Minnesota Agency Reverses Course on Illegal Permit
In 2005 the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (the Commission) granted permits to Great River Energy (GRE) for a power plant in Cambridge, MN, under Minnesota’s streamlined alternative review permitting system for gas-burning power plants.
In recent months, GRE, who still owns and operates the plant, has been attempting to push through what they call a “minor alteration” to the existing permit which would allow for construction changing the facility to allow the burning of both gas and diesel fuel oil. The obvious negative impacts of large scale burning of oil is well documented, despite GRE’s attempt to minimize this fact. In calling this a “minor alteration,” GRE is looking to circumvent the normal permitting requirements and environmental review process required by Minnesota law for new oil-burning power plants.
In Spring of 2022, we launched an effort to stop this legal subterfuge and called for an environmental review of the proposed update to the Cambridge facility prior to permitting. Our petition asserts that GRE’s proposed “minor alteration” is anything but minor and was put forth in bad faith by GRE in an effort to skirt the regular review process for an oil-burning facility. The dozens of Minnesotans who signed the petition believed that plant alterations shouldn’t be authorized without analysis of the potential for environmental impacts of adding oil-burning capacity to the existing plant.
In June of 2022 the Commission unanimously agreed with the petitioners and called for an environmental review of the proposed plant. Per Minnesota law, after the citizen petition was submitted, no state or local agency could legally issue a permit for the proposal until the petition was rejected or environmental review was completed. During the review process (which has yet to officially begin), PEER and its partners at CURE and the Sierra Club look forward to proving that the project would be too harmful and is not worth pursuing, considering the many negative impacts to the community and global climate.
Despite receiving formal legal notice of the Commission’s decision to grant the petition and require environmental review, and in violation of the law, two different state agencies subsequently ignored the Commission’s action and prematurely approved permits for the oil plant.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issued a groundwater permit for the proposed facility on the same day that the Commission decided that additional environmental review was required. As far as DNR knew, the citizen petition was still pending before a different agency and no permits should have been issued at all.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) issued a major air pollution permit modification for the project in October 2022 – well past the approval of the citizen petition and prior to the beginning of any environmental review. PCA was well aware that any such final permit issuance was illegal, as they had formal notice of the Commission’s decision in the state’s official register. To make matters worse, this permit modification allowed for more localized and dangerous air pollution, in excess of levels set by the facility’s existing gas-only air permit.
On January 18, in response to questions from PEER, DNR made the right call and suspended the new permit and explained to GRE that the issuing of the permit was not consistent with Minnesota law. DNR’s letter correctly explained to GRE that it could not issue a new groundwater permit for the project until the environmental review has been completed. As the environmental review for this power plant hasn’t yet begun, DNR will have to wait for that process to fully wrap up before it can again consider whether to issue a permit.
Ideally, PCA would follow DNR’s example and suspend its own permit modification, allowing GRE to continue to operate its existing plant under the previous permit limits. At the very least, it must account for why it issued an illegal permit when it knew the environmental review was pending. Only after the environmental review concludes could PCA revisit the permitting application and decide what to do based on the additional information within the environmental document.
PEER will continue to monitor the environmental review process and urges Minnesota agencies to uphold their legal duties so that dangerous permitting mistakes like this are not commonplace occurrences. Public employees at these agencies are bound to the law’s “look before you leap” requirements, and mistakenly-issued permits should be retracted when an environmental review is ongoing – not just when they get caught.
Hudson Kingston is a Litigation and Policy Attorney at PEER, a Minnesota enthusiast and one-time professional baker.