Follow the money
Changing energy policy in our country is very, very difficult. There are many things that make it so hard but the main impediment is the staggering amount of money that Big Oil companies and utility companies spend to fight any change from the status quo.
Nowhere is this more true at the moment than the fight against Proposal 3 – a ballot proposal to increase Michigan’s use of renewable energy to 25% by 2025. When you vote on November 6th, you should turn the ballot over to vote in the nonpartisan section and VOTE YES ON PROPOSAL 3.
Right now in Michigan, 58% of our energy comes from coal, not one ounce of which is produced in Michigan. It is shipped in by the trainload from places like West Virginia where they blow the tops off of the beautiful, ancient mountains and scoop out the coal. The burning of coal creates harmful air pollution that is a risk to public health, releases powerful greenhouse gases, and laces our Great Lakes with mercury.
Renewable energy, on the other hand, makes up a paltry 3.6% of our energy portfolio. Investments in renewable energy put in place by Governor Jennifer Granholm have kick-started a nascent energy industry in our state and jobs are already be created in that sector. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that passage of Prop 3 will bring in $10 billion in new investment and a study by the Michigan Environmental Council says it will create as many as 94,000 new jobs.
The proposal is being fought tooth and nail by two major utilities: DTE Energy and Consumers Energy under the Orwellian-named group “Clean Affordable Renewable Energy” (CARE). This group wants nothing of the sort and it borders on criminal that they have deceptively named their group this. That alone tells you most of what you need to know about them.
CARE has been running terrifying ads that suggest the implosion of Michigan’s economy if Proposal 3 passes. They say it’s a giant experiment that will cost Michiganders $12 billion and raise our energy rates substantially.
None of this is true. The $12 billion claim? It came from a statement by Consumers Energy. Experiment? Hardly. Many other states have similar renewable energy standards and Iowa, for example, already gets 23% of its energy from renewables. If you’re looking for facts on Proposal 3, I highly commend your attention to the MI Energy, MI Jobs website. It’s extremely well done and has an amazing amount of background information that will help you make an informed choice.
The fact is, the utility companies have a vested interest in keeping things just as they are. They have paid for the coal-burning infrastructure and do not want to make the capital improvements to convert to renewable energy. They also have a heavy hand in creating energy policy and want to maintain that grip.
I spoke with Ryan Werder of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, one of the groups leading the charge to pass Proposal 3. I asked him how the campaign is going.
“This has been a popular proposal from the get-go and we’re continuing to see strong support from a really broad coalition of groups and individuals,” Werder told me. “We’re actually very gratified and excited that the support is remaining strong despite so many attacks coming from the utility companies. They have put in millions and millions of dollars to fight this initiative and they’re putting the money through the “CARE coalition”.
Why, asked him, are the utilities fighting this so intensely?
“The utilities have a vested interest in making sure that they continue to have a stranglehold on energy policy and regulation in Michigan. Given the amount of money they put into the political system, and, well, you’ve seen how things have been going in the legislature, having the people speaking up and over half a million people signing a petition saying that we want more renewable energy, they’re perceiving that as a threat to their usual way of doing business.”
“Where does this $12 billion dollar figure that CARE throws around constantly come from?” I asked Werder. “I’ve been hearing that a lot from them. Does that have any basis in fact?”
“I’m really not quite sure how they arrived at that number,” he replied. “They’re saying that this will cost families thousands of dollars whereas our studies are showing that it will cost about 50 cents a month, especially once you look at the fact that the Michigan Public Service Commission has shown in their February report — and the MPSC is a nonpartisan public body, has folks independent of Republicans or Democrats and appointed by the governor — they say that renewable energy is significantly cheaper than coal.
“Renewable energy is coming in at about $78 per kilowatt hour whereas coal is coming in at $133. So what we’re going to seen, then, as more renewable energy comes online, there will be an initial small bump in cost, but, over time, actually rather quickly, we’ll see electricity rates go down. So, the utilities trying to tell people that their rates are going to go UP is a scare tactic at best.”
“What’s the benefit to them?” I asked. “I don’t understand. They’re in the energy business. Why do they care so much about where the energy comes from? They can put up renewable installations just as well as they could put up coal plants. Why is there so much resistance to this?”
“Your question is a great one because is goes even deeper than that,” said Werder. “The utilities are a monopoly and the fact that they are a monopoly is the reason why they have so many Republicans on board with our campaign, as well. They believe that a free market is a better market and that’s not what we have with regard to energy right now. So, when you ask why do they care where the energy is coming from, they ‘re going to make a profit, regardless. That’s just the nature of the monopolistic structure. The question, then, is more about the regulatory process and crafting energy policy than where they energy is going to come from. So, if we can show that the desire in Michigan for more renewable energy is greater than their ability to control the regulatory process, that puts a big hole in their business model which says they set energy policy period.
“Michigan voters should be upset because right now across the Midwest, Michigan has the lowest use of renewable energy and the highest electricity rates. This a great opportunity for folks not only to have cleaner air and better health, not only create 94,000 Michigan jobs, but also to take control over their own utility bills.
