-based utilities, as well as independent transmission developers. Many of these projects have been represented to the public and to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission as “for wind,” or “for renewables,” but somehow they usually seem to have a coal plant at one end and big customers at the other. In fact, the “benefits” of these projects have often been represented, not so publicly, as access to cheap, coal-generated electricity. This, of course, conflicts directly with Minnesota’s policies of reducing climate-changing carbon emissions.
A procedural problem is that Minnesota issues “Certificates of Need” in one proceeding, and “Route Permits” in a separate, subsequent proceeding. When a Certificate of Need has been issued, a subsequent Route Permit becomes inevitable. But those members of the public whose interest are most directly affected, such as adjoining landowners and businesses, are not likely to grasp the stake they have at the “Need” stage.
Another problem is that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, like most such bodies, is simply too much under the influence of those it is supposed to be regulating. Example: David Boyd, as Chair of the PUC, also was a leader of an transmission advocacy group, the “Upper Midwest Transmission Development Initiative.”` Yet Mr. Boyd failed to recuse himself from voting on the approval of transmission projects. I have testified to the PUC that this sort of behavior “violates basic principles of integrity and propriety in government….”
As I have noted above, Minnesota’s “Renewable Energy” quotas, combined with defective definitions of “renewable,” have had the effect of promoting investment in undesirable facilities while leading to very limited investment in solar photovoltaics. The state needs to review these policies and make course corrections.
I’d like to draw your attention to a recent report of the Committee on Population of the United States National Academy of Sciences, Division of Behavior and Social Sciences and Education. This report, “U.S. Health in International Perspectives: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health,” compared United States death rates 16 “peer” countries – other high-income democracies — found that the US scored at the bottom, below the 16 other countries, in deaths from all causes. The U.S. scored second from the bottom in deaths from noncommunicable diseases, which could be the best measure of deaths from environmental insults.
This strongly suggests that the EQB, and it’s Report Card, should give deeper consideration to the relationship between environmental factors and human health. This is especially so because it is widely predicted that global climate change will have negative impacts on human health.
Minnesota will not be able to manage its environmental challenges without strong laws and rules, and regulatory and policy agencies that are adequately funded, technically competent, forward looking, and reasonably free of political interference and the influence of those they are supposed to be regulating. In recent years these factors seem to have been eroded more than they have been strengthened. Turning this around should be a matter of the highest priority, whether it be the MPCA air program, the incinerator promoters in the PCA, the Public Utilities Commission, the Lands and Minerals Division of the DNR, the Minnesota Department of Health, the staff of the EQB itself, or any other such body.
The present “Environment and Energy Report Card” contains useful information but is incomplete. It should be thoroughly revised under the direction of a neutral and independent committee.
Copy: Ellen Anderson
EQB Board Members
Sen. John Marty
Rep. Melissa Hortman
Rep. Jean Wagenius
Rep. Phyllis Kahn
Rep. David Dill
1110 West Avenue
Red Wing, MN, 55066