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Plugged In: Opportunity Knocks in Snyder’s Energy MessagePrint

Clean Energy | December 5, 2012 | By Jim Dulzo

Gov. Snyder's Nov. 28 special message on energy and the environment indicated strong support for efficiency and discussions about renewables, but was short on specifics. 

Reading the text of Governor Rick Snyder’s Special Message on Energy and the Environment, which is a bit more detailed than the remarks he delivered last Wednesday, it’s clear he’s serious about energy efficiency and, to some extent, renewables like wind and solar power.

But he was also less detailed than some hoped.

That may be because he wants to avoid a range war about clean and renewable energy with the far-right wing of his own Republican Party—some of whom staged an ill-advised effort to roll back both efficiency and renewables standards that the Legislature set back in 2008 as part of Public Act 295.

In fact, most of the state representatives who were part of that effort are connected to ALEC, the American Legislation Exchange Council, which quietly pushes extreme “model” legislative proposals to statehouses, including clean energy legislation rollbacks, which it’s working on in several states.

Happily, the governor said he opposes any rollback.

So, keep Lansing’s polarized politics in mind when reading the governor’s Special Message. He’s short on specifics—which drives people like me crazy—but does support continuing along the efficiency and renewable paths set for utilities by 2008’s Public Act 295.

Some energy advocates see his lack of detail—and of a ringing endorsement for a quick and significant acceleration of renewables development—as bad news. But other groups see it as an opportunity to use the energy forums the governor talked about to make the powerful case publicly for sustainable energy and against the stuff that ALEC and some fossil fuel companies pedal about renewables.

The forum idea emerged during the question and answer part of his address, when Mr. Snyder said he appreciates tough questions and urged advocates like MLUI to hold his feet to the fire on his promises. Specifically, he said he wants a public conversation on next steps for efficiency and renewables starting next year, before the current 10 percent renewables by 2015 law expires. (The efficiency mandate does not expire; it continues indefinitely at 1% annually.)

We think Michigan should commit to at least 2% annually for efficiency, a standard that states like Vermont and California are meeting successfully. We also believe a 25 x 25 renewables goal is doable and will help keep energy costs down. 

So count on MLUI to engage in that conversation.

In fact, in Traverse City, we are doing that now, via this Friday’s second gathering of area civic, business, elected, and institutional leaders to consider whether to put very aggressive, local efficiency measures on a fast track. We’ll keep the Snyder administration, which likes our home efficiency work with our partners on TC Saves, well informed.

Meanwhile, much of the pushback on the energy portion of his speech stems from his emphasis on natural gas development. It scares the devil out of many enviros, even as they welcome Gov. Snyder’s preference for cleaner natural gas over coal. He correctly said Michigan has lots of gas, underground storage capacity, pipelines, and established regulations that, so far, have prevented significant fracking problems.

But the challenges of using more of the state’s unexploited, deep-down natural gas supply go beyond that.

It’s not clear just how much gas we’ll actually get from the constant, necessary “refracking” that keeps gas flowing. Many fracked wells have seen sharp fall-offs in production.

Also, it’s not clear how much water we must ruin to get at that gas, and why the companies aren’t forced to clean and re-use the same water. And will Michigan’s regulations, which work well for current, shallow (less than 1,000 ft.) fracking, be adequate for the mile-deep, horizontal fracking he supports? It’s good he wants regulators and experts to take a closer look.

Most crucially, from a climate-change perspective, it’s not clear how effectively drillers and processors can control methane emissions. It’s the natural gas industry’s chief fugitive gas and is also the worst of the greenhouse gases—20 times more potent than the CO2 warming our planet. Gas-fired generators emit about half the CO2 per megawatt of coal burners, but leaking methane like crazy is worse than counterproductive.

And it’s also unclear how pricey fracked gas will be when the initial boom, which drastically slashed prices, is over. Natural gas prices may continue to be extraordinarily volatile and, perhaps, if it turns out deep fracking needs lots more regulation, quite high. 

As the governor looks at our energy future, these questions show that he must be as cautious about natural gas development as he’s being about renewables. The cost of renewable energy continues to fall and likely will do so for years to come as scientists, engineers, and manufacturers go all-out to make them the best deal in town.

We’re glad to see the governor tackling energy, and we intend to push hard for the most efficient, economic, and environmentally sustainable energy system possible in our great state. And we’re eager for a public conversation: It’s the best way to push back on the extreme, badly misinformed stuff that some politicians push.

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. You can harass him at jimdulzo@mlui.org