Mich. governor, challenger tread warily on environmental issues in tight race

Michigan seemed to be on a path to reducing its emissions in 2008. Citing "greenhouse gases that threaten the air, water and other natural resources of Michigan and the health, safety and general welfare of Michigan residents," then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) had required, through an executive order, that the state's air permitting agency analyze every proposed coal plant to determine whether it was really needed to meet the state's demand for energy and deny construction permits if renewable energy could replace it.

Quickly, eight proposed coal-fired power plants were either refused permits or canceled by energy companies (ClimateWire, June 4, 2010). Granholm, who left office in 2011 after being limited to two terms, also signed into law a requirement that the state receive 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015 and pushed hard for a regional agreement to cut greenhouse gases that was never implemented.

But with Michigan facing the nation's worst unemployment rate, a manufacturing industry trying to recover from the 2008 economic crisis and its largest city on the edge of bankruptcy, voters elected former venture capitalist and Gateway CEO Rick Snyder, a Republican who ran a race focused on economic issues.

Michigan, a major source of fresh water and home to more miles of coastline than any other state, has always played a unique role in the environmental movement as it balances the need to protect its resources with efforts to stimulate its struggling manufacturing industry. And while some of Snyder's decisions have vexed environmentalists, they have had trouble gaining traction against the governor. A 2012 New York Times profile described the governor as "an enigma."

Now Snyder faces what polls have shown could be one of the closest gubernatorial races in the country as he seeks to fend off a challenger, Mark Schauer (D), and win re-election. Both Snyder and Schauer, a former one-term congressman and state Senate Democratic leader, are largely sticking to issues of economic growth and opportunity, but at times both Schauer and the state's environmental past have shown signs of rising to the surface. Snyder has done little to engage Schauer directly, and officially has not even announced a second campaign.


As a former executive, Snyder argued his business skill and tech savvy would help him run the state with wonky precision, avoiding bitter partisan battles for common-sense solutions. The pitch paid off: Snyder, along with Maine's Paul LePage and Florida's Rick Scott, was part of a wave of business executives-turned-Republican governors elected in 2010.

"I ran for Governor as an outsider who wanted to bring a new style of leadership to our state," he writes on his campaign website, "with new ideas, and new results. It was time for a nerd!"

It's a theme that has remained during his tenure with the governor moving to shore up a pension deficit by taxing public workers' pensions for the first time and signing legislation to let a state-appointed emergency manager oversee Detroit's struggling finances, said Barry Rabe, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. He also waded into a contentious debate over the role of unions by signing a controversial right-to-work law after first saying he wasn't interested in the proposal. Still, Rabe said, Snyder has not sought conflict the way neighboring Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has and doesn't appear to have ambitions for a higher office.

"He really seems to want to stay on message on issues immediately consequential for Michigan, particularly its economy and its competitiveness," Rabe said. "He sort of takes that business mantra and model into everything he says or does."

While Snyder didn't overturn Granholm's coal plant rule, local courts barred regulators from enforcing it and two power plants received permits (Greenwire, Feb. 14, 2011). Still, both projects were scrapped after new U.S. EPA regulations, designed to cut carbon emissions, complicated the efforts (E&ENews PM, Dec. 17, 2013). One project will be powered by natural gas instead.

Unlike Granholm, Snyder "recognizes that the popularity of a proposed permit cannot legally be a consideration for approving it," Snyder's Deputy Press Secretary David Murray said in a statement.

To help businesses, Snyder convened an Air Toxics Workgroup tasked with identifying air regulations that exceeded federal mandates to ensure they "are updated, streamlined, protective of public health and not excessively burdensome." At the same time, Snyder vetoed a Republican-backed bill to mandate that no state regulations exceed federal standards. He's defended hydraulic fracturing in Michigan as "a role model for fracking done right."

Snyder has refused to be drawn into high-profile environmental issues during his term that may not resonate with average voters. When an Ann Arbor News reporter asked Snyder after a 2011 green chemistry conference whether he thought climate change was caused by humans, Snyder didn't directly answer.

"I'm reinventing Michigan, so I just stay focused on a lot of key issues right in front of us," Snyder said, "but climate change is an issue we need to be concerned about."

Push for renewable energy

Snyder was the first Republican governor to be endorsed by the state's League of Conservation Voters when he entered the primary election four years ago. He used to serve on the board of the state chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

Still, some environmental groups have been frustrated with the circumspect pace of change from the governor, often described as pragmatic on environment and energy issues. Snyder has called for increasing the state's use of natural gas over coal, and he has embarked on a months-long outreach campaign over whether to raise the state's renewable energy standards for utilities, which are among the lowest in the country -- while closely guarding his own views.

"The idea is to create a sustainable program that reduces the reliance on coal, increases the use of renewable energy and natural gas and makes our energy supply more affordable and reliable for our residents," Murray said.

In 2012, Michigan voters loudly rejected a ballot measure that would have mandated that the state get 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025, with 37 percent supporting the plan (Greenwire, Nov. 7, 2012). But Granholm's plan has proved attainable for utilities. State regulators have estimated the state was capable of generating as much as 30 percent of its energy from renewables by 2035, or 15 percent by 2020, if policymakers wanted.

More than 30 states now have higher renewable energy standards, said Nic Clark, the state director of Clean Water Action, which was "a clear example of where we're falling behind in the race for clean energy jobs."

Snyder delivered a speech Dec. 19, 2013, outlining his energy principles, including shifting away from coal energy to greater use of natural gas, but didn't commit to specific policy goals.

Some observers think the governor may offer new energy proposals in his State of the State address Thursday evening in Lansing, and Murray confirmed that "there will be some environmental issues discussed." Schauer, who helped pass the existing renewable energy standard as a state lawmaker, said he supports raising the standard to 25 percent by 2025 -- a position he endorsed in 2012.

