Confound and Undermine

by Anna LaCombe

The Minnesota legislature unleashed the first wave of bills that seek to undercut the regulatory powers of government agencies. Although this is hardly a new tactic imagined by the Trump administration, it is emblematic of both a state and federal trend to weaken the regulatory authority of state and local governments. Over the course of this session, the Minnesota legislature will be inundated with a tidal wave of these ‘reforms’ and the sheer number is a tacit maneuver to overwhelm those who may question the intent of these bills. Oftentimes, it is not always clear, based on their language, what exactly they would do or the implications of their adoption because these bills are intentionally difficult to decipher. They are written to obfuscate.

For example, HF 702/SF 695, a bill laden with technical language, would allow parties to contest a ruling made by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency by bringing the decision before the Administrative Law Judges and the Court of Appeals. The trouble with enabling an appeals process such as this, is that it would allow judges, not scientists, to decide whether or not a proposed project would put MN water at risk. Water quality standards can be set by those who have no expertise in the matter. There will be no recourse for citizens concerned their lakes are becoming contaminated, their water sources compromised or otherwise have concerns that a given project may endanger the health of their children.

One bill introduced at the beginning of the session, HF 113/SF 85, would permit Xcel Energy to construct a new natural gas plant, bypassing the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) which is charged with reviewing the projected size and price of proposed plants. The PUC is the only stopgap between Xcel, a corporate monopoly, and the ratepayer and restricting its authority in this instance sets a dangerous precedent. In another instance, rural Minnesotans who get their energy from municipal electric utilities or rural electric cooperatives could be impacted by legislation that, if adopted, would eliminate the PUC’s regulatory authority to review and resolve disputes over price hikes that co-op boards impose on their customers. The inability to contest fees by bringing their case before the PUC will fall heavily on Minnesotans who generate solar and wind energy on their homes, businesses or farms. Another bill would eliminate state jurisdiction of pesticide control, putting the regulation of pesticides under local government control and yet another that would exempt a nuclear plant from providing a Certificate of Need. Or perhaps most indicative of all, a bill that would halt the Pollution Control Agency’s and the Department of Natural Resources’ rulemaking authority—ending their ability to adopt, eliminate or repeal rules.

The bills that are mentioned are only a small sampling, but of the many that filter through the legislature and end up on the desk of the Governor, some will likely become law. This legislation could prove to be disastrous for Minnesota’s water quality and the environment, as they would take advantage of a federal EPA that may yet become hostile to enforcing federal standards or one that is so whittled down that it can no longer function as a regulatory agency. If the state is no longer obliged to enforce environmental regulations, while the federal government’s regulatory bodies are skeletons of their former selves, protecting our waters and our environment becomes no one’s responsibility.

This was a debate settled long ago with the enactment of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Water Quality Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Americans said that it was the government’s responsibility. Yet, we are once again flirting with rolling back the clock on environmental policy. A majority of Americans and Minnesotans still believe that the right to clean air, water and a healthy home is a fundamental aspect of the right to life and the pursuit of happiness. Rachel Carson understood this and while the warning that made her famous centered on the rampant use of pesticides, it speaks to all environmental issues. “We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge. If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem” (Silent Spring, 12-13).

Anna LaCombe is an Energy Policy and Communications Intern at the Sierra Club North Star Chapter

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