Political Week in Review: Three News Items You Should Know

A weekly update on environmental policy happenings from Ryan Werder, Political Director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (Twitter: @rjwerder). This week’s posting was delayed due to the Memorial Day holiday.

Last week was so action-packed it’s going to be hard to fit it all into this single Political Week in Review. We saw a harsh budget pass both chambers,a bill that would weaken the state’s ability to protect the Great Lakes is ready to pass in the House, and a new set of instructions regarding fracking across Michigan was issued. Suffice to say, it was a busy week.

In this week’s edition, we’ll quickly run through these three important issues – the budget, Great Lakes protections, and fracking rules – the impact they may have on Michigan’s natural resources, and what you can expect in terms of what’s coming next.

The budget passes both the House and Senate

According to the legislation passed by both chambers last week, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will face a 15.1% cut from the state’s general fund and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will have to endure a 13.5% cut. Over the past decade, then, the Michigan DEQ will realize a 75% cut in general support from the state. This year’s cuts from the general fund for DEQ, alone, are the equivalent of just over 142 full-time employees. Imagine how effective the company or organization you work for would be after 75% cuts. Not very effective, at all, I imagine.

Before continuing, let’s remember what these important agencies protect. It’s not just bureaucrats. It is the Great Lakes, our rivers, our northern forests, our state parks, our favorite vistas from childhood, and the environmental health of every Michigander. In short, they protect .

Ironically, given all the yammering about “streamlining permitting and regulations,” these deep cuts are more likely to slow things down than speed anything up. All the streamlining in the world still won’t help citizens or businesses if there is no inspector available for a site visit or to reply to a permit. In other words, when was the last time you got an automated voice on the phone and thought, “Aha! Now I’ll get some real help!”

We do need some real help here in Michigan, though, and this budget does not deliver it. At this point, however, the train is rolling. This budget is going to meet the Governor’s signature shortly. Fortunately, there is one good piece of news in that public transit is fully funded. That, however, is not enough.

As we tighten our belt around an already-emaciated DEQ and DNR, we cannot stop in our calls for properly funded environmental protections. It’s never too late, or too early, to turn up the heat. That’s why we have elections; to reflect on future commitments… but also past votes.

It’s almost decision time for the Governor on the Great Lakes

The legislation that would tie Michigan’s hands in regard to how we protect our Great Lakes took another grimy step forward last week. It is now ready for the House to vote on it. After that, assuming it passes (and, sadly, I do expect that), it will be merged with the Senate’s version and sent to the Governor.

And then it is decision time for Governor Snyder.

If he signs the bill, he will sign away much of his own power and hand the keys to protecting Michigan’s unique lakes and natural resources to Washington, DC. As I mentioned in previous weeks, Michigan must maintain its right to decide what is best for our own lands as well as if they need stronger protections than the most basic ones that are already provided by the feds.

As the stewards of 20% of the Earth’s fresh water, we have a unique responsibility to the Great Lakes. How many Arizona congressmen have stood on the shores of Superior? I, for one, prefer to leave this important duty in the hands of those who have known the Lakes their whole lives, and that means Michiganders.

That power to set strong regulations rests in Governor Snyder’s hands right now, the same hands that penned numerous white papers during his campaign talking about the importance of our natural resources. If he signs this legislation he may as well sign away so many of his green campaign promises at the same time, as he will have no guaranteed way to carry them out.

We urge Governor Snyder to put pressure on the State House so that he never has to see this bill on his desk. If it makes it there, though, we hope he will keep his and Michigan’s best interests at heart and veto it.

Unclear instructions on fracking emerge

After many months of discussions with industry, the Snyder Administration, and legislators, the Michigan DEQ issued new instructions as to the steps the oil and gas industry must take when fracking. (Brief illustration of what fracking is can be found here).

The new instructions aim to improve monitoring of water withdrawal, chemical disclosure, and reporting of the activities at the wellhead, itself. While the ambition here is genuinely appreciated, the actions fall short of what is necessary to ensure improved safety of fracking operations across the state. Michigan LCV is busy working to get clarification on some of the more convoluted elements of these new instructions, but the following is a brief outline of what was attempted and what more is yet needed:

In terms of water monitoring, Michigan will now require the use of the state’s water withdrawal tool to clarify where it is viable to extract large amounts of water. The downside here is that it appears to be too lenient in giving the go-ahead to potentially fragile water systems and may not account for multiple withdrawals in the same area.

Regarding chemical disclosure, more details are needed here, too. There is not enough clarity as to when a chemical must be disclosed on-site, whether mixtures will also be reported, and whether local citizens will have access to that information.

Finally, in relation to the reporting on the site itself, it is great to see that DEQ will be monitoring the pressure and the water amounts that flow back out of the fracking wells. What isn’t clear is whether they will test the contents of that “flow back,” which is an important piece of knowledge should something go wrong in the process of storing or disposing of it.

As you can see, this little section on fracking contains more questions than answers, but that is where the situation stands. Our goal is that with further discussion, DEQ will clarify these instructions to make them as strong as possible.

I hope you had a great Pure Michigan Memorial Day and don’t forget to share any good stories with us here at Michigan LCV.

Until next week,

Ryan Werder, Political Director


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