Political Notebook: Lawmakers approve tougher regulations for silica sand mining
State lawmakers are pushing ahead with efforts to toughen regulations for silica sand mining in the state, with the Senate taking a more aggressive approach.
Senators last week approved a bill that would allow local governments to extend moratoriums for an additional two years until March 2015. It directs a key state agency to develop model standards for mining and establishes an advisory team to provide technical assistance to local governments. It also gives state agencies rule-making authority to determine standards for silica sand mining. Lastly, any silica sand project that requires excavating 20 acres or more at a depth of 10 feet or more would be required to complete an Environmental Assessment Worksheet done.
The fine sand is a key ingredient in the process of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." The technique involves pumping sand, water and chemicals into oil and natural gas wells within shale formations. The high-pressure mixture creates fractures in the rock, releasing oil and gas trapped inside.
House lawmakers approved similar legislation but did not include the provision allowing local government to extend their moratoriums or the environmental review requirements for larger projects. The differences between the plans will be hashed out in a House and Senate conference committee.
Notably absent from both plans is a statewide moratorium on silica sand mining — something being heavily pushed by environmental groups and some residents.
Land Stewardship Project organizer Bobby King said that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's announcement that he did not support a statewide moratorium hurt efforts to get one passed.
"The moratorium was always going to be a heavy lift, and when the governor said he didn't support that, it really crippled that effort and that was disappointing," he said. "But, he did say he wanted strong standards."
King is hoping that a bill backed by Red Wing DFL Sen. Matt Schmit will win legislative support. That one is part of a larger game and fish bill and restricts any industrial silica sand mining with a mile of any spring, trout stream or fen in the "Driftless area," which encompasses much of southeastern Minnesota. Meanwhile, legislation is also moving in both the House and Senate to boost taxes on mining companies. Those tax provisions face fierce opposition from mining companies.
At this point, Schmit said he is pleased with the package of regulations that are moving ahead.
"We've got a good balance right now, but at this stage I am not backing off the need for a study, state standards and hitting the pause button to get this right," he said.
Nelson calls on party to make change
Sen. Carla Nelson is calling on the state Republican party's new leaders to make some key changes. The Rochester Republican issued a statement calling on party leaders to take steps to make sure the party doesn't fall into financial trouble again. The party is looking to regain its footing after it fell deep into debt and Republicans struggled at the polls in 2012.
"Given the financial mismanagement that occurred under the previous chair's leadership, we must ensure the State Party institutes correct internal financial controls," Nelson said.
"This includes a segregation of duties in the handling of its financial operations. Donors and activists must feel secure that Party resources are correctly accounted for and precious dollars are not being wasted. I encourage the Chair and State Executive Committee to implement these controls as soon as possible."