Poll shows Minnesotans oppose PolyMet practices

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

New polling of Minnesotans released on Tuesday shows that while Minnesotans aren’t settled one way or another about the PolyMet copper-nickel sulfide mine project near Hoyt Lakes, they tend to turn against it when presented with the scientific and legal facts about PolyMet and its backers. This polling is a positive sign that if state regulators act responsibly to hold PolyMet accountable, rather than treating it as a client, Minnesotans will back them up.

The State of the Environment poll was conducted by Public Policy Polling and commissioned by MEP partner organization Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. It polled 662 Minnesota voters across the state and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8%. The full demographic breakdowns of the respondents is available here.

The baseline question of the survey showed that Minnesotans are divided roughly into thirds into PolyMet right now. Based on the information they had without being given more by the interviewer, 36% of Minnesotans said they support PolyMet, 33% said they oppose it, and 31% weren’t sure. But that changed when the facts were made clear.

One of the topline questions addressed the key issue raised by the Move on from PolyMet campaign, of which MEP is a member: PolyMet has had all four of its major state permits rejected or suspended in court or by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This includes its permit to mine, its permit to pollute water, its permit to dredge (destroy) wetlands, its permit to emit air pollution. The courts, siding with environmental advocates and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, have repeatedly found that the permits did not adequately address the harms that PolyMet is likely to cause.

When informed about the facts on the overturning of these permits, 51% of respondents said that Governor Tim Walz should move on from PolyMet and chart a different course for economic development in the area, 29% were still unsure, and only 21% still believed his administration should stay the course on approving PolyMet’s permits. Broken down by party, those who agreed that the Governor should move on included 69% of DFLers and pluralities of Independents and Republicans – 47% and 35% respectively.

An even steeper result emerged when the interviewers asked about corruption at Glencore, the Anglo-Swiss conglomerate that purchased PolyMet in 2019 and has been a financial and technical backer of the project for years. Glencore employees have been convicted of corruption and bribery in the course of their operations, and the corporation has a history of abusive labor practices and environmental disasters. 

The survey question asked – in general terms, without naming PolyMet specifically – how Minnesotans would feel about a proposed copper-nickel mine operating in our state under a global corporation with a history of corruption and bribery on other projects. A whopping 67% of respondents were opposed, compared with only 14% who still supported it and 19% who weren’t sure. This lopsided response may indicate that many Minnesotans aren’t aware of Glencore’s history of illegal business practices, or may not connect it to PolyMet.

Two further questions addressed the environmental impacts of the practices PolyMet intends to use. The first asked about upstream tailings dams, the method that PolyMet intends to use to store its toxic waste. After catastrophic collapses of similar dams in South America killed hundreds of people, these dams have been banned in Brazil, Chile, and Peru. If the PolyMet tailings dam were to collapse – an event that becomes more likely as climate change leads to more unpredictable storm surges – it would cause devastation to downstream resources and communities in the St. Louis River and Lake Superior watersheds. Without addressing PolyMet specifically, the question asked whether Minnesota should enact a ban on these dams: 44% agreed that the state should do so, while only 22% disagreed.

Finally, the survey asked about a copper-nickel mine that will only operate for 20 years but would require hundreds of years of treatment and maintenance to prevent further pollution afterward, again leaving out the PolyMet name. This is not a speculative scenario. Using a tailings dam to store waste will certainly require indefinite maintenance; the question is whether PolyMet and Glencore will pay for it or leave Minnesotans on the hook. While the baseline level of support stayed roughly the same as the initial PolyMet question at 34%, opposition to the mine grew to 44%, while only 22% remained unsure.

PolyMet has been controversial since the proposal was first brought to the state more than 15 years ago, and Minnesotans can be forgiven for feeling like the facts are lost in the fog. PolyMet, Glencore, and their backers have ample resources to flood the web and airwaves with ads touting the jobs involved, the safe new technology the mine will use, and the need for copper and nickel, especially in clean energy. They neglect to acknowledge, of course, that the jobs will be temporary and few in number due to automation, no sulfide ore mine has operated in the United States without polluting the surrounding environment, and increasing recycling and recovery in the United States is a far more fruitful and sustainable solution to acquire the metals we need. PolyMet would have a harmful, permanent impact on our climate and ecosystems through its emissions and destruction of wetlands, and it threatens the water resources of an Indigenous community.

Those of us who care about Minnesota’s long-term future have work to do to show Minnesotans that this unproven copper-nickel sulfide mining proposal is wrong for our state. It will help for our state leaders to move on from PolyMet, rather than putting the profits of Glencore above the needs of our people and planet.

What you can do: If you haven’t already, you can add your name to the Move on from PolyMet website and petition to Governor Walz, and call the Governor at 651-201-3400.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/loon-commons-blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Scientists, Indigenous organizers shed light on Line 3’s recent harms to water

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Thursday, MEP sponsored an online presentation, “Understanding the Line 3 Aquifer Breach and Spills,” in which geologists and Indigenous pipeline resisters shared information on the impacts that construction of the Line 3 oil pipeline is already having on our waters and ecosystems. Though science has predicted that Line 3 will harm our climate and pose a threat to Northern Minnesota waters, the presenters painted a disturbing picture of the damage that Enbridge has already inflicted on land and groundwater.

