The Michigan State Capitol in Lansing.
The Michigan State Capitol in Lansing. Credit: J. Stephen Conn / Creative Commons

This story was originally published by Planet Detroit.

Following the 2022 midterms, Jeffrey Bulls was waiting for community-level turnout numbers to gauge how well his canvassing efforts had gone in Saginaw. But overall, he was happy with the election results.

“Man, I don’t think it can go any better for Democrats,” he said.

Bulls, co-founder of the nonprofit Community Alliance for the People, organizes around environmental and social justice issues, with voter outreach making up a large part of his work. He said Proposition 3, which guaranteed the right to an abortion and contraception, helped bring a lot of voters to the polls, especially young people.

He also believes the 2018 ballot proposal that guaranteed no-reason absentee voting was pivotal for allowing Democrats to take control of the Michigan governor’s office, House and Senate for the first time since 1983. Bulls said he spent a lot of time explaining to people they didn’t need to vote in person but could do so from home, helping assuage voters’ fears that they might catch the flu or COVID at a crowded polling place.

Now that Bulls has done his part to help Democrats win, he’s keen to press for action on environmental justice and climate issues. 

“We’ve gotten some assurances from some elected officials that that conversation can go forward,” he said. “So we want to push that envelope.”

Climate is a central issue for environmental advocates in Michigan, intersecting with other priorities like water infrastructure, industrial pollution, transportation, and energy affordability and reliability. They have high hopes for long-stalled legislation around issues like renewable energy, polluter pay and water infrastructure. They also see an opportunity to strengthen the state’s recently-adopted MI Healthy Climate Plan. And Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign promise to prioritize climate action puts pressure on lawmakers to back up state environmental policy with the necessary funding and legislation.

Yet, winning environmental reforms in the new Democrat-controlled legislature could still be an uphill battle. Environmental advocates will have to compete with priorities like repealing the state’s “right to work” law and passing gun safety legislation. And corporate campaign donors who want to block environmental reform will look to influence the Democrats’ slim majorities.

“Governing is hard,” cautioned Christy McGillivray, legislative and political director for the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter. “It’s a lot easier to complain from the minority.”

Making the climate plan work

“Getting (the climate plan) codified, so it transcends administrations and doesn’t just change depending on who’s holding this office, I think is really important,” Whitmer said during the campaign. 

Charlotte Jameson, chief policy officer for the Michigan Environmental Council, says codifying the state’s climate plan could mean passing laws that require the state’s energy comes from 50% renewable sources by 2030 and 100% by 2040, creating a statewide target for battery storage, or lifting the cap on distributed energy sources like rooftop solar.

Jameson said that a “climate-forward” policy could also utilize the state’s $6 billion budget surplus to decarbonize housing, reducing the roughly 20% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that come from residential buildings by electrifying appliances and making energy efficiency upgrades.

However, the most consequential climate action could take place at the Michigan Public Service Commission, which has the power to compel investor-owned utilities to meet key provisions of the state’s climate plan, like the renewable portfolio standard. 

Michigan’s climate plan aims to obtain 60% of the state’s power from renewables by 2030, with a 50% renewable energy standard for utilities. Nicholas Occhipinti, state government affairs director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MCLV), says the Michigan House and Senate energy committees could restructure themselves to focus on climate and renewable energy policies and “support a public service commission that is bold and holds our utilities accountable.”

But DTE Energy and Consumers Energy have spent heavily to block renewable energy increases in the state. And while DTE recently announced it would triple the amount of renewables in its portfolio in the next two decades, it still generates nearly 58% of its power with coal, which only accounts for 21% of electricity generation nationally.  

Joe Tate (D-Detroit), who Democrats chose to be speaker of the House, received $7,500 from DTE’s PAC this election cycle, according to data from the nonprofit Transparency USA. And Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), the new Senate majority leader, received $9,000 from the utility. Although DTE donates to many lawmakers, these numbers are well above what most of their colleagues received and signal that pushing leadership to accelerate the transition to renewable energy may not be as easy as some advocates hope.

Reforming the state’s regulatory arm

Several experts who spoke with Planet Detroit said another immediate priority is reforming state agencies like Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to advance climate goals and protect public health.

McGillivray says EGLE lacks the funding and legislative authority to hold polluters accountable and protect residents. For example, the agency recently approved a permit for an asphalt plant in Flint despite overwhelming public opposition, saying the majority of the objections relating to public health were “outside the scope of EGLE’s authority to consider under applicable laws.” 

Putting laws and funding in place for EGLE to effectively monitor and regulate pollution would also be critical for climate action. As the federal government moves to regulate greenhouse gasses like methane, EGLE will be the agency on the ground enforcing these rules. “The ability of the state to hold people accountable to environmental regulations to stop catastrophic climate change and (protect) public health is probably the most important thing anyone could be doing,” McGillivray said.

MDOT could also be enlisted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, particularly in communities like Detroit, which deals with high asthma rates associated with vehicle traffic. Nationally, transportation is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, and passenger cars and trucks account for over half of this pollution. 

MDOT continues to widen freeways like I-75, I-96, I-94 and I-23.  Jameson believes that an executive order or other directives could compel the agency to reduce lane-miles and vehicle miles traveled, instead prioritizing investments in public transit.

‘We have to stay on ‘em’

Theresa Landrum, a longtime Detroit activist and member of the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice (MAC-EJ), wants to make sure that environmental reforms remain focused on equity, bringing investments to places like the heavily polluted 48217 zip code in southwest Detroit where she lives.

“My concern is about the lack of empathy for communities that have seen more blight,” she said. Landrum hopes that federal funding from things like the Inflation Reduction Act can be used to clean up legacy pollution like the toxic PFAS discovered at the Gordie Howe Bridge site. And she wants to see legislators focus on issues such as flooding and utility rate increases that have disproportionately burdened Detroiters.

Landrum said she was withholding judgment on the new Democratic leadership, saying simply, “We have to stay on ‘em.” 

“Climate change is coming fast,” she said. “Legislators are going to have to be aware because they’re going to have more advocates knocking on their door, ringing their phone, asking for meetings and to hear how they sit on certain issues.”

Recent ballot propositions that make voting easier and elections more competitive could help environmental advocates make their voices heard. This year, Michiganders approved Proposition 2, which requires nine days of early voting, state-funded postage for absentee ballots and applications, and ballot drop boxes for every 15,000 voters in a municipality, among other things. 

The proposition builds on 2018’s redistricting reform ballot initiative that replaced partisan gerrymandering with a non-partisan commission to draw district lines, which has the potential to create more competitive national and state races and likely helped the Democrats take control of the state legislature this year.

“When you have a majority of the people who are affected by your problem having a say in how that problem is solved, we get better outcomes,” McGillivray said. “Democracy is the biggest environmental issue of them all.”

Tom Perkins contributed reporting to this story.

Brian Allnutt lives in Detroit and covers the environment, open space and food justice for outlets including CityLab, the Detroit News and Civil Eats.