Minnesota may add climate impacts to environmental review

Water bursts through a retaining wall.
Brewery Creek bursts through a retaining wall after heavy rains caused flooding in Duluth, Minn., in June 2012. The city has rebuilt some of its infrastructure to be more resilient to higher precipitation levels. Since Minnesota's environmental review process was initiated nearly 50 years ago, proposers of large projects haven't had to add up their project’s carbon footprint, or consider ways to reduce emissions. State environmental agencies hope that will soon change.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2012

Large projects in Minnesota — from new highways to industrial plants to big housing developments — are required to go through an environmental review that examines the project’s potential risks to the land, air, water and wildlife. 

But despite widespread concern over rising global temperatures, proposers haven’t typically been required to examine a project’s contributions — and resiliency — to climate change: How many greenhouse gases will a proposed asphalt plant or hog feedlot release into the atmosphere? How might a new highway or wastewater treatment plant withstand the effects of heavier rainfalls and higher temperatures?

Now, several state agencies are recommending significant changes to Minnesota's environmental review program that would require proposers to add up their project’s carbon footprint — and consider ways to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change.

The state Legislature passed the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act, which created the review process, nearly 50 years ago. At the time, the state’s environmental priorities were different than they are today. 

"Climate change wasn't on people's radar. That wasn't a big priority issue,” said Katie Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, which oversees the state's review program. 

Pratt said since the 1970s, people’s priorities have shifted, and now the board, made up of state agency leaders and citizens, frequently hears from Minnesotans who are concerned about the impact climate change will have on the state.

“They're really looking to their governments, to state governments and other entities and institutions to say, ‘What are our tools here? What can we do about this issue?’ ” she said.

One of those tools, Pratt said, is the environmental review process. The EQB wants to add some new questions to Minnesota’s environmental assessment worksheet, the form used for most reviews.

If the EQB’s recommendations go forward, entities proposing projects would need to calculate how much carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases the project would be putting into the atmosphere. Projects emitting 25,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in other gases would need to detail how they would reduce or mitigate those emissions.

Occasionally, regulators have asked for those types of details from some projects. Recently, the environmental assessment for Daley Farms, a large dairy expansion in Winona County, was put through a climate change lens. But that hasn't been a consistent part of the review process, said Denise Wilson, director of the EQB’s environmental review program.

“That's one of the goals of this project, is to offer more certainty to project proposers and to governmental units for how to perform that analysis,” Wilson said.

Information about how projects could impact or adapt to climate change would be valuable to local officials and the public, said Amelia Vohs, a regulatory attorney with the nonprofit Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which pushed for the emissions disclosure in the Daley Farms case. 

"It really lets the agency that's approving the project have this information about how [we could] better design this project in ways that are feasible and practical today to reduce these emissions,” Vohs said.

Examples of ways to reduce or mitigate emissions might include adding solar panels; making buildings energy efficient; using electric vehicles or planting cover crops on a farm.

There’s a flip side, too: Companies, developers, farmers and government agencies launching a project would also need to think about how it might be affected by the changing climate, as temperatures rise, rainfalls intensify and flooding threats increase.

"In my mind, this climate-smart decision-making is the only way forward,” said Heidi Roop, an assistant professor of climate science at the University of Minnesota. 

Roop said it's critically important to consider how well-prepared a project is for the climate changes ahead.

"The idea would be to design something well once, and have it hopefully ideally perform under climate-changed conditions,” she said. “Or, we don't take that information that we have available to us, and we design it and it gets damaged. And we have to rebuild it."

Roop said some places are already taking this approach. The Duluth waterfront, for example, has been heavily damaged by large storms that have battered the Lake Superior shore in recent years. The city is working to rebuild the lakeshore in a way that's more resilient to future storms.

Virtually all projects could be vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including increased precipitation and higher temperatures, said Jim Kelly, environmental health manager for the Minnesota Department of Health. And some of those effects — such as a higher likelihood of floods — also pose a public health risk, he said.

“Just about anything could be impacted in ways that I think it’s important to think about ahead of time — and also try to plan for how that project can best address and cope with those potential impacts,” Kelly said.

Proponents acknowledge that adding climate change measurements to environmental reviews won't solve the problems of climate change. Only about 100 or so projects complete an environmental assessment worksheet in Minnesota each year, and only one or two are required to go through a much more rigorous environmental impact statement, or EIS.

But they say embedding this kind of climate thinking and expectation into the decision-making process is a critical next step, and is already becoming more common.

"A lot of people are grappling with this,” Pratt said. “Many businesses are calculating their greenhouse gas emissions, because it's important to them as a business, it aligns with their values, it could be important to their investors."

Not everyone likes the idea. Some have complained that the new requirement could be burdensome for developers and raise the cost of building projects.

The public has until March 31 to submit comments on the proposed changes. A listening session is scheduled for March 27.

If the full Environmental Quality Board approves the changes to the environmental review form, they could take effect this fall.

Correction (March 30, 2021): Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated, on second reference, the gas emissions that would be projected to measure a project's impact on the climate. That gas is carbon dioxide. The story above has been corrected and updated.