The video is now available on MEP’s YouTube channel.

Our first presenters were geologists Jeff Broberg and Dr. Laura Triplett, who began by explaining how Enbridge’s digging of a deep trench near the Clearbrook Terminal caused an aquifer breach. Earlier this year, the crews sunk sheet pilings – stabilizing structures that prevent trench collapse – deep into the earth while operating in the trench for the new pipeline. Those pilings pierced into the waters of the aquifer below the layers of earth. When the pilings were removed, water gushed upward, forming an eruption of quicksand that resembled boiling water.

The result of this breach, beyond the release of water into the trench, is that nearby ecosystems are harmed, specifically a variety of wetlands known as “calcareous fens.” These fens are highly biodiverse and sequester large amounts of carbon, but are dependent on water springing up from the aquifer. The loss of their water can dry them out, which is why permitting for this pipeline included measures meant to protect the fens.

“What we have here is a cascading series of failures,” said Broberg, “that started with the design and permitting.” Originally, he said, Enbridge’s plans presented to regulators indicated they would dig a trench only eight feet deep to protect the fens, but crews ended up digging eighteen feet deep instead to avoid the company’s other pipelines. The aquifer breach is estimated to have been releasing up to 100,000 gallons of water into the trench every day.

The breach began January 21. Over 25 million gallons have been lost. The DNR only ordered Enbridge to fix it last week, “There was a failure of the backstop that we rely on with our regulatory agency,” said Triplett. “I don’t think the system worked.”

The DNR also told Enbridge to fund an escrow with $2.75 million for the restoration of damage to the calcareous fens sensitive ecosystems that have been risked. Understanding the damage to the fens may take years to uncover. The company has also been assessed $300,000 for the water from the aquifer that has already been (25 million gallons) and will be lost by the time the aquifer is repaired, if that is even possible. This amounts to about 1 cent a gallon for this water. The DNR has also assessed a forgivable $20,000 administrative penalty order, the most allowed by state law. These do not amount to penalties or deterrence for future law violations for a company with almost $30 billion in income for the year 2020.

The presentation continued with Dawn Goodwin, an Indigenous organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, co-founder of the RISE Coalition, and a resident of the Clearbrook area. She described how she and other Indigenous pipeline resisters have monitored Line 3 construction in treaty lands, lands on which the Ojibwe have the guaranteed right to gather resources like wild rice and fish. They have uncovered and documented spills along the line known as “frac-outs,” in which drilling fluid used in construction surges into low-pressure spaces during excavation, resulting in chemical pollution and disrupting the local hydrology.

“This is a pattern of Enbridge rushing, not reporting, and being so slow and not transparent,” said Goodwin. Like the aquifer breach, these frac-outs often go unnoticed by state authorities, and result in harm to land, water, and wildlife. The effects of this pipeline construction, coupled with climate change effects like this year’s drought, gravely threaten the culture and livelihoods of the Ojibwe.

Ron Turney, a member of the White Earth Nation and of the Indigenous Environmental Network’s media team, showed his own drone footage that has helped to identify these frac-outs, which have occurred on tributaries of the Mississippi (Turney’s section begins around 47:45 in the video). He described how Indigenous monitors identified these issues, raised them publicly, and were wrongly accused by the Pollution Control Agency of spreading disinformation. “But we have the evidence,” Turney said. “They can’t hide this from us – they can’t hide it from the public.”

100 people, including journalists and legislators, joined us for the meeting, and the most common question asked was, “What should we do?” The presenters’s responses varied in details, but they all focused on the core issue: Enbridge has repeatedly failed or refused to protect Minnesota’s environment, and our state agencies have failed to hold the company accountable. Jeff Broberg said, “We need our state elected officials to make the calls. We need our State Representatives and Senators and Governor Walz and Senator Klobuchar and Smith to call President Biden: tell him that these water permits should be abandoned.”

Both President Biden and Governor Walz have the power to halt this pipeline if they choose. Between these harms to state lands and waters, the associated cover-ups, and the catastrophic climate impacts of this pipeline, they have nothing but good reasons to do so.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/loon-commons-blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Biden Administration report points to a new dawn for solar

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, the Biden Administration published a Department of Energy report that offered a course for building up solar power in the U.S. more than tenfold, helping to meet our clean energy needs. While the report is not yet a plan, it provides a roadmap to decarbonizing the economy by 2050, and will help inform policymakers on how to get there.

The report lays out a path in which solar power is developed to generating around 45% of forecasted electricity needs in 2050. It’s a big jump from the roughly 4% it generates today, but new technologies are continuing developing new solar far less costly. And this transition would take place along scaling up of wind, geothermal, and other power sources that would help make up the gap.

Solar power is a useful technology in part because unlike, say, wind or hydro, there are no parts of the United States without sunlight. Certainly, some areas, especially in the Southwest, experience more sunlight than others, but solar is an effective source in places like Minnesota as well. Germany currently generates about 8% of its electricity from solar panels, despite having weather patterns that make it somewhat inhospitable, and frequently has a surplus of power that it sells to other European countries.

