House and Senate mining bills far are apart
If DFL majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate are to act on the brewing issue of frac sand extraction, they will first have to overcome internal differences that yawn as large as an open-pit mine.
The issue has risen to the top of the environmental agenda at the Capitol in 2013 thanks to oil company demand for southern Minnesota’s stores of finely ground silica sand, which is a key ingredient in the hydraulic fracturing method of oil exploration that’s booming in western North Dakota. Both chambers have advanced bills out of their environment policy committees, and the measures differ markedly.
The Senate goes further in putting the brakes on large-scale mining of silica sand in southeastern Minnesota. In February that chamber’s Environment, Natural Resources and Energy Committee passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, that would set a moratorium until March 1, 2014, to allow the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) to prepare a generic environmental impact statement (GEIS) to guide the setting of criteria and standards for mining permits. The areas the GEIS would cover run the gamut from transporting the sand to appropriating the water needed to wash the sand. The Schmit bill has no House companion.
On Wednesday night, the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee passed a frac sand bill on an 8-6 party-line vote. The House bill does not place a moratorium or require a GEIS. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, instead directs the EQB to establish a model ordinance for local governments to follow when issuing permits for sand mining projects. Under the legislation, that ordinance would have to be prepared by Oct. 1, 2013.
Dill unyielding on moratorium
The two discrepant approaches reflect tensions over environment and business priorities. And while the House and Senate DFL caucuses include members who fall into both camps, the shape of their respective bills comes down to the differing viewpoints of the two environment policy committee chairs. House Environment and Natural Resources Policy chairman David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, hails from the Iron Range and is quick to oppose environmental proposals that, in his view, go too far on mining regulations. He opposes the moratorium and GEIS approach.
“If [the bill] had a GEIS in it or a moratorium in it … [then] in my estimation, if I’m on the conference committee, it’s going to be dead on arrival,” Dill said.
Dill said not only would the GEIS take a lot of time, but it could also lead to court challenges.
“I don’t think we can just stop these projects in their tracks. But we can do a better job in the shorter term planning for the longer term,” Dill said.
Dill said he prefers Hansen’s proposal — but with reservations. Dill passed in Wednesday’s committee roll-call vote because he has concerns about assigning the EQB to assemble the model ordinance.
The opponents of the moratorium have support from an alliance of business and industry players. The Minnesota Industrial Sand Council, formed earlier this winter, has been testifying against the moratorium and in favor of providing technical assistance to the local governments. On the labor side, Jason George, legislative and political director for the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 49, said the moratorium is a move to stop mining.
“We see [Hansen’s bill] as a way to move forward as opposed to a moratorium or a GEIS,” George said.
Marty favors slower approach
If the House is currently leaning to the pro-business side, the Senate under Environment, Natural Resources and Energy chairman John Marty, DFL-Roseville, has the ear of the environmental side. Marty’s committee is where the frac sand moratorium and GEIS got their first breath of life in the committee process. Marty said he isn’t wedded to implementing a moratorium, but he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t want industry to get ahead of the regulators.
“I expect something is going to pass, perhaps less than I and Sen. Schmit might want, but more than what Rep. Dill wants. That’s all going to play out in the process,” Marty said.
Marty said the industry shouldn’t worry about expediency because the sand isn’t declining in demand. He sees the need for a timeframe that’s long enough to accommodate extensive environmental review.
“If you delay, it’s not going to hurt the community,” Marty said. “If you rush ahead in a half-baked manner, you’re going to hurt the community.”
The Land Stewardship Project has been organizing activists in southeastern Minnesota and bringing busloads of people to St. Paul to testify. On Thursday, many activists called for a moratorium but stopped short of criticizing Hansen’s bill for not including it. Bobby King, policy program organizer for the Land Stewardship Project, said they plan to continue to push for a moratorium as the process unfolds.
“We want strong state standards, an in-depth environmental study and a moratorium while that’s going on,” King said. “Sen. Schmit’s bill contains that. Rep. Hansen’s bill is a start toward that. We’re going to work to get there.”
If policymaking on frac sand has been shaped so far by a skeptical House and a willing Senate, that dynamic now stands to get reversed as Schmit’s bill heads to its arguably most difficult stop in the Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Budget Division chaired by Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, who shares the same concerns as Dill when it comes to mining. Moreover, the Senate is more dominated by Iron Rangers among its leadership ranks than the House. But it’s also notable that Assistant Majority Leader Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, is a co-author of Schmit’s bill.
Hansen’s bill, meanwhile, is destined for a friendlier venue in the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee chaired by Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who resides in the environmental camp with Marty.
The frac sand issue illustrates the ingrained power struggle among DFL committee chairs with respect to the demands of environment and industry. The third prong of the power struggle is Gov. Mark Dayton, whose views on frac sand mining remain a mystery at this point. Dayton signaled his awareness of the issue before the session began when he told reporters that frac sand mining would be a “huge” issue. And on Thursday he sent another signal that he’s tuned into frac sand mining, releasing a revised budget that includes $1.9 million to pay for a team of six state agencies and boards that would provide technical assistance to local units of government related to silica sand mining. The funding would be supported by new fees on the extraction and processing of silica sand.
Despite the differences between the House and Senate, Schmit noted that there is a consensus between the two chambers on helping local governments get the information they need to assess the impacts of mining.
“I’m not married to any specific element of my proposal,” Schmit said, “as long as we get this right and we answer these questions and we put in place a mechanism for empowering local decision makers to make the decisions. We have an approach in the House and an approach in the Senate, and we’re going to work out a compromise.”