Trump’s energy plans dismay Michigan’s green groups

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Michigan’s green groups are dismayed about Republican President-elect Donald Trump’s energy and environmental plans after believing ally and Democrat Hillary Clinton would win the White House.

The New York businessman’s defense of the coal industry, attacks on environmental regulations and swipes at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funding have alarmed the activists, who say his initiatives run counter to Michigan’s efforts. They are worried about the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative program and even federal assistance in the Flint water crisis, even though Trump has pledged to help the beleaguered city.

“Like many others, we are deeply worried about what the reality of the Trump presidency means for our state and our planet,” said Chris Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council, in an email. “It seems likely that a lot of the progress we’ve seen at the national level on climate change and environmental issues will be lost, and our work at the state level won’t be getting any easier.”

Other experts have a more optimistic outlook. Jason Hayes, director of environmental policy at the free market-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said he understands the concerns, but doesn’t feel doomsday predictions are in order because Trump’s plans are aimed at keeping electricity prices affordable as the environment continues to get cleaner.

“They’ve kind of been in the driver’s seat for the last eight years,” Hayes said. “Having to give up the steering wheel is unsettling.”

Conservationists are edgy because of statements Trump made:

■From the Trump campaign’s energy plan: “Unleash America’s $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil and natural gas reserves, plus hundreds of years in clean coal reserves.”

■From the Trump campaign website: “Open offshore and onshore leasing of federal lands, eliminate moratorium on coal leasing, and open shale energy deposits.”

■From the Trump campaign website: “Eliminate our most intrusive regulations, like the Waters of the U.S. Rule. We will also scrap the EPA’s so-called Clean Power Plan which the government estimates will cost $7.2 billion a year.”

■In stump speeches, Trump has said he will “cancel” or renegotiate” U.S. participation in 2015’s Paris climate deal.

■During the March 3 GOP debate, when asked what parts of the federal budget he would cut as waste: “We are going to get rid of (EPA) in almost every form. We’re going to have little tidbits left, but we’re going to take a tremendous amount out.”

A down-sized EPA is a tough sell in Flint after a Gov. Rick Snyder-appointed task force blamed Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality for improper oversight of the city’s water situation, leading to widespread lead contamination. When the EPA and Department of Health and Human Services took charge of the situation in January, they were expected to rectify the situation.

Add to the situation Trump’s broad-brush attacks on EPA regulations, and it’s a frightening scenario for resident Melissa Mays.

“There wasn’t enough regulation and enforcement to begin with,” said Mays, who formed the group Water You Fighting For in 2015. “Now there’s going to be less because he’s promised to take them away. So good luck, everybody.”

Nick Schroeck, executive director at the Detroit-based Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, had similar worries.

“One of the problems we had with Flint was a lack of trained, qualified environmental staff,” he said. “(Trump’s) lack of investment in EPA would be a real concern.”

But Mackinac Center’s Hayes focuses on other statements from the Trump camp in predicting the EPA’s future.

“If you read through the Make America Great Again website, they’re saying they want to refocus the EPA, not dismantle it, or shut it down, or close it,” he said. “They are talking about protecting the environment, but refocusing the EPA on its core mission of clean air and water, instead of focusing on climate change and other things.”

Schroeck’s concerns also center on Michigan efforts to move away from fossil fuels in part because of President Barack Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan aimed at encouraging renewable energy sources.

The EPA initiative has been under constant legal attack from industry members, Schroeck said.

“The Trump administration could decide to simply stop defending the rule,” he said. “Or they could actually take some more aggressive steps, like actively trying to rescind the rule themselves.”

But relying on coal-fired plants isn’t all bad, Hayes said, noting Michigan has reported large reductions in sulfur dioxide emissions in the past decade.

“When you look at the economic and social aspects of sustainability, the jobs and the low prices of electricity that come with the coal industry have to be taken into account,” he said.

A Trump administration that turns away from focusing on renewable energy gives states like Michigan an easier transition for changing their energy laws and meeting the needs of consumers, who still get 30 percent of their electricity from coal-fired plants, Hayes said.

For the past six years, Michigan and its U.S. and Canadian neighbors in the region have benefited from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The federal program has funneled millions of dollars into the area “to protect and restore the largest system of fresh surface water in the world.”

Obama has supported the program, but refused to fully fund it as congressional members have requested.

“There are legitimate concerns that a Trump administration would not make funding the GLRI a priority,” Schroeck said.

Should environmental issues receive less federal funding, Sierra Club officials said they worry about the impact on Michigan’s already-contaminated sites.

Problems such as the Gelman dioxane plume threatening Ann Arbor’s groundwater could one day need federal help through programs like Superfund, said Gail Philbin, director of the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter. Michigan already has more than 60 sites in the program.

“Perhaps (a Trump administration) will decide they’ll no longer add new sites,” Philbin said. “Any efforts you might make in tackling sites like that, we may wind up being hamstrung ... .”

Yet Philbin sees a bright side. Environmentalist-friendly administrations often inadvertently create a more relaxed atmosphere. Trump may create a greater sense of urgency on green issues, she said.

“Since 1967, we’ve been fighting battle after battle, all the while there have been changing administrations...,” Philbin said. “This may inspire more people to get involved.”

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