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Republicans in the state Legislature are advancing a new set of initiatives to overhaul environmental regulation. The measures come after they reached accord last year with Gov. Mark Dayton on a sweeping bill that streamlined the environmental permitting process.

Majorities press for more permitting changes

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, proposes allowing companies to hire an outside consultant to prepare environmental permits. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Proposals include tightened timetables, private consulting provisions

Republicans in the state Legislature are advancing a new set of initiatives to overhaul environmental regulation.
The measures come after they reached accord last year with Gov. Mark Dayton on a sweeping bill that streamlined the environmental permitting process. That bill was a noteworthy but ultimately fleeting act of bipartisanship.

Now, backed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and opposed by environmental organizations, a second round of permitting legislation passed in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee on a voice vote Tuesday evening.

The bill picks up where the 2011 legislation left off. Last year’s legislation allowed businesses to submit their own environmental reviews of projects for consideration by state regulators. This year’s bill, sponsored by Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, proposes to allow companies to hire an outside consultant to prepare environmental permits. The applications would ultimately be approved or rejected by the state Pollution Control Agency (PCA).

“Somebody who is seeking a permit,” Ingebrigtsen said, “can go out and find somebody who has to be state-certified. If they do that, we’re thinking it will help speed up the process. Again, it’s going to have to get through the PCA, and it’s going to have to get their stamp of approval.”

Conflict of interest concerns

The measure has drawn opposition from the Dayton administration and environmental groups.

Allowing private contractors to prepare permits has raised the specter among environmental groups that the business relationship will prejudice the contents of the report. Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said he is concerned that permitting documents would be written by a biased source.
“It clearly on its surface creates a conflict of interest,” Morse said, “with a permit being effectively written by someone who is paid by and accountable to their client, the permitee, instead of the representatives of the citizens of the state of Minnesota.”

Tony Kwilas, who lobbies on environmental issues for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and has taken an active role in promoting the legislation, however, said the consequences of doing faulty work will keep proposals honest.

“If you’re a project proposer, you want to be bulletproof,” Kwilas said.

Ingebrigtsen’s bill also clarifies one of the key provisions from last year of requiring the PCA and the state Department of Natural Resources to act on a permit within 150 days.

As the dust has settled, there has been uncertainty about the meaning of an application being “substantially complete,” Kwilas said. The deadline does not engage if an agency determines it is not ready to proceed. The legislation would start the clock on making a permit determination when the application is submitted.

That proposal drew objection during Tuesday night’s committee hearing from Jeff Smith, director of the PCA’s industrial division. He said it was unclear whether the PCA could return an application that was not complete. That could jeopardize the goal of meeting the 150-day limit.

“Without a good start,” Smith said, “we’re off to a point where the 150-day goal is not going to happen.”

Ingebrigtsen noted that businesses remain frustrated with the time the permitting process takes. “They’ve got a certain time period there where if they don’t get it moving forward, there’s a mechanism where they will have to move it forward,” Ingebrigtsen said. “You can’t just sit on it.”

Ingebrigtsen’s bill was referred to the Senate Jobs and Economic Development Committee.

Other environmental initiatives

Republicans in the Legislature are advancing environmental legislation in other venues besides Ingebrigtsen’s bill.
Municipalities and environmental groups are at odds with builders’ groups at the Capitol over a bill to take away the power of local governments to place a prohibition on projects. The issue has flared over ventures to remove sand from southern Minnesota to be used in drilling for oil in western North Dakota.

The bill, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, and in the House by Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, was heard last week in the House Government Operations Committee. The bill was laid over to allow time to negotiate the details.

With the exception of feedlots, townships can put a moratorium for roughly a year on a project while its effects are studied. Beard refers to his bill as a “moratorium on the moratorium.”

Beard said he does not expect to reach consensus with environmental groups. But he is working on adjustments that accommodate local government groups. Without the change, he said local opponents can engage in drawn-out battles regarding projects like cellphone towers or billboards.

“If you want to prohibit mining or logging or feedlots, draw rules and make everything conditional use,” Beard said. “Playing gotcha with someone who’s played by the rules is not the way to do it.”

Kent Sulem, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Association of Townships, said his organization opposes the bill but is working on a compromise. Sulem said he has seen applications for unusual things like a cougar farm and a used Army tank training course that make moratoriums an important power of local control. In the case of mining sand for oil exploration, he noted that the amounts extracted are becoming larger than anticipated when the zoning ordinances were written.

“It’s an expansion or change in a type of mining,” Sulem said. “The townships need time to say: ‘Wait a minute. We never anticipated anybody doing this type of mining. We need time to figure out what the impacts are going to be and how to deal with it.’”

There’s an element of mystery among lobbyists and even Republican legislators about the genesis of a government consolidation proposal that has been floating in the ether.

The buzz is about merging the Board of Soil and Water Resources into the state Department of Agriculture. It has been mentioned in association with a raft of government reform proposals in the House called Reform 2.0.

One crucial House member on environmental issues is not on board, however. House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee Chairman Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said he does not support the move.

“I’m concerned if we move them under the auspices or blend them into the Department of Ag, some of their good work might get lost,” McNamara said.

But McNamara also said it would be wise to simplify water regulation.

“Currently it’s a maze to go through to figure out who is regulating what part of water, and sometimes [the jurisdictions are] duplicative at the state, the federal, the county level or then even within state agencies,” McNamara said.

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