Biden energy secretary Jennifer Granholm, Michigan's Liesl Clark on point for climate action
Baseball's spring training has begun, the time of year when all things are possible. Teams that floundered the previous year can be optimistic, even if there's no logical reason for the optimism.
The same may be true for the nascent administration of President Joe Biden, especially related to climate change. After four years of denial and reversal of programs by the previous administration, President Biden hit the ground running on climate hoping to make good on campaign promises. He quickly took executive action to return the U.S. to the Paris Climate Agreement, the accord that requires countries to "make their best efforts" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and report on their progress.
And now his team is taking shape.
A key player on that Biden climate team is former Michigan governor, Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat who led the state from 2003-2011 and who has a reputation for being "ahead of the curve" on clean energy.
Granholm was confirmed by the senate earlier this week and was interviewed by NPR the next day.
Her demeanor was upbeat and resolute as she pitched the Biden plan with an emphasis on clean energy as a jobs creator. An unvarnished attempt to make it palatable to climate skeptics. She meandered around a question about convincing those skeptics, including at high levels of government, that the Biden clean energy plan is the way forward. "I think you just have to continue to educate people," she said. Unfortunately, they're the people who haven't and don't want to be educated by Biden, Granholm or anyone else on climate. And they represent a significant constituency.
I saw Granholm speak when she was Michigan's governor on Great Lakes issues and she was dynamic and passionate. The audience of advocates was predisposed to her message and she didn't disappoint.
But she's now on a bigger stage and will be dealing with some audiences who may be sitting with arms folded implying convince me, because so far I'm not buying what you're selling. The full NPR interview with Granholm is here and worth 10 minutes of your time.
Michigan, under its current high-profile governor Gretchen Whitmer has a climate plan too. Last year she announced her carbon neutral by 2050 goal in an executive order and as is her tendency, she'll have an advisory body to help guide her, the Council on Climate Solutions. The Council is led by Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) Director Liesl Clark.
Clark has an energy background, worked in the Granholm administration and conducted the first Council meeting last week. Anyone could listen in and I did.
As a first meeting it was by necessity, I guess, bound by introductions where members presented mini-bios, talked about past accomplishments and their climate aspirations. The type of 1990's consultant-driven cheer leading process I'm all too familiar with after decades in a corporate culture.
But if you're a disciple of the process, Clark is impressive. She commanded the meeting without commanding it and she's one of those smartest people in the room types. Since there was nothing of substance happening I looked for intangibles and in my notes I found, "we can do this attitude."
Can Granholm and Clark drive a clean energy policy in the U.S. and Michigan respectively? It's barely out of the box so, who knows.
Granholm's track record in two terms as governor was mixed. She helped the auto industry but was hampered by a declining economy and a legislature that some saw as obstructionist, a situation that current Gov. Whitmer is facing. To be clear, Republicans see their role not as obstructing anything, but representing the interests of those who sent them to Lansing.
In Clark's two years running EGLE, she's best known for reorganizing the agency that was the Department of Environmental Quality, think Flint water crisis.
And Clark starts her climate change work in deficit territory. EGLE recently gave the green light to Enbridge Energy to build an oil pipeline in a tunnel to replace the aged Line 5. That's a significant hurdle out of the way for Enbridge and if implemented, locks the state into oil transport for decades and hardly aligns with a carbon reduction policy.
Granholm faces significant barriers on the road to clean energy. Perhaps the most important among them is that Democrats have razor slim majorities in congress and the toxic political environment shows no signs of abating. In other words, it's tough to get substantive things done in Washington.
Clark's path may not be easier. The rancor between Gov. Whitmer and the Republican controlled legislature has devolved to depths not imaginable when she took office. I don't see Republican leaders sending Whitmer any how can we help you messages on climate, barring an epiphany.
But these are early days for Granholm and Clark. Perhaps their work should be viewed as similar to spring training, where anything seems possible and hope springs eternal. At least for now.
Is Canada a foreign country?
