Minnesota changes environmental review to measure climate impacts

Flash flooding
Damage caused by flash flooding along State Highway 23 at the Nemadji River in Carlton County, Minn., on June 17, 2018.
Minnesota Department of Transportation

Minnesota’s environmental review process will now require developers of new highways, industrial plants, livestock feedlots and large housing developments to calculate their project’s carbon footprint and consider how to reduce their impact on the climate.

Climate activists say the changes, which have been in the works since 2019, are long overdue. 

“This is a really big deal for Minnesota,” said Amelia Vohs, regulatory attorney for the nonprofit Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which pushed for the change. “We weren't counting greenhouse gas emissions for projects before we permitted them before.”

The Minnesota Environmental Policy Act, passed into law nearly 50 years ago, created the state’s environmental review process. It requires regulators to consider a project’s potential impacts to land, air, water and wildlife.

But the form used for most projects, known as an environmental assessment worksheet or EAW, previously did not include questions about the project’s climate impacts.

New EAW form

An interagency team started looking at incorporating climate change impacts into the state’s review process back in 2019. But the changes encountered pushback from some business groups, farmers and local governments, who said they would be burdensome and would raise the cost of building projects.

So the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, which oversees the state’s review process, asked a handful of state agencies, cities, counties and tribal governments to try using the new form as a pilot project for almost a year.

At its Dec. 14 meeting, the EQB board voted to roll out the new form statewide.

Now, developers of projects large enough to go through the environmental review process will need to calculate how much carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases the project will put into the atmosphere. 

More information into the future

Developers also must explain what methods they considered to reduce those emissions, such as installing rooftop solar panels or making buildings energy efficient.

“We're going to have information about what their greenhouse gas emissions are going to be not just today, but looking forward over the lifetime of the project,” Vohs said.

She said the questions will help state and local officials decide whether the project fits with Minnesota’s climate action goals, and if there are simple changes to a project’s design to help reduce emissions.

“That's critical information for state and local decision-makers to have at their fingertips, and for the public to know,” Vohs said.

Companies, developers, farmers and government agencies also will need to consider whether their projects are resilient to the potential effects of climate change, such as more intense rainfalls and flooding.

Reporting required, not changes

But there are limits to how effective the new requirements will be. Only about 100 projects — typically the largest — go through Minnesota’s environmental review process every year.

Simply because a project will emit a lot of greenhouse gases doesn’t mean it will be denied, Vohs said. And developers are required only to list the project’s climate impacts — not to make changes to it.

She hopes eventually, there could be state requirements for projects to reduce their greenhouse gases, “so we're going beyond just counting what your emissions are, to actually making sure that projects are reducing them before we permit them in the state.”

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