Energy fuels Senate race fights

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News
  • The obsession with energy and the environment in Michigan is not as prevalent in other Senate races.
  • Energy and environment are not so much the focus as the billionaire personalities funding attack ads
  • Land labeled Peters a hypocrite for his $19,000 stock purchase in Total SA, which produces pet coke.
  • Democrats called Land a hypocrite when she sold shares in a mutual fund that also owned Total stock.

Two normally peripheral subjects are center stage in the hotly contested campaign for Michigan's open U.S. Senate seat: energy and the environment.

More than $20 million in television ads and press release skirmishes between Democratic U.S. Rep. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township and Republican Terri Lynn Land, former secretary of state from the Grand Rapids area, have covered issues from pollution to petroleum coke to investments in oil companies.

The fights have been fueled by outside spending from the industrialist billionaires Charles and David Koch, California environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer, conservative Republican strategist Karl Rove and the League of Conservation Voters.

It's a far cry from May, when Land and Peters focused on education and jobs when they addressed business leaders at the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference.

The obsession with energy and the environment in Michigan is not anywhere near as prevalent in other Senate races, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. It's prompted by each campaign's attempts to tarnish its rival's image, he said.

"This is a direct result of the growth of the opposition research industry," he said. "Every campaign does a major investigation on themselves and the opposition. They look through every little thing for items that can be used on the stump."

Energy and environment are not so much the focus in the Senate race as the billionaire personalities involved in the attack ads, agreed Bill Ballenger, associate editor at Inside Michigan Politics newsletter in Lansing.

"Peters has gone after Land because of her pro-business stance and her ties with the Koch brothers," he said.

Land, the former Kent County clerk, touts an "all-of-the-above approach" to energy production, calling for the harnessing of everything from oil and natural gas to nuclear and solar energy to help ease U.S. dependence on overseas oil. It includes support for construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, according to her campaign, "so our country has access to oil from North America, rather than the Middle East."

She also has touted "protecting Michigan from climate change, but we must not hurt our recovery with EPA regulations."

Peters, a three-term congressman and former state senator, is endorsed by groups including the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, partly for his stance on energy production. He opposes Keystone's project and voted for a 2009 cap-and-trade bill that would have set a limit on carbon dioxide emissions and allowed companies to buy and sell permits for the emissions.

He has tried to keep a spotlight on issues involving pet coke — a coal-like byproduct of oil refining — calling for studies on its effect on human health.

This year, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity poured several million dollars into ads criticizing Peters for supporting President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. The ads hit Peters for repeating Obama's dubious claim that people could keep their health plan if they liked it.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's super political action committee responded with ads arguing the Koch brothers are trying to buy the election.

Koch Industries' involvement with fossil fuels and petroleum coke is in play because Peters last year protested the storage of Koch-owned pet coke near the Detroit River. The pet coke piles were removed in October 2013.

But the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality found pet coke "has a low degree of toxicity." And Koch Industries notes the pet coke created jobs and was the result of the expansion of the Marathon oil refinery in Detroit that was approved by the Democratic administration of Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

"Rep. Peters is trying desperately to make this race about anything other than his failed record in Washington, rather than addressing the real issues Michiganders are facing such as a sluggish economy, high unemployment and his continued support for Obamacare," said James Davis, Koch-backed Freedom Partners Action Fund spokesman.

One ad by the League of Conservation Voters in support of Peters says the Koch brothers have used Michigan "as a dumping ground" and says Land "opposes efforts to clamp down on industrial carbon pollution."

Land's campaign has fired back in recent weeks, with one ad linking Peters with Steyer, who "wants to block the Keystone pipeline." Peters joined former Vice President Al Gore and Reid this year in visiting Steyer in California and leaving with $400,000, USA Today reported.

Steyer's group, NextGen Climate, spent $2.6 million in the first three weeks of September on an ad attempting to tie Land to the Koch brothers.

Land's campaign also has labeled Peters a hypocrite because of his $19,000 stock investment in French energy firm Total SA, whose Port Arthur, Texas, refinery produces fuel and pet coke. Peters has said he does not plan to sell his Total stock.

A Land campaign ad underscored the relationship as "A little bit of stock, a lot of hypocrisy."

Last week, Land announced she had sold shares in a Wells Fargo mutual fund that invested in the same energy company after a month of bashing Peters on the subject. Although spokeswoman Heather Swift said the sale was spurred by the company's past bribes of Iranian officials to gain access to Iran's oil fields, Democrats called it hypocritical.

The differences between the candidates were more nuanced in June, when the Obama administration proposed reducing carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. The Environmental Protection Agency plan would give states flexibility on ways to reach the goal, such as reducing emissions from coal-fired plants and increasing renewable fuel.

Land argued the rule would cost jobs and boost electric bills. "I will fight this proposal at every turn in the U.S. Senate," she said.

Peters said he supports setting new standards to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and address climate change, but fears the draft rule "imposes a more stringent standard on Michigan than surrounding Midwestern states."

Such issues didn't emerge in earlier campaigns, so why now?

"In this case, you've got two candidates who have been elected to office in the past," Sabato said. "If these things didn't come up and hurt you then, you feel they're not going to this time."