Ohio legislative chamber tells Gov. Whitmer to keep Line 5 running; former Michigan governor weighs in
The Ohio House of Representatives last week joined the Canadian chorus of objectors to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's decision to shut down the aged Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline that traverses the Straits of Mackinac between Lakes Michigan and Huron.
In a 73-10 vote, the chamber passed a resolution urging Whitmer to make all efforts to keep Line 5 running. Last November Whitmer set a May 2021 date for the shut down. The resolution was sponsored by Rep. Michael Sheehy (D) who said the shut down will disrupt energy supplies and it threatens hundreds of jobs in Ohio.
“I have enormous respect for Governor Whitmer, and for her leadership in the State of Michigan. Why, however, in the midst of a global pandemic, are we risking hundreds of jobs when Enbridge is already working on a safer alternative to the current pipeline," Sheehy said in a press release.
As previously reported here, Canada under the Liberal administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has mounted a high profile campaign including to the Biden administration to pressure Whitmer to rescind her shut down order. And a prominent Michigan voice with Canadian connections has also spoke out on the U.S. and Canadian conflict on Line 5.
Former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard (D) said in a TV interview that the way things are going Line 5 will be "litigated forever." Blanchard said it's important to get the pipeline in a tunnel built that will replace Line 5 and he expressed confidence that Whitmer will lead and resolve the issue.
A former U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Blanchard said nothing good comes from this dispute for either country. Blanchard previously served on the Enbridge board.
Whitmer has been largely silent on Line 5 since ordering the shut down and her Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has been advancing an alternative energy distribution study assuming that Line 5's demise is soon.
Michigan has an agreement with Enbridge to construct and pay for the tunnel replacement for Line 5 and EGLE has granted permits allowing it to proceed. The Army Corps of Engineers must still give its green light for the tunnel. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel tried twice to get a court to invalidate the agreement but it was a no sale. Nessel has said she will not appeal.
A wild card is if or how the Biden administration may play a role. Biden is generally anti-pipeline
but he also wants to improve relations with Canada following President Trump's shabby treatment of our northern neighbor. And he wants to get along with Trudeau who is considered a leader on the world stage on climate change, a priority for Biden. Biden has also has close ties to Whitmer, so a tangled web of allies at odds.
Whitmer, according to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, hasn't exactly been neighborly when it comes to Line 5. Ford alleged in February that Whitmer hasn't returned his call to discuss Ontario's position on the shutdown.
For its part, Enbridge says it will defy Whitmer's Line 5 shut down order. The company maintains that the U.S. federal government regulates its operations, not the state of Michigan.
Anti-pipeline activists remain staunchly supportive of the Line 5 shutdown and are resolute in opposition to its tunnel replacement. They say there are ample energy distribution options to make up for the loss of Line 5.
Court upholds legality of 2018 carbon tax law designed to reduce ghg emissions
The Canadian Supreme Court today took a big step in keeping Canada in its leadership position on the world stage in the battle against climate change.
The court, in a 6-3 decision, upheld the constitutional legality of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2018 tax on carbon emissions designed to hit emission reduction targets by the 2030 goal.
The decision re-affirms Canada's place as a global climate leader and the Environmental Defense Fund makes the broader case for Trudeau and Canada here.
In a carbon tax, emitters of greenhouse gas pollutants pay a fee, a tax, if they fail to hit emission reduction targets. So there’s an incentive to do the right thing. It’s more complicated than that but in general, a carbon tax is thought to be more effective than cap and trade programs that are now being questioned.
A couple of things worth noting on Canada’s carbon tax. First, it was enacted in 2018, three years ago and was probably a couple of years in the making. So 2016ish. That was the last year of the Barack Obama presidency.
Second, a carbon tax has been talked about in the U.S. for some time and has had bi-partisan support. It’s just never been able to get enough traction to get serious consideration in congress prior to the Donald Trump presidency. Then there were four years when even the mention of climate change let alone a carbon tax was off limits.
Now comes President Joe Biden with an aggressive climate agenda and a team of climate hawks on staff to develop and launch it. The reference to “aggressive” by the way, is by U.S. standards. We are more laggards than leaders on climate initiatives. Congress is split and politics are polarized so any climate action in this country that requires a law will be a tough sell. A carbon tax would require a law.
Back to Canada.
In Michigan, it’s become a sport to criticize Canada for its support to keep the Line 5 oil pipeline running. That’s the one Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has ordered shut down in May. Michiganders look at the issue with blinders on as in, pipeline equals bad. Canada, bad. The Michigan League of Conservation Voters accuses Canadian officials of creating “false narratives” about Line 5. It serves their narrow purposes.
