Before winning the gavel of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) took heat from the right -- but today's six-month anniversary of an oil spill in his district is set to bring him flak from the left.
Three Michigan green groups are holding a press event aimed at linking that recent oil spill, which sent more than 800,000 gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River in Upton's district, to his committee's broader energy agenda. The July rupture in a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners LP, Wolverine State environmentalists say, should show Upton that oil, gas and coal development can have negative consequences for his constituents.
"He's standing at this crossroads where he can keep moving us towards a clean energy economy or keep moving us backwards, digging us deeper into addiction to fossil fuels," National Wildlife Federation Midwest outreach coordinator Danielle Korpalski said of Upton. "He had this oil spill happen in his backyard -- he can see what happens when you don't have the right regulations in place, the right safety procedures in place."
Michigan representatives from NWF, Clean Water Action, and the Sierra Club are joining today's event, which comes as Energy and Commerce Committee members plan a broad strike at the Obama administration's energy policies, from offshore drilling to U.S. EPA emissions rules. Green advocates began pressuring Upton even before his committee's first meeting, as the Sierra Club released a web campaign last week that blasted him for attending an oil industry event and asked members to send him a "front row ticket" to the six-month anniversary of the Enbridge rupture.
In the first days after the Kalamazoo spill, Upton joined Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to push for details from Enbridge and the Transportation Department on how often the burst pipeline was inspected and the scope of the environmental damage caused by the leak. He later praised the "swift and decisive" on-the-ground response to the rupture.
Yet environmental groups are pushing Upton for much broader action, pointing to Michiganders' longstanding appreciation for the Great Lakes and their watershed as a spur for the chairman to support more renewable energy development.
In fact, Upton has previously voted against proposals to drill in the Great Lakes, noted Daniel Weiss, climate strategy director at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
"But is he going to support more offshore drilling off the coast of Florida while opposing it off his own coast?" Weiss asked. Another test for Upton, Weiss said, will be his willingness to criticize EPA pollution regulation given that "his district has been on the receiving end of smog from Chicago."
Environmental groups also plan to lean on Upton today with respect to the Keystone XL pipeline. That project, set to carry greenhouse gas-intensive crude from the western Canadian oil sands across six Plains states, is an example of fuel development that could prevent the Michigan manufacturing sector from "reap[ing] the benefits of the clean energy economy," Korpalski said.
Keystone XL is not directly under Energy and Commerce jurisdiction but won Upton's endorsement last year (E&ENews PM, Nov. 10, 2010). He joined dozens of other Republicans and a handful of moderate Democrats in backing the $7 billion pipeline, which many other Democrats and green groups oppose.
In his bid for the Energy gavel, Upton overcame opposition from more right-leaning members of his party who said he was not conservative enough to run the powerful committee.
Upton's office did not return a request for comment on the environmental groups' event by publication time.