Technically, yes. But that's not how I saw it growing up a mile from the Detroit River that separates the U.S. and Canada.
Windsor, Ontario on the other side seemed like just another town. My dad and his buddies fished on the Canadian side because the water was cleaner, then headed to a pub in Amherstburg to swap fishing lies. It was Amherstburg to me, not Canada. I watched Hockey Night in Canada and a major radio station for Detroiters was CKLW in Windsor. You get the picture.
Maybe that's why a 2019 quote from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel jumped off the page when I read it. Michigan, Nessel said, "will not rely on a foreign corporation to protect and preserve our state's most precious resource, its Great Lakes," the Detroit News reported. Nessel was referring to the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline that she wants to shut down and has taken legal action in an attempt to do so.
Wanting to shut down Line 5 is one thing. A lot of people are on her side. But given that oil is the issue, interjecting "foreign corporation" into the discussion is another. Since Nessel didn't mention that Enbridge is a Canadian company, I assume she's implying that the foreign company could be from the Middle East. Perhaps a convenient bogeyman?
I'll give Nessel a pass. Politicians make a lot of public statements and some inevitably will be misguided. And from what I've seen as I've followed Nessel, she's usually trying to do the right thing though she could benefit with a less bare-knuckle approach.
But the faux pas brings up another issue beyond Line 5. The U.S. and Canada, Michigan and Canada are neighbors. And the Great Lakes, don't belong to Michigan as the state sometimes implies. They're a shared responsibility with decades of history in protecting them, peacefully and with collaboration. There's no need to demonize Canada.
Look at recent history. After the 9/11 attacks Canada received countless U.S. flights that suddenly had to divert to a safe airport. Closer to home, Canada is paying for the new multi-billion dollar Gordie Howe Bridge between Detroit and Windsor. And that "foreign country" company, Enbridge, is paying $500 million to construct a pipeline in a tunnel to replace the existing Line 5.
That's a lot of capital spent by Canada and Michigan is the beneficiary.
Closer to the Great Lakes, when former conservative-leaning Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder revived meetings between U.S. governors and Canadian premiers on Great Lakes issues, he made sure Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, a Liberal, had a prominent role.
Canadians including Premier Justin Trudeau are concerned about a shut down of Line 5, with justification. There are practical issues of supply and economic issues in play for Canada. Climate change and maybe pipelines are on the agenda for this week's meeting between Trudeau and President Joe Biden. I have no idea if they'll discuss Line 5. Both are climate hawks but they differ on pipelines. Trudeau has given the green light to new pipe construction and Biden is trying to shut them down.
One thing I suspect to be true at the meeting is that Canada will be treated more like a neighbor than a "foreign country." Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and AG Nessel should take note.
A long-simmering environmental justice issue in Chicago finally reached its boiling point.
Residents in the city's heavily-industrialized Southeast Side recently launched a hunger strike to protest the siting of a scrap metal processor in their neighborhood.
The Southeast Side, predominately Hispanic, has been dealing with poor air quality issues for years, including particulate matter from pet coke and manganese with little or no relief from the city of Chicago or the Illinois EPA.
But here's the kicker, the company coming to the Southeast Side is relocating from a Chicago area north of downtown. That area is the recipient of huge development investments and is gentrifying. In addition, the scrap metal processor isn't known for environmental best practices.
There have been many interim steps in the siting process but the Illinois EPA approved the relocation saying it had to follow the law. Chicago gets to make the final decision and those reading the tea leaves suspect the move will be approved.
But we now have a new president, Democrat Joe Biden, who ran on a strong environmental justice agenda. And Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot just punted to the USEPA asking for guidance on the siting decision.
Since the early 1990's presidents including George H.W. Bush, Clinton and Obama have talked a better EJ game than they played.
How Biden's EPA handles the ongoing Southeast Side EJ saga may go a long way in establishing his EJ credibility. If his EPA whiffs, his cred is damaged and he's off on the wrong foot.
And he currently doesn't have an EPA administrator as his selection, Michael Regan, is awaiting senate confirmation. And there's this.