“Just to give you a sense of what we’re up against here, in those utility bills, people are now getting letters from the utility saying “Vote no on 3″. So, your ratepayer dollars are being are going to a political campaign.”
I asked Werder if he thinks Proposal 3 will pass.
“Yes!” he said emphatically. “Because the benefits are just too big to miss. Again, we’re looking at 94,000 new jobs and improved public health and one of the other pieces in this initiative is that it will create incentives to hire Michigan workers. So, you’re not going to see a bunch of folks coming in from Ohio or Houston or wherever to build these turbines or install them or to install solar panels.
“There’s two pieces that I really want to drive home for folks that I think have been somewhat drowned out recently. First, we talk first and foremost about the jobs that this will create which, of course, for Michigan is critical. But one of the benefits that will touch each and every family, regardless of whether there is a new paycheck coming in the mail, is the vast improvement in public health. We’re surrounded by the Great Lakes here and the amount of mercury in them is astonishing. We have the second worst coal-burning plant in the country located right here in Michigan on Lake Erie. All of these coal plants are detrimental to public health. So, we need energy that’s going to create jobs as well as improve public health.
“The other thing I wanted to note is this “No on Everything” effort [by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce]. Even some of your readers, Chris, may be experiencing some confusion on all this. Even if they like Prop 3 or one of the others, they’re being barraged by the message that we need to protect our Constitution. But, if we truly want to protect our constitution, what we need to do is live up to its ideals and the Michigan constitution was last ratified in 1963. It’s been amended 32 times. The Michigan constitution, as you know, is not the Bill of Rights, it was not penned by Thomas Jefferson. It is a document that is meant to be amended by the people. We believe it IS a right to have better public health and to have better job opportunities and that’s what we’re looking to do here.”
I noted that the conservatives are certainly willing to avail themselves of that ability whenever it suits their purpose.
“Well, sure,” said Werder. “You go back any number of years and the Michigan Chamber is backing this ballot proposal or that one to change the constitution. The constitution has everything in there from lotteries to sales tax to stem cells. To suddenly say, “Oh, wait. We can’t do anything with our constitution…” Just wait until the next election when they have some new plan that they need an amendment for!”
I also spoke to Gabe Elsner for this piece. Elsner is the Co-Director for the Checks & Balances Project, a start-up group working to hold government, corporations and lobbyists accountable for their policies and actions.
“My goal is to expose the fossil fuel industry’s influence in our energy policy and the public discussion around America’s energy future,” Elsner told me. “The basic thing I am trying to get across to the voters in Michigan is that there are attacks by fossil fuel interests in your state trying to stop Proposition 3 from passing. On one hand, you have these utilities that have an investment in fossil fuel infrastructure and staying with the status quo is what they want to do. But the problem is that when voters see an ad on television from “CARE”, they think, ‘Oh, it’s a group that wants clean energy and clean air, too. They just think Proposition 3 is bad.’ They don’t know that this innocuous-sounding group is actually funded by the two largest utilities that have an interest in maintaining the status quo.
“There’s an even bigger concern and that’s that you have some front groups that are putting out ads attacking Proposition 3 that are funded by fossil fuel interests like the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil. First of all, you have the Mackinac Center that just released a report from the Beacon Hill Institute which has been widely debunked and has a long history of funding from fossil fuel interests. Beacon Hill has attacked renewable energy standards across the country; they worked with other groups associated with fossil fuel interests like Grover Norquist’s group and others.
“The second group is Americans for Prosperty, a Koch brothers-funded group. They’re a so-called grassroots group that has mobilized citizens to attack these propositions, claiming falsely, and using reports like the Beacon Hill report, to say that Proposition 3 is bad for the citizens of Michigan.”
Elsner told me that what’s happening in Michigan is part of a larger pattern where Big Oil companies and utilities attack any effort to expand the use of renewable energy.
“This isn’t the first time these fossil fuel interests have attacked renewable energy standards,” Elsner said. “We saw it in California with Prop 87. Fossil fuel interests spent close $100 million to stop that proposal which would have placed an extraction fee on any fossil fuel extracted in California which every other state in the country has, and would have put those funds into renewable energy projects.
“That’s just one example. There are other examples in Colorado and Washington and now in Michigan. It’s a different state but the same story.”
Proposal 3 is a win-win-win-win situation. It will reduce our reliance on foreign fuel sources. It will reduce the use of environmentally harmful fossil fuels. It will improve public health. And it will create thousands of jobs here in Michigan.
This is an easy choice and I implore you NOT to be swayed by the glib lies being told about Prop 3 by the utility companies under the sham group Clean Affordable Renewable Energy. They DO NOT WANT an increase in the use of renewable energy. That hits their profit margins so they are spending millions of dollars to protect their profits.
Don’t be fooled. VOTE YES ON PROPOSAL 3. For more information, visit the MI Energy, MI Jobs website.