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Legislature scorecard: How the environment has fared this session, so far

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The sun sets on the Minnesota State Capitol.
The sun sets on the Minnesota State Capitol on Wednesday, April 9, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature have taken vastly different approaches to environmental issues ranging from solar energy to pollinators.

Important policy and budget provisions are buried in several massive omnibus bills that will have to be reconciled before the Legislature adjourns later this month. 

The Legislature began its four-month 2019 session in early January, when individual bills were introduced, debated and tweaked. Most of the bills were set aside and then included in giant omnibus bills that include both policy and funding. 

Now, the Republican-controlled Senate and DFL-controlled House have to settle differences on those bills before giving them final votes and sending them to Gov. Tim Walz for his signature.  

Here's where things stand.

Budgets for environment-related agencies

The DFL-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate are far apart on funding levels for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Department of Natural Resources and the Board of Soil and Water Resources. 

Sarah Strommen is the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources.
Sarah Strommen, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, poses for a portrait on Friday, April 19, 2019.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Generally, the MPCA regulates industries that pollute water and air; the DNR oversees mining and logging, state parks and a variety of outdoor recreation activities; and BWSR works with local agencies to prevent soil erosion and improve water quality.  

The House's budget gives those three agencies, in total, about $113 million more for the next two years than the Senate's budget. 

The Senate proposal uses lottery and Legacy Amendment funds to pay for some of those agencies' programs. Proceeds from the lottery go into the Environmental Trust Fund, whereas a statewide sales tax funds Legacy programs. Both funds were set up by voters through constitutional amendments. 

Conference committee negotiations over the next couple of weeks will focus on both numbers and policy.

Nitrogen fertilizer rule

Drinking water contamination from nitrates continues to be a concern in some parts of the state.

Rules put in place under Gov. Mark Dayton's administration to restrict how farmers can apply nitrogen fertilizer, the biggest source of nitrates in groundwater, are being implemented. 

The Legislature could have weighed in on these new rules for farmers — or attempted to change them — but so far, that hasn't happened.

Road salt

MnDOT has been cutting back on salt to melt ice on the state’s highways.
Chloride contamination is another threat to Minnesota's waters, mainly due to road salt running off of streets and into waterways.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Chloride contamination is another threat to Minnesota's waters, mainly due to road salt running off of streets and into waterways. And while municipalities and the state transportation department have been reducing their salt use, salt use isn't regulated among individuals or private companies. 

The House has passed legislation that would offer liability protection to private contractors who clear driveways, parking lots and sidewalks if they become certified in "smart salting" techniques. 

The Senate has not passed anything similar, but it could come up in a conference committee.

Buffer compensation

Tim Madsen has planted alfalfa and other vegetation in a buffer strip.
On his southwest Minnesota farm, Tim Madsen has planted alfalfa and other vegetation in a buffer strip he installed.
Mark Steil | MPR News 2016

Gov. Tim Walz proposed a tax credit for farmers who comply with the buffer law that requires grass or other perennials to be planted next to waterways, in an effort to improve water quality. 

But the measure did not make it into the House and Senate tax bills. It's possible the issue could surface again during conference committee negotiations.

Sustainable crop research

Don Wyse, a professor in the U’s Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics
Don Wyse, a professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, stands in a field of a perennial wheatgrass called Kernza on the U of M campus in St. Paul.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

The House budget sets aside $10 million for the University of Minnesota's Forever Green program, which is developing new crop varieties that are both profitable for farmers and beneficial to Minnesota's environment. The Senate budget provides $2.5 million for the program.

Many Minnesota cities are faced with having to make costly upgrades and repairs to aging drinking water and wastewater treatment systems. But the money the state will allocate to those upgrades hasn't yet been settled. 

Tearing up the streets to replace pipes.
A St. Paul public service employee cleans up the sidewalk along Chatsworth St. N, where the entire street is torn up for several blocks while the city replaces sewer and water main pipe.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

The governor's budget and bonding proposals include water infrastructure grants and loans. The House also has a bonding bill — which finances public works projects — but the Senate hasn't released a bonding proposal yet. 

Water infrastructure funds could also be part of the two-year budget package lawmakers are negotiating. 

In addition, the Senate's budget suggests using money from the Environmental Trust Fund, which comes from lottery proceeds, for some wastewater projects, which environmental groups say is an inappropriate use of the fund.

The House has passed Gov. Tim Walz's proposal to require utilities to provide 100 percent clean electricity by 2050. Minnesota's current renewable energy mandate is 25 percent by 2025, and the state is already meeting that goal. 

House DFLers argue the mandate for electric utilities is a way to address climate change while also embracing wind and solar energy that's produced in Minnesota and is becoming cheaper than burning fossil fuels. 

Dean Tofteland sprays his fields.
Dean Tofteland drives his tractor and sprays one of his fields amongst wind turbines north of Luverne, Minn.
Jackson Forderer | For MPR News 2014

But the Senate has not passed a similar provision. Instead, the Senate has voted to loosen the definition of what can be considered "renewable energy" under the standard.  Minnesota's original renewable energy standard received bipartisan support more than a decade ago, but the 100 percent proposal doesn't have much GOP support. It would take a grand compromise to get it passed this year.

