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Legislator wants to see more stringent permit rules for ethanol plants

State Rep. Ken Tschumper has proposed legislation that would require a more stringent permitting process for ethanol plants, the latest sign of cooling attitudes toward state production of the biofuel.

The La Crescent DFLer’s proposal, which he says he will formally introduce in coming weeks, would subject all new or expanding ethanol plants to a mandatory Environmental Impact Statement, the state’s most comprehensive review process.

Tschumper says his proposal doesn’t mean he’s against ethanol plants, although he’s the first to admit that he’s not exactly an enthusiastic supporter. Rather, he says, he’s worried that there isn’t enough study done on long-term effects of the plants on animal agriculture and the environment.

“EISs do not stop ethanol plants,” he said. “They are an attempt to gain more science-based knowledge about the impact of these plants.”

Ethanol plant permitting system laced with acronyms
For those interested in the minutiae of ethanol plant permitting (PDF) here’s a brief rundown (alert: acronyms ahead):
Ethanol plants were actually subject to an EIS prior to 2004. That year, the Legislature passed a bill that made them optional (read: never needed) for any plant producing fewer than 125 million gallons of ethanol a year and outside the metro area (read: nearly every plant).

Ethanol plants still require a series of permits, including ones for water use and wastewater discharge. Those permits come from an array of state and federal agencies, including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency.

But the most comprehensive one is an Environmental Assessment Worksheet, managed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which also manages EIS applications. The EAW is a relatively painless procedure in most cases, because it’s a catch-all application for any project that has potential to harm the environment, whether it’s a subdivision, feedlot or, well, an ethanol plant. It involves a short, generic application, a public comment period, and a few months’ time before approval.

An EIS, by comparison, involves a multitude of in-depth studies, can take several months to complete and can cost applicants up to six figures. It also gives more leverage to anyone affected by the project (such as a neighboring landowner) who wants to suggest alternatives or compromises.

U study raises concerns about ethanol
Tschumper’s announcement follows release recently of a University of Minnesota study that concluded that corn-based ethanol could double greenhouse gas emissions over the next 30 years. That study, by the way, lit up online news sites, including Time, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as blogs.

And it tops the pile of other recent concerns about ethanol plants, including the amount of water used in production (hundreds of millions of gallons annually for an average-size plant), as well as the potential environmental hazards of discharging waste water into nearby rivers and lakes and converting more and more cropland to corn specifically intended for ethanol production. Then there’s the argument that it takes more energy to manufacture ethanol than the fuel actually provides.

These are all issues Tschumper raised in a recent conversation, before offering this: “Do people really think you can cover up that ethanol won’t help us achieve these important environmental objectives we are after?”

Reaction mild so far to Tschumper’s proposal
There hasn’t been a lot of public backlash against Tschumper’s proposal, although that’s likely because right now it’s just that: a proposal. The PCA, as expected, said it has no formal position on the bill.

And it’s difficult to say whether it will get lost this session in the shuffle of more glamorous and perennially controversial proposals, including the bonding bill and a comprehensive transportation funding package. The proposal may present a political problem for Tschumper, though, as he runs for re-election this year. He’s in a district with an ethanol plant — Pro-Corn, in Preston — and rumors abound that former Rep. Greg Davids, whom Tschumper narrowly beat in 2006, will run again. In his eight terms in the Legislature, Davids championed ethanol with a series of laws, including the 2005 mandate that all fuel must contain 20 percent ethanol by 2013.

Tschumper said he isn’t too concerned about any political fallout. “There are a lot more livestock owners in my district than shareholders of ethanol plants,” he said. ‘They want to answer some of these things, too.”

And, he said, more stringent review will help another demographic: plant investors, who would stand to lose money if a plant was shut down because of environmental concerns that weren’t addressed during the permitting process. “I’m thinking of naming this the Minnesota Ethanol Investor Protection Act,” he said.

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