Rick Haglund: Biz groups fighting Whitmer’s environmental agenda fail to see big economic picture

February 15, 2019 4:33 pm

Pond in Michigan winter | Susan J. Demas

Republican leaders in the Legislature have pledged to work cooperatively with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on solving the tough issues facing the state.

But apparently that spirit of collaboration doesn’t apply when she does something they don’t like.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announcing new environmental executive orders, Feb. 4, 2019 | Nick Manes

GOP lawmakers and business lobbying groups are incensed with Whitmer over a recent executive order she issued abolishing three environmental review panels that the Legislature enacted last year.

The panels were designed to give business and industry more say in rulemaking and permitting decisions by state regulators. Axing them was part of a broader effort by Whitmer to overhaul environment regulation in Michigan.

Whitmer’s order changed the name of the Department of Environmental Quality  to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. It also created three new offices within the department; the Office of the Clean Water Public Advocate, the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate and the Interagency Environmental Justice Response Team.

The sweeping overhaul was in part a response to the DEQ’s bungled performance in the Flint drinking water crisis.

“This is about finding real solutions to clean up our drinking water so every Michigander can bathe their kids and give them a glass of water at the dinner table safely,” Whitmer said.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Sen. Ed McBroom talk to reporters after rejecting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order, Feb. 14, 2019 | Nick Manes

But just two days after she issued the executive order, the Republican-controlled state House voted to overturn it. Republican leaders said the order illegally nullified a law passed last year that created the environmental review panels, while acknowledging she had the right to reorganize the DEQ.

And on Thursday, the state Senate also voted to override Whitmer’s executive order, a stunning rebuke to a governor who’s been in office for less than two months.

Not surprisingly, the powerful Michigan Chamber of Commerce and other business groups are backing the Legislature in this fight.

The chamber has said maintaining the oversight panels enacted by the Legislature in 2018 is one of its top legislative priorities this year. Whitmer has asked Attorney General Dana Nessel to rule on whether the rules and permits oversight panels are legal.

“Eliminating seats at the table for a wide range of stakeholders and closing the curtain on the state’s environmental rulemaking process sends a negative message to Michigan’s business community,” said Jason Geer, director of energy and environmental policy at the Michigan Chamber.

But Michigan’s poor environmental record, including the last eight years under total Republican control of state government, sends a disturbing signal to businesses and talent that Michigan’s economic developers are trying to attract to the state.

Businesses are becoming more concerned with environmental sustainability, and talented workers want to live in communities with access to pristine parks and natural resources.

Michigan’s performance comes up short.

The state’s national image has been defined by the Flint drinking water crisis. PFAS, a once widely used industrial chemical, is threatening lakes and drinking water sources across the state. And beach closures, caused by sewer runoffs and other contaminants, have become disturbingly common.

A recent study by 24/7 Wall Street, which garnered national media attention, put six Michigan cities on its list of the 50 worst places to live in America. All of those cities — Benton Harbor, Detroit, Ecorse, Flint, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights — are struggling with the environmental costs of  their industrial past.

That’s not exactly the Pure Michigan state tourism officials spend millions of dollars a year to promote.

In attacking Whitmer’s executive order, Republicans and business lobbyists likely fear a Democratic administration will make it tougher to get a permit to spew more pollution or destroy a wetland.

The DEQ has been remarkably friendly to permit applicants in the past few years. In 2018, the department denied just 29 of the 8,177 applications it received, a 99.6 percent approval rate. It approved 99.5 percent of all permit applications in 2017 and approved 99.8 percent of all applications in 2016.

Last year, 86 percent of those responding to a DEQ customer service survey said they received excellent service from the department.

Candice Miller

But not all Republicans, many of whom deny climate change science and favor more exploration of fossil fuels, are opposed to Whitmer’s reorganization of environmental regulation.

Some were stunned when former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s DEQ director, Heidi Grether, wrote a letter to House lawmakers in support of Whitmer’s executive order, just hours before House voted to overturn it.

Grether, a former longtime BP energy company executive, said the panels are burdensome and could undercut EGLE’s ability to enforce environmental laws.

And Candice Miller, a Republican former Macomb County congresswoman, also came out in support of Whitmer’s move to revamp the DEQ. Miller, who now is the Macomb County Public Works commissioner, said Whitmer’s executive order “sends a clear message on the importance that the governor’s office places on our most treasured asset” — the Great Lakes.

Environmental regulation has been overhauled numerous times since former Gov. John Engler took that responsibility away from the Department of Natural Resources and created the DEQ in 1995.

It’s too soon, of course, to know how Whitmer’s environmental agenda will fare. But Michigan needs a greater focus on the protection of its drinking water, the Great Lakes and public health.

There’s an age-old debate over whether a state can have a vibrant economy and tough environmental regulation. But a cleaner environment is going to be essential for a stronger Michigan economy.

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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.