While it’s true that solar panels require space – perhaps 10 million acres to achieve the 45% figure – it favorably compares to coal in both cost and land use. Global Energy Monitor estimates that solar energy requires about 16% less land than coal. Furthermore, solar panels can be placed on rooftops, farms, and pollinator gardens, whereas coal mines irreparably damage the landscape, obliterating entire mountains.

As previously noted, Minnesota doesn’t receive as much sunlight as the states to our south, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play a big role in this transition. Currently, around 2% of our electricity is generated from solar panels, but state and utility investments are on the rise, notably in community solar gardens. And it’s worth noting that solar panels tend to work well on the cloudless days of frigid polar vortex events, when sources like natural gas are strained.

For Minnesota to take advantage of the falling costs and air quality benefits of solar – not to mention meeting our climate needs – we’ll need to invest in projects that push it forward. The Legislature passed a laudable funding package last session that will help schools and colleges install solar panels on their buildings. Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, has opportunities for customers to support solar garden power and incentives for home installations. More programs like these, supported by state dollars, can help move the transition along.

And as we invest in solar, we have the opportunity to remake our energy system to be more equitable, to help support communities that have been harmed by fossil fuels. Organizations like Community Power are focused on that work, helping to develop inclusive financing that give Minnesotans a chance to produce their own power without relying on personal wealth or credit score. In St. Paul, the city and the Port Authority are working to develop a 100-acre former golf course in one of the state’s most diverse neighborhoods into a carbon-free community using solar. These efforts will need more support from the state to move forward.

The Department of Energy report shows that what we need is possible – we can get to a carbon-neutral economy, powered largely by the sun, in the timescale we need. Now we need to make sure that policymakers know that it’s the right course for our state, country, and climate.
 

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/loon-commons-blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

Two wins for water as rollbacks are reversed

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, two federal decisions dealt victories to clean water, one at the national level, and one in Minnesota.

On Monday, an Arizona District Court overturned the Trump Administration’s change to the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, a change referred to by critics as the “Dirty Water Rule.” Under the Trump rule, the federal EPA and Army Corps of Engineers vastly decreased the number of waters within their jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act, mostly relinquishing authority over roughly 1 in 5 small streams and half of all wetlands previously protected. The drought that has gripped Minnesota this year is drying up the small streams and vividly showing us the waterways that have lost protection under the Dirty Water Rule.

The lawsuit to overturn the Dirty Water Rule was litigated by the environmental group Earthjustice on behalf of a group of six Indigenous tribes, including the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Minnesota. Their cultures and livelihoods are especially reliant on water resources, and the tribes argued that the rule would cause disproportionate harm. 

The Dirty Water Rule always rested on shaky legal and scientific ground. All streams and wetlands feed into larger streams and watersheds: there are no waters that exist in a vacuum, and pollution in those small streams flow into other waters. Furthermore, the rollback especially impacted dry, Western states that have fewer and smaller permanent waterways than states like Minnesota, leaving them vulnerable to pollution. Minnesota wetlands are protected by our Wetlands Conservation Act, but what happens to wildlife in other states can dramatically impact ecosystems here – birds and fish don’t have much regard for state borders.

Now that the rollback has been overturned, it will not immediately result in full protection for streams and wetlands.The Dirty Water Rule successfully repealed the Obama Administration rule and this court decision did not restore it, although the judge in the case asked for briefings on whether to overturn the repeal. For now, protections will revert to what they were under the pre-Obama rule dating from 1986. But the EPA under President Biden is currently working on a new iteration of the rule that will almost certainly be more ambitious, and will likely have an easier path forward now that the agency no longer has to work on repealing President Trump’s “Dirty Water Rule.”

Minnesota feedlot rule

Minnesota suffered our own rollback to clean water protections earlier this year when the Legislature’s compromise Environmental Omnibus bill eliminated a commonsense restriction on spreading manure from large feedlots, aiming to reduce nitrogen runoff.

Starting in February, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) updated its permit to large feedlots, a category that includes about 1,200 of Minnesota’s largest dairy and meat producing operations. Under the revised permit rules, feedlots were barred from spreading manure on crops used to feed livestock during the first 15 days of October, unless the feedlots use practices, such as cover crops, to reduce nitrogen loss.

Manure is a major contributor to nutrient pollution in our waters, causing the buildup of toxic nitrate in aquifers that leads to unhealthy wells as well as downstream “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico. And the largest feedlots in Minnesota produce an enormous quantity of the stuff, making them a logical place to reduce runoff. The October manure restriction didn’t represent a radical solution, but it does make scientific sense: with cooler temperatures and bare soils,  early October is a time when manure runoff can easily infiltrate our groundwater. And by providing a means for feedlots to mitigate it with cover crops, the PCA sought to introduce flexibility for adapting to the permit change.

Even this commonsense protection was a bridge too far for some legislators, however, who negotiated to include a rollback of this rule in the final environmental budget and policy bill over the objections of the PCA. But the PCA pointed out then that if the EPA thought the legislation violated federal law, it would be overturned.

