Environmental Initiative’s annual legislative preview

On January 16, Environmental Initiative hosted its annual legislative preview of up-coming environmental issues. I was the last speaker on the first panel that included Senator John Marty and Representatives Rick Hansen, Denny McNamara and Tom Hackbarth. Rather than talk about the issues that will be taking up a lot of time this session like wolf hunting, I talked about the big issues that I thought would be deliberately avoided. This Strib piece noted the tension in the room. This MinnPost added depth.

Here is what I said about the coming “Pretend Games”:

Big picture, Minnesota has 4 big environmental problems. The DFL worked on each one in the last two years. Going forward the question for each will be: pretend it doesn’t exist or do some problem solving.

The granddaddy of pretend games has been global warming. Four years ago, the Republicans took all the dollars that the LCCMR had recommended for work on global warming and spent them elsewhere. There was a ready made excuse: the budget was in deficit.

Now there is a surplus in the budget. And new LCCMR spending recommendations that will further Minnesota’s work on renewable energy and reducing global warming gasses. If, during the legislative process, these LCCMR recommended monies are taken and spent elsewhere, it will be painfully obvious that it is not Minnesotans but big oil that is controlling the legislative agenda. Big oil invested heavily in this last election, with good reason. To the extent we use Minnesota renewable fuels, the value of their capitol drops.

The next of the big four environmental problems is air quality. PCA just reported that the health costs of air pollution may exceed $30 billion each year– $30 billion each year. In the metro, over 50% of the health risk is from on and off road vehicles.

Minnesota’s approach to air pollution has been to just stay under the federal limit so the business community could avoid the costs the feds might impose if we didn’t meet federal standards. Those costs to the business community pale when compared to the health costs. And, of course, if we work on the health costs, the potential business cost will resolve. So we need some major rethinking and major new problem solving.

Since more than half of the problem in the metro is vehicles, more transit is an obvious part of the solution but the big oil interests who participated so heavily in this last election season hate transit. The more transit, the less need for their fuels.

Drinking water is another of the big 4. It’s like the crazy relative in the attic. Even though our drinking water has been under great stress no one has wanted to talk about it.

In some places like White Bear Lake and Worthington, actually all of southwest Minnesota, it is a quantity issue. In many more places it is a quality issue.

In 2013 I asked DNR to give us a list of the places where our drinking water is under stress. The list is long. You can get it from my office (651 296 4200).

Nitrogen in drinking water is an increasing problem. And where you find nitrogen, there will be pesticides–100% of the time.

There are at least 10 community systems where the nitrate level in the source water is equal to or greater than the federal standard. 65 more community systems are moving in that direction.

The list of non-community systems with contaminated wells– like resorts, churches, restaurants,– is much longer.

Plus there are an untold number of ordinary folks using private water wells whose water is contaminated. They have to dig a new and deeper well or get another source of water at their own expense.

The nitrate problem almost surely was not created by the folks that now have to pay for its clean up. Totally unfair.

So do we continue to work on solving the nitrate problem or go back to pretending that there is no drinking water problem?

The last of the big four is the use of systemic pesticides that are killing pollinators, including honey bees. There is no question that is a fact. But the producers of the neonicotinoids—Bayer from Germany and Syngenta from Switzerland– would like us to believe that it is mainly about honey bees and that it is mostly a habitat problem. Bayer and Syngenta have a huge lobbying campaigns to tell us that the problem is habitat and we then are the cause of the problem. No question that habitat is part of the problem, but we could create lots more habitat and that wouldn’t solve the problem.

Let me give you some context here. Our staff has estimated that, given the number of commercial hives and the number at each site, commercial honey bees pollinate between 3 and 5.7% of the state. The rest of the state relies on native pollinators. We know very very little about them. I will give you a few of the clues. How many do you find on your windshield after a driving trip? Those of you who are older will remember that your car was a mess.
Baby pheasants eat insects, that is pollinators. Pheasants are in decline.

Between 2003 and 2005 there was an abrupt and widespread decline of 2 skipper populations all over the state, even in good habitat where management had not changed. Pesticides? We should find out.

We can do more for habitat. DNR estimates that there are 500,000 acres that are suitable for pheasants habitat on roadsides. That is 0.8% of the state. Let’s do the whole 500,000 acres but recognize that is only one tiny piece of the puzzle.

So, four big issues. Pretend they are not there or do some problem solving?

The “Pretend Games.” Coming to a legislature near you?