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Earth Day 2016 – hopefully this year will be better

22 Apr 2016

NASA_Earth
On this, the 46th Earth Day, I have reflected on both how far we have come and how much further we have to go.  Certainly, our waters and air are cleaner than they were in 1970. Our energy and cars are cleaner as well. However, the environmental challenges our society now faces are more complex and more granular and, therefore, harder to “solve.” Think about algae in Lake Erie and invasive species throughout our lakes and lands – those are much harder to deal with than a handful of industrial polluters.

Given the events of the last year in Flint, Michigan has become the country’s “canary in a coal mine” with respect to lead. More people are talking about lead and know about it than literally ever before.  When John Oliver spends 18 minutes on it on HBO, you know it is permeating the nation’s consciousness.  In some cases, it is possible we are focusing too much on water and not enough on paint and dust.  Despite the political posturing and the recent criminal charges, I do expect that the politicians and regulators will, in the near term, step up  and we will see greater action on lead removal and protection. Unfortunately, that has been the pattern – major environmental problems result in new environmental initiatives.

Unfortunately, the Flint crisis is likely to delay, perhaps indefinitely, the State’s efforts on developing a Michigan energy policy and, despite his recent letter to State employees, regulatory paralysis will likely reign in Lansing. It is difficult to see State agency employees taking anything other than the most conservative of positions to avoid falling prey to the kinds of problems that occurred in and from the Flint crisis – criminal charges have a way of focusing the mind.

The lack of: (i) an energy policy; (ii) a current solid waste policy; and (iii) a fully funded sustainable program to support brownfield redevelopment (although long promised legislation on brownfield incentives was recently introduced) coupled with the greater focus on petroleum transport via pipeline, particularly, under the Great Lakes, makes me wonder how things will look here in Michigan on the next Earth Day.  Michiganders have always had a healthy respect for our environment – we were among the first in the nation to protect wetlands and waters – the 1950’s vintage easement on pipeline 5 under the straights of Mackinac was cutting edge in its time.  Will Michigan resume its previous environmental leadership or will we continue to struggle as we have for the last few years?  Being in a negative national spotlight is not something any of us sought but now that we’re here – perhaps it is time to step up and take a leadership role on the environment as we once did.  It will cost money and effort but the results – our health and the health of the environment are worth it.

What will be the top stories of 2015?

23 Jan 2015

edit_calendar_ssk_47433454Happy new year!  I know it’s almost February but as this is my first blog post of the year, I thought (particularly after hearing the State of the Union and the State of the State speeches)  I’d predict the big stories of 2015 in no particular order:

  • Wetland Rules – the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers finally proposed rules in 2014  to address the fallout of the Rapanos case.  The proposal was met with a firestorm of disapproval, particularly from the farming world.  Will they ever finalize them?
  • Brownfield TIF Legislation – after all that work last year, will the Legislature take up streamlining this program and expanding it to allow Michigan to be even more competitive in redeveloping brownfields?
  • EPA Greenhouse Gas Rules vs. Congress – in September, 2013, EPA issued a proposal for carbon pollution from new power plants; in June  2014, EPA issued a proposal to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants – the GOP and coal and oil interests in Congress have fought this for some time.  Will the rules be adopted and enforced?  Will there be enough time for electricity generators to get alternative plans in place before being forced to shutter their oldest, least efficient and most polluting plants?
  • Keystone Pipeline – President Obama and Congress have been locked in a politically charged dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline for almost 3 years now – he seemed to indicate in the State of the Union that he’d veto legislation – will he?
  • Energy Policy – Governor Snyder has pushed for an energy policy, legislation is expected this year and the Governor recently mentioned an intention to develop a new energy agency that would make Michigan more competitive for business.  What that will entail in light of the likely changes due to federal regulations will be interesting to see – will Michigan upgrade or discard its renewable portfolio standard? Can Michigan reduce electrical cost while improving both reliability and environmental performance?
  • Water Policy – the Governor’s long-awaited great lakes policy is expected this year.
  • Pipelines – in addition to the Keystone pipeline, there has been a lot of interest in pipelines in, under and around the Great Lakes – could there be federal and state changes there?
  • Detroit’s Water Authority – it is supposed to morph into a regional authority – as I said previously, the easy part was getting to the agreement last year – will the hard work succeed or will it fail, causing major shockwaves for roughly half of the State’s population?