Whitmer and Michigan in early 2021, three years after Canada instituted its carbon tax, is in the earliest stages of formulating a carbon reduction initiative. The governor and her strident supporters incessantly refer to her climate action as “bold.”
In between dissing Canada over its Line 5 support, if Michiganders would exit their echo chambers and look for bold action on climate, they only need to look across the border to Canada.
Updated 3/26 to include EDF column on Trudeau and Canada.
“O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.” Canadian national anthem.
Spotlight on new Great Lakes region EPA exec. Restore credibility, re-establish oversight and protect 20 percent of Earth's fresh surface water on the agenda.
To Great Lakes insiders the EPA's Chicago office is referred to as simply, Region 5. If one says "Region 5," everyone knows what you mean. To others eavesdropping on the conversation it could sound like an Area 51 reference, the federal property where the U.S. government purportedly houses UFO secrets.
The grey building is just off Chicago's Loop and requires airport-type security to enter. I once tried to take a picture of it as background for a story and was quickly told by a security guard, "no photos." I identified myself as a reporter but no sale, "no photos" the guard said as his face took a more determined look. Just as well, he may have saved me from a tow of my illegally parked car. You also can't stop near the building with blinkers on.
Now that Michael Regan has taken office as EPA administrator, one of his more important tasks is to name the regional administrators and the choice for Region 5 will be one of the more important ones. Region 5 you see is home to the Great Lakes National Program Office, GLNPO for the insiders, and it oversees all things Great Lakes.
That includes the multi-billion dollar program to restore the lakes that's so popular in the region. One of its biggest tasks is to restore a whole bunch of toxic sites like the Detroit River on a list developed in the 1980's. Progress is being made but it's slow and a total cleanup may still be decades away.
Region 5 is also responsible for oversight and enforcement. Enforcement of laws and regulations wasn't a priority during the last four years to the point that it could have been seen as a retained hobby. The new Region 5 chief will have to jump start that work.
Equally important is oversight of what the states are doing, or not doing. A deficiency in oversight by Region 5 is broader than the last four years. Minimally it goes back to the time of President Barack Obama when it delayed on taking action on Flint's lead problems. That caused administrator Susan Hedman to resign though EPA has never taken any responsibility for Flint. The people of Flint haven't forgotten though and there's a $600 million negligence suit against the agency working its way through the federal court system. So far, EPA has tried to say it's immune from that type of suit but that defense was rejected.
There's also an oversight issue related to Lake Erie's algae problems that have threatened drinking water quality for years. To date, EPA is in federal court defending its lack of oversight in suits brought against it for not taking a tougher stance with the state of Ohio.
The new Region 5 exec will have to deal with that conundrum.
So far, two candidates have publicly surfaced for the Region 5 job. Detroiter Michael Ragland who has a Flint background and who worked at EPA in the Obama years. And Chicago water executive Debra Shore, best known for trying to revitalize Chicago's stodgy water reclamation district. Both have backing from their respective congressional delegations in Michigan and Illinois.
Don't expect miracles no matter who gets the Region 5 job. EPA is a huge bureaucratic agency bound by laws and regulations and it won't turn on a dime. And while new Administrator Michael Regan comes to EPA with stellar credentials, he's known as an executive who seeks consensus instead of overturning the apple cart at the risk alienating constituencies, like big ag.
The new Region 5 administrator pick is worth tracking for a lot of reasons. Primarily because, important but overused fact alert, the selection will be responsible for 20 percent of the Earth's fresh surface water.
With climate change instability in the foreground and demand for water only expected to increase, think about that one for a minute.
Great Lakes, water issues in the region subject to the exceptionalism myth too
I love a good, quiet Sunday morning read and this one in the Washington Post titled "In the shadow of its exceptionalism, America fails to invest in the basics," jumped off the page.
The article's essence can be boiled down to this. "Historic breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology.... coexist alongside monumental failures of infrastructure, public health and equitable access to basic human needs."
Think Mars Rover, but so many still get drinking water delivered via toxic lead pipes. The Flint water crisis, you get it.
My beat for 15 years has been the Great Lakes and the region's water, writ large. Since 2015 it has included environmental justice issues like Flint where the water was poisoned, and recently drinking water denied to people who can't afford to pay for it. How "exceptional" are we when it comes to our wealth of water? The water whose abundance was officially declared a "national treasure" by President George W. Bush.
