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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A climate laggard in America’s industrial heartland has a plan to change, fast

Mitchell State Park in Cadillac, Mich., on June 29, 2023. Warmer winters have extended the season and range of ticks, which carry diseases.

By Coral Davenport

From toxic algal blooms in the Great Lakes to sewage pouring into Detroit basements to choking wildfire smoke that drifted south from Canada, Michigan has been contending with the fallout from climate change. Even the state’s famed cherry trees have been struggling against rising temperatures, forcing some farmers to abandon the crop.

But this state at the center of the American auto industry has also been a laggard when it comes to climate action, resistant to environmental regulations that could harm the manufacturing that has underpinned its economy for generations.

That may soon change.

Michigan is one of three states where Democrats won a “blue trifecta” last year, taking control of the governor’s office and both legislative chambers, and they are seizing that opportunity to propose some of the most ambitious climate laws in the world.

The centerpiece is based on a 58-page “MI Healthy Climate” plan offered by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. It would require Michigan to generate all of its electricity from solar, wind or other carbon-free sources by 2035, eliminating the state’s greenhouse pollution generated by coal- and gas-fired power plants. The package would also toughen energy efficiency requirements for electric utilities and require a phaseout of coal-fired plants in the state by 2030.

Coal — the dirtiest of the fossil fuels — provided the largest share of electricity in Michigan, followed by nuclear energy and natural gas, in 2021, the most recent year for which data was compiled by the Energy Information Administration. Solar and wind generated about 11% of the state’s electricity.

More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia are requiring utilities to switch to clean electricity, but almost none have the aggressive timeline that Michigan is considering, and there is no federal clean power mandate.

“For Michigan to do this would put it at the vanguard not just of state cleanenergy policy but of global clean energy policy,” said Dallas Burtraw, an analyst at Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan research organization. “Michigan is globally recognized as the industrial heart of America, and one doesn’t think of it as being a clean energy leader. A lot of people will see this as a surprise.”

Democrats in Lansing, the capital, hope to send the climate bills to Whitmer’s desk by this fall, although they could face a fight; they hold only a two-seat majority in both the House and the Senate.

Republican lawmakers and industry groups, including the Big Three automakers, oppose the clean power legislation and argue that wind, solar and other renewable energy sources are unreliable. Experts dispute that and point out that solar and wind farms kept the air conditioning running in Texas when gas and coal plants were knocked offline during the current heat wave.

Michael Johnston, a lobbyist for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, which represents Ford, General Motors and Stellantis as well as Dow Chemical and more than 1,000 other companies, said his group would support a voluntary goal for clean energy but not a mandate. “We need secure power so we can compete in the global economy,” he said.

DTE Energy, Michigan’s largest electric utility and a major political donor, has not taken a position on the clean energy legislation but is warning lawmakers that the measures could result in higher electric bills.

The utility, which generates more than half of its electricity from coal and 14% from natural gas, has set a goal of achieving 100% clean electricity generation by 2050, 15 years past the 2035 deadline that the new legislation would require.

State Rep. Pauline Wendzel, the top Republican on the House Energy Committee, called it “the most radical and unrealistic policy proposal I’ve seen in my entire time serving in the legislature,” adding, “Lansing Democrats have decided to hit Michigan families hard, right when they can least afford it.”

Whitmer has been arguing that Michigan can’t afford not to do something about climate change. The economic toll, from damaging storms to crop failures, is mounting, she said.

“People really understand and see that climate change is having a costly and dangerous impact on our lives,” Whitmer said in an interview. “It’s an undeniable problem. And that’s why people here understand the economy is absolutely intertwined with what’s happening in climate.”

Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, said public opinion in the state about the need for climate action is shifting.

“We have begun to see a kind of pivot and change in my community and around the state, looking at the flooding pattern, the temperatures and the accelerating changes in agriculture,” said Rabe, who lives in Plymouth. “It’s become increasingly common to see officials running for statewide office and talk about the need to do something about it, and that’s something we had not seen.”

State Sen. Sam Singh is a senior member of the environment committee and a sponsor of the legislation. “I’ve heard loud and clear from my communities that climate is an important issue for them,” he said. “My sense is that the general public is behind us.”

In this purple state, some Michiganders don’t accept that the climate is changing.

“I’ve lived long enough to know the Earth isn’t getting any warmer,” said Chad Bellingar, a shipping manager in Farwell, speaking outside a Culver’s restaurant. “The media directs people wrong.”

Bellingar’s wife, Kim, a special education aide, concurred. “Wind and solar are great, but it doesn’t cover what’s needed,” she said. “And not everyone can afford them.”

Singh has to overcome that skepticism as he shepherds the climate package through a narrowly divided legislature.

Singh, who has received $31,200 since 2012 from donors connected to DTE and has been endorsed by the Michigan Manufacturers Association, suggested he could amend the legislation to accommodate polluting industries. “We have to balance helping any industry that’s being impacted,” he said.

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