Walz opts for insider for new MPCA commissioner

a woman poses for a photo, sitting in a hotel room
Gov. Tim Walz has selected Katrina Kessler as the new Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner. She’ll step in for Peter Tester who took over in July on an acting basis after the resignation of Laura Bishop.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Updated: 3:02 p.m.

The new Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner is an engineer who has a long history in the field, including at the department that oversees air, water and waste management.

Gov. Tim Walz selected assistant commissioner Katrina Kessler for the top job that came open after the summer resignation of the prior leader. Kessler has led the agency’s water policy and agriculture division as assistant commissioner since 2019.

Walz called his pick “a dedicated public servant with a long track record of implementing innovative solutions at both the state and municipal level that are good for the environment and good for business.”

In an interview Friday, Kessler said she’ll strive for stability at an agency she believes is already on a solid course.

“I don't expect that this represents a sea change. Nor do I have a desire to change direction. I think that we have a lot of momentum that we can build from. I think there's really excellent work underway across the administration, with our cabinet partners, as well as within the agency,” she said. “I'm excited to continue to work on those priorities, such as mitigating climate change, building resiliency, integrating equity into the work that we do across the state as well as readying the state for the federal infrastructure package.”

Kessler will step in for Peter Tester who took over in July on an acting basis after the resignation of Laura Bishop, who stepped down when it looked likely the Republican-controlled Senate would oppose her confirmation, essentially firing her.

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The MPCA has more than 850 employees across eight offices. It issues thousands of permits intended to safeguard the environment and limit pollution. It also monitors air quality and inspects feedlots, storage tanks and hazardous waste sites.

The agency has been an attractive target for legislative Republicans, who contend that its regulatory efforts too often stifle industrial expansion and complicate farming. But it’s also been a linchpin in Democratic moves to enact climate change policy.

The department spearheaded the Walz plan to pursue more electric vehicle sales and clean car standards. The Walz administration’s decision to enact those standards through rulemaking rather than a vote in the Legislature contributed to the tense relationship Bishop had with majority Senate Republicans.

Kessler said while the agency is a magnet for criticism — from those who think it does too much and those who say it doesn’t do enough to protect resources — the important thing is maintaining a focus on the science.

“At the end of the day, you're never going to make everybody happy. But I think it's important to remember that like, we don't do this necessarily to make everybody happy, and that leadership is hard,” Kessler said. “But the mission of the agency, which is to protect and improve human health and the environment is something that we're all committed to doing, and to the best of our ability. We do that every day. And it's not a popularity contest.”

Senate Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee Chair Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said she knows Kessler through her past assignments and looks forward to having her before the committee. Ruud doesn’t intend to hold a confirmation hearing anytime soon — Kessler can serve in the meantime — because she wants to see her in action for a bit.

“I think building a relationship with the new commissioner is of utmost importance,” Ruud said.

House Environment Committee Chair Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, praised Kessler as “a capable leader with a broad range of experience.”

After Bishop resigned, Walz opened a broad search for a replacement. But he had to extend the application deadline in an attempt to draw more candidates.

Tester sought the job permanently.

Kessler’s job will be subject to Senate confirmation, but she can hold the job unless that approval is eventually denied. Most of the Walz cabinet remains unconfirmed almost three years into his term, with threats of removal a constant source of friction.

Kessler’s ties to the agency date to the early 2000s.

Kessler began as a permit engineer for the MPCA and later took on management roles in environmental analysis. 

She left the agency for a few years for a post in the city of Minneapolis surface waters and sewers division. But she returned to the MPCA in 2019 to be assistant commissioner, where she has been heavily involved in climate policy.

Kessler said her longevity and varied roles are assets.

“I think part of the reason that I will be impactful in this role from the beginning is that I really understand how it works,” she said. “I not only understand the culture, but I understand the technical aspects of the work, I understand the roles that people play, how they're connected, how to inspire and encourage them to work together towards our high-level goals.”

Kessler is 45 and lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two sons. She’s an avid biker, runner, skier and swimmer. In fact, next week she departs on a personal trip to test her endurance — a two-mile open swim off the coast of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

She said she chose the destination with friends after an internet search for a challenging swim.

“I did look at some videos of this the other night of what it looks like and people said they saw octopuses and various sea life,” Kessler said. “So hopefully, we'll enjoy it and recognize that it's probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that just happens to coincide with starting a new job.”