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In the fall of 2020, Laura Bishop, then commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, got an unusual voicemail.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican from East Gull Lake, had called her to urge the approval of a key water-quality permit for Enbridge Energy’s planned Line 3 oil pipeline. For years, the 337-mile pipeline across northern Minnesota has been one of the state’s most controversial environmental issues, and Enbridge needed what’s known as a 401 certification before construction could begin.
“I just can’t stress enough how important it is that you do your job with these and that the permits get issued,” Gazelka told Bishop.
To the majority leader, the call was an example of respectful advocacy on behalf of those who support Line 3. To Bishop, however, the voicemail was an unwelcome political intrusion: a threat from one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers to remove her from office if an environmental review based on science and law halted the pipeline project.
The MPCA ultimately granted Enbridge’s permit in November of 2020, a decision Bishop stands by and said wasn’t influenced by Gazelka. But earlier this month, Bishop resigned rather than face a Senate confirmation vote, a move that sparked debate over whether Republicans were conducting proper oversight or politicizing a scientific agency in their scrutiny of the MPCA.
Either way, the voicemail, released by the MPCA, is an unusual window into the acrimonious relationship between Senate Republicans and the agency, as well as behind-the-scenes machinations at the Minnesota Capitol.
Voicemail came after firings, job review
Bishop was appointed by Walz in January of 2019 after working at Best Buy, most recently as the company’s top sustainability officer, overseeing issues like environmental compliance and recycling initiatives.
As head of the MPCA, Bishop handled many controversial environmental issues, such as defending in court permits for PolyMet Mining’s copper-nickel mine and implementing tougher water pollution regulations for Minnesota’s largest animal feedlots.
The former commissioner drew sharp criticism from the GOP in 2019 when she announced plans to adopt “Clean Cars Minnesota” — new auto emissions standards that would require vehicle manufacturers to provide more electric cars for sale in the state. The regulations, which match ones in California, did not need legislative approval, but Republicans opposed to the idea said Bishop should work with the Legislature anyway on a matter of such public interest.
In August of 2020, Republicans hinted they might remove Bishop from her post, holding a performance review in an environmental committee soon after the Senate GOP had voted against confirming Nancy Leppink as commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industries. The Minnesota Senate has power to approve or deny commissioners appointed by a governor, but lawmakers often wait for years without voting on confirmations. Sometimes they hold agency leaders in limbo to retain leverage and influence over a governor’s policy.
Though Bishop never came up for a vote in 2020, Republicans did remove another commissioner: Steve Kelley, who was leading the Department of Commerce.
When Kelley was ousted, the MPCA was considering Enbridge’s 401 certification and planned to make a decision on the Line 3 permit before a federal deadline in November.
The 401 certification was arguably the most important permit issued to Enbridge by the MPCA, and also likely the most scrutinized. The agency received more than 10,000 comments during a comment period in the spring of 2020 — 10 times the number fielded for the 401 permit issued to PolyMet for its controversial mine plan near Hoyt Lakes.
The 401 certification is meant to ensure construction projects don’t violate water quality standards that safeguard drinking water, habitat and recreation. It’s also one of a handful of state-issued permits tied to federal law. In this case, the 401 certification stems from the Clean Water Act, which regulates pollution in waters of the United States such as the many lakes and rivers Line 3 would cross or run near.
Bishop did not give an exact date for when Gazelka left the voicemail, but said it was after her performance review, after Kelley and Leppink were removed, and days before the MPCA approved the Line 3 permit in November of 2020.
“Hey Laura, it’s Paul Gazelka,” the Republican said. “I’m just calling about the Line 3 water quality permits. This is a big deal to our caucus and I know that you have to make the decision in November. And I just can’t stress enough how important it is that you do your job with these and that the permits get issued. So that’s what I’m calling about. I appreciate your time, you have a good day.”
Call was not a threat, Gazelka says
In an interview Friday, Gazelka said he doesn’t regularly call commissioners, but usually relies on chairs of legislative committees who have more specialized expertise to work closely with an agency head. But Gazelka said Line 3 was a project “we thought should be done a while ago” and something he felt the governor was delaying. That led him to get personally involved.
