MPCA Commissioner Bishop underwhelms responding to Line 3 question

MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop drew a large crowd at the Growth and Justice breakfast event.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Commissioner Laura Bishop is saying all the right things when it comes to the urgent need to address climate damage and to engage the public and tribal nations in these conversations.

Yet when she was asked to comment on the proposed Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline — and its harm to climate, water and treaty rights — she gave a cautious response, calling for more public input. At one point, she said: “It’s a tough one.”

MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop.

Bishop spoke for a half hour this morning at a Growth & Justice breakfast at Elsie’s in Northeast Minneapolis. The topic was environmental equity.

Bishop gave an update on Northern Metals, the recycling plant that was supposed to move out of north Minneapolis by Aug.1 but hasn’t because of a court decision. She spoke about the $7 million fine the MPCA imposed on Water Gremlin, a White Bear Lake firm that for 17 years violated its air quality permit, releasing a carcinogenic compound.

Yet her presentation didn’t address Enbridge Line 3, one of the most significant environmental justice issues facing the state. The pipeline would have a disproportionate impact on indigenous peoples.

The MPCA is in the thick of the controversy. Enbridge has applied to the MPCA for water crossing permits (also known as Section 401 permits).

During the Q&A, I ticked off Line 3’s significant risks. If approved, the pipeline would create $287 billion in climate damage over three decades. It would cross 75 miles of Minnesota wetlands and 200 water bodies. It also would pose significant environmental justice issues in terms of unresolved treaty rights claims.

Bishop said Enbridge Line 3’s water crossing permits are on hold because of legal challenges in the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Line 3 “is something that we are looking very closely at, very seriously.”

The MPCA, in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is starting with “a lot of community outreach” and consultation with tribal nations, she said.

She acknowledged that “the climate impact piece is an important one.” She concluded: “It’s a tough one. It [Line 3] has to have a lot more involvement and input from the community before we can move forward on it.”

Comment: At one point in her response, Bishop referred to Line 3 as a “replacement pipeline.” That’s a term Enbridge likes to use. Here’s why it’s problematic. The current Line 3 is old and failing and only runs at half capacity. Enbridge proposes to replace the old 34-inch-diameter pipeline with a new 36-inch pipeline along a new route. This would allow Enbridge to more than double Line 3’s current capacity at a time we should be reducing fossil fuel use.

That said, I found promise in Bishop’s big picture comments about climate change and indigenous rights. I hope she eventually takes a strong stand against Line 3.

Here are four takeaways.

1. Climate is one of Bishop’s top three priorities: Bishop said when she interviewed with Gov. Walz for the MPCA Commissioner’s position, she emphasized the need for a statewide strategy and policy on climate. (She told Walz if he just wanted a regulator, he would need to find someone else for the job.)

Bishop now sits on a six member executive team for Walz’ cabinet, a group that helps set administration priorities. “I am pleased to see that we’ll be launching some climate recommendations and initiatives this fall,” Bishop said.

2. Bishop says people are the MPCA’s customers, not industry: The MPCA’s mission is “to protect and improve the environment and human health,” Bishop said. “We may have to work and serve industry with our permits … But who we serve is really instrumental to our mission, and we serve all of you, the citizens of Minnesota. That should always be at the forefront of everything we do.”

(That was refreshing to hear after sitting through many Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) Line 3 hearings where it felt like Enbridge, not the public, was the PUC’s customer.)

3. The MPCA is embedding environmental justice into its work: While Minnesota is a national environmental leader, that’s not true for every community in the state. Communities that are disproportionately poor or people of color often face more environmental challenges. (Think North Minneapolis and Northern Metals.) The MPCA is giving priority enforcement to projects that are in an “environmental justice” areas, Bishop said. The MPCA also is going to deal with tribal nations on a government-to-government relationship. (This is following Gov. Walz’s executive order affirming that government-to-government relationship.)

“I am learning. I am excited about this,” Bishop said.

4. Climate issues are personal for Bishop: In her closing remarks, Bishop said one of the lenses she views her work through is the mother lens. She has two teenage daughters, she said. She was encouraged to see today’s youth “really stepping up on the climate initiatives and leading the charge.”

At the same time, she said her children’s generation have “climate anxiety” and worry about the future world they will inherit: “We need to act.”

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