Why you should care
It’s not just Flint. Michigan’s myriad environmental challenges have Republicans on the defensive in the state’s gubernatorial race.
A stone’s throw west of Michigan’s iconic Mackinac Bridge runs Enbridge Line 5, one of the state’s energy lifelines. Every day, Line 5’s dual 20-inch pipelines spirit 540,000 barrels of Canadian oil along the strait’s floor en route to thirsty refineries in southeast Michigan, Ohio and Ontario. Quite literally out of sight, Line 5 was mostly out of mind until earlier this decade, when Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. increased oil flows by nearly 10 percent without reinforcing or replacing the visibly corroded tubes. Concern hit new heights this spring after a wayward boat anchor dented one of the tubes and ruptured a nearby transmission line. Now, the pipelines are also carrying the hopes and fears of candidates ahead of the state’s 2018 gubernatorial election in November.
When the anchor struck the tubes, Michigan’s Republican administration scrambled to investigate the incident and allay public fears of a major spill that could spoil drinking water for 40 million people. The state attorney general and lieutenant governor — both gubernatorial hopefuls — jockeyed for political advantage ahead of the Aug. 7 primary election, while Democrats demanded the line be shut down.
At the state level, Line 5 is the environmental issue of 2018.
Mary Brady-Enerson, Michigan director of Clean Water Action
That increasingly heated debate is a manifestation of the rise of Michigan’s multiple environmental concerns on the state’s political agenda for 2018. Even as the state grapples with the aftermath of Flint’s drinking water crisis, the state’s polarized electorate is sizing up other dilemmas: aging lead and copper water service lines in older cities across the state; agricultural runoff feeding out-of-control algae blooms in Lake Erie; a sweetheart deal that allows Nestlé to pump vast quantities of groundwater in northern Lower Michigan for a token fee; controversial mining permits in the wild, ore-rich Upper Peninsula; what to do with more than 7,000 polluted industrial sites, including up to 3,000 “orphan” properties with no responsible party; and the long-term viability of the state’s energy generation capacity. Then, there’s Line 5.
“At the state level, Line 5 is the environmental issue of 2018,” says Mary Brady-Enerson, Michigan director of Clean Water Action.
In the Great Lake State, “water quality is always the driving factor” in environmental debates, adds Chris Kolb, president and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council. Indeed, water quality concerns underpin a bipartisan consensus in favor of broad-based environmental stewardship here. Despite vocal climate change skeptic Donald Trump’s narrow statewide victory in the 2016 presidential election, six out of 10 Michiganders favor environmental protections over economic growth, according to a Michigan State University/YouGov poll.
Finding solutions to Michigan’s challenges won’t be easy, given the often-cozy relationship between the industrialized state’s powerful corporate interests and establishment politicians on both sides of the aisle.
But as the fall election sprint looms, officeholders and office-seekers must persuade a skeptical, rightward-trending electorate that they can safeguard Michigan’s precious water resources without jeopardizing its long-overdue economic momentum.
Locked out of power in state government, Democratic office seekers are vying to one-up each other on green issues. Progressive gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed was an outlier when he called for Line 5’s shutdown last year; in a more recent interview with Detroit Public Television, he called the line “a ticking time bomb,” adding, “[s]hut it down and then figure out what to do on the back end.” Though El-Sayed lost this month’s primary, the victor, Gretchen Whitmer, also wants to decommission the line, though her position is more nuanced. In a November 2017 Medium post, her campaign wrote, “Whitmer is committed to bringing everyone to the table to develop a long-term plan to get oil out of the Great Lakes and negotiate the shutdown of Line 5 without miring the state in lawsuits.” Whitmer has pledged to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a multistate coalition formed in the wake of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change.
Michigan’s top Republican officeholders are surprisingly flexible on green issues too, particularly when they intersect with infrastructure and public health. Outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder aims to replace all lead water service lines by 2041 and supports a Republican-sponsored bill to increase water infrastructure funding by $110 million annually. Attorney General Bill Schuette, who defeated Lt. Gov. Brian Calley to become the GOP nominee for governor, supports proposals to reduce Line 5’s vulnerabilities.
