The Chamber bill: gives new rights to businesses while taking rights from citizens

Under the guise of streamlining, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce is trying to turn Minnesota’s environmental review laws upside down.

The Chamber bill, HF 1291, puts polluters in charge and, in the process, cuts Minnesotans who may be affected by new pollution out of the process. Let us count the ways:

1. It is hard to say which provision in the Chamber bill is the worst, but the one letting the polluter prepare its own environmental impact statement would be in anyone’s top three list. So instead of the agency gathering information about the proposed project and asking for public comment, the agency is relegated to determining the completeness of the proposers “EIS” and possibly modifying it without having gathered the underlyingl data that would inform good decision making. More subtly, if the proposer drafts the EIS, what role does the public now have? Moreover, there would no longer be public access to the documents used to draft the EIS; government documents are subject to the Data Practices Act but private company documents are not.

2. Affected citizens would no longer be able to request a contested case hearing to review a mining permit or any other decision related to a mining permit.

3. Agencies would be required to start a permit at the same time they start environmental review even though the information gathered in the environmental review is supposed be the foundation for the permit. Public input is undercut if the permit is underway before the public has a chance to weigh in.

4. A draft permit must be given to the applicant for comment before it is issued. The public that will be affected by the project doesn’t have the same right.

5. A proposer who has the ability to pay extra can get an expedited permit leaving those without extra money –new or smaller businesses–at the back of the line.

6. A provision that gives automatic approval for wetland replacement sites skirts local, BOWSR, and DNR decisions on wetland replacement sites.

7. The Environmental Quality Board is eliminated, eliminating another opportunity for citizens to participate, eliminating sunshine.

Unfortunately, there is more but one does get the picture!

Minnesota’s drinking water sources are in trouble. The House Environment Committee just added to the trouble

HF 1003, the bill that asks you neighbor downstream to clean up your wastewater so you don’t have to, just passed the House Environment Committee. Or in other words, if you want clean drinking water, you have to clean it up because the upstream waste water treatment system doesn’t want to and under HF 1003 doesn’t have to.
The bill prevents the PCA from imposing additional requirements on a new wastewater treatment system for 16 years. Science is telling us about the threats to drinking waters from pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, endocrine disrupters and more coming from wastewater treatment systems. HF 1003 wants Minnesotans to pretend that those threats don’t exist.

The map below is from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and shows all of the wastewater treatment systems in the upper Mississippi River basin, the drinking water source for over a million Minnesotans.

Drinking water: where state agencies are failing Minnesotans

Nitrogen and pesticides are found in drinking water:

In the spring of 2016, the Pollution Control Agency issued a press release and said in part:
“(n)itrate is one of the most common contaminants in Minnesota’s groundwater and comes from sources like agricultural fertilizer and animal manure. Up to 60 percent of the groundwater samples from monitoring wells in central Minnesota are contaminated with nitrate well beyond the safe drinking water standard.”

The Department of Agriculture’s own Minnesota data shows that where there is nitrogen in groundwater, there likely will be pesticides. And, if there is a lot of nitrogen, then it is likely that there will be a lot of pesticides. Unfortunately nitrogen is not a perfect indicator of pesticides. The Department of Agriculture’s data show that there can be pesticides even when there is no nitrogen present.

Even if a private well is then tested for a wide range of pesticides and all are found to be below the health risk limit, it would be wrong to let the well owner assume that the water was safe. The Minnesota Department of Health may be able to tell well owners what might be a safe level of one pesticide, but where there are multiple pesticides, current science can’t tell us about the cumulative or compounding effect of pesticides even when individually some or all may be at very low level.

It is unfair that well owners are put in the position of needing to clean up water that they did not contaminate or to otherwise find an alternative source. Rep. Rick Hansen has a bill to provide help. Providing help, especially to families with children, should be a top Minnesota priority.

Minnesota’s Department of Health is not on top of agricultural contaminates

In its groundwater water-testing program The Minnesota Department of Agriculture looks for more than 130 pesticides and associated break-down products. Even though Minnesota is an agriculture state, MDH typically only tests for a limited number of pesticides–20 is the number given to House Research–in municipal drinking water wells.

MDH does not test for any of the ubiquitous systemic pesticides including neonicotinoids. They are water soluble, persistent and toxic to water creatures. They are also found in some foods so accounting for cumulative impacts is a necessity.

With the exception of one break-down product test required by EPA, MDH does not test for the multiple break-down products of pesticides like Atrazine that are commonly found in our waters. It is generally understood that break-down products can be as toxic as the parent, perhaps more so. Further, break-down products and their parent may have a cumulative effect so they should not be ignored.

