New DEQ director: Line 5 shutdown calls premature

Jonathan Oosting and Michael Gerstein

Lansing — Calls to shut down a pair of aging oil and natural gas pipelines buried beneath the Straits of Mackinac are premature, new Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether said Friday.

Grether, whose appointment was criticized by some environmentalists because of her 20-year career in the oil industry, acknowledged concerns the 63-year-old Enbridge Line 5 could put the Great Lakes at risk but said she is awaiting results of two risk and alternative studies.

“If I stand in their shoes, which is something I try to do regularly, they believe they have enough information to pursue their position,” said Grether, referencing environmental groups that are calling for a shutdown. “I don’t agree. I think there is more to come.”

In an introductory roundtable with reporters at DEQ headquarters in Lansing, Grether said she considers herself an environmentalist, too, noting she earned a master’s degree in natural resource economics from Michigan State University because she wanted to make a “positive difference” through policy.

“I am a product of all the things in my life, all of my experiences, personal and public and work,” she said.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder last month appointed Grether to run the DEQ, a decision that concerned conservation groups hoping to see major changes in a department that has borne the brunt of the blame for the ongoing Flint water contamination crisis.

Grether was a registered lobbyist for BP America in Lansing from 1993 to 2008, according to state records. She later spent four years working on external communications for BP America’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill accident response and restoration in the Gulf of Mexico before joining the Snyder administration as Deputy Director of the Michigan Agency for Energy.

The oil spill response work involved “helping people move forward from a crisis, and we’ve got some of that here, both at the department and for the state at large,” Grether said.

The Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club has suggested Grether should recuse herself from any Line 5 decisions because of her ties to the oil industry, and about 2,000 members sent letters to their senators urging them to block her appointment, legislative and political director Mike Berkowitz said this week.

“We think it’s a slap in the face to anyone who cares about protecting the great lakes,” Berkowitz told The Detroit News.

But Snyder on Thursday defended his selection, saying he thinks Grether will do “a fine job.” He pointed to her past work as legislative director for former state House Speaker Paul Hillegonds, a Republican who would go on to work as an executive at DTE Energy Co.

“I can understand people having concerns,” Snyder said. “But again, get to know her. Give her an opportunity, and I think you’re gonna see good results.”

Since taking over as director on Aug. 1, Grether has been meeting with employees and said her initial goals are to boost morale and rehabilitate the department’s image.

Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh, who served as interim DEQ director after Dan Wyant resigned over the Flint water crisis, will continue to “quarterback” the Flint response because he has already built valuable relationships there, Grether said. She will oversee the department as a whole, including permitting and other functions.

“We have a large charge here to protect the environment and human health, and that is my focus,” she said.

As a BP lobbyist in Michigan and other states, Grether said her primary responsibility was to serve as a “translator” between the company and regulatory agencies. She could not recall fighting any specific environmental regulations she may now be in a position to enforce.

“Really, it was trying to find a common ground of win-win and explaining because often the language of those two worlds is very different,” she said.

Grethner did not meet with environmental groups before her appointment but is doing so this week and next, she said. She expected some “flak” when she accepted the position but thinks she’ll be able to win over critics as environmental stakeholders get to know her.

“I hope going forward that they’ll want to have a conversation, they’ll want to talk to us, and try to find common ground and move forward,” she said. “We’ve got two-and-a-half years; let’s get some stuff done.”