"We should set our sights on a higher standard that creates thousands of construction jobs, creates manufacturing jobs and helps reduce CO2 emissions in Michigan," Schauer said, citing the state's manufacturing capacity developed by decades of producing automobiles.

Still, name recognition remains a problem for Schauer, who has never held statewide office. A Public Policy Polling survey released Dec. 10 showed Schauer trailing Snyder with 40 percent of the vote to Snyder's 44 percent. The survey of 1,034 Michigan voters showed 69 percent of respondents were "not sure" whether they had a favorable opinion of him.

While the poll also found 42 percent had a favorable view of Snyder, making him one of the nation's least popular governors, no incumbent Republican governor has lost an election since 2007.

Environmental groups once offered tepid support for Snyder in part because the three other Republican candidates were considered much worse. Snyder was "the only Republican candidate who is seriously focusing on the green economy," said Ryan Werder, then the political director for the League of Conservation Voters' Michigan chapter (ClimateWire, Aug. 2, 2010).

For environmentalists, Snyder's pragmatism can be a source of frustration.

"Governor Snyder has done a pretty good job of touting himself as a Great Lakes governor," said Mike Berkowitz, the legislative and policy director of the Sierra Club's Michigan chapter, "but to be honest, it hasn't been completely true."

Several groups have given Snyder poor marks on environmental report cards. Michigan's League of Conservation Voters gave Snyder a C grade in its online report card, called "How green is your governor?" A similar Sierra Club score card released Jan. 8 gave Snyder an F. Another group, Clean Water Action, awarded 58 of 110 Michigan state lawmakers a grade of zero on its own score card. (The groups have not yet formally endorsed a candidate in the race.)

Murray said the governor had increased the budget of the state's Department of Environmental Quality and pushed key environmental priorities to keep invasive species out of the Great Lakes, increase recycling, protect wetlands, and work on long-term water and land management plans. Snyder "has a strong record on the environment and energy, and has built a comprehensive plan in both areas as we work to reinvent Michigan and make our economy stronger," Murray said in the statement.

Michigan's two largest utilities, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, have offered support for Snyder's energy approach, and a DTE Energy spokeswoman said the company trusted Michigan would maintain its historically "responsible regulatory environment" as it moved forward (EnergyWire, Jan. 13).

Oil spill defined tenure

While the issue has faded from view, Snyder's challenger Schauer saw his single term in the House of Representatives shaped by an environmental crisis: the 2010 Enbridge Inc. oil pipeline spill in Marshall, Mich., which drifted down the Kalamazoo River to Battle Creek, where he lives with his family. Enbridge has since removed at least 1.15 million gallons of oil from the river, according to EPA.

"It was an eye-opening experience," Schauer said in a phone interview.

In Congress, Schauer served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which held a hearing on the spill that featured testimony from Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel, then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and other top safety officials.

Schauer told Enbridge's executive, "You seem like a very nice person, but the words and sentiments and the actions of your company haven't matched up" (Greenwire, Sept. 16, 2010).

He later won a promise that Enbridge would stop forcing residents to sign medical waivers as a condition of receiving spill aid and sponsored a bill that would have added new safety requirements for oil pipeline operators. While the bill passed the House with three Republican co-sponsors, the Senate never voted on the measure. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration later fined Enbridge $3.7 million over the accident, which regulators determined was the result of poor maintenance practices. While the bill didn't change the nation's pipeline regulations, Congress later passed the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011 after Schauer left office, which incorporated higher penalties for violations and requires pipeline operators to install remote shutoff valves to be used in a spill.

"The big take-away of that oil spill is it was completely avoidable," Schauer said. "It's a pay now or pay later lesson."

Schauer said the oil spill would make him more careful as governor about safety issues like the concerns some Michigan lawmakers have voiced over another Enbridge pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac.

Schauer was "a very outspoken and vocal leader" on clean energy, renewable energy and energy efficiency while in Congress, Clark said, including as a key vote to pass the House's cap-and-trade bill in 2010.

"There is a strong consensus that our climate is changing here in Michigan," Schauer said. "We have a responsibility to do something about it."

Schauer "is clearly trying to court a traditional Democratic constituency," Rabe said, adding it was unclear whether he could expand his appeal to moderate voters. Recent fundraising emails have boasted that Schauer was exposed to pepper spray at a recent protest for union rights, along with his promise to raise the state's minimum wage and work to repeal the controversial right-to-work law Snyder signed last year.

"Mark has our back," wrote James Hoffa, the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, in one such message.

Other liberal groups, though, are looking to poke holes in Snyder's carefully cultivated pragmatic image, arguing the approach is instead a failure to lead.

"Rick Snyder likes to refer to himself as 'One Tough Nerd,'" says a new website called Snyder Fails, by the Democratic group Progress Michigan, "but we think a better nickname for the governor is 'One Weak Geek.'"

Environmental attacks not a factor

Despite the criticism, Snyder has avoided the kind of blistering attacks that other GOP candidates -- most notably failed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, who unlike Snyder took an active role opposing climate science -- have faced over the issue.

The national League of Conservation Voters spent millions of dollars on advertising campaigns last year against candidates perceived as anti-environment. Jack Schmitt, the deputy director of the group's Michigan chapter, though, was more equivocating.

"Both sides of the aisle can be strong on these issues," Schmitt said recently.

Still, few expect the environment to take center stage in Michigan this year, unlike in other states like Virginia and the upcoming Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, where fracking stands to become a significant campaign issue (Greenwire, Nov. 27, 2013).

"There's nothing like that in Michigan yet," Rabe said.

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