Walking into the library for a group meeting last Thursday, I was caught off guard by a brazen "Hello, how are you today?" from an enthusiastic guy whose demeanor seemed out of context not only with the gloomy character of the numbing, soggy night but also with the general temperament of the University of Michigan -- it's midterm time, and unfortunately, there's more to stress than to smile about.
Had I cut him off after his introduction, as I was on the brink of doing, I would have missed the opportunity to participate at the grassroots level in a critical political controversy pending in the state of Michigan right now: the building of new coal plants.
On October 6, nearly 2,000 people gathered at the Michigan Capitol to implore the state government and the Department of Environmental Quality to approve two power plant proposals. With an unemployment rate of 15 percent that has remained virtually inert for the majority of the year, the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council and Protect Michigan organized the rally in hopes that the creation of new power plants will stimulate jobs. The rally was backed by the a number of organizations, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Manufacturers Association.
Patrick Gleason, president of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council said of the rally: "Today, we have labor and business working together and in total agreement about the need for new power plants in Michigan. These clean coal plants will create several thousand badly needed jobs in our state and they'll give Michigan the power it needs to grow in the future."
In February of this year, Governor Jennifer Granholm signed an executive order that created new legal requirements for the building of new coal-fired power plants. The executive order gave the Department of Environmental Quality the authority to both adjudicate conditions of coal-fired power plant permits and to grant them -- but not without controversy.
Many people believe that Granholm's executive order violates the state's separation of powers. "Governors can sign bills into law, but they cannot write them," Republican Attorney General Mike Cox said. "That is the Legislature's job."
Doug Roberts, Jr., the environmental policy director from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, added that the executive order retracted the strides made from the bipartisan energy package approved by the legislature and signed by Granholm in 2008. "We're glad to have wind and solar as part of the strategy but we realize a resource like coal must be a part as well."
Nevertheless, on September 8, staff members of the Public Service Commission presented reports requested by the Department of Environmental Quality to assist in evaluating technical issues involved in permit applications.
The Public Service Commission's findings suggest that Michigan will not need any new coal-fired power plants for 13 years. Michigan's previous energy plan, proposed by the Commission in 2007, projected that Michigan would need at least one new baseline plant by 2015. This calculation was based on the estimate that the demand for coal power would rise by 1.2 percent per year. However, the demand has dropped dramatically by 10 percent in the two years since the last report.
Though Anne Woiwode, executive director of Sierra Club's Michigan chapter said, "It will be very hard for the DEQ to justify anything other than denying these permits," Robert McCann, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality stated, "We will weigh the information from the PSC very carefully, but there are a lot of factors we have to take into consideration."
The further delay of a definitive decision by the Department of Environmental Quality is likely what gave laborers in support of new coal-fired power plants the incentive to rally at the capitol on October 6, even after the release of the Public Service Commission's findings. The guy who approached me at the library requesting that I write a letter to Michigan senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin to dissuade them from supporting coal-fired power plants was reacting to the potential gains made by those at the rally. Until a decision is made, the Michigan coal debate, stimulated by varying economic and environmental concerns, is not likely to appease.