This week, that’s exactly what happened. The EPA sent a letter to the PCA stating that the permit change from the Legislature conflicted with federal regulations on feedlots. The repeal, it seems, ended up being more symbolic than anything, and large feedlots will have to abide by the October manure restrictions after all.

The implications for people and wildlife

These changes to water rules are more than bureaucratic tweaks: they will have real impacts on how we keep pollution out of our precious water resources, and can open the door for more ambitious action on issues like nitrate and other pollutants. They also represent an encouraging sign that the bedrock protections of the Clean Water Act are still holding strong. As our climate changes and our waters along with it, we’ll need to build on that bedrock to make sure that future generations of people and wildlife can enjoy safe, drinkable water.

Standing against Line 3 in the face of a lockdown

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

In a departure from our usual MEP voice, this article is an opinion piece that has been written from the author’s personal perspective.

I’ve been going to the Minnesota State Capitol for work, for volunteering, and for sightseeing, for the past seven years. For most of that time, it’s been open to the people of Minnesota, the people to whom it belongs. Understandably, its doors were shuttered last year due to the rampant COVID-19 pandemic, but then opened once again to the public this year.

This week, the Capitol complex was locked down again – this time, because Minnesotans were coming to stand together against the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline at the Treaties Not Tar Sands event.

If you’re a regular reader of this column, you’ll understand why we oppose Line 3, and what a disaster it would be for climate, water, and Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) culture. You’ll likely also know that this fight has been happening for a long time, with Line 3 only the latest incarnation of Big Oil’s Black Snake, as many indigenous organizers call it. And it’s the latest episode of a long, cruel history of settler colonialism trampling on the rights of Indigenous people. 

The title “Treaties Not Tar Sands” refers to the rights of Anishinaabe tribes to gather wild rice, fish, and other resources from lands set by treaties in northern Minnesota. The Enbridge pipeline network snakes through treaty lands and reservations in the headwaters of the Mississippi and Lake Superior. One such pipeline was the site of the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, and many of us understand how inevitable it is that the new Line 3 will leak its toxic tar sands oil, given the company’s track record. The construction process has already resulted in spills of industrial chemicals along the route, which has resulted in the Pollution Control Agency, not suspending work on the project, but doing an investigation, the results of which we will likely know after Line 3 construction is complete.. The State of Minnesota, however, made sure to lock down the Capitol to stop peaceful protestors from doing…whatever they thought we would do if allowed into our building.

On Wednesday, I went to the Capitol, one person among more than two thousand, and found the 115-year-old building surrounded by fencing, concrete barriers, and state troopers positioned every couple dozen feet. They weren’t wearing riot gear or holding batons, but the presence of the troopers felt like a message to those of us who came to peacefully protest: This building does not belong to you. This government does not belong to you. The law is not on your side.

Compared to the water protectors putting their bodies on the line to resist Line 3, we had it easy. I’ve heard news reports and firsthand testimony from friends and colleagues about resisters facing pepper spray, rubber bullets, mass arrests, and helicopters blowing dust directly into their lungs. Police have illegally blockaded Indigenous-owned lands in violation of their treaty rights. 

Enbridge, it seems, has the entire state regulatory process and law enforcement apparatus to protect its interests. The people of Minnesota, especially the Anishinaabe, have ordinary folks willing to put their health and liberty on the line.

In the face of all this, Treaties Not Tar Sands has been a spirit-raising event, one that is forcing politicians to reckon with where they stand on Line 3. I watched from up the hill as a parade of resisters walked up John Ireland Boulevard to the front steps of the Capitol past teepees set up earlier in the week by Indigenous leaders. There were people of many races, ages, and backgrounds united in common cause to protect water and climate from this pipeline. It was bittersweet seeing kids attending – a mixture of pride for their willingness to act, and sadness that they have to because the adults in charge won’t protect their future.

The event started with a prayerful ceremony with singing and dancing, honoring the Anishinaabe water walkers and elders who have led the resistance to this pipeline. But the speakers made clear that all of us who showed up, or have opposed Line 3 are all honored in this fight, because it is a fight for all of us. They spoke of all the values we hold together – water, climate, tribal rights, the safety of Indigenous women – and why we must protect them from this pipeline. Despite what the pro-pipeline crowd may say, we’re not defined by our opposition to this pipeline, but by the dreams that unite us. We didn’t pick this battle, but we cannot and will not do otherwise.

I saw friends and colleagues at the rally, as well as legislators and other community leaders (though the Governor did not make an appearance). There were journalists documenting the story, and ordinary folks sharing their experience with the world. As the Line 3 fight has dragged on through multiple years, more and more people from around Minnesota, the country, and the world have joined their voices to oppose it. That solidarity hasn’t yet won the victory we need, but it’s keeping us going, and it’s helping to build power.