Electric Shaming – Part 2 – “I told you so”

15 Dec 2014

1368974_10201396380089655_297288408_nA year ago, I raised the question “has electricity shaming come to Detroit?”  This was after I started receiving the monthly “letter of shame” that DTE generates, comparing my family to our more and less efficient neighbors.  It appears I’m not alone in wondering about this.

Saturday’s Detroit Free Press asked the same question.  The answer appears to be about the same as mine was – most people wonder who are these “more efficient” neighbors and what are they doing that I am not?   Interestingly, the Free Press article says DTE and Consumers can document a decrease in electricity usage after these letters (and emails) start going out – albeit a relatively small decrease – 1%.  In the meantime. I’d appreciate better information on how to save energy rather than just the generic platitudes about switching lightbulbs (I’m working on it), vacuuming out my refrigerator (I do that)  and ditching the old refrigerator in my basement (not going to happen).

CSI Part II – MDEQ rolls out brownfield tax increment financing proposal – five major changes you should know about

11 Nov 2014

moneyAs you may recall from this spring, I was asked to serve on MDEQ’s initiative to  review and improve the “patchwork quilt” of statutes and rules regarding brownfield redevelopment incentives, grants and loans.  A CSI II group (of which, in full disclosure, I chaired the Legislative Committee) met regularly over the Spring and Summer and MDEQ has announced two meetings (see the attached flyer) to roll out the proposed changes. These changes have not yet been introduced in the Legislature and thus, are currently only an MDEQ internal recommendation. The hope is that these changes will be introduced shortly.

if passed, these proposed changes should streamline, simplify and speed up the process for loan, grant and TIF approvals to enable projects to get started faster than ever before while supporting a greater range of eligible activities than previously available.

There was some tension between those championing redevelopment and those focusing on environmental remediation but ultimately, there was agreement on a set of changes and clarification of the rules and statutes to clarify the process for obtaining loans, grants and tax increment financing for brownfield redevelopment.  The five most significant changes include: (more…)

Blight busting in Detroit – best of times/worst of times

29 May 2014

imageThis week, the City of Detroit rolled out its blight plan.  Of course, the national press highlighted the traditional “bad news about Detroit” story that we’ve heard for 40 years, replete with the traditional photo of the Ren Cen with a burned out house in the foreground.

The reports cite the negative big scary numbers: $850 Million to demolish most of the blight in the next five years; the City has access to about 1/2 of that; 84,641 blighted or nearly blighted structures and vacant lots, 1/2 of which should be demolished and cleaned up immediately; 93% of the properties held by governments need to be knocked down or cleaned up.

Well, that sure sounded bad but up at the Mackinac policy conference, Mayor Duggan told the most uplifting (in my opinion) Detroit blight story that I have ever heard. He talked about his goal to increase the City’s population by the end of his term – 3 years away.

Mayor Duggan talked about relighting the City’s streetlights, he talked about improved emergency response and about other issues.  But the best part of his talk was about blight. He discussed his new neighborhood approach – focusing on one neighborhood at a time; not waiting 3 years to take the properties back for taxes and, most importantly, telling owners of blighted homes to either agree to fix the homes in 6 months or lose them. Amazingly (to everyone including Mayor Duggan), many of the owners have stepped up and begun making repairs. The City has an auction site, which has gotten some national notice and, literally, thousands of people have shown up for open houses and the City has sold homes, sometimes for more than suburban homes. The Mayor discussed one neighborhood with 49 homes slated for demolition – after using his new approach, that list was cut to nine.

Certainly there are areas of the City that will need to be swept clean (and hopefully primed for redevelopment), and there are areas that won’t be addressed for a while, but the Mayor’s neighborhood program was a very uplifting breath of fresh air.