For example, MDH’s health based standard for Atrazine is 3 parts per billion, a standard set by the Federal government in 1992 and reevaluated in 2003. Since then studies link Atrazine to endocrine disruption, not just in animals, but in humans.

In 2000, Minnesota changed its health based standards law. The 2000 law, Minnesota Statutes 144.0751, requires MDH to revise standards to “include a reasonable margin of safety to adequately protect the health of infants, children…taking into consideration risks to…reproductive development and function…development of the brain and nervous system, endocrine (hormonal) function….”

Science has changed. It is far more sophisticated. The basis of our health standard changed. Yet, the standard for Atrazine has not changed. The MDH still does not test for–or add in–Atrazine’s break down products.

Source water monitoring of contaminates is very limited

The pesticides tests that MDH is doing are on “finished” water. Its testing of source water has been very limited. Source water should be tested in order to understand what needs to be checked in finished water. Further, if source water is not tested, then it seems that prevention is not a goal that is being pursued.

The lack of taking measures to prevent drinking water pollution is also evident in the limited follow through on source water protection plans and the increasing pollution in drinking water systems. The MDH has determined that over 1.2 million acres of land should be in municipal wellhead protection areas. Of that, over 350,000 acres are at particular risk because of geology. The Department reports that only a very small percentage have been permanently protected.

This Mississippi River is the drinking water source for over a million Minnesotans who reside in St. Cloud, Minneapolis, St. Paul and many suburbs. MDH has not produced a source water plan protecting the Mississippi similar to the plans designed to protect municipal wells.

Clearly, our source water protection plans need to be reevaluated and reformed. They are not protecting source water. I have introduced a bill, that starts that process.

Minnesota and Kansas. Who is leading on renewable energy? You guessed wrong.

Bloomberg reports that, on behalf of a group of Governors from both red and blue states, Governor Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, wrote a letter to President Trump urging him to “support renewable energy, saying the wind and solar industries are crucial economic engines for impoverished rural regions.”

In Minnesota, Republican legislators are fast tracking a bill that allows Xcel energy to build an oversized natural gas plant in Becker, Minnesota. Because it is so large it squeezes out the need for wind and solar projects in rural Minnesota.

A commentary piece in the Star Tribune called it a “multi billion-dollar boondoggle.” As commentary noted, there is still time to stop this boondoggle.

Renewable energy folks are fighting mad. And fighting back.

There are a lot of folks who are unhappy–or super unhappy–that HF 113, HF 234 and HF 235 have now passed the House and they are letting me know! Many are asking what they can do now. These bills will likely pass the Senate and end up on the Governor’s desk.

Elected officials always expect to hear from constituents. You may want to contact your Senator. You may also want to contact Governor Mark Dayton and Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith. For your convenience, here is their contact info:

Governor Mark Dayton: or 651-201-3400
Lt. Governor Tina Smith: or 651-201-3400

For those who would also like share concerns about HF 113 with the president of Xcel, here is his contact information:
Christopher B. Clark, President, Xcel Energy Minnesota: or 612-215-4593

The fossil fuels industry is taking Minnesota by storm and winning big

The Republican controlled Minnesota House of Representatives has passed three bills, HF 113, HF 234, and HF 235, all designed to slam the brakes on renewable energy.

HF 113. In an unprecedented move, by passing HF 113, the Legislature gives Xcel permission to build a super sized natural gas plant in Becker, Minnesota and specifically lets Xcel bypass the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the agency that protects rate payers.

In a January 11, 2017 order,  Commission Ruling Xcel 2015 IRP 1 11 2017 , the PUC told Xcel that while there would be need for additional resources in the 2025-2030 time frame and a likely need for approximately 750 MW of intermediate capacity, it said it doubted the usefulness of Xcel’s forecasts beyond their 5 year action plan and concluded that, in the rate payers interest, it was too early to make final decisions about those additional resources.

Xcel didn’t want the PUC to answer the questions of size or timing so it came to the legislature and asked for and got a 786 megawatt plant.

Xcel will recover its cost through electric rates. So the more they spend, the better for profits and shareholders. And the worse for rate payers.

Xcel estimates that the plant will cost $800 million and that doesn’t include the cost of a new pipeline or lines. In a legislative committee Xcel would not speculate on the cost of the pipeline or lines needed. Others have estimated $200 million. However, the only pipeline with enough capacity is 100 miles to the south. In addition the soils close to the proposed location are very vulnerable to groundwater pollution likely making pipe installation even more costly. So a $200 million estimate for the pipeline construction is likely much too small.

The Independent Statistics and Analysis section of the US Energy Information Administration projects a steady increase in the cost of natural gas over the life of this plant (30 to 40 years) at an average of 2.1% percent a year and of course that compounds. Since Xcel wants a 786 MW plant that will mean that Xcel will be spending roughly $52m a year on natural gas. That is sending $52 million a year out of Minnesota to create jobs in other states, not Minnesota.