I'm afraid not very.
It could be said that it was exceptional when the eight Great Lakes states passed the Great Lakes Compact that keeps them from being drained by shipping it to areas outside the basin. A wise and necessary action that required collaboration and grit. But we fail the exceptional test when there are people in Detroit, Chicago and other cities who are denied basic drinking water because of an inability to pay, and they may live only a mile from the source.
In Michigan, the Great Lakes state, there is right now a pitched battle over whether an aged oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac should be decommissioned. Anti-pipeline activists and the Michigan governor say its shelf life has expired and it is a tremendous threat to the Great Lakes, its economy and way of life. That's debatable but it's a solid argument and Michigan is taking the high road to protect the Great Lakes by erring on the side of caution. Better to act now than have to react in case of a catastrophic oil pipeline failure. I'll give Michigan an "exceptional" grade.
Michigan has 14,000 contaminated groundwater sites and 130,000 failing septic tank sites according to longtime Great Lakes policy expert, Dave Dempsey who currently tracks the issue for a non-profit group. Here's the kicker, this is a decades old problem and Michigan lacks effective laws to deal with this contamination. Groundwater supplies are vast and are often referred to as the 6th Great Lake. It's beyond unexceptional that Michigan hasn't figured out a way to protect it. Spare us the Pure Michigan ads.
There's more. Since the Cuyahoga River burned in the 1960's Lake Erie has been the poster-child for restoring the Great Lakes and there has been real progress. That's an accomplishment. But the lake is beset by a problem that is a direct threat to safe drinking water. Toxic algae blooms that result from nutrient runoff from farms. A fixable problem with a few regulations and some financial incentives to get farmers to change their ways. A typical carrot and stick approach. But regulating farmers is the third rail for politicians so the threat of another Toledo water crisis remains.
I'll stop, you get the picture.
Our perceived exceptionalism is ingrained in our culture, especially in recent years. We live in an era of 8th grade graduation ceremonies where kids are lavished with praise for "graduating" from, 8th grade. A ceremony former President Barack Obama eschewed saying, and I'll tidy it up, 8th grade isn't a goal.
And there's the hyper-use of "amazing." Everyday I get announcements about conferences, workshops, seminars, speeches and new job announcements with an "amazing" reference. What if that conference and its speakers were simply knowledgeable or had a unique perspective? That'd work for me, I don't need faux amazing. And don't get me started on the overuse of "bold" by politicians and their supporters to describe something average that should have been addressed long ago.
Let's find a way to remove the threat to the Great Lakes from that oil pipeline, stop the pollution to the 6th Great Lake and guarantee basic drinking water as a right, no matter one's financial status.
That could qualify as exceptional and future generations may find it, amazing.
Senate confirms former North Carolina DEQ chief by wide margin, opportunities and challenges await
What a time to take the top job at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agency is coming off four years of being a second class citizen in the previous administration. One of its core missions, regulation and enforcement of environmental laws, was relegated to the shadows and his boss.... the president is counting on him to be a key player in tackling climate change and to elevate environmental justice to a top priority.
This ain't rural North Carolina, Regan's home turf.
Praise for Regan after his appointment was mostly widespread. And even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell voted to confirm him, though I don't think that means a wave of bipartisan comity is taking hold in Washington.
While environmental groups welcomed Regan, what's not to like after Trump guys Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler, one national group sounded an alarm.
Food and Water Watch said Regan "has a legacy of bowing to the factory farm industry even when it means sacrificing public health and contributing to pollution." Hog farming in North Carolina, Regan's home state, is a big business.
What does his appointment mean for the Great Lakes? Too soon to tell but his selection to run the Region 5 office in Chicago could signal his priorities. Region 5 has a checkered past going back to President Barack Obama.
The Chicago office had direct oversight of Michigan's DEQ on the Flint water crisis and failed to act. It resulted in the Region 5 administrator resigning. There's a $600 million dollar negligence suit working its way through federal courts against EPA over its handling of Flint under President Barack Obama's administrator, Gina McCarthy. McCarthy now has a top job in the Biden White House. Michigan recently settled legal claims with Flint residents but EPA, so far, has been playing out the legal string. Presumably, Regan will have to decide to either to let the suit run its course, or settle. What he does could be an indicator of his EJ credibility.
And one of the Great Lakes region's biggest issues is Lake Erie's algae blooms where over $100 million in Great Lakes restoration money has been spent with little to show for it. Again, EPA has oversight authority .
