Environment Picture

The curse of small-bore thinking

Time for the Legislature to stand up and be counted on smart energy policy
Michigan leaders need to think bigger. For decades, we’ve slipped out of national leadership on the economy, education, cultural resources and environmental protection. At best, we’re a pale shadow in the middle of the pack in each of these arenas. And we’re still bleeding.

Consider that we have lost our advantage in designing, manufacturing and selling the world’s best autos; we’ve put prison construction far ahead of support for what used to be one of the world’s best public K-12 and university systems; we’ve starved our world class and community-based cultural institutions; and we’ve all but ended state support for environmental protection. Michigan’s per capita spending on parks has fallen to 50th in the nation, and operations support for critical environmental programs are facing total collapse!
Now, after a decade of earnest lobbying by MEC and our allies, state leaders are addressing critical public policy issues—with energy and water protection at the top of the list. Unfortunately, it looks as if they think modest reform measures can make up for years of denial and stagnation.
For instance, as of press time the House energy package—which MEC supports (without much enthusiasm) if it’s to be the Legislature’s best product—falls short on a number of fronts. While it sets a goal of 10% renewable energy by 2015, it demands an interim goal of only 4% by 2012. Michigan already derives that much of its electrical energy from renewable sources according to the (overly broad) definition of renewable energy sources in the bill.
The Democratic-led House is essentially saying Michigan doesn’t have to show any progress in the next four years—years that other states and countries will use to pull further ahead of us.

Neither do the bills address energy savings through better building codes, though that is the most practical way of all to reduce our energy bills. This oversight is thanks to the power of the Michigan Homebuilders Association, which wants to build on the cheap, no matter what the long-term costs to homebuyers. The absence of conservation measures in the bill is also due to the fact that big businesses that would actually stand to gain from such measures refuse to “mix it up” politically with other interests within the Michigan Manufacturers Association and the Chamber of Commerce.
We’re urging the Republican-led Senate to produce stronger energy legislation than the House, as they traditionally value business success—and strong, progressive energy legislation is essential for Michigan’s economic recovery. But on that side of the aisle we have to deal with the dogmatic and irresponsible mantra of “no government mandates.”
MEC and our allies—and the public at large—need to remind our legislators that Michigan’s electric power industry has not operated in a truly free market since my grandmother was dusting her post-Victorian lamps in about 1920. This industry has been run through a system of government mandates overseen by the Michigan Public Service Commission for generations.

We’re not facing a question of whether we will have government mandates. We’re asking if our mandates will level the playing field for renewable energy and efficiency measures, and attract wind manufacturers and other clean energy interests. Otherwise, we will be breathing toxics from burning imported garbage while still spending ever larger amounts of money to import coal, oil and gas.
All of us in Michigan—environmentalists, politicians, business leaders, and educators—have to think bigger to thrive. We’ve fallen behind by coasting on the successes of those who came before us. Perhaps a few field trips to Minnesota, California, Germany or even Texas (when it comes to wind legislation) would have us recognize that half-measures will not get us where we need to go.

It is a critical time for legislators and citizens to stand up and be counted. Will it be more of the same tepid, small-bore thinking? Or an aggressive declaration that we are players in the vibrant burgeoning new energy economy? Our future depends on the answer.
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