As I write this column, there are still resisters occupying the space in front of the Capitol after the permits have expired, holding space and keeping the eye of our state on this fight, facing overwhelming attempts by police to make them leave. They also demonstrated at the State Fair. They’re making it clear to Governor Walz and President Biden that arguments about simply “following the law” on this pipeline, as Walz said in an interview on Friday, aren’t acceptable, nor Governor Walz’s statement that stopping one pipeline won’t fix the climate crisis. 

The laws of chemistry say that if we don’t stop building fossil fuel infrastructure and start retiring what we have now, we won’t recognize the planet we live on several decades from now. The Governor and the President have the power to stop this pipeline, and the responsibility to do whatever they can to protect our future.

Treaties Not Tar Sands reenergized many of us at a time when we need all the hope we can get, and it shined a spotlight on just how unjust it is that resisters have to fight this battle, faced with Enbridge’s money and the police power of the state. Line 3 is scheduled to come online very soon, and while it may be harder to shut down once operational, we will not stop pressuring leaders to change course before it’s too late. The fight will continue.

If you’re waiting for a signal to take action, this is it. Here are two simple things you can do right now:

  1. Visit the Resist Line 3 Twitter account to find out where resources are needed. Resisters frequently need food, supplies, and monetary donations.
  2. Contact Governor Walz and Lieutenant Governor Flanagan and President Biden and tell them that business as usual on this pipeline is unacceptable. Simply shepherding it through the process to allow it to be built falls short of climate leadership, when we need climate action more than ever.

Read More:
Minnesota Reformer: ​​2,000 rally against Line 3 at state Capitol
Star Tribune: 2,000 protest Line 3 at Minnesota Capitol
Sahan Journal: Indigenous protesters, allies make a push in St. Paul to stop Line 3
MPR News: Line 3 opponents not giving up despite nearly complete pipeline project

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/loon-commons-blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author by replying to this email.

MEP joins call for state to Move On from PolyMet

Posted by

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, MEP joined a dozen organizations and more than one thousand individuals in signing on to the Move On from PolyMet campaign, an effort to convince the Walz Administration to cease its support for the PolyMet mine proposal.

After a winding path, the state’s permits for PolyMet – the first ever sulfide ore mine to have received permits in Minnesota – have been overturned. The Walz Administration now has to make a choice on how to respond. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence that PolyMet would irreparably harm lands and waters in Northern Minnesota, opposition to PolyMet from state leaders would go a long way to protecting people and resources.

As with the Line 3 pipeline, the DNR and Pollution Control Agency (PCA) under Governor Walz have argued that they have simply “followed the process” in permitting the mine. But the courts have found various problems with the process, including violations of state law and collusion to keep science out of the public record. The agencies now have a chance to go back to the drawing board and right the wrongs.

The unprecedented threat

Under PolyMet’s proposal, the mine would be built near Hoyt Lake in the St. Louis River Basin in an area where iron mining had previously been conducted, an area that includes a dam that stores tailings from the iron operation. In one of the most scientifically dubious parts of its proposal, PolyMet has proposed to expand and use that dam to store its own waste. That waste would include sulfide compounds, which react with water to form highly toxic sulfuric acid. A spill or overflow event from that dam would be catastrophic to ecosystems and people downstream. At the very least, it would require indefinite maintenance to keep the waste contained long after the mine has ceased operation.

There are obvious issues with allowing this type of mining to be conducted in the headwaters of Lake Superior when it has never been done without polluting the surrounding environment anywhere in the country. Downstream neighbors of the PolyMet site include the Fond du Lac Band, the Duluth area, and the Lake Superior watershed, all of which would be under threat of water contamination.

In addition, PolyMet would harm the climate and air quality of Minnesota at a time when both are extremely vulnerable. Its destruction of 930 acres of wetlands would generate a large quantity of emissions and damage one of Minnesota’s most crucial carbon sinks and habitat areas. Its industrial operation would generate significant levels of air pollution, which is at issue in the current permit controversy facing state agencies.

Because of the evident pollution issues this mine would create, PolyMet – working with Minnesota state agencies – has attempted to game the process of approval. The company tried to downplay the size of the project in order to avoid more stringent air pollution permit conditions, which resulted in the permit being sent back to state agencies by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

On PolyMet’s behalf, the PCA worked to keep federal Environmental Protection Agency concerns about the project’s impact on water quality out of the public record to grant PolyMet smoother sailing. The EPA’s Inspector General said earlier this year that the EPA has clearly botched its oversight of the process. 

The Court of Appeals also denied PolyMet’s DNR permit to mine because it had no expiration date – in violation of state law – and because its plans to contain its waste are inadequately proven. The DNR essentially gave the company a green light, with the costs to be paid later by the people of Minnesota.

State agencies need to turn the page

As they have done with the Line 3 oil pipeline, the DNR and PCA have treated PolyMet as a client to be catered to, not considering the full scope of likely pollution that needs to be controlled, or rejecting the full proposal as warranted. The Walz Administration seems to have largely bought into the “jobs” argument made by PolyMet, despite the fact that mining is becoming increasingly automated and the pollution generated would threaten other sectors of employment.

Environmental advocates and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa have fought the agencies’ industry-oriented attitude every step of the way, in court and in the public record. Clean water and air are not resources we can take for granted, especially in this era of climate change and rampant pollution in our drinking water reserves. 

The Move on from PolyMet campaign seeks to build the case for what state agencies should have done all along – reject PolyMet’s attempts to muddy the waters in its permitting and deny the company permission to mine. The campaign welcomes further organizations and individuals to sign on and tell the Governor that, after all of PolyMet’s legal problems and shell games, it’s time to chart a new course.

There is no more room for climate denial

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

As most of our readers will be aware, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that said in no uncertain terms that the world needs to act immediately to stave off catastrophic warming in the face of storms, drought, ecosystem disasters, and immense human costs. The report was not surprising, but it serves as a wake-up call for anyone still sitting on the fence when it comes to the need for dramatic action on climate.

The report was backed by exhaustive, peer-reviewed, well-established science. It was not hyperbolic, and not without hope, but it laid the stark costs of continued inaction to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And it called for governments around the world to act immediately and decisively to break the dominance of fossil fuels and protect the planet. Major Minnesota newspapers, including the Star Tribune and the Mankato Free Press, published editorials calling for Minnesota and the nation to heed the report’s warnings.

In the environmental community, we’ve known this was coming. We’ve worked to educate lawmakers and convince them to take ambitious action. We’ve raised public awareness of the problem, and of the fact that solutions exist that will make our communities healthier and safer. 

There have been some positive steps, like the Minnesota Clean Cars standard and the investments in the new federal infrastructure bill. A federal Clean Electricity Standard may soon be forthcoming from Congress as part of the appropriation bills under consideration, championed by Senator Tina Smith. But while these steps are positive, they are not going to get the job done. We need to go further.

Minnesotans are ready for a change. A poll conducted by Climate Nexus and released earlier this year by MN350 shows that two-thirds of Minnesotans support legislation to achieve a 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate impacts in our state became perhaps more visible than ever on July 29, when Minnesota suffered the worst air quality in recorded history due to Canadian wildfires caused by drought. The entire state has been parched by these hot, dry conditions. Worsening weather patterns are anticipated to threaten our drinking water, air quality, and native species even more in the coming years.

Now, we need our state leaders and lawmakers to catch up and start treating this crisis like the top priority it is. An examination of the official social media pages of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation shows that only Senator Tina Smith and Representatives Angie Craig, Betty McCollum, and Ilhan Omar have made posts regarding the IPCC report since it came out, as of this writing.

Actions, of course, speak louder than words, but those have been limited as well. The Walz Administration continues its refusal to halt the Line 3 pipeline, even in the face of chemical spills and its monumental climate impact as a long term investment in new fossil fuel development. We call this a Giant Step Backwards. Minnesota does not have a comprehensive public plan for rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels, just a patchwork of policies that move too slowly and institutions that cave far too readily to what fossil fuel companies want.

This is no time to wait around for other states and countries to take the lead, because there is no time. We need Minnesota to lead on all aspects of climate action –  transportation, electricity, agriculture, and buildings – and stop digging the hole deeper by allowing fossil fuel infrastructure to be built or continue to be propped up.

In the coming months, MEP and Minnesota’s environmental community will push state and federal leaders to chart a course forward away from fossil fuels as Minnesotans demand. Protecting our future must be priority number one.

Minnesota officially first clean cars state in the Midwest, with federal action coming soon

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last Monday, the State of Minnesota officially adopted the Clean Cars rules proposed by the Pollution Control Agency under Governor Tim Walz. Starting in 2024, these rules will require Minnesota auto dealerships to make available a certain percentage of zero-emission electric vehicles on their lots.

The Clean Cars standards were originally adopted in California under an agreement with the federal government, with the option for other states to adopt these same protections. Since then, fifteen more states elected to do so, with Minnesota being the most recent and the first in the Midwest. These are not all warm-weather states like California, either – every New England state but New Hampshire has adopted the same standards.

The Trump Administration worked to halt states’ authority to adopt these rules and weaken emissions standards, but the Biden Administration has announced that it will reverse these rollbacks and push forward. On Thursday, President Biden set a target that 50% of all new vehicles sold by 2030 will be zero-emissions models. In addition, the Biden Administration is planning to roll out tighter emissions standards for all new vehicles nationwide.

Once it takes effect in 2025, the Minnesota Clean Cars rule will still be a useful backstop to ensure that more electric vehicle choices will be available to Minnesotans. Currently, the vast majority of EVs are going to states that have adopted Clean Car Standards, mostly in the Northeast or Pacific coast states. With the new Clean Cars rule in place, Minnesotans and our neighbors will be able to access these vehicles. Along with investments in charging stations across the state, EV adoption will be poised to take off dramatically.

Vehicle electrification is a crucial component of achieving the cuts to greenhouse gases we need to protect our climate. Transportation is the largest source of emissions in the nation and has gotten worse as Americans have trended toward buying SUVs, trucks, and vans rather than more efficient cars. Currently, EV models in America generate a third the emissions of fossil fueled vehicles, a number that will only improve as we transition to cheap, renewable electricity.

