In 2008, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm proclaimed her state was ready to be the Silicon Valley of clean energy.
The two-term Democrat later issued an order making the permitting process more difficult for coal plants, a move that was followed by almost all of Michigan's proposed coal generators being canceled by companies or denied by the state. At the same time, she pressed for now-in-place wind and solar tax credits and the implementation of a planned regional accord to control greenhouse gases.
Now, those energy initiatives are up in the air.
Granholm is leaving office because of term limits, and several of her potential successors are vowing to jump-start new coal plants and take the state in the opposite direction on renewable energy and climate change.
"I'm hugely concerned," said Kerry Duggan of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters about the impact of the November election.
Michigan is not alone in its political shuffle.
The Great Lakes region is facing a potential 180-degree turn on energy and climate, with the governor's races in Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois ranked as tossups or "lean Republican" by analysts such as the Cook Political Report. Iowa, which abuts both Michigan and Illinois, also is in a too-close-to-call contest.
With the exception of Minnesota, all of the six states currently are led by Democrats. Considering that these states have some of the best wind resources in the country, a heavy reliance on coal and a manufacturing base that makes everything from solar panels to sedans, the next set of governors could make a huge dent in the region's future emissions.
They also will play a key role in implementing federal climate policy on the ground level if a national cap on emissions passes in the U.S. Congress.
"It matters a lot what happens in these states, particularly since we don't know what the federal government is going to do in terms of climate," said Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown University State-Federal Climate Resource Center.
In many of the Midwestern governor's races, candidates sitting at the top of the polls are opposed to legislative and regulatory measures backed by the current governor.
Democrats look endangered
In Wisconsin, for example, the Wisconsin Republican Party's endorsed candidate, Scott Walker, opposed an energy bill this year that would have set emissions targets and required utilities to produce 25 percent of their power from alternative sources by 2025. The legislation stalled in the state Senate, but environmentalists are hoping that the measure comes up again with a more favorable Legislature after the election -- and a welcoming governor.
Walker has been leading Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in recent polls.
With the economy dominating state campaigns this year, it is too early to know how much some candidates would change existing policy. In Iowa, for example, two Republican challengers to sitting Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, Bob Vander Plaats and Terry Branstad, said in a recent debate they supported renewable energy but also backed coal development.
An Iowa poll released yesterday from KCCI-TV showed Branstad, a former governor, leading Vander Plaats by 15 points.
The current fiscal crisis in much of the region makes it extremely difficult for candidates to talk about anything other than job creation, said Barry Rabe, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan. It also makes it challenging for candidates to propose something new -- like a renewable energy program -- that requires additional staff and budget funds that states had a few years ago but do not have now, he said.
"These governors are almost all Democratic incumbents in a year that is thought to not be good for incumbents or Democrats," he said.
The six states with tossup races produce about a fifth of the nation's annual carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power sector, according to the Department of Energy.
They operate more than quarter of the nation's coal-fired power plants. The group also is home to the biggest refineries processing oil from Canadian tar sands, where crude extracted from sandy deposits deposits requires three times as much energy for production as conventional oil production.
To address the area's hefty greenhouse gas output, Midwestern governors signed onto a greenhouse gas accord calling for a regional cap-and-trade system in 2007.
Last year, a Midwestern Governors Association advisory group released an energy road map with a series of recommendations on how to generate jobs and slash emissions simultaneously through policies such as revamped building codes and increased mandates for renewable electricity.
Those suggestions have yet to be implemented in many states and need approval from incoming governors to move forward. The same goes for the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord, which is still a plan on paper.
States in the Great Lakes region have different energy profiles and industries, but all hand significant power to governors to control the direction of state energy industries, Rabe said.
Michigan is a prime example.
Granholm's efforts stop new coal-fired power plants
When Granholm assumed office in 2003, the state was known more for its automobile-making infrastructure than for its intentions to be a climate-friendly manufacturing hub of the Midwest.
Over the past few years, Granholm set out to systematically raise the state's renewable energy profile through her bureaucratic power and the bully pulpit.