And, in 2016, the GOP-controlled state legislature passed a bill holding Michigan utilities to a 15 percent clean power standard by 2021; this May, the state’s two largest utilities pledged 25 percent clean power generation by 2030. “In Michigan, clean energy isn’t political,” says James Clift, policy director at MEC.
But it is forcing some candidates into complex political contortions.
Schuette may now be calling for tracking Line 5’s vulnerabilities, but he first made national headlines with a high-profile 2015 lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which required power plants to slash carbon emissions. Though Schuette’s director of public affairs John Sellek portrayed the suit as part of the attorney general’s “[fight] for Michigan families,” progressive and environmental groups criticized it as a betrayal. Either way, the suit underscored suspicions of a chummy relationship between Schuette and Michigan’s top utilities and industrial employers.
“Given his overall record, it’s surprising to see the attorney general raising any questions about Line 5,” says Barry Rabe, an environmental policy expert with the University of Michigan.
The answer may lie, at least partly, in the “Flint Effect” — the ongoing political fallout from the Flint water crisis, which surfaced in 2014.
The Flint debacle ended Snyder’s presidential ambitions and nearly derailed his administration. It also caused a permanent rift between Schuette and the Snyder–Calley team. Schuette’s sprawling criminal investigation has thus far netted charges against 15 current or former Michigan officials, leading Calley to decry his rival’s “gross abuse of power.”
“Flint’s impact on Michigan politics is very difficult to overstate,” says Rabe. That Flint happened under unified Republican control of state government forced a political reckoning that led directly to increased infrastructure spending and the state-led effort to replace lead water service lines, says Sarah Anderson, communications director for the Michigan Republican Party. Unfortunately, she says, “[i]t took a crisis to get people to focus on this.”
Flint was certainly a watershed for the state’s voters. “Michigan’s electorate is more sophisticated and skeptical after Flint,” says Brady-Enerson of Clean Water Action. “They hear political rhetoric and say, ‘OK, what’s the real story here?’”
But it’s unclear whether state Republicans are ready to respond to that skepticism. In debates and policy statements, GOP gubernatorial candidates take pains to stress the need for “further study” and hedge about adverse economic impacts. In a June debate at Detroit’s WDIV-TV, Schuette framed “active [stewardship] of the Great Lakes” around support for the state’s agriculture industry, which uses Great Lakes water and local sources that feed the Great Lakes for irrigation. He reserved his sharpest criticism for the “thirsty South,” an oblique reference to unlikely proposals to pipe water from Lake Michigan to the arid Southwest.
Meanwhile, Schuette has stayed quiet on the Snyder administration’s controversial partnership with Nestlé, which had its application to increase groundwater pumping from a single northern Michigan well approved this spring despite more than 80,000 public comments against the change. Nestlé pays Michigan $200 annually for its 576,000-gallon daily pumping allowance. A recent WOOD-TV investigation found that Nestlé made strategic donations totaling nearly $8,000 to mostly Republican officials and allied groups in the area. And Muchmore, Harrington, Smalley & Associates LLC, a well-known Lansing-based lobbying firm, donated nearly $20,000 total to Schuette’s 2010 and 2014 election campaigns. According to WOOD-TV, “Nestlé said its donations stopped after its political action committee … dissolved,” in April 2015.
Enbridge is pursuing the same strategy. Last year, the company donated more than $125,000 to a Michigan political action committee opposed to Voters Not Politicians, an ambitious redistricting measure on the ballot this fall. Though Voters Not Politicians is nonpartisan, the measure’s passage would almost certainly weaken Michigan’s pro-Republican gerrymander. Fairer districts would force Democrats and Republicans to accommodate the state’s relatively moderate electorate, rather than playing to the primary base, and sap special interests’ power, says Katie Fahey, VNP’s executive director. “Right now, we’re not getting the really basic things we expect from our government because representatives are worried about catering to special interests,” she says.
In late June, Snyder signed a trio of industry-supported bills establishing private-sector panels with veto power over key Michigan Department of Environmental Quality decisions, including applications for pollution permits. The governor has less than three months left before the November 6 election. But they will be hectic, as his policies on the environment shape the election to pick his successor. And the winner won’t be escaping the green debates roiling Michigan’s politics at the moment, but merely inheriting them.
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