DSC00141Putting MinnCan pipeline through the Nietes field

Today the Minnesota Court of Appeals finally determined that under the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act, a full Environmental Impact Statement, not the abbreviated “Environmental Report,” is required.  I’ve been before the Appellate Court, the Public Utilities Commission, the Administrative Law Judge, in Comments to the Dept. of Commerce, and at the Rulemaking Advisory Committee for Minn. R. ch. 7849 how many times on this?!?!? … sigh… OK, whatever…

Sent this to the PUC’s rulemaking staff because we’ve got to make sure the Certificate of Need rules are in line with this decision:


So back to today’s Appellate decision — I’m glad they’re finally acknowledging this problem.  Very, very glad to see this order to remand to the Public Utilities Commission for a full Environmental Impact Statement, as required by the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act.

Here is the decision:


Here’s the meat of it — it’s so simple — why did it take so long?

Here the MPUC deviated from its usual practice and chose to conduct the certificate of need proceedings prior to the routing permit proceedings. As a result, the MEPA-compliant environmental review associated with the routing permit would not occur until after a decision was made on the certificate of need. Neither party challenges the underlying decision to bifurcate the proceedings, but FOH argues that making a decision on the certificate of need in the absence of an EIS violates MEPA. The MPUC and NDPC contend that requiring an EIS at the certificate of need stage is inconsistent with the EQB’s longstanding determination that the alternative environmental review conducted as part of the routing permit proceedings satisfies MEPA. We agree with FOH, and see this as a simple question of statutory interpretation that requires us to examine the plain meaning of two MEPA provisions.

Relying on subdivision 2b, FOH contends that the issuance of a certificate of need constitutes a “final governmental decision” to grant a permit, and as such is prohibited until an EIS has been completed. We agree. For purposes of MEPA, the definition of permit includes a “certificate, or other entitlement for use or permission to act that may be granted or issued by a governmental unit.” Minn. R. 4410.0200, subp. 58 (2013) (emphasis added). This unambiguous definition encompasses a certificate of need. All parties also agree that once the MPUC decides to grant a certificate of need, its decision regarding the issuance of that specific permit is final. Therefore, based on the plain language of subdivision 2b, the MPUC’s issuance of a certificate of need constitutes a final governmental decision that is prohibited until the required environmental review is completed.

We are also not convinced that an EIS is not required before a certificate of need may be issued simply because the EQB has approved the environmental assessment associated with the routing permit process as an adequate alternative to a formal EIS. While the substance of this alternative review process may be equivalent to an EIS, its approval as an alternative by the EQB says nothing about when a final governmental decision to grant a permit may or may not be made in the absence of an EIS, which is specifically addressed by subdivisions 2a and 2b. Minn. Stat. § 116D.04, subds. 2a, 2b. We also note that the legislature could have clearly stated that a certificate of need for a large oil pipeline was excluded from the environmental review requirements of MEPA, but it declined to do so. See Minn. Stat. § 116D.04, subd. 2a(a) (authorizing EQB to establish categories of action for which an EIS is mandatory and identifying certain actions for which an environmental assessment worksheet or EIS shall not be required). As a result, in the absence of a statutory exclusion or an explicit statement by the EQB that the approved routing permit application process supplants the need for environmental review at the certificate of need stage, subdivisions 2a and 2b must control our determination of whether environmental review is required. The unambiguous language of those provisions mandates that in a situation such as this, when the MEPA-compliant environmental review would not occur until after a certificate of need was issued, an EIS must be completed as part of the certificate of need proceedings.

Finally, we point out that requiring an EIS during the initial certificate of need proceedings affirms the emphasis MEPA places on conducting environmental review early on in the decision-making process. Specifically, MEPA states that, “[t]o ensure its use in the decision-making process, the environmental impact statement shall be prepared as early as practical in the formulation of an action.” Id., subd. 2a. This emphasis on timing is also consistent with the way federal courts have applied the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which we may look to for guidance when interpreting MEPA. See Minn. Ctr. for Envtl. Advocacy v. Minn. Pollution Control Agency, 644 N.W.2d 457, 468 (Minn. 2002). The United States Supreme Court has explained that the early-stage environmental review similarly required by NEPA is critical because it “ensures that that important [environmental] effects will not be overlooked or underestimated only to be discovered after resources have been committed or the die otherwise cast.” Robertson v. Methow Valley Citizens Council, 490 U.S. 332, 349, 109 S. Ct. 1835, 1845 (1989)

In this case, the completion of an EIS at the certificate of need stage satisfies the imperative identified above by ensuring decision-makers are fully informed regarding the environmental consequences of the pipeline, before determining whether there is a need for it. Moreover, completion of an EIS at the initial certificate of need stage seems particularly critical here because once a need is determined, the focus will inevitably turn to where the pipeline should go, as opposed to whether it should be built at all. We acknowledge that the MPUC did order a high level environmental review to be considered during the certificate of need proceedings. But as the MPUC noted, this review was not meant to serve as a substitute for the more rigorous and detailed review needed to satisfy MEPA, and it cannot take the place of a formal EIS now. Accordingly, we conclude the MPUC erred by not completing an EIS at the certificate of need stage as MEPA requires.


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