Whitmer joins 19 governors fighting climate change, shakes up environmental oversight

NASA image of Michigan | Wikimedia Commons

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used her executive powers on Monday to send a strong message about solving Michigan’s ongoing environmental crises and fighting climate change.

Flint River | Susan J. Demas

Environmental groups were quick to cheer Whitmer’s two executive orders, one of which shakes up and renames the state’s beleaguered Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which has been embroiled scandals involving its handling of Flint water and PFAS. The department will now be known as the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

That re-organization will include the creation of new offices within the department focused on clean drinking water, environmental justice and a new “Interagency Environmental Justice Response Team.”

A second executive order “strengthens” the state’s PFAS Action Response Team by focusing on identifying and removing the dangerous chemicals that have begun appearing in dozens of sites around the state.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs environmental measures alongside Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and EGLE chief Liesl Clark, Feb. 4, 2019 | Nick Manes

The various items signed by Whitmer on Monday, which was done at Constitution Hall in downtown Lansing where DEQ’s offices are located, built on a theme of Whitmer’s month-old administration of trying to better protect Michigan’s environment.

On her second day in office, Whitmer signed her first executive directive manding department-level state employees “who become aware of an imminent threat to public health, safety or welfare must immediately report it to their department director or agency head,” as the Advance has previously reported.

Curbing climate change

Additionally, Whitmer signed an executive directive inserting Michigan into the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of 19 other governors, mostly Democrats, who voluntarily agreed to cut their state’s greenhouse gas emissions to levels consistent with the 2016 Paris Climate Accords.

Donald Trump | Wikimedia Commons

President Donald Trump pulled the United States from the agreement in 2017.

“It essentially says to the world that Michigan is going to live up to the promise that we as a country made at one point,” Whitmer said. “[And] that Michigan embraces science and recognizes the threats [from climate change].”

As part of joining the alliance, Michigan agreed to “implement policies that advance the goals of the Paris Agreement, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 [to] 28 percent … by 2025,” according to the executive directive.

“Governor Whitmer has acknowledged the real risks that climate change poses to the Midwest and the economic opportunities that come with moving towards a low carbon future,” U.S. Climate Alliance Executive Director Julie Cerqueira said in a statement. “We look forward to supporting her priorities, like increasing Michigan’s supply of clean electricity, modernizing its power grid, and making sure the state is at the forefront of electric vehicle technology.”

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

While Michigan’s joining of the U.S. Climate Alliance is effective immediately, it’s unclear what role Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature might play in adopting laws and policies that would help Whitmer meet the stated goals surrounding carbon emissions.

The Legislature does have the power to override executive orders with majority votes in both chambers, according to the state’s Constitution.

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) were still reading and attempting to understand the scope of the measures on Monday afternoon, their spokespeople said.

“The Senate may hold hearings on the [signings] so that the public and the Legislature can better understand how this will impact the state,” Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann said.

Environmental problems

The shakeup and renaming of the DEQ comes as more examples have come to light in recent weeks that further show the environmental challenges the state faces.

Marathon Petroleum Co., Detroit | Wikimedia Commons

A “pungent rotten-egg smell,” for instance, materialized in southwest Detroit neighborhoods this weekend, apparently stemming from chemicals used at a nearby Marathon Petroleum refinery.

Last week, the state’s Office of Auditor General released an audit showing that while the state’s drinking water standards have made progress in the wake of the Flint water crisis, there’s still room for improvement.

Crises like Flint’s unsafe drinking water and the proliferation of PFAS chemicals around the state have put the 11,000-employee DEQ “under the microscope.” The department’s new director, Liesl Clark, was at the press conference, and acknowledged the added focus has led to the need for the the reorganization.

EGLE chief Liesl Clark, with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist,Feb. 4, 2019 | Nick Manes

“It’s no secret than the DEQ has been under the microscope for the last decade,” Clark said during the Monday press conference announcing the measures. “That’s why we got to work immediately to show Michiganders through our actions, and not just our words, that we will go above and beyond to regain their trust.”

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist also attended the event Monday, as did several hundred state employees who packed into the floors above Constitution Hall’s atrium.

As part of the creation of EGLE, some existing state offices and departments are being eliminated. Offices located within the Michigan Office of Performance and Transformation, formed under former Gov. Rick Snyder, are being eliminated, according to the orders.

The office was informed it was being eliminated on Monday after Whitmer signed the orders, according to a Facebook post.

Taken together, the two executive orders appear to eliminate at least eight various agencies, boards and offices, while creating three new offices. Several of those departments will have oversight transferred to other state agencies and departments.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announcing new environmental executive orders, Feb. 4, 2019 | Nick Manes

In eliminating those departments, Whitmer said that the creation of the Clean Water Public Advocate and the Environmental Justice Public Advocate will help citizens regain trust in state government and its role in protecting the environment.

“This matters, and I’ll tell you why: We need to be laser-focused on cleaning up the water in our state,” Whitmer said. “You have to make sure that problems with drinking water are responded to swiftly, because right now communities across our state don’t trust the water coming out of their tap.”

A total cost for rebranding the department was unclear, but Whitmer said it would be “minimal.”

Winning praise

Environmental stakeholders and fellow top Democrats in the state applauded Whitmer and Clark’s moves to show support for Michigan’s environment.

“Michigan’s energy production, air and water quality, and economy are all inherently linked, and today’s announcement creates the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy to reflect these connections,” said Laura Sherman, vice president of policy development for the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council.

Lake Michigan | Creative Commons

Prior to joining Whitmer’s administration last month, Clark served as the organization’s president.

Sherman added that the group also commends the administration joining the U.S. Climate Alliance “which will promote clean energy deployment in Michigan, enhance modernization of our energy system, and help enable the automated, electrified, and shared transportation future.”

Likewise, leading legislative Democrats cheered Whitmer’s focus on improving the state’s drinking water.

“After eight years of inaction to address water crises across the state, I am pleased Gov. Whitmer is taking proactive steps to protect and safeguard the health of Michigan families and our state economy,” said House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills). “House Democrats are ready to continue this important work in the Legislature, fighting to ensure access to clean water for all Michiganders.”

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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