In 2008, she pressed for passage of the state's first-ever mandate for a renewable electricity standard, which requires that utilities obtain 10 percent of their power from alternative energy sources by 2015.
Through executive orders, she created a 35-member Climate Action Council that developed a plan on how the state would slash emissions by 2020 and established a Great Lakes Wind Council to advise on drafting legislation for siting turbines off Michigan's coast. She implemented some of the climate council's suggestions through direct mandates, while the others await action in the Legislature.
But several analysts said it is Granholm's action on coal plants that best demonstrates her power and the fickleness of policy depending on who leads the Statehouse.
In her 2009 State of the State address, Granholm announced a goal of cutting the state's reliance on fossil fuels for electricity by 45 percent by 2020. At the time, there were eight new coal plants moving forward in Michigan.
She then ordered the state's air permitting agency to put every proposed coal plant through an analysis determining whether there was a "need" for the new coal facility. They also had to determine whether alternative sources of energy like wind or solar would better serve the state's energy demands in considering permits.
The state's Public Service Commission -- which Granholm wields significant control over through her appointments -- would provide input on the analysis under the plan.
Since then, almost all of the eight proposed coal plants have been canceled by companies or denied by the state. Last month, Michigan's Department of Natural Resources and Environment denied an air permit to a 600-megawatt power plant in Rogers City that would have been fueled by coal and petroleum coke.
"I think it's important to recognize that her executive directive not only blocked plants, but changed the tone of the discussion," said Anne Woiwode of the Sierra Club's Michigan chapter. "She played a huge role in stopping coal plants."
Opponents running to build new plants
In addition to the Rogers City plant, coal-fired generators proposed by Consumers Energy, Mid-Michigan Energy and Northern Michigan University were canceled within 16 months of Granholm's directive. Another near the city of Holland is awaiting a permit decision from the state.
Some companies that postponed plans for coal plants this year, such as Consumers Energy, argue that their decision was caused by market challenges and declining energy demand. Michigan's emissions have slumped amid a severe economic recession that has unemployment hovering near 14 percent.
"Our decision to defer development of the coal plant was based on economics," said Jeff Holyfield, a spokesman for CMS Energy. The Public Service Commission recommended that the plant not be built, but the state did eventually permit the plant after CMS agreed to retire some of its older units, Holyfield noted.
Even so, a new governor could reverse Granholm's directive and put the state back on a projection to building a wave of coal plants, particularly if the economy picks up, some analysts said. Coal produces roughly double the greenhouse gas emissions of natural gas.
"I think we'll be building new coal plants after Granholm," said one Democratic party aide in Michigan.
Several of the leading candidates to replace Granholm are on record opposing the coal-plant order.
Democratic candidate Andy Dillon, the current state House speaker, told a crowd of construction workers in December that he felt "betrayed" by Granholm's move to slow down the building of power plants.
He is neck and neck with opponent Virg Bernero in the Democratic gubernatorial primary race to be held in August. Bernero is less likely to differ with Granholm on energy issues, said the Democratic aide.
Dillon and Bernero did not respond to requests for comment.
On the Republican side, there are five candidates battling it out for the nomination, although a poll released this week from multiple news outlets showed Rep. Pete Hoekstra opening a lead over Attorney General Mike Cox. A poll released this week from Public Policy Polling showed that Republicans were leading Democratic contenders in almost all hypothetical matchups.
As attorney general, Cox issued a formal opinion in February arguing that Granholm overstepped her legal authority by creating the new requirements for building coal-fired power plants.
In May, Hoekstra wrote an editorial on MLive.com slamming the denial of the Rogers City coal plant. Yesterday, his campaign spokesman Mike Truscott said one of the first energy actions his boss would take as governor is reversing the coal-plant directive and approving the denied plant, along with promoting an energy "mix" of nuclear and renewable power.
"There would be certainty in the process. It wouldn't take you two years to get an answer," he said of the permitting process. "We absolutely will begin building new coal plants."