New environment budget is worthy of Earth Week

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

It may be mostly coincidental that the Minnesota Legislature passed many of its major budget bills relating to the environment on Earth Week. But this year, the workings of the Legislative calendar have aligned to give Minnesotans great news for Earth Day: the large “omnibus” bills moving at the Capitol are among the best we’ve seen in decades for our environment.

Those bills include the House Agriculture bill, the House Transportation bill, and the House and Senate versions of the Environment and Climate bill. MEP has weighed in with letters on all these bills, and each one is worthy of its own Insider column (and you can contact your lawmakers in support of the House Transportation bill using our action tool below). But in this Insider, we’d like to focus on the Environment and Climate bill, which contains many great ideas that MEP and allies have been working on for a long time and are finally poised to become law.

Protective policies

Among MEP’s top priorities this Legislative session is achieving new protections against PFAS, the class of “forever chemicals” notoriously invented in Minnesota, many of which contribute to cancers, pregnancy issues, and numerous other conditions. Environmental authorities like the EPA now widely recognize that PFAS is harmful in incredibly small amounts, and that it’s reaching far too many people through water, fish, and the consumer products we use.

MEP was proud to be part of a broad alliance of organizations and people advocating for PFAS restrictions this session, ranging from firefighters exposed to PFAS in firefighting foam to young people suffering from cancer due to PFAS in their school’s drinking water. We especially honor the testimony of Amara Strande, a 20-year-old from Woodbury who spent her last months fighting for PFAS bills at the Capitol before passing away from a rare PFAS-related cancer earlier this month.

Lined up on the opposite side of these issues was the chemical industry, which sent out of state lobbyists to muddy the waters on PFAS and claim that state regulations would go too far or would disrupt businesses. Apart from a few adjustments to the bills, the industry didn’t get their way. The House and Senate versions of this bill both include provisions to ban PFAS in firefighting foam in the near term and all non-essential uses of PFAS in the long term, and to require disclosure for products containing intentionally added PFAS to state agencies so that Minnesotans can be better informed. 

Another key MEP priority this session is the “cumulative impacts” policy. As we’ve written previously, this proposal would help protect environmental justice areas – communities with high concentrations of people of color or low income households – where residents’ health is overburdened by existing pollution. In these areas, issues like asthma and cardiovascular disease tend to be higher because polluting facilities have been pushed into Black and Brown communities, usually with no regard to local concerns.

The cumulative impacts policy helps provide legal recognition to what science tells us: pollution from many sources over time adds up to big problems. It would require the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to take that pollution into account through careful health research when considering permits for major projects, such as industrial facilities. It also requires greater public engagement to make sure community voices are no longer excluded when permits move forward.

MEP has worked with environmental justice groups and our members to shine a spotlight on this existing pollution and demonstrate the need for this policy, which was carried forward as the Frontline Communities Protection act before inclusion in the omnibus bill. While the version of this policy in the existing bills isn’t as strong or as wide-reaching as we’d hoped, it will be a big step forward for many communities and a lifeline from Minnesotans suffering from nearby air pollution.

In addition to these environmental provisions, the climate side of the bill is also strong. The House version would align Minnesota’s greenhouse gas reductions goal with science-based targets from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, setting the goal of a net-zero carbon economy by 2050 in state law. It also updates commercial building codes to achieve greater energy savings and sets up a framework to model greenhouse gas impacts from projects under environmental review.

As strong as this bill is today, however, it’s missing an idea that MEP has actively fought for and hoped to see included: the restoration of the MPCA Community Board, formerly the Citizens’ Board. As we wrote in February, the MPCA Board was a powerful tool of inclusion and democracy in Minnesota’s environmental decisions, helping to ensure that Minnesotans had a voice when it came to permitting big projects.

The Board members, representing ordinary Minnesotans, had the power to hear from the public change agency decisions on permits if they determined it was in the community interest to do so. After the Board ordered an environmental impact study on a megadairy project, however, the Legislature abolished the Board at the end of a special session in 2015, bowing to industry interests who saw it as a threat to their business.

The return of the Board would provide a restored avenue for Minnesotans to demand more information on polluting projects like factory farms, sulfide mines, and pipelines, so restoring it became a priority for MEP and many of our members. But sadly, despite the restoration’s earlier inclusion in the House Environment Omnibus bill, it was removed last week due to objections from several Representatives in the DFL majority, and has not been included in the Senate version.

Investments in our future

In addition to policies that will make Minnesota cleaner and healthier, the Environment and Climate bill’s budget items will deliver big investments in climate action. It helps unleash a wide array of clean energy projects, including insulation for buildings, solar panels on schools and public buildings, and electrical grid upgrades. It even creates a Climate Innovation Finance Authority, a kind of “green bank” that would help leverage federal funds and invest in clean energy projects across the state. 

In addition to direct spending, the bill helps reward Minnesotans for making their own climate action investments by providing rebates for electric vehicles, new electric panels, and heat pumps, much like the federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). To that end, it also unlocks additional IRA and Infrastructure law funds that match state dollars through the Minnesota State Competitiveness Fund.

Finally, the bill supports natural carbon solutions, like safeguarding our peatlands, pine forests, and soil health. There are many other worthy investments throughout the bill in our natural lands and waters, and Minnesotans will be reaping the benefits soon enough.

The House and Senate, in consultation with Governor Walz, still have to iron out the differences between these two budget bills. But for the first time in years, we are optimistic that this environment bill will be an enormous victory for Minnesotans and our natural environment.

But one final thought: while the omnibus bill represents perhaps the largest climate and environment investments by the state in history, they’re still only a tiny fraction of the overall state budget. While we recognize this legislation as a victory, Minnesota has plenty of room to grow its commitment to our lands, waters, climate and people. After all, we can’t do much of anything else successfully without a healthy environment to call home.

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