It was the EPA under Obama's administrator Gina McCarthy, who had oversight responsibility for Flint during its water crisis. The agency declined a citizen request for it to use its emergency authority to intervene as Michigan was failing, though it did later as the national spotlight increased.
McCarthy and former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder were hauled before congress to explain what happened. McCarthy took no responsibility and Snyder did for the state's failings, but not personal responsibility. There's a $600 million negligence suit working its way through the courts against EPA over Flint. McCarthy now has a senior position in the Biden White House.
Michigan settled a $600 million civil lawsuit. Snyder was recently charged with two willful neglect misdemeanors and could face prison.
Illinois politically is a deep blue state with Democrats holding the governor's office, the legislature,
the two senate seats and mayor of Chicago so, they own the outcome.
Meanwhile, the hunger strike continues and participation is growing.
It’s hard to imagine what these early-term days are like for President Joe Biden, everyone must seem to want something, now.
Fix the faults in the pandemic response, full speed ahead on combating climate change, mend fences with alienated allies and of course, show us the money.
Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan grabs the headlines but that’s just the start, and conservation advocates are in line asking for money for big regional restoration projects.
Great Lakes not-for-profits have been circulating their Biden wish lists and near the top is a continuation of funding for Great Lakes restoration, the G.W. Bush and Barack Obama plan to restore the lakes. It’s currently authorized at $2 billion over five years.
But in D.C. parlance, an “authorization” doesn’t guarantee the money. Congress has to approve it in the budget every year and a president solidly behind the program helps secure its continuance.
Since 2010, Great Lakes restoration has received approximately $3.5 billion. It was originally projected to be a $20 billion project when conceived during the G.W. Bush administration. Advocates constantly tout the success of the program and there has been some like cleaning up legacy toxic spots, even though it’s more like mitigating the harm v. cleaning them up.
But even that work is a decade or more from the finish. And there’s a case to be made that the $100 million plus spent on Lake Erie’s algae problems have yielded few results.
Advocates for the Everglades in Florida want $2.9 billion over four years. This is the 20th anniversary of Everglades restoration which was estimated to cost $7.8 billion. The new cost estimate is $16 billion, none of the original 68 projects have been completed and scientists have given the work mixed reviews according to WUSF Public Media.
Worth noting is Florida’s current proposed budget includes $473 million for the Everglades.
Great Lakes states don’t directly contribute to restoration funding though they may participate via cost share on specific projects. If a country, the region would have a $6 trillion economy making it the third largest in the world, also worth noting when someone comes asking for money.
One of these days the bill for the country’s burgeoning debt will come due, no matter which party is in power. The budget will be cut and projects will be trimmed if not chopped. It happened two years into Great Lakes restoration when funding was slashed by the Obama administration from $475 million to $300 million a year. It remained there until recently.
Perhaps now is the time for environmental advocates to take a look at how former California Gov. Jerry Brown governed.
Brown, a progressive Democrat, yet a fiscal conservative once said while vetoing a bill that “not every human problem deserves a law.”
I’d apply Brown’s logic to restoring the Great Lakes. Not every environmental harm can be fixed with money. Brown’s legacy is that of being one of the country’s most strident advocates for the environment.
Twitter at @garyglx5.
A headline from the British newspaper The Guardian popped up today on my morning scan of a half-dozen papers. "No penalties issued under useless English farm pollution laws."
The Guardian report says that since 2018 when laws went into effect there have been 243 violations of farming rules for water but no prosecutions or fines. And conservation groups say the number of violations is much higher than 243.
If that had been a U.S. headline, I would have yawned and moved on as I'm used to seeing stories about little or no regulation and oversight of farming activity that negatively impacts our waterways. Think the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico for starters. In the Great Lakes region Lake Erie is the ag pollution poster-child. Unchecked nutrient runoff from farms fueled the toxic algae blooms that led to the 2014 Toledo water crisis.
But this is Great Britain, I thought more civilized and as a European country, more accepting of environmental protection and regulations, right?