With environmental justice a top Biden priority, the Region 5 administrator will be put to the test as Detroit and Chicago have significant EJ issues in the spotlight, now. And both cities have strong, dynamic EJ movements who will have little patience for dawdling on their issues.
That's some of what awaits Regan and his Great Lakes region administrator.
But right now, all things are possible and fresh perspectives are needed.
Welcome Michael Regan.
Once considered a major threat, shipping water outside the basin is rarely mentioned by Great Lakes govs
A minor headline in Urban Milwaukee recently caught my attention. "New Great Lakes diversion request," it read. A small Wisconsin village that straddles the Great Lakes basin divide wants water. It's eligible to apply and barring something unforeseen, it's likely to succeed.
I was ready to click out but paused to reflect on how diversions were seen not many years ago.
In 2008 when President George W. Bush signed the Great Lakes Compact into law, it capped a years long, heavy-lift effort by the region's intelligentsia- governors, advocates and business interests- to prevent Great Lakes water from being shipped outside the region. It was a landmark event given that the era had been dubbed the century of water. Meaning, demand would increase and availability would decrease so conserve and protect what you've got.
Shortly after, a pitched battle took place as Waukesha, Wis., through one of a couple of loopholes inserted in the compact to make it passable, applied for a diversion and ultimately succeeded in securing it. But only after a lengthy fight brought on by conservation groups who helped make the Compact law. A less high-profile skirmish took place a few years later when tech manufacturer Foxconn wanted to set up shop in Wisconsin and needed water. But advocates were tired of fighting and after a few mild protests, the diversion was approved.
But the agreement signed by President Bush was never seen as the ultimate agreement, it was the foundation. Those loopholes need to be closed and the Foxconn diversion exposed other weaknesses. But Great Lakes governors are the keepers of the agreement and the wave of Republican governors who took office in 2010 led by Snyder in Michigan and Walker in Wisconsin were in no mood to tinker. They were hyper-focused on the economy which was still in the early stages of recovery from the great recession.
But time passes, elections happen and a new wave of governors took office in 2019 including Democrat Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan. The same Gretchen Whitmer who is now a political favorite of President Joe Biden, a regular on national news shows and a beer-swilling character in Saturday Night Live segments. And, she dodged a kidnap attempt by extreme militia-types in Michigan who now face federal charges.
But when you are the governor of Michigan you're expected to lead on Great Lakes issues, no exceptions. As a candidate Whitmer embraced the role articulating one of the most comprehensive Great Lakes platforms I've seen.
In it, Whitmer said the Great Lakes are "under threat from... excessive water withdrawals" which should force us to think how the resource is managed. And this, "Michigan is the Great Lakes State and should be leading the world in every freshwater policy imaginable."
Worth repeating, "... every freshwater policy imaginable."
Ok, campaign pledges have a short shelf life after the election, I get it. But Whitmer doubled-down on leading on the Great Lakes six months after taking office at a meeting in Milwaukee with her peers. "Absolutely, Michigan has to lead on Great Lakes issues," she told me in an interview. At a press event that included advocates and interested citizens she said "the Great Lakes are at the core of who Michigan is." She had set the Great Lakes bar high.
For Whitmer, reality has taken hold of her Great Lakes campaign pledges. Her agency in charge of water withdrawals for bottled water recently upheld an increase for Nestle that Whitmer had said needed to be curtailed. She's embroiled in a legal battle with Enbridge over shutting down the Line 5 oil pipeline after she said a legal fight over Line 5 would be the "worst case scenario."
But on tightening the Great Lakes Compact to prevent diversions and get rid of the loopholes, not a peep that I can see. And that's in spite of an advocacy group generally sympathetic to her policies specifically requesting that she work to correct the Compact's flaws.
With all that Gov. Whitmer and her Great Lakes colleagues are dealing with in the COVID-19, politically polarized era, it's understandable that a Compact update is not a top priority.
But if not Whitmer to lead the initiative, who and when? One day another request for Great Lakes water will come and it won't be from a sleepy Wisconsin village.
Twitter @garyglx5 Any opinions expressed are solely mine.
Natural Resources minister says Michigan's concerns have no merit
As the U.S and Canada work to mend fences at the highest levels of government after four years of frosty relations, the Enbridge Energy Line 5 oil pipeline that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to shut down is approaching center stage.
Enbridge is a Canadian company.
