When, in the wake of the Flint water crisis, Dan Wyant resigned from his post as director of the Department of Environmental Quality, Gov. Rick Snyder’s outgoing chief of staff lamented the move.
“I’m not sure why this decision was made but if it’s only optics, keep in mind that finding a replacement who has the trust of the business community will be very difficult,” Dennis Muchmore wrote in an email to his replacement, Jarrod Agen.
The optics — or public perception — in question was the public’s loss of trust in Wyant as leader of the state department charged with protecting the environment.
So following the jaw-dropping news that Snyder has chosen former BP oil executive Heidi Grether as his new DEQ director, we have another set of optics to digest. Given that we know Snyder and his team must have carefully considered what message this appointment would send, let’s examine what the governor is telling his constituents.
First, Snyder is telling us he’s unrepentant about his austerity-driven, pro-business and privatization agenda. Despite the tragic outcome of his emergency management in Flint, the abhorrent results of his privatization of veteran care and prison food, and the havoc that his business tax cuts have wreaked on our state budget, he will continue relentlessly pursuing the ideology that business interests top everything.
Second, Snyder is telling Michiganders that he sides with the interests of Enbridge over the protection of our most precious natural resource. Michigan faces an urgent environmental threat right now from the aging pair of oil pipelines known as Line 5 running beneath the Straits of Mackinac. Line 5 has exceeded its life expectancy, would not be approved today, and is operated by the company responsible for the greatest inland oil spill in U.S. history — also right here in Michigan.
Researchers have shown that due to the currents in the Straits, a spill would be catastrophic for the Great Lakes, decimating up to 700 miles of shoreline. And to meet this threat, Snyder appointed a former BP lobbyist who was heavily involved in the company’s response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico — the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.
Not only was she involved, but she was proud to shield the company from consequences. In her LinkedIn bio, Grether boasts that she “Developed and implemented successful external relations strategies for the Gulf Coast in response to the DWH accident, thereby achieving no legislation adverse to BP being introduced in the Gulf states.”
A state study of Line 5, paid for by Enbridge, is underway, and the recommendations are expected in 2017. But before the results are made public, Enbridge will get at least five days to examine the results.
We can assume Grether has already been involved in the process, as the proposals for this study were assessed by an inter-agency team from Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office, the DEQ, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Michigan Agency for Energy, where Grether was deputy director immediately prior to her DEQ appointment.
It is impossible not to be suspicious that Grether will bow to pressure from Enbridge to water down the recommendations. It is equally impossible to believe that Grether would actually advocate against the interests of a powerful company in the industry to which her entire career belongs — and to which, if history is a guide, she will likely return after her stint in state government.
Finally, Snyder is telling Michiganders he just doesn’t care what they think. In the 24 hours since the announcement, a torrent of criticism from environmental groups, media commentators, elected officials and others has rained down on Snyder and Grether. Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton, quoted in the Detroit Free Press, said: “It’s unfortunