By Aaron Klemz
Research paid for by taxpayers isn’t in, but Minnesota House Republicans apparently aren’t going to wait for it before changing environmental regulations. A bill intended to speed permitting and environmental review passed the House Environmental and Natural Resources on a voice vote Thursday morning.
HF1 would set an 150 day goal for the completion of a permit application, require special justification for state regulations exceeding federal standards, allow companies to prepare their own environmental review documents, and move challenges to permit decisions directly to an Appeals Court.
Earlier in the week, the Committee heard from a number of industries who complained that the process of permitting and environmental review is too long and arduous. Representatives of the mining and ethanol industries described what they view as excessive, duplicative, and unnecessary regulation. Wednesday, David Smiga from US Steel testified that the expansion of their Keetac mine in northern Minnesota was delayed by a slow environmental review process. Rep. David Dill (DFL – Crane Lake) declared that this delay had cost the state “north of 125 to $150 million” in revenue, though he wondered aloud if he was “even close on that” and that he got the figure from “the [Rep. Tom] Rukavina book of numbers.”
Republican members of the committee used Thursday’s hearing to pointedly criticize environmental groups for using the legal system to challenge permit decisions. Scott Strand, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), took the brunt of this line of questioning. Calling MCEA “notorious,” Rep. Michael Beard (R – Shakopee) accused Strand of “coming in from the outside and gum[mming] up the works” with lawsuits. Later in the hearing, Beard characterized lawsuits as “assaults” by “Twin Cities type people.” Strand defended his group’s legal actions, saying that MCEA doesn’t abuse the judicial process, and only employs lawsuits to ensure that government agencies act within the law.
Opponents of the bill argued that the committee was acting too hastily, since the Office of the Legislative Auditor is nearing the completion of a report on environmental permits. In a press release, Rep. Kate Knuth (DFL – New Brighton) stated “passing legislation to dramatically alter the state’s environmental review and permitting process without taking advantage of this report would be a huge missed opportunity.” DFL Environmental Lead Jean Wagenius (Minneapolis) added that weakening environmental regulations goes against the will of voters who approved the Legacy Amendment because it would clean up environmental messes.
Opponents of the bill attempted to amend the bill several times to strip out specific provisions. All of these attempts failed by similar votes with Dill joining the Republican members of the committee.
HF1 will next go to the Civil Law Committee for consideration.