By Aaron Klemz & Mike McIntee
Issuing a permit to build a power plant isn’t as easy as issuing a fishing license. And it shouldn’t be according to Jeff Smith of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. A permit “isn’t just an agreement between the regulated party and the regulating agency. It’s an agreement between the public, the agencies and the regulated community”.
The permit process gives the public the right to be involved. “This is a public process,” said Smith. “It was meant to allow the public a chance to look at, review and comment on permits.”
That public input takes time and Minnesota Republican lawmakers say they want to speed up the permitting process.
On Tuesday, representatives from two state environment agencies presented an overview of the regulatory process to the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee. In the first of three hearings culminating in a vote on a bill intended to speed and streamline the regulatory process, Republican committee members expressed frustration over specific situations from their districts while arguing that current regulations defy common sense.
Smith told the committee of existing efforts to increase the speed of permit decisions. He stated that MPCA made over 15,000 permit decisions and only 640 took more than 150 days, the deadline that would be set by the bill being considered. Of those 640, Smith stated that only 84 delayed construction or expansion of facilities, since the remainder were updating old permits that were allowed to remain in place while the updated permits were considered.
Republican members of the committee, while complimenting efforts to streamline the process, contended that they hadn’t gone far enough. Committee members peppered Smith with specific questions about permits for a biomass energy plant, erosion control, and other issues. Representative Dan Fabian (R – Roseau) described these agencies as having a “culture of arrogance,” based on his conversations with local government officials.
The House Environment Committee is holding a series of hearings this week leading up to a vote on HF1, a bill that would impose timelines on regulatory decisions and streamline the regulatory process. However, as Larry Kramka from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources testified, many of the longest delays occur in projects that also require federal approval. Changes to Minnesota law wouldn’t affect the speed of federal processes which would still need to be followed.
Rep. Tom Hackbarth (R – Cedar) concluded the hearing by announcing that the Committee will reconvene tomorrow to hear the testimony of representatives from the mining and ethanol industries, who are expected to argue for speedier environmental review and permit decisions.