In some ways, the Clean Car transition is inevitable. Major automakers around the world are pledging to transition to all-electric vehicle lines, and in Norway – a country with a cold climate that outdated conventional wisdom would say is not ripe for EV adoption – EVs made up more than half of all new vehicle sales last year. The EV revolution is here, and we need it to go faster to protect our climate.

The Clean Cars process wasn’t easy, though. The GOP-controlled Minnesota Senate, spurred by the Auto Dealers Association, tried various tricks to kill the Clean Cars rulemaking, even threatening to shut down environmental agencies and state parks unless they got their way. Failing that, they retaliated by forcing the resignation of Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop, despite her moderate record. At the same time, they stonewalled other climate measures passed by the House, and Senate Majority Leader Gazelka pressured Bishop to approve permits for the Line 3 pipeline (see article below.)

But climate denial at the Legislature is being exposed as more and more out of touch as the costs of this crisis mount. As the drought deepened across the state, last Thursday saw the worst day for air quality in Minnesota’s history as smoke from the Canadian wildfires rolled across the entire state and affected millions of people, especially those with heart and respiratory conditions. There should be no more space for climate denial now that we can see and breathe this crisis.

We need much more and much bolder actions on emissions to protect the livability of our planet, especially relating to transportation. MEP will continue advocating for investments in public transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and a transition away from new road projects and highway expansions that don’t serve our future. But we’re proud that Minnesota is leading the way on Clean Cars in the Midwest, and we hope to see this transition get underway even faster.

MEP and partners explore the next evolution of farming

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On Monday, July 19, MEP and Friends of the Mississippi River co-hosted a field tour of the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative, a program to develop crops and farming systems to transform agriculture in Minnesota. Joined by legislators, state agency leaders, and other key stakeholders, our team took part in presentations, hands-on demonstrations, and panels to demonstrate the incredible value of this Minnesota-grown program. MEP and many member organizations have been long time supporters of this initiative. The Land Stewardship Project has provided key leadership over the years.

The tour and presentations centered on an issue that is a key question for Minnesota to answer: How do we reshape our agricultural systems to not only be profitable, but also be designed to restore our land, water and climate?

There’s no question that this is a critical issue. The present system we have is very effective at producing vast quantities of crops like corn, soybeans, and sugar beets, and has resulted in Minnesota having the fifth-largest agricultural economy in the nation. But it’s not effective at protecting the natural resources on which we all depend. Agriculture and land use is one of the top sources of greenhouse gases in Minnesota, accounting for about a quarter of our emissions. Fertilizer-heavy corn and soybean farming has led to nitrate building up in the surface waters and groundwater that Minnesotans rely on for drinking. And the wholesale destruction of habitat and use of pesticides has decimated pollinators and other wildlife.

But in order to create durable change in the current system, we need to create a feasible and worthwhile path for farmers to do so. Farmers care about soil health and wildlife, but the current system of large-scale commodity agriculture creates headwinds against any attempt to change. Farmers need to know that they aren’t betting on a crop without an adequate market.

The Forever Green Initiative and its partners aim to thread that needle by breeding crops that produce  income, while also providing water storage and filtration, soil health, habitat, and other ecosystem services, then help to establish supply chains and markets for those crops. By working on the separate components at the same time – crop development, farmer adoption, and supply chain economics – this needed transition is starting to get some real traction.

A sampling of the crops:

Kernza© 

Kernza banner showing actual size of root system

Intermediate Wheatgrass or Kernza is a breed originally developed by the Land Institute in Kansas. It’s a perennial crop, meaning that it will stay on the land and produce grain over multiple years, rather than needing to be reseeded each growing season. The grain has applications including use in flour, cereal, beer, and other products. In addition, it can serve as forage and can be harvested for animal feed and straw.

Kernza’s ecological benefits are significant, and mostly relate to its incredibly deep root system. Corn roots extend a few feet into the soil, while Kernza’s roots stretch closer to thirteen feet. This enables Kernza to survive drought conditions with minimal irrigation, to hold soil together, and absorb nutrients far more efficiently, reducing the need for fertilizer. By relying less on these inputs, Kernza can protect and restore soil, reduce the stress on aquifers, and reduce the load of nutrient pollution ending up in the groundwater. Recent field trials have shown that Kernza reduces nitrogen loss from soils by more than 95% compared to corn.

Oilseeds – pennycress and camelina 

UMN researcher Ratan Chopra presents results of pennycress research

These oilseed plants are among the most commercially promising crops that Forever Green researchers are developing, and the process of breeding them toward market readiness has happened remarkably fast. These crops are efficient at producing plant oils and will have applications in food production, biodegradable plastics, biofuels (including jet fuel), and other areas.

A key advantage of the oilseeds is that they can be used in combination with corn or soybeans. These winter annuals and can be interseeded with these crops during the growing season and will remain on the field throughout the winter, helping prevent erosion and fertilizer infiltration of groundwater. They renew their growth early in the spring, and their flowers provide nectar for pollinators without interfering with other crops. They are harvested in early June.