Canada's Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan expressed confidence that Line 5 will remain open and said "we are fighting on every front and we are confident in that fight," according to reporting by the CBC.
The Canadian Ambassador to the U.S., Kirsten Hillman, said "Line 5 is a crucial piece of energy infrastructure for the U.S. and Canada and that's her principal message.
O'Regan, CBC reports, said he made the Canadian case for Line 5 in recent discussions with U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, a former Michigan governor.
Michigan Gov. Whitmer and Canadian Minister of Infrastructure Catherine McKenna also talked recently but the discussions centered on the Gordie Howe Bridge Canada is building between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, McKenna said on Twitter.
Veteran Great Lakes policy adviser Dave Dempsey takes issue with Canada's position on Line 5 and its claim that it is critical infrastructure. "Enbridge can easily transport the same amount of oil around Canada's own end of the lake," he said. Dempsey currently advocates for the shut down of Line 5 and previously served as a policy adviser to the International Joint Commission, the U.S. and Canadian agency that advises the countries on trans-border water issues.
Pressure is mounting on a Line 5 resolution as Whitmer has set a May 30 date for the shutdown, though lawsuits brought by Michigan and Enbridge will likely push that date back.
It is unclear if President Biden will try to intervene. He wants to re-establish good relations with Canada but he and Prime Minister Trudeau differ on pipelines. Both are climate hawks but Trudeau has pushed for pipelines in Canada and Biden recently ordered the shut down of the KXL pipeline. Biden also has close ties to Whitmer.
Michigan and Enbridge have an agreement to build a pipeline in a tunnel to replace the existing Line 5 and Michigan's Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy has approved permits for construction. Additional permits are still pending from the Army Corps of Engineers.
This issue is evolving and I'll continue to report on it here.
Follow on Twitter at @garyglx5 Opinions expressed here are solely mine.
Landmark legacy programs fade, replaced by water justice and equity
As the Biden administration continues to gain momentum, the narrative on water issues has changed, at least in what comes to my inbox. It's all about water infrastructure and equity.
Perhaps this is best illustrated by the Alliance for the Great Lakes' top five priorities for the Biden administration. The first two are environmental justice and drinking water infrastructure including ending water shutoffs. The vaunted federal restoration program, the bread and butter issue for well over a decade, is relegated to number 3. It wasn't that many years ago that neither EJ or shutoffs would have made the list.
That's a big deal so a little history.
It's approaching 17 years, May 18, 2004 since President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13340 declaring the Great Lakes a national treasure and ordered a "regional collaboration of national significance" to deal with the lakes' long-standing environmental problems.
Bush's order laid the foundation for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2009 and President Barack Obama put $475 million in his 2010 budget to jump start the restoration program, and it began. The federal government was on the hook to clean up the Great Lakes.
They were milestone events that were years in the making and there was more to come.
In October 2008 Bush signed the Great Lakes Compact into law. The Compact was the eight-state agreement approved by congress crafted to prevent diversions of water from the lakes outside the basin. This was important as arid states are always eyeing sources of water and the Compact shut the door, though its architects somehow felt the need to make an exception to the ban on diversions for bottled water. A compromise for the greater good, they said.
But if you're a 30 year old staffer at a Great Lakes environmental not-for-profit today, you were a sophomore in high school, or younger when this happened and probably not paying much attention.
Just because these programs aren't today's cause du jour, should we let restoration and the Compact continue to fade into marginal relevance?
No, both are important but overdue for an update, just like cars, cell phones and laws are updated. Especially the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
It's a mile wide and an inch deep disbursing billions of dollars over thousands of projects across multiple federal agencies. That's a lot of bureaucracy and every mouth has to be fed. Every politician has to have a slice of the pie.
Meanwhile, its primary raison d'etre, to restore legacy polluted sites known as Areas of Concern moves at a snail's pace. And worse, it's become a crutch for politicians to show environmental credibility, when it may not be deserved. What member of congress can pass up a photo op that brings a few million dollars to his/her state or district, even though the project is likely marginal related to the overall needs of the Great Lakes.
I say props to the Alliance for the Great Lakes for jumping on the environmental justice and ending water shutoffs bandwagon. Folks who are disenfranchised from basic water service in a region with an abundance of it will appreciate the help.
Now, how about a campaign to fix the Great Lakes restoration program before it's relegated to what recycling has become. What we try to do but has become "not worthwhile."
The 15 minute clock is ticking.
Follow on Twitter at @garyglx5. Opinions here are solely mine.
Chicago-based environmental journalist