Climate change and infrastructure

27 May 2014

bumperstickerAfter that 100 year winter we just came out of, and the potholes it left behind, everyone seems to be talking about infrastructure.  Even the Michigan Legislature and Chamber of Commerce are supporting tax increases to support road and bridge repairs.  While potholes are annoying, sinkholes and bridge failures can be some pretty serious stuff, as has been recently reported.   President Obama has also spoken recently about infrastructure investment as he asks Congress to appropriate additional highway funds.

There has also been a slew of recent news about climate change including a national assessment report and reports of major antarctic melting.  Given all this news, our investments in infrastructure should take climate change into account. We all know about freeze-thaw and the havoc it can wreak on our roads and bridges. With weather becoming less predictable and more extreme, as we rebuild our infrastructure, we certainly need to think about doing it right the first time including:

  • Designing tougher, more resilient, lower maintenance roadways, bridges, facilities and roadsides;
  • Incorporating materials which will perform more consistently in weather extremes;
  • Better controls of runoff including pavement redesign and strengthening drain, river and stream banks and ditches to prevent erosion;
  • Stronger and lower maintenance bridge design;
  • Changes in roadside vegetation to ensure survival and water uptake during floods as well as drought and erosion resiliency;
  • Larger capacity pumps/pump stations to prevent freeway flooding; and
  • Better sewer and water lines to prevent failures as we experience more freeze-thaw, deeper frosts and drought conditions.

While the east and west coasts are expected to take the biggest climate-based hit (think Katrina, Sandy and California droughts and wildfires) drought, higher temperatures and stronger storm events threaten roads and we have already seen Great Lakes levels impact shipping and commerce.  A recent government report discussed the likely impacts on energy infrastructure including:

  • increased demands for electricity;
  • greater stress on the grid as we experience stronger storms; and
  • power plants’ vulnerability to water shortages.

From roads to utility lines, water lines and sewers, we are on the cusp of a brave new world.  I, for one, think that if we are about to invest billions in putting Michigan back together after many decades of neglect, we ought to do it with our eyes on the future and do it right the first time.  If that costs more, it will be worth it in failures and crises avoided down the road and will provide a base from which Michigan’s economy can grow.

Climate change adaptation; don’t put all your bananas in one basket

28 Apr 2014

Perhaps a thing of the past?

Perhaps a thing of the past?

Climate change seems to be in the press pretty much all the time these days.  There are stories about the UN reports on climate change (see also here); the President has a two-pronged plan (attack causes of climate change and harden systems against climate events) and, recently, the President requested $1 Billion in the 2015 Budget to support developing climate-resilient infrastructure.

A couple of years ago, a report prepared for the United Nations suggested that as the climate changed, three of the world’s biggest staple crops — corn, rice and wheat — would decrease in many developing countries, and the potato, which grows best in cooler climates, could also be affected by warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns.  The report suggested that bananas could replace potatoes in a warming world as a critical food source.

Unfortunately, now there are reports that the Cavendish banana that most of us buy at the grocery store is under threat of a seemingly unstoppable fungus.   You might say that this is alarmist non-sense and an entire fruit couldn’t be wiped out.  However, you’d be wrong – it happened with an earlier variety of banana called the Gros Michel which virtually no American under the age of 50 has ever eaten.  These bananas were reportedly in every way superior to the ones we eat today but were largely wiped out by a fungus similar to the one that is now ravaging the Cavendish variety.  This is an example of the risk of  cultivating only one type of fruit or vegetable – the same sort of mass production technique that led to the potato blight and famine in Ireland.

Of course, the best method to adapt and become resilient to climate change (although not the most economical) is to diversify – something we Americans have become less inclined to do when it comes to our desire for predictable and consistent groceries.  Will the fruit companies win the fight against the fungus? Will we replace the Cavendish with a new single type of banana (there are still hundreds of varieties mostly unknown to the United States)?  Will we find something else to grow instead of corn, wheat, rice and potatoes? Perhaps the much touted but less well known superfoods of quinoa, freekeh, or teff?  Time will tell, but one thing seems certain, greater diversity leads to greater resilience.  This is something that no environmental law or regulation is likely to fully address.