So I dug deeper and found a 2018 Yale Environment Review article on how Brit farmers see their environmental responsibility. The Yale report said researchers divided farmers into two camps; "productivist" and "stewardship." The farmers who focused on production were singularly driven to produce the food the world needs, period. The stewards took into account the need to consider future generations in their practices. The Yale article is a quick read and is illuminating. It's here.
In fairness to farmers, they're a business that produces to demand. If we want hamburgers available on every corner and in every strip mall, ag will meet the demand and the environment will likely suffer. So, we play a part.
I bring up ag pollution now as we've got a new Democratic president in Washington and Democrats control congress, at least for a couple of years. In theory, they should be more disposed to protect our waterways from ag pollution. But that means standing up to the powerful ag lobby which leans heavily toward the productivist v. the stewardship model of farming so, an unlikely scenario.
I doubt the Biden executive branch or the Democratic led congress will take a hard we have to reign in farm pollution to our waterways stance, it's a tough sell for politicians. Our waterways will likely continue to suffer.
Most people, at least those of a certain age, know something about Detroit's story.
It was once a booming metropolis, home to the auto industry and a blue collar, middle class haven. But the decline of the auto industry, white flight, disinvestment and mismanagement led to Detroit's dramatic decline and eventual bankruptcy. The city became a shell of itself, literally.
A hold your nose bankruptcy process allowed Detroit to start a comeback, emphasis on start. Unless you've visited Detroit and its neighborhoods, and I have, it's hard to fathom the depths of its decline. It has a long way to go but maybe there's hope.
I interviewed Detroit environmental justice advocate Michelle Martinez last week for my Great Lakes Now work. A Detroiter, Martinez had left and returned. I asked what brought her back to the decimated city. She was young with a graduate degree from the University of Michigan. She could have gone anywhere and didn't have to return to Detroit to do justice work.
She responded, "We have neighborhoods that bind together in hardship. And more, brilliant art and culture has emerged from this struggle. That part of the fabric of Detroit is what inspires me. Beyond the corporate bailouts and the shiny downtown, there are real families in neighborhoods and communities that have endured over these many years by locking arms and creating community."
I was stunned by her comments. I've interviewed dozens of people and never once has an interview caused me to reflect like this one did. Either Martinez is a hopeless optimist or she knows something most don't.
I share this as Detroit, writ large, is part of my fabric too. I was raised in the Downriver area and even though I haven't lived there for decades, I'm still from there.
Good to know as you read these pages.
Follow Gary on Twitter at @garyglx5
It took a while, but Canada has finally grasped the reality that the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline that traverses the Straits of Mackinac and brings oil to Canada could actually be shut down.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the shut down saying the 65+ year old pipeline is a threat to the Great Lakes. Her order is effective at the end of May 2021. Enbridge is in court challenging Whitmer’s decision saying that Michigan has no legal authority to declare Line 5 unsafe as the federal government has responsibility for pipeline safety and the feds are ok with
Now comes Canada.
Enbridge, a Canadian company, ships oil and natural gas to Ontario and Quebec via Line 5 through Michigan. Canadian business interests say a Line 5 shut down will have “severe implications” for Ontario and Quebec according to Canadian media reporting.
As the deadline nears for the shutdown, Canada has raised the issue formally with the nascent Biden administration. Not only as a practical issue of supply but as a trade issue, which raises the stakes. It’s too soon to tell what anti-pipeline Biden will do, if anything. But two things to consider.
Biden wants to mend fences with Canada after his predecessor’s shabby treatment of its neighbor and key trading partner. But Biden also has close ties to Gov. Whitmer who was on his short list for V.P.
And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is unlikely to sit on the sidelines on this issue. He’s a climate hawk but also has supported pipelines in Canada. Plus he’s getting pressure to not cave to the Americans
Will the U.S. be neighborly and consider Canada’s concerns? Or treat Canada like a little brother, which is how some Canadians see the relationship. Stay tuned.
Chicago-based environmental journalist