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Michigan Gov. Whitmer seeks carbon neutrality by 2050; critic questions impact

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pledged Wednesday to "relentlessly" cut carbon emissions, create "clean energy jobs" and make Michigan "carbon-neutral" by 2050 in a bid to fight climate change. 

Whitmer, who signed two executive orders to create the state's Healthy Climate Plan, joined governors from Rhode Island, Washington and Colorado earlier in the day to discuss the "U.S. Climate Alliance" as part of Democratic governors' efforts to address climate change.

But the executive order was questioned by critics, who noted the governor is unilaterally pursuing the initiative under a public health emergency sparked by the coronavirus pandemic without input from the Republican-led Legislature.

"The science is clear: Climate change is directly impacting our public health,  environment, our economy and our families,” Whitmer said in a statement. "This dangerous reality is already causing harm throughout Michigan, with communities of color and low-income Michiganders suffering disproportionately, which is why I’m taking immediate action to protect our state. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to leave them a cleaner, safer and healthier world."

Whitmer's announcement follows declarations by Michigan's two largest utilities that they plan to achieve net zero carbon emissions in their electric businesses in the next 20 to 30 years. 

DTE Energy, electricity provider for more than 2.2 million Michigan homes and businesses, announced a year ago that it wanted to "achieve net zero carbon emissions" by 2050. But the Detroit-based utility noted that carbon neutrality "will require further advancements in technology” that don't currently exist. 

Consumers Energy said this year it aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. Net zero carbon emissions involve a combination of eliminating and offsetting carbon dioxide emissions to achieve zero carbon emissions that could be attributed to the Jackson-based company.

The Whitmer administration argued its carbon goals will slow climate change, create different kinds of jobs and start the state toward an energy transformation. But the Democratic governor's successors would have to see their goals through since she would leave office by 2027 if she wins a second term.

Executive orders also can be undone by succeeding governors.

Environmental and union groups praised Whitmer's initiatives in statements released by the governor's office.

"Every Michigander deserves to have access to clean air and water," which has been elusive for many years, said Justin Onwenu, the environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club.

"Addressing climate change is not just about saving our environment, this is also an opportunity to protect our communities from harmful pollution and create jobs by making meaningful investments," Onwenu said. "Michigan has an opportunity to lead on climate action by centering public health and environmental justice and Gov. Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan represents this shared commitment to a future where all Michiganders can live in a healthy environment.

But Jason Hayes, director of environmental policy for the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, questioned the governor's implicit reliance on solar and wind power based on its track record in California.

"Gov. Whitmer’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that she prefers to govern on her own without the input of the Legislature or the voters," said Hayes, who works for the free-market-oriented group.

"Unfortunately, her 182nd executive order so far this year again demonstrates the problem of arbitrarily imposing policies without seeking input from those with other expertise. Her order will push Michigan to build far more unreliable energy, but rolling blackouts in California recently showed the danger of basing an electric grid on wind and solar."

The governor's order charges the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy  "to develop and implement the MI Healthy Climate Plan," state officials said.

The Whitmer directive requires that the state Treasury Department must develop an Energy Transition Impact Project that helps communities to maintain critical services and ensuring well-paying jobs for workers as older-technology energy facilities close.

EGLE Director Liesl Clark said the moves will help Michigan residents navigate the risks of climate change.

"Michiganders have been on the front lines of environmental protection from the first Earth Day 50 years ago, and we continue to lead with these important steps to safeguard Michiganders and their natural resources," Clark said. "We see forward motion with the establishment of the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice and the recent announcement of training and technical assistance to help communities address climate impacts."

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming