Gary Wilson's thoughts on Great Lakes issues and occasionally, other things
USEPA gets a big bump but the Army Corps takes a hit; strong funding for a new Soo Lock. Great Lakes restoration, meh.
If a president’s budget signals priorities, we got a first look at President Joe Biden’s Great Lakes and environmental priorities last week when Biden released his first budget.
Jumping off the page are the 22% increase for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a 13% cut for the Army Corps of Engineers.
My quick take, staffing for the EPA had been declining well before President Donald Trump took office and bolstering the EPA was clearly not a priority for him. Trump’s budgets proposed big cuts for the agency but Congress didn’t allow the axe to fall. EPA plays a big role in Biden’s climate agenda and will need resources to make that agenda work, assuming it’s passed by Congress. Thus, the big increase.
The budget ding for the Army Corps is curious. Perhaps it’s related again to Biden’s overall climate agenda. More reliance on softer, sustainable solutions than constructing things that try to control nature, to oversimplify. Watch for this cut to get serious scrutiny from Congress where the Army Corps has a lot of friends, including on the Democratic side of the aisle.
Biden is proposing a $10 million increase to $340 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the most popular environmental project in the region. Lakes advocates had been lobbying for $375 million.
Honestly, the minimal $10 million increase looks more like a political contribution to Michigan which went for Biden in the election rather than someone doing an analysis and determining the program needs another $10 million. Since its inception, Great Lakes restoration has been the recipient of approximately $3 billion, no trifling amount.
While Republicans will wail against the overall cost of Biden’s budget, don’t be surprised if the advocates get the $375 million for restoration when Congress gets done with its slicing and dicing of the budget.
Plus, there’s this. In addition to doing some good work in the last 10 years, one advocate had the courage to point out that the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has also become the region’s pork barrel. Politicians of both parties love holding those press conferences that demonstrate bringing money back home, needed or not.
A years-long bi-partisan effort to get a green light and funding for a new Soo Lock is a Biden budget winner securing $480 million. This one should sail (bad pun) through the process. The shipping industry is happy as is industry in general but especially steel and manufacturing in key Great Lakes cities.
The Army Corps Asian Carp project to build a choke point at a lock in Illinois that would inhibit the carp’s progress toward the Great Lakes limps along. Biden put a requisite $4.9 million in his budget for engineering and design work. The estimated cost of the lock modification is $770 million and if finally approved, the work will be complete in 2028 or so. That’ll be roughly 19 years after the need for a more permanent fix to stop the carp advance was identified. Advocates swear by this project, I’m not so sure anymore.
The Great Lakes budget projects are part of Biden’s overall budget which contains his multi-trillion dollar infrastructure and climate initiatives.
They’re the main event and Biden wants it resolved this summer. You can watch your favorite news outlet probably on a daily basis to see how that’s going.
An important reminder, even-though the president proposes an annual budget, Congress controls the federal purse strings.
Biden administration supports Trump decision to allow drilling in Alaska; move is a 180 from his climate policy
The Biden administration in a court filing this week gave its support to a Trump administration decision that allowed oil drilling in Alaska’s North Slope. Environmental groups challenged the Trump decision and Biden’s team filed a brief with the court in support of the decision to drill.
The New York Times reported that Trump’s allowance for drilling was in compliance with the environmental rules in place. For details, here’s the Times report.
What happened, you may rightfully ask. Biden is all in on dealing with climate change, it’s one of his signature policies. And this decision runs counter to everything Biden said on the campaign trail and in his first months in office as he rolled out his climate policy agenda, right?.
So what happened? Is Biden just another politician who will say anything to get elected?
No, he’s better than that but governing is complicated. Policy proclamations run on a continuum, they’re not absolute. Left to his own devices, more oil drilling in Alaska would be an easy proposal for Biden to ding. But the decision exists in a broader context as the Times reported.
The project has the support of the state of Alaska, unions, the state’s two senators including Lisa Murkowski who is seen as a swing vote in the senate and some of the state’s Tribes.
You get the picture, there’s a lot more at stake for Biden than just drilling in Alaska. With an evenly divided senate, Biden needs to court every vote and Murkowski is one he may need to swing his way if his climate and infrastructure agendas are to become reality.
Great Lakes parallel?
Biden may be in a similar box when it comes to the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline in Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac. Environmental groups have been pushing hard to have Line 5 shutdown since 2013.
Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder agreed, but not without a replacement. In 2018 just before leaving office Snyder signed a law that provides for Enbridge to construct and pay for a pipeline in a tunnel to replace Line 5.