“Absolutely it’s my job to try to influence her into a direction that we think needs to get done for the good of Minnesota,” Gazelka said, adding lots of people who support and oppose Line 3 were making their views on permitting known. “For me to be silent, to me, would be derelict of my responsibility to speak for what I think a lot of people in Minnesota think should happen.”
Bishop resigned on July 6, after Republicans signaled they planned to oust her, largely for not dropping or delaying the Clean Cars rules. (The regulations were formally adopted Monday.) After announcing she would leave, Bishop told Minnesota Public Radio that some calls and voicemails from Gazelka were a form of “political intimidation” and “very unsettling.” When asked for copies of the messages, the MPCA sent the Line 3 voicemail.
Bishop declined to comment further after releasing the voicemail, except to say she believes the Line 3 permit met agency standards and was issued based on merit, not political pressure. Still, she said shortly after the MPR interview that she felt Republicans had been holding the confirmation process over her head for years and were politicizing agency work that was supposed to be based on law and science.
Gazelka said the call was respectful and said he wasn’t suggesting the Senate would fire Bishop if she didn’t approve a critical Line 3 permit. “You can’t read a threat into that,” he said.
Enbridge spokeswoman Juli Kellner emphasized in a statement that Line 3 “has had strong bipartisan support all through the review and construction process.”
Why the permit in question is ‘relevant’
Gazelka’s attempt to influence the 401 certification was also noteworthy to Bishop because, unlike most state environmental policy debates, the Line 3 permit is part of a review program required by federal law.
The Clean Water Act gives states like Minnesota power to evaluate projects for a 401 certification to make sure they don’t violate local water quality standards required by the federal law. State lawmakers have less power over a review process under the state’s Clean Water Act authority.
John Linc Stine, a former MPCA commissioner appointed by then-Gov. Mark Dayton in 2012, said the state is “an agent of the federal government” when working on 401 certifications and other issues tied to administration of the Clean Water Act. Lawmakers have ways to offer their opinions — there is a public comment period on the 401 certification, for instance — but Stine said there is “strict guidance on how we perform our duties and we have to be mindful of (federal) oversight.”
Before he worked at the MPCA, Stine served under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty at the Department of Natural Resources, which has no federally delegated permits, and at the Department of Health, which does. “One of the things I learned quickly when I joined the health department was that this delegated program responsibility makes for a lot of complexity and difference as compared to programs that the state solely operates,” Stine said.
Once the state approved the 401 certification for Line 3, it was sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for scrutiny as part of a broader federal permit. That permit, known as a Section 404 permit, was granted by the feds in November of 2020, though it has faced legal challenges. Construction on Line 3 is now more than 70 percent complete.
Stine, now executive director of the clean water advocacy nonprofit Freshwater, said “those kind of phone calls and voicemails and conversations” with state lawmakers happened somewhat regularly during his time in state agencies and aren’t necessarily inappropriate. “Most of the time I would say legislators were very good at exerting their influence in a way that was clear, understandable and yet didn’t go across the line,” Stine said.
But Stine said he was confirmed early in his tenure. That meant there was no tension over being removed. Stine also said it is “notable” that such a call to Bishop came from Gazelka as majority leader, and the fact that the voicemail was about a 401 certification “is relevant,” too. Gazelka never had any similar interactions with him, Stine said.
“In public they’re very measured, I would say,” Stine said generally of legislators. “Never in doubt where people were coming from, but the direct statements of influence like that would be kept to private conversations normally. Phone messages … phone calls, hallway conversations, the one-on-one meetings I’d have with legislators, or even groups of legislators — that’s where you’d hear things like that. They’d rarely go to the point of saying ‘I need you to’ or ‘I want you to.’ They know there’s a line in there of trying to ethically command your decision.”
Gazelka said he doesn’t look at the “style of permit,” only “where I can influence the direction we should go.”
For instance, he and other lawmakers successfully pushed to relax MPCA feedlot regulations in a way that troubled agency leaders who said the changes may run afoul of federal regulators. The tweak in state law says if the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t like Minnesota’s alterations, the permit conditions would revert back to where they were before lawmakers intervened.
“I don’t really care where the permit is coming from,” Gazelka said. “I just want to make sure the people who have a voice in the matter hear from us. And again it’s always going to be respectful but it is going to be advocating for the things that we believe in.”
MinnPost is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization whose mission is to provide high-quality journalism for people who care about Minnesota.