State announces new pilot program to include climate change in environmental review

by Trevor Russell
Partly a result of more frequent and intense precipitation caused by climate change, flooding gives us a sober reminder: We'll have more water problems as climate change continues.
 

In September, the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board approved a pilot project that will — for the first time — assess the climate impacts of some of Minnesota's most significant projects.

Here's what this long-overdue decision means for Minnesota's efforts to address climate impacts on our environment, including the Mississippi River.

Environmental review background

Under Minnesota law, projects large enough to have significant environmental impacts must undergo environmental review.

These reviews most often use the Environmental Assessment Worksheet — a process designed to help the public, along with state and local governments, understand the environmental impacts of projects like large animal feedlots, industrial projects, and commercial and residential developments. The Environmental Quality Board (EQB) oversees the state's environmental review program.

Does state environmental review currently consider climate change?

Believe it or not, no! Currently, project proposers are not required to provide information about a project's greenhouse gas emissions or how climate change itself will affect a project's environmental performance over time. But after several years of advocacy from a broad range of environmental partners across the state - that is about to change.

Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order directing state agencies to work together to address climate change and improve community resilience. Shortly thereafter, the state's Interagency Climate Technical Team began considering how best to incorporate climate change considerations in environmental review, including changes to the Environmental Review Program.

Earlier this year, FMR joined organizations from across Minnesota in submitting comments on the EQB Environmental Review Implementation Subcommittee (ERIS) draft recommendations on integrating climate information into MEPA program requirements.

In addition, nearly 200 FMR River Guardians reached out to the Environmental Quality Board asking them to consider climate change in environmental review. These voices joined a chorus of Minnesotans from across the state asking for action. On September 15, 2021, the EQB agreed.  

The decision directs staff to implement a pilot program from January 2022 through September 2022 to evaluate the use of a revised Environmental Assessment Worksheet form. This revised form will include items for greenhouse gas quantification and assessment as well as climate adaptation and resiliency information.

Why is this important for the river?

As FMR readers know, the links between climate change and river health are inescapable. Failure to achieve our climate goals effectively puts our goal of a healthy and resilient Mississippi River out of reach. That is why - while we work hard to address the water quality impacts of agriculture and development - we can't ignore the ways in which failing to address climate change will undermine those efforts. 

Given the fact that Minnesota is already well behind on achieving the greenhouse gas reduction targets set out in the 2007 Next Generation Energy Act, it's clearly time to accelerate this work. The EQBs decision to begin assessing the climate impacts of the largest new projects is an important start. 

Thank you, River Guardians!

We count on FMR's River Guardians to advocate for important environmental decisions like this one. Together, we can make a difference. If you share our belief that every Minnesotan deserves access to clean and safe drinking water, healthy lakes and streams, and a sustainable future, please become a River Guardian. We'll email you when there's a chance to act quickly to address issues like these.