Snyder’s successor, Gretchen Whitmer inherited the Line 5 issue and in 2020 finally ordered the existing pipeline shutdown. Enbridge defied the order and courts will eventually decide the fate of the aged pipeline unless Enbridge and Michigan can come to an agreement.
Meanwhile, Michigan has given Enbridge permits to construct the pipeline in a tunnel but environmental groups don’t want that to happen. It’s backward looking and again, it runs counter to what Biden has been saying on energy and reliance on fossil fuels.
Seems like a layup that Biden would come out against building another pipeline to transport fossil fuel. But his team, while pitching his clean energy and climate plan at every turn, have been strangely silent on the Michigan tunnel project.
A generic, it’ll be decided by the courts is the standard answer.
What’s up with that?
Again, it’s complicated. Unions, a core Biden constituency, support construction of the tunnel as does Canada. And Biden wants, actually needs to build back relations with Canada after President Trump gave our northern neighbor the cold shoulder for four years.
Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has policies that align with Biden’s and on the world stage they could have a big impact.
A court will eventually decide the Alaska drilling issue, but Biden giving it a nudge is not a minor thing. Biden sitting out the Michigan pipeline conundrum could sway that one too.
But who knows, I don’t because it involves politics, and it’s complicated.
Line 5 shut down day: What happened?
Enbridge defied the shutdown order, Whitmer raised the stakes and pro Line 5 groups rallied. Where’s Biden?
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Wednesday deadline for Enbridge Energy to comply with her order to shut down the Line 5 pipeline came and went as expected. Not much changed.
Enbridge said long ago that it would defy the order claiming that Line 5 is safe, and its regulator is the federal government, not Michigan. And that Line 5 would continue to operate unless a federal judge ordered it shut down. To date, no judge has.
Michigan made proclamations that Enbridge is now operating Line 5 unlawfully, no surprise there. Whitmer attempted to raise the stakes for Enbridge saying that if Michigan prevails in court, the state will attempt to seize Enbridge’s profits from the date the shut down order was in effect.
Her statement was rooted in legalese so I assume there may be a basis for the demand. Politically, it gave the appearance of tossing environmental groups, her shut down backers, a new talking point.
A quick comment on the environmental groups.
They first engaged on Line 5 in 2013 when most people, myself included, didn’t even know there was a pipeline in the waters at the Straits of Mackinac. They put a spotlight on the issue, built coalitions and made attempts to support their positions with science.
Those things are hard to do and harder to sustain for eight years. Agree with them or not, they are to be applauded for standing up for what they believe and for their sustained effort.
Line 5 proponents rally
Proponents of letting Line 5 operate weren’t exactly silent on Line 5, but they didn’t raise the fuss that environmental groups did, until Whitmer gave the shut down order.
Since, they’ve found their voice.
Unions had quietly told Whitmer that they support the continued operation of Line 5 until its pipeline in a tunnel replacement is constructed. They want those jobs. Days before the shutdown however they held a hard hat protest at the Michigan capitol.
Canada has a large dependence on oil transported via Line 5 and the Liberal government made a big push that included direct appeals to the Biden administration to intervene. Canada also threatened to invoke a U.S. and Canada treaty that protects transport of oil between the countries. That would be a big deal and a test of the strength of the relationship between the countries, who take pride in having each other’s back.
The state of Ohio, with refinery jobs at stake made a plea to Whitmer to reverse course. And business groups in both countries via their respective Chambers of Commerce presented a united front against the shut down.
That’s a lot of fire power in favor of the status quo, at least until that pipe in a tunnel is built, if it is.
President Joe Biden is not a pipeline president. He’s stuck with them for now but after taking office he was quick to shut down the Keystone project.
Surely he’d weigh in supporting Whitmer’s order, afterall…. Whitmer was on his shortlist for V.P. and she worked hard to deliver Michigan for Biden in the election.
But it’s been radio silence from the White House on Line 5.
Biden’s in a tough spot. Philosophically, I suspect he’d like to publicly support Whitmer. Practically, he’s trying to mend fences with Canada after the Trump White House repeatedly disparaged Canada and its Liberal Prime Minister and President Obama buddy, Justin Trudeau.
In a White House press event this week, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm was asked about the administration’s position on Line 5. She quickly said it was a matter for the courts to settle.
That’s curious since Granholm was born in Canada and… she’s a former governor of Michigan. In the Biden administration, pipelines are her direct responsibility. She must have an opinion. Talk about a missed opportunity.
Where to from here?
Courts have ordered Michigan and Enbridge to work with mediators in hopes they’ll find common ground that leads to a compromise agreement.
I’ve had insiders from the anti-pipeline groups privately tell me they expect a face saving agreement. I’m not so sure. If forced to predict, I’d bet a buck that a judge will eventually decide.
Michigan and Canada can disagree on the future of Line 5. But cheap shots by Michigan’s attorney general need to stop
Did you ever have a dispute with a longtime neighbor? One with whom you’ve had a good relationship even though you didn’t always agree.
Maybe over installation of a fence or a dog that barks incessantly. You get the picture, disagreements happen.
Most are resolvable if the parties make an honest effort and try to see the other side’s point of view.
But would you try to resolve a dispute by waving a pointed finger in your neighbor’s face at every opportunity? Lecturing the neighbor on why you’re right?
Most people would take a civil, collaborative path to dispute resolution, if they valued the relationship.
That brings me to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s decision to shut down the Line 5 oil and energy pipeline and Canada, Michigan’s neighbor. The neighbor with whom Michigan shares the Great Lakes. The neighbor that’s constructing and paying for a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.
Canada opposes Michigan’s Line 5 shut down decision as it’s dependent on the oil and energy that flows through the pipeline, Michigan is less so. The owner of Line 5, Enbridge, is a Canadian company so Canada is even more vested in the decision.
Enter Michigan’s Attorney General, Dana Nessel. Nessel campaigned in 2018 for her present job on shutting down Line 5 and has filed lawsuits to that end that are pending in various legal venues.
Fair enough, that’s her job as she sees it. And she has a lot of support for her position in Michigan, especially from anti-pipeline activists, who are legion and uncompromising on the issue.
Enbridge has countered with its own suits against Michigan and barring some compromise agreement between the parties, courts will eventually make a determination.
But Nessel isn’t content to stay in her legal lane. Seemingly never reticent on an issue, she can’t resist taking cheap shots at Canada.
In 2019 she referred to Enbridge as a “foreign corporation” that shouldn’t be relied on.
Technically, she’s right. Enbridge is a foreign corporation, but her reference sounds like an attempt to paint Enbridge as being from a distant land run by a dictator who has little disregard for Michigan.
It’s Canada, a half-mile across the Detroit River with a democracy similar to ours.
Former Michigan Gov Jennifer Granholm was born in Canada. Another former governor, James Blanchard served as the ambassador to Canada. Countless people commute between the U.S. and Canada for work everyday. If you pay attention, Canada isn’t so foreign.
But there was a foreign corporation that was an alleged threat to Michigan’s groundwater, the 6th Great Lake, that didn't trouble Nessel.
Nessel seemed to have no issue with Nestle, a Swiss company that takes groundwater, pays a pittance for it and sells it back to Michiganders and others in plastic bottles. Michigan bottled water activists have asked Nessel to intervene on water takings, like she’s doing on Line 5 but to no avail.
Nessel has also implied that Canada, because it doesn’t want Line 5 shut down, cares less about protecting the Great Lakes. That view lacks credibility on its face. Besides, there are agreements between the U.S. and Canada and agencies whose job it is to protect the Great Lakes.
In a final poke in Canada’s eye just before Line 5 is scheduled to shut down, Nessel told Bridge Magazine that Canada has an easy fix for its concerns. It “can lay a new pipeline on Canadian territory,” Nessel flippantly said.
Canada could lay a new pipeline, as Michigan could have shared the cost of that new bridge across the Detroit River that Canada, the U.S. and Detroit and Michigan will benefit from. Or Nessel could have used the gravitas of her office to protect the groundwater taking, but didn’t.
The Biden administration is trying to mend fences with Canada after four years of tension caused by President Donald Trump’s disrespect for Canada and its prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.
The last thing President Biden needs is a loose cannon like Nessel taking cheap shots at Canada. It’s disrespectful and serves no useful purpose. We’ve had enough of that.
Photo: Detroit and Windsor, Ontario courtesy of NASA.
EPA chief Michael Regan puts Illinois and Chicago on notice; old ways of approving permits may no longer apply
President Joe Biden has made environmental justice a priority like no other president. He campaigned on acknowledging and dealing with EJ and will try to blend it into the fabric of his $2 trillion infrastructure and climate plans.
That’s the talk, the goal and USEPA chief Michael Regan this week put some teeth into the Biden EJ agenda. Regan put Chicago and Illinois on notice that it will no longer be business as usual when it comes to the siting of industry in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods.
The issue brewing for some time is that a scrap metal processor was on the cusp of being granted permits to set up shop in Chicago’s Southeast Side, which is heavily Hispanic and already home to heavy industry and plagued with poor air quality. The company, General Iron, has a checkered environmental past and here’s the kicker. It’s moving from a mostly white North side neighborhood which is rapidly gentrifying.
The message sent is it’s ok to site industry in places where people of color live, but not in upscale or gentrifying White neighborhoods. General Iron says its facility will be “the most environmentally conscious recycling facility in the country,” according to Chicago Sun Times reporting.
Southeast Side citizens cried foul and launched a campaign to get Chicago to deny the permits, including a hunger strike but to no avail.
But EPA chief Regan this week called a timeout and told Chicago it needs to review the permits and conduct a study to examine them with health hazards and environmental justice in mind.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot quickly said the city would comply.
What’s the net of Regan’s action? It’s too soon to tell. Calling for a study is hardly awe inspiring and is common when you don’t want to deal with an issue. It could easily be seen as doing something of little substance to placate the Southeast Side community.
But I’m trying to be optimistic and give Regan the benefit of the doubt, especially given the politics.
Regan represents President Biden, a Democrat and Illinois is a deep blue state with Democrats controlling the governor’s office, the legislature and the city of Chicago. Even the Republican minority leans toward moderation eschewing the policies and practices of the previous occupant of the White House.
With Regan challenging Illinois’ decisions, it takes politics out of the equation. Minimally it says to legislators and regulators that they may have to expand their playbooks to include the issues like cumulative impacts and health concerns before issuing permits.
Whatever happens, other states and cities like Michigan and Detroit may want to take notice. Business as usual may no longer be an option.
EPA Administrator Regan’s letter to Chicago is here.
Photo: Satellite view of Detroit River courtesy NASA.
Indefensible: Gov. Whitmer's stonewalling of Canada on Line 5 tests U.S., Canada relationship
Canadian Consul General says Whitmer’s Great Lakes propriety is an “irritant.”
As Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s May 13 shutdown of the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline nears, Whitmer’s summary rebuke of Canada and the response from Canadian officials related to it increasingly grabs the spotlight.
Enbridge is a Canadian company and Canada’s politicians including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have made the case that continued operation of Line 5 is critical for its well-being and economy.
Whitmer’s position “certainly strains our relationship and we’ve had a very long history of working closely together,” Joe Comartin, Canada’s Consul General in Detroit recently told the Washington Post.
Comartin said a particular “irritant” is that by shutting down Line 5, Michigan portrays itself as more interested in protecting the Great Lakes than Canada is. “Basically, we reject that completely,” Comartin told the Post.
Sarnia, Ontario is directly across the St. Clair River from Port Huron, Michigan and has an economy heavily-dependent on Line 5’s operation. Its mayor expressed his frustration with Whitmer in the Post article.
“She may be focused on her one issue, but the relationship between Ontario and Michigan has been set back, in my view, for decades,” Mayor Mike Bradley said.
Bradley said he’s written to Whitmer several times about Line 5 and has never received a response. Previously Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Whitmer’s elected equivalent, said he had tried to contact her about Line 5 but wasn’t able to get a response.
Michigan and Ontario in recent times have had a good working relationship on Great Lakes issues, even when leadership came from opposite political philosophies. Whitmer’s predecessor, Gov. Rick Snyder when in a Great Lakes leadership position, always included premiers from Ontario and Quebec when discussing the lakes.
Snyder was also instrumental in forging the deal that led to Canada paying for construction of a new bridge that will traverse the Detroit River. The bridge is critical to trade between the countries and will exemplify the importance of good relations between the U.S. and Canada.
It’s hard to understand Whitmer’s stonewalling of Canada, especially as a progressive Democrat from whom you would expect better.
And it runs counter to the policy of President Joe Biden, a close Whitmer ally, who has emphasized returning to cordial and respectful international relations after the shabby treatment of certain countries, including Canada, by former President Donald Trump.
Perhaps her recalcitrance is a negotiating tactic. Act tough and give up nothing until you have to. More likely it’s to appease part of her political base, environmental groups who have lobbied for a Line 5 shutdown since 2013.
Whatever Whitmer’s motivation for giving Canada the silent treatment on Line 5, it doesn’t serve Michigan’s best interest over the long term.
She’ll leave her successor with a fence to mend with Michigan’s neighbor, Canada. The neighbor with whom Michigan shares the Great Lakes.
Because the lakes don’t belong to Whitmer or Michigan.
Chicago-based environmental journalist