Minnesota adds greenhouse gas estimates to environmental assessments; ag groups say it's too early
The Environmental Quality Board approved changing the form as part of a pilot project, which will make the assessments more expensive to fill out, but is part of Minnesota's goals to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Starting in January, a pilot program in Minnesota will be asking for an estimate of greenhouse gas emissions on projects requiring an environmental assessment.
This will include some large farm expansions and many rural county projects and will likely mean the added expense of hiring of a consultant to help complete the assessment.
The move was approved at a Sept. 15 meeting of Minnesota's Environmental Quality Board, including a yes vote from Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen, despite push back from farm groups.
Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of Minnesota Milk, said in an interview that dairy groups are willing to do their part on climate change, but that this change is too soon. He cites an Aug. 7 United Nations study that he says shows the methane contributions from livestock have been overestimated while fossil fuel use has been underestimated in climate studies.
He said that throws the current tools for estimating green house gas emissions into question.
"The current formulas are wrong," Sjostrom said in an interview.
An April 9, 2020, letter regarding changes to Environmental Review Program signed by the Minnesota Milk Producers Association and several other Minnesota farm said, in part:
"We should not be comparing chickens, cows, pigs or turkeys to cars or power plants. The accounting on this has been incorrect for the previous 20 years. . . . (T)he policies being implemented by EQB and MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) do not seem to fit the updated science involved in greenhouse gases."
In a letter dated Sept. 10, 2021, just before the vote, a letter from the farm groups said, in part:
"Last year, our organizations commented on integrating climate change information into the Environmental Review Program and answered surveys in relation to those comments. However, no one ever followed up with any of our organizations on the comments."
While there are no standards for greenhouse gases yet for Minnesota farms, some fear the change will lead to regulations and empower environmental groups opposed to animal ag.
The lone dissenting vote on the pilot project came from Bryan Murdock of Wyoming, Minnesota, a public member of the board.
Murdock is president of Condition Services, which provides environmental consulting services, including projects requiring an environmental assessment worksheet and livestock facility permitting.
One of his fears is that it will make it easier for people opposed to livestock agriculture to weigh in against expansion projects.
"It's giving them another tool to stop projects they don't like," Murdock said in an interview.
He's also concerned about the expense of hiring a consultant, not only on small businesses, but also on local governments that may need a consultant to interpret the information presented in the assessment.
"I think it's going to hurt all the little guys, regardless of whether it's ag or not," Murdock said.
Petersen in an interview said the change is in line with the priorities of Gov. Tim Walz's administration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions .
The resolution approving the pilot says that state agencies, such as the MPCA, will participate in the program but that participation for local governments is voluntary.
Petersen said the greenhouse gas emissions estimates could add anywhere from $3,000 to $30,000 in expenses per assessment, but he hopes that most will be on the lower end of that.
There are no limits on greenhouse gas emissions other than for large power plants in Minnesota, but the state wants to gather data on greenhouse gases.
Luke Johnson is a Pipestone County commissioner and chairs the environment and natural resources policy committee for the Minnesota Association of Counties.
He testified against the greenhouse gas estimates during a July meeting of the Environmental Quality Board.
He complains that there is not a standardized way of calculating the emissions and that it is up to the regulating agency to decide which method should be used when calculating the estimate.
“You’d think there would be a standardized process,” Johnson said in an interview.
Beyond that, he says that “for something this impactful, the Legislature should weigh in,” rather than the unelected members of the Environmental Quality Board.
Johnson said his group heard about the proposal "late in the game." His July testimony was not included in the public comments submitted to the Environmental Quality Board that were overwhelmingly in support of the worksheet changes.
The pilot program is set to run from January through September of 2022.
Denise Wilson, director of the environmental review program for the Environmental Quality Board, said the value for local governments in participating in the program is to get state support in learning how to navigate the program and be able to provide more valuable input into a final form of the updated worksheet.
The pilot period also still allows for additional comments from the ag sector.
"There's still an opportunity for ag groups to weigh in," Petersen said.
Isaac Orr, with the Center of the American Experiment, a free market think tank in Golden Valley, Minnesota, said that while the state is not requiring any mitigation yet, he fears it will lead to regulations.
And he said it will "empower the NIMBY’s, which is unfortunate."