Hazelnuts

Forever Green’s hybrid hazelnut bushes

European hazelnuts are a well-established crop, especially in the Mediterranean region, but are not suited for the climate of Minnesota. American hazelnuts, which grow in bushes rather than trees, have the advantage of hardiness in Midwest winters and are resistant to blight, but are less suitable for commercial use. By crossbreeding to create a new hybrid, researchers are nearing the point of developing a viable crop to help meet the massive demand for hazelnuts.

The hazelnut bush is another perennial crop that establishes deep roots in the soil, helping it to prevent erosion, efficiently use nutrients, sequester carbon, and protect water. It also provides valuable habitat for native birds and insects.

Building on science

From left to right: Rep. Samantha Vang, Rep. Leon Lillie, Professor Don Wyse, Rep. Ginny Klevorn

Professor Don Wyse, the key faculty member behind Forever Green, is the first to emphasize that the program doesn’t just produce new crops – it produces scientific expertise. Forever Green researchers have gone on to spread and expand on their knowledge at other companies and institutions, growing the body of knowledge around these new crops. Through this work, the University contributes to a growing scientific community working to change the farming systems of Minnesota and the nation to be healthier for our climate, our water, and our wildlife.

The next steps

As these crops are developed, farmers are the key partners who bring them to the land and ultimately to market. Only a tiny percentage of Minnesota’s cropland is currently planted with Kernza, but that level is growing rapidly. The farmer co-op leaders who partner with Forever Green believe that they can successfully make the case for buyers to try new, regenerative crops, beyond the historic reliance on corn and soybeans, especially in the face of droughts, low prices, and consolidation of land by large companies.

For farmers and for our environment, Minnesota needs to build a new relationship with our farmland. MEP is proud to support Forever Green as it points the way.

Great River Energy plans to break promise to shutter Coal Creek power plant

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

On June 30, Great River Energy announced that it planned to sell its Coal Creek Station power plant to Rainbow Energy, a North Dakota company. This plan contradicts Great River’s pledge, made a little over a year ago, to shut the coal plant down due to its high cost to consumers and substantial climate impact, in line with its broader promise to cut emissions. 

Great River Energy had planned to switch over its generation to wind and other sources, saving consumers money and helping transition away from coal. Under the terms of the sale, the utility will be moving away from coal generation on paper. But it plans to simply buy the power back from Rainbow. The divestment from coal is a legal fiction – a rigged shell game. And while Rainbow claims that carbon capture and storage will mitigate the climate impact of the plant’s continued operation, that solution is unproven at best, as well as expensive for consumers, especially relative to ever-cheaper wind prices.

A lack of transparency

Great River is the second-largest utility in Minnesota in terms of power generation (after Xcel) and is the state’s largest not-for-profit power cooperative. The co-op is owned collectively by 28 smaller co-ops throughout the state and serves more than 700,000 consumer-members. Its decisions on power generation thus have an enormous impact, and are in theory accountable to those members – though this does not necessarily ensure transparency in Great River’s decisionmaking.

As MEP Member CURE has detailed, Minnesota’s electric co-ops are notorious for their lack of transparency. They provide little public information on energy generation, governance, or how members can exercise their ability to influence their co-op or run for the board of directors. And because Great River is a co-op of co-ops with these issues, it has several layers of insulation between its top decisionmaking and the interests of the Minnesotans who buy its electricity.

It appears that local politics and short-term gain have had a greater influence over this decision that Great River’s members. Coal Creek is the largest power plant in North Dakota, and local government officials in the area are opposed to the plant’s closure, going as far as to disrupt plans to increase wind production in McClean County where the plant is located in order to prop up the obsolete, expensive plant. Rather than work to break the impasse and protect consumers and the climate, Great River has taken a route that is easy for its leaders in the short term and harmful down the line, to the planet and to people living near Coal Creek.

Not a done deal

Great River and Rainbow have presented this sale as an inevitability, making it appear as if there is no way for its customers to dissent. But this is not the case – there is still time to stop the sale. If a sufficient number of its co-op members oppose the deal, Great River can be forced to live up to the promise it made last year to shut down Coal Creek. Connexus Energy, a co-op that serves parts of Central Minnesota and the Twin Cities Metro, already voted against it.

Among the largest and most influential co-op member of Great River is Dakota Electric Association, serving more than 100,000 customers in Dakota County. Dakota Electric will be holding a board meeting on July 29 at which it will consider the sale. If Dakota Electric’s Board chooses to join Connexus in opposing it, it will be a strong signal to Great River to reconsider.

Great River’s leadership doesn’t want its co-ops to vote against the decision to sell, and has made the process opaque and difficult to follow for consumers. The regulations and systems that govern electric co-ops largely favor this top-down model. But at the end of the day, the utility must still be accountable to its owner-members, and responsible for its impact on our climate and air quality.

How you can help

Use this action alert from our friends at MN350 to contact Great River Energy co-op leaders and ask them to stop the sale. It’s especially impactful if you are a member of one of Great River’s co-ops – contact Great River directly or reach out to your local co-op to express your opposition to the continued operation of Coal Creek Station. If not, reach out to people you know who may get their power from the utility. If enough like-minded consumers stand against this sale, this sale can still be stopped.