COMMENTARY | Suspend your disbelief—Minnesota Permitting Process Self-Corrects

Hudson Kingston

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Suspend your disbelief—Minnesota Permitting Process Self-Corrects

Last week the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) suspended a major air pollution permit for a gas-fired power plant which, under the new permit, would have also been able to burn diesel fuel oil. PEER asked PCA to suspend the Great River Energy (GRE) permit because it had been issued before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (Commission) had completed a proper environmental review. 

PEER got this ball rolling by petitioning the Commission to conduct an environmental review of GRE’s proposal to burn diesel oil, which the Commission granted in June of 2022. Our petition explained that construction and use of a “dual fuel” (oil and gas) power plant in Cambridge, Minnesota, has foreseeable impacts to public health and the global climate. 

PCA’s actions come on the heels of a decision by Minnesota DNR to suspend a water permit after PEER pointed out to DNR that they also could not issue a permit before the Commission’s environmental review was complete. This puts GRE’s project back to where it was before the illegal permits were issued, and allows for a meaningful review of the project’s potential impacts on the community and environment. 

Soon the Commission will be issuing a draft Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) for this proposed project.  

Comments on the draft EAW can discuss how this project is likely to impact the environment, requiring further environmental review (known as an “EIS” or Environmental Impact Statement) with a robust analysis of alternatives to burning oil. Moreover, based on public feedback the Commission can decide that the project should be modified, or requires additional permitting procedures and proofs by the applicant.  

Indeed, the Commission could reject the “minor alteration” application entirely and the suspended permits may never return.  

Cambridge Power Plant, Cambridge, Minnesota

Cambridge Power Plant, Cambridge, Minnesota

By suspending the permits, PCA and DNR acknowledge that the EAW, and the public comments to be made on it, is a necessary prerequisite of the permitting processes. Suspending the permits lets Minnesotans know that their comments are not a meaningless effort to influence a foregone conclusion. We all still have skin (and lungs!) in the game. 

PEER and its partners CURE and Sierra Club North Star Chapter are pleased that state agencies can reverse course when they make mistakes. We look forward to a thorough environmental review that holds this company to the high standards of Minnesota’s environmental laws, and climate change commitment to make the energy system 100 percent carbon-free by 2040.  

Building new oil-burning power plants would be contrary to Minnesota law and Minnesotans’ values.  

Hudson Kingston is a Litigation and Policy Attorney at PEER, a Minnesota enthusiast and one-time professional baker.

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