It has been illegal to build new nuclear power plants in Minnesota since the 1990s. 

The Senate has voted to lift that ban , reasoning that nuclear, which is also carbon-free, should be considered as an option as the state moves toward carbon-free energy sources. 

The Xcel Energy's nuclear power plant near Prairie Island Indian Community
The Xcel Energy's nuclear power plant is located 600 yards from the Prairie Island Indian Community in Welch, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The House rejected an attempt to lift the ban, saying nuclear power is too expensive. Opponents in the House also argued that nuclear plants pose a safety risk because they generate radioactive waste that must be stored on site. 

But a provision added to the Senate's bill makes it so that if a utility decides to build a new nuclear power plant, it can't recover the costs of the plant from electricity customers until the plant begins operating.

The Senate has passed a bill making it a felony to trespass and alter pipeline equipment with intent to disrupt it. The action follows cases in Minnesota and elsewhere in which activists have shut off or attempted to shut off oil pipelines. 

Approximately 50 people come together to demonstrate against Line 3.
Approximately 50 people come together to demonstrate against Enbridge's Line 3 in Bemidji, Minn.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News 2018

The Senate also prohibits the Department of Commerce from spending money on its appeal of the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline project. The project, which would replace an existing pipeline across northern Minnesota, was approved last year by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. But the Walz administration has continued an appeal of that decision, saying the pipeline isn't needed.

The House has no similar provisions.

Both the House and Senate have passed language encouraging utilities to do energy storage pilot projects. Both have also provided funding for a cost-benefit analysis of energy storage systems.

Energy storage, such as batteries that are paired with wind and solar energy projects, is seen as another way to reduce the need to burn coal and natural gas to generate electricity. 

A section of the solar garden
One section of WH Solar's community solar garden is visible behind the company's headquarters in Rockford.
Matthew Hintz for MPR News 2016

Community solar gardens allow both renters and homeowners to subscribe to a solar array and receive credits on their electricity bills. The program was created by the Legislature in 2013 and only one utility, Xcel Energy, is required to participate in it. 

The Senate has voted to put new limits on the community solar program. Xcel has complained that the program is inefficient and expensive, especially as the cost of solar panels has dropped in recent years. 

The House has voted to preserve the community solar program but increases the maximum size of a solar garden to three megawatts instead of one megawatt. The House also creates additional programs designed to allow more low-income household participation in community solar.

Both the House and Senate budgets create a new program that helps schools install solar arrays through grants. But how much money each would give the program has yet to be settled. The House proposes $16 million; the Senate gives it $2 million.

Solar panels and reflectors.
The sun is seen in a reflective panel directing sunlight on to the solar array on top of Mounds View High School in Arden Hills, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

Chronic wasting disease has been a problem on several deer farms in the state, and animal health officials are concerned about it spreading further among wild deer. The disease is fatal.    Both the House and Senate provide funding to address chronic wasting disease in Minnesota's deer herd, but lawmakers still need to settle on details.

White-tailed deer
Chronic wasting disease has been a problem on several deer farms in the state, and animal health officials are concerned about it spreading further among wild deer.
Courtesy Steve Gifford

The House budget includes more than $600,000 in grants for planting lawns with native vegetation and pollinator-friendly habitat, with a nod toward areas where the endangered rusty patched bumble bee might forage. 

The House has also voted to make the rusty patched bumble bee the official bee of the state of Minnesota. The House also allows local governments to pass ordinances aimed at protecting pollinators. 

Honey bees pile on a wall around the queen bee.
Honey bees pile on a wall around the queen bee outside the Central Presbyterian Church in St. Paul.
Lacey Young | MPR News 2018

The Senate has no similar provisions, but both the House and Senate have passed language banning the use of neonicotinoid pesticides — a popular insecticide used on lawns, gardens and crops that are widely thought to play a role in the decline of bee populations — in state Wildlife Management Areas.

Federal wildlife officials announced in March a plan to remove federal endangered-species protections for gray wolves. The announcement came after a decades-long effort to restore the gray wolf population in the United States, which federal officials said has been successful. Wolves have been on and off the federal endangered species list for years.

If the plan moves forward, the federal government would cede management authority over Minnesota's wolf population to state wildlife officials.

The House narrowly voted to ban recreational wolf hunting, and the provision is in a larger environment budget package. The Senate's environment bill doesn't include anything on wolf hunting.

A photograph of a gray wolf near Snake River.
A photograph of a gray wolf near Snake River.
Courtesy of Craig Blacklock

While the gray wolf remains on the threatened and endangered species list, the animal can only be killed if it threatens a human life. When wolves were last under state management, people were allowed to kill a wolf it threatened livestock or pets. It's unclear if delisting the wolves from endangered species status would lead to a wolf-hunting season in Minnesota.

The House and Senate at are odds over how to spend money from the Legacy Amendment's Clean Water Fund and the Environmental Trust Fund, which comes from lottery proceeds. 

The funds are not supposed to be used to replace general state funding, but environmental groups say the Senate is doing exactly that. For example, the Senate's budget sets aside $10.5 million in Environmental Trust Fund money for wastewater infrastructure maintenance and updates; and $10 million to support state parks and $24 million in Legacy money to fund soil and water conservation districts.