As bad as that is, the legislature is permitting Xcel to hire a so-called independent evaluator to forecast the cost of the plant and then, if Xcel comes in under that cost, it will get a bonus. And who pays the bonus? Rate payers, of course.

Here we have the equivalent of a gas tax increase and the Republicans are proposing the biggest base possible–a larger fee/tax than may be needed so Xcel will get the biggest fee/tax possible to give to shareholders.

While it is very likely that the PUC would have authorized a natural gas plant in Becker, it is equally likely that the plant would have been much smaller and supplemented by wind generation that is already cheaper or solar that also might be cheaper by the time the extra capacity is needed.

It is impossible to understand why rural legislators voted for this bill. The supplemental wind or solar generation would have been built in their districts and provided much needed additions to their property tax base.

Xcel should not be surprised if rate payers are super angry because they have to pay higher electric rates than necessary because the monopoly that serves them got a green light for those rates by going to the legislature for a billion dollar plus earmark.

HF 234. In 2015, the Minnesota legislature passed a law in the wee hours of session that allowed electric coops to charge new fees to residential customers who wanted to put solar on their roof or to farmers who wanted a small wind turbine.

The legislation didn’t say the coop could charge any fee it wanted. There were three conditions: (1) the fee would be for fixed costs that were not already collected; (2) the fee needed to be reasonable; and (3) the fee needed to be based on a recent cost of service study.

There were complaints to the PUC that the new fees being imposed by the electric coops were too high and unreasonable. The PUC opened an investigation specifically asking the question: do the fees meet the requirements set in law or are the fees designed to capture lost revenues or are the fees deigned so that residential and small farm solar or wind no longer make economic sense?

HF 234, as introduced, said that coop customers could no longer complain to the PUC. Rather coops themselves would settle complaints. And the bill shut down the PUC investigation.

Before it was passed, the bill changed so that customers could ask for a mediator and the investigation could go forward.

However the underlying problems with the bill remained. Mediation is voluntary and if it doesn’t work, the customer who thought the coop was charging more than the law allowed wouldn’t be able to appeal to the PUC but only to the coop that set the fee in the first place.

A coop becomes a judge of itself. Worse, since the coop is now taking over the role of the PUC, it would be able to say that an appeal was made in bad faith or is frivolous and then the coop could collect the coop’s legal expenses. What customer would appeal under those circumstances? That would be far too risky.

While the investigation of the methodology used by coops to impose new fees will go forward, that, by no means, insures that the coop will apply a new methodology correctly. So, coop customers have only two recourses: mediation with the coop as final decision maker or go to district court, a very expensive option.

This bill sets a major road block for wind and solar. Solar installers defined those roadblocks in committee and in a final plea in a letter distributed on the House floor by Rep. Alice Hausman.

Metro residents can choose to put solar on their roof without big and possibly changing fees.

With HF 234, many in rural Minnesota will not have that same opportunity.

HF 235. If the Republican Caucus wanted to finish killing off solar in Minnesota how would it best go about it? It would pass HF 235. HF 235 dissolves the Renewable Development Fund and repeals the incentive payment to owners of solar panels that are “Made in Minnesota.”

The Renewable Development Fund was established as part of the agreement that allowed nuclear waste storage tanks on Prairie Island. Currently Xcel’s payment is about $27m a year. Since 2014, about $15m of the RDF has provided rebates to homeowners and small businesses that install solar panels that are made in Minnesota.

HF 235 puts the money from the RDF into another fund without the renewable restriction that was fundamental to the agreement 20 years ago. The money is now, in effect, just a slush fund.

If the RDF were no longer restricted to promoting renewable energy according to the original agreement, Xcel could rightly argue they should stop paying into the fund and that is exactly what an amendment to HF 235 did, phase out the funding.

The generating capacity of solar in Minnesota was next to nothing in 2007. In 2015 it was more than 25 megawatts and is projected to have reached 250 megawatts in 2016.

Since 2014, the Made in Minnesota solar program has funded 1,045 projects for 15 megawatts of generating capacity. There are now four solar manufacturers in Minnesota. The Department of Commerce estimates that Made in Minnesota has created 495 jobs with an additional 1,485 jobs projected by 2023.

Average annual wages in clean energy were more than $71,000 in 2013 – the statewide average for all jobs is about $51,000. Overall, Minnesota workers in the clean energy economy earned more than $1 billion in wages in 2013.

Minnesota has made a good start down the road to creating renewable energy and renewable energy jobs. The RDF fund and Made in Minnesota were critical to jump starting the new industry. HF 235 is more than a road block. This bill pulls the construction workers off the job.