Blog from Scott Strand, Executive Director


Read Scott's thoughts on important environmental issues in Minnesota, the United States, and worldwide.

Des Moines Water Works litigation

Good piece in New York Times (reprinted in StarTribune) on the Clean Water Act lawsuit the Des Moines Water Works filed against three upstream drainage authorities for failure to control nitrate pollution from agricultural runoff.  Agriculture is largely exempt from the federal Clean Water Act, but "point sources" between farms and drinking water sources might well be a different story.  This litigation is being watched all over the country, and certainly in Minnesota.

World Bank president on climate policy

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim forcefully called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies, imposition of a carbon tax, and investments in renewable energy infrastructure.  He sees sound climate policy being a boon to economic progress in the developing world.

Coal plant retirements are driving carbon emissions down

2015 is teed up to be the best year for carbon emissions in the US since 1994.  The reason is the quickening retirement of coal-fired electric power plants all over the country.  Getting those plants closed has, of course, been the central part of MCEA's climate effort.

Fossil fuel-free funds outperform conventional funds

More from the Guardian's fossil fuel divestment campaign.

Minnesota leads in losing wetlands and forests to crops

So much for "no net loss."  During the 2008-2012 era of high corn and soybean prices, Minnesota converted more wetlands to crop production that any other state.

Battle over public lands

Nice op-ed from the CEO of the Trust for Public Land in the New York Times.  Despite widespread public support for parks, trails, and wilderness, Republicans and conservative Democrats all over the country, including here in Minnesota, have made selling off our public lands or at least a "no net gain" policy a top priority.

Governor's Buffer Initiative

Governor Dayton is to Worthington and Austin today to talk about his buffer initiative, proposed legislation to require 50-foot riparian buffers (or equally protective alternatives) throughout the state.  

MCEA strongly supports this effort.  Buffers or filter strips can keep a lot of phosphorus and sediment from getting into rivers and streams, and can have a substantial impact on nitrate pollution as well.  They are not a panacea for all our water quality problems, but buffers are a simple, understandable crucial step forward.

Details on the initiative are on the DNR's website.

Clean Air: High costs, huge returns

A recent RAND report on air pollution in China analyzes the costs and benefits of switching electric power generation from coal to natural gas, switching to lower-emission vehicles, and investing in renewables and nuclear.  The size of China's problem is mind-boggling, but the report again confirms what we know from the US experience--that investments in clean air are expensive but the returns are enormous.

Supreme Court takes up Clean Air Act

Yesterday the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in three companion cases challenging the EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS).  The main issue in the case is whether the EPA could decide to adopt the standard without considering the costs to the electric power industry, or could defer cost considerations to the setting of particular emission limits.  This is less of an issue in Minnesota, where most all of our power plants are already in compliance, but has considerable implications nationwide for the country's aging coal fleet.  Prognosticators see the  Court tightly divided, with Justice Kennedy again providing the swing vote.  The EPA has been doing pretty well in Clean Air cases the last couple of years, but we could very well end up with a remand to the agency for further findings, which would delay progress for years.

War on rulemaking

This year, there are several bills before the Minnesota legislature, all currently moving through the House, that would require the executive branch to submit administrative rules and plans to the legislature for approval before they could go into effect.  HF 616 (Fabian)/ SF 689 (Eken) would make all new water quality standards subject to prior legislative approval, HF 333 (Newberger)/SF 231 (Brown) would require prior legislative approval before the MPCA could submit a state implementation plan to cut carbon emissions under Obama's Clean Power Plan, and HF 269 (Kresha)/SF 584 (Westrom) would require all rules with a potentially significant economic impact to get prior legislative approval.

This is an approach recommended by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is a conservative, corporate-funded organization that drafts "model" state-level bills to accomplish conservative objectives.  The proponents know that it would take very little to stop a bill to "approve" a set of administrative rules--one committee chair, leadership in one house, a governor--and the likely effect would be to stop administrative rulemaking in its tracks.

Legislatures have delegated rulemaking authority to administrative agencies since the late 19th century.  The reason is that legislatures are ill-equipped to do the technical analysis and detailed work necessary to put flesh on the bone of broad legislative policy objectives.  That is particularly true in the area of environmental law, which is dominated by highly technical standards developed by state environmental agencies and the EPA.  And, as Professor Farber pointed out in his blog entry today, administrative rulemaking is subject to requirements that do not apply to legislation:  1.  the requirement that rules be based on an evidentiary record; 2.  the requirement that the agency provide a reasoned explanation for their decisions; 3. the requirement that rules be consistent with statutes; and 4.  the opportunity to get judicial review.  Bills at the legislature do not have to meet any of those requirements.  Rulemaking also provides a greater and broader degree of public access to the decisionmaking process.

There is a movement among conservative judges to roll back rulemaking authority, particularly now in light of the Obama Administration's stated intent to use executive authority to fill gaps created by a do-nothing Congress.  Justice Thomas on the U.S. Supreme Court would do away with it altogether, as he declared in a recent concurring opinion two weeks ago in Department of Transportation v. Association of American Railroads.

For those concerned about science-based environmental protection, this is a dangerous development.

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