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Why Senate Republicans targeted Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop for removal

GOPers blamed the agency’s Clean Cars rules — but was Bishop just a pawn in a bigger political game?

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop resigned on Tuesday ahead of a potential vote, saying she expected to be removed more than two years into her tenure at an agency that oversees air, water and waste.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

After Minnesota lawmakers passed a two-year budget last week, Republicans who control the Senate stuck around the Capitol so they could vote to confirm or reject state officials appointed by Gov. Tim Walz.

It was initially unclear how many people the GOP intended to remove. By the end of the day Tuesday, the Senate had zeroed in on just one of Walz’s Cabinet members: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop.

Bishop resigned on Tuesday ahead of a potential vote, saying she expected to be removed more than two years into her tenure at an agency that oversees air, water and waste. The former Best Buy sustainability officer wasn’t the only leader of a controversial Minnesota department under a microscope.

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Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen faced a confirmation hearing, but ended up with glowing reviews from key Senate lawmakers during a hearing Tuesday. Republicans grilled Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho but didn’t seem to question her role. The Senate on Wednesday ended up adjourning, likely for months, without voting on either.

Why was Bishop targeted? She said the Republicans were politicizing the environment. GOPers said they disagreed with her decision to implement California’s tougher vehicle emission standards in Minnesota, and other, lower-profile anti-pollution efforts.

‘Clean Cars’ rule at issue

Senate Republicans had voiced frustration at Bishop and the MPCA’s push to adopt the California vehicle rules since the process began in September 2019. The agency has authority to act unilaterally because of existing state and federal pollution laws, and the Walz administration said it was a necessary step to slash carbon emissions amid global climate change. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota.

Still, the GOP argued Bishop was effectively side-stepping the Legislature to secure a policy they viewed as an unnecessary mandate that could lead to higher up-front costs for car buyers, extra work and costs for dealers, and potentially even hurt farmers who grow biofuels. Republican lawmakers said a policy so controversial should get approval from the Legislature, even if law didn’t require it, and hauled Bishop to the Senate for hearings and even a performance review last August.

The most controversial aspect of the so-called “Clean Cars” rules requires auto manufacturers to provide more electric, plug-in hybrid or hydrogen-powered cars for sale in Minnesota. California is the only state that can set its own emissions standards that differ from the federal government, but other states can choose whether to adopt California’s regulations or the national ones.

When legislators were negotiating a budget deal, the Senate GOP threatened briefly to shut down parks and other environmental spending if Walz and Bishop didn’t agree to drop the regulations or at least delay them, but later relented.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka likened the Clean Cars rule to Walz’s COVID-19 emergency powers, saying Walz had gone too far in exercising his authority without input from lawmakers and Bishop was doing the same. “If the commissioners then decide that they’re going to go around the legislative branch as well, it’s the only tool that we really have,” Gazelka told reporters before Bishop resigned.

In an interview Tuesday, Bishop said Gazelka had acknowledged the MPCA was following law and proper process in its Clean Cars rulemaking, and had even asked her to draft a letter to lawmakers explaining the regulations wouldn’t take effect until 2024 — well after the next election for governor.

Bishop said removing her from office also isn’t likely to stop the Walz administration from moving ahead with the policies anyway. It was also one of the few major climate policies Walz can tout during his first term in office, since Senate Republicans have opposed many DFL efforts.

The governor “expected me to lead on climate change,” Bishop said.

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Republicans had other frustrations, too

Still, Clean Cars wasn’t the only issue GOP lawmakers had with MPCA policy. In a recorded statement, Gazelka criticized Bishop for asking the federal government to implement new standards for mercury emissions by the taconite industry, which the Environmental Protection Agency had put off for 30 years. While the MPCA said the standards would help protect people from harmful effects of mercury pollution, Gazelka said he felt it would hurt mining companies.

Gazelka also noted Republican frustration with new water-pollution regulations for manure spreading by large animal feedlots that some livestock producers said were inflexible. The Legislature rolled back some of those new, stricter feedlot rules this year after outcry from Republicans, some DFLers and ag trade groups.

Bishop said the Walz administration was attentive to Republican concerns. For instance, Walz and lawmakers negotiated to relax the feedlot rules and partially exempt a new timber manufacturing business in Cohasset from environmental review.

Commissioner Steve Kelley
Former Commissioner Steve Kelley
Bishop’s MPCA also granted permits to Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline and defended permits for the PolyMet copper-nickel mine project in court. Both Line 3 and Polymet are supported broadly by Republicans. Those actions also led to criticism from some Democrats, environmental groups and tribes who oppose the two industrial projects.

Steve Kelley, who was removed in 2020 by the Senate as commissioner of the Department of Commerce, drew Republican ire after challenging Line 3.

Still, Gazelka, who is considering a run for governor, said Bishop was “jamming” through new policy.

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A ‘political quagmire’ created by the GOP?

Bishop on Tuesday described a rocky relationship with Senate Republicans during her time as commissioner that she said made her job tougher. “They have held this over my head for two and a half years,” Bishop said of the confirmation process.

She accused Gazelka of “political intimidation” in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio Tuesday and said the majority leader would call her or leave her voicemails that were “very unsettling,” and made her work contentious. She later told MinnPost “it does become tiring” when the GOP is “looking at every decision you make, really when (the MPCA) is set up as a regulatory agency.”

Leaving would help the agency avoid getting “bogged down in a political quagmire,” Bishop said. “This job is never going to win a popularity contest and I knew that and I have a pretty thick skin as well as a strong moral compass.”

In the end, Bishop said Republicans had “politicized” the agency and its work.

“I’m not sure who they want the governor to put in this role,” Bishop said. “Somebody that has 15 years of corporate experience and five years on the Minnesota Chamber (of Commerce) board like I did and they’ll attempt to take me out.”

Walz named MPCA Deputy Commissioner Peter Tester as the agency’s temporary leader in Bishop’s place.

Bishop reflected on her accomplishments, saying for instance that she and lawmakers set groundwork to address climate change and limit PFAS chemical pollution. For instance, Bishop led a “Climate Change Subcabinet”  made up of state officials for the governor and the Legislature this year approved money for climate resiliency grants. Lawmakers also passed a measure to phase out PFAS in food packaging and Bishop created a detailed blueprint to manage PFAS in the state.

Republicans, she said, were criticizing her for efforts to protect air and water. “We need to protect our water and air here in Minnesota,” she said. “That’s the agency’s whole purpose and mission is to protect the air, water and land. We have not overreached.”