Senate ouster of MPCA commissioner continues pattern of environmental stonewalling

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last Wednesday, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop was pushed out of office after Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka informed her that the Senate would vote against confirming her, effectively removing her from her position. The Republican-controlled Senate had announced a few days earlier that they would be holding hearings on several Walz Administration cabinet members before adjourning from their special session. Commissioner Bishop was the only one of the officials who lost her job, choosing to resign rather than face a vote in the full Senate.

While Sen. Gazelka made references to the Senate’s powers to fire executive branch officials if they aren’t doing their jobs, the Senate majority’s motivation for ousting Bishop was discussed openly: they were opposed to moves she made or considered as Commissioner to protect Minnesota’s environment from polluters. The Walz Administration’s MPCA-led Clean Cars rulemaking, which will help make electric vehicles more widely available at Minnesota dealerships, was the most visible issue of controversy.

Commissioner Bishop’s ouster shows just how far removed the Minnesota Senate is from Minnesotans’ views on climate action and environmental protection.

Bishop led the MPCA for two and a half years, through three regular and numerous special sessions. The Senate has had the power and the opportunity to vote on the confirmation of the Governor’s officials during that entire time. While they did hold a hearing about Bishop’s performance last year, they did not choose to force her out until this month – right after the environment budget passed without the Clean Cars rollback that they wanted. The Senate took a similar action in 2020 when they fired Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley – retaliating for his financial regulations and his department’s continued opposition to the Line 3 oil pipeline.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the Senate’s decision is that Clean Cars is a broadly-supported, relatively modest step toward reducing transportation emissions. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not a groundbreaking change, and is already on the books in more than a dozen other states. Many vehicle companies are moving toward electric models anyway, but the Clean Cars rules will help them become available to Minnesotans faster to help us cut emissions and get a leg up on the market.

The Minnesota Environmental Partnership has appreciated the steps Commissioner Bishop took to protect Minnesotans from the climate crisis, mercury, lead poisoning and other measures. That’s not to say we always agreed with Commissioner Bishop on the issues, particularly with regards to permitting that has been accommodating toward large, polluting businesses. But with Bishop’s ouster from the MPCA, the Senate has signalled that they are willing to chose a destructive partisan path to punish those steps taken and score political points against Governor Walz.

What happens next at the MPCA is up to Governor Walz. The lesson that we hope he takes away from this unfortunate firing is that even a well-qualified, business friendly MPCA commissioner advancing modest policies is not enough to stave off the Senate’s antics. Instead of caving to them, he should direct the agency to let science drive their work and to act boldly on climate and environment, addressing threats like Line 3, sulfide mining plans, and factory farms. If we move at the pace the Senate wants us to, we won’t be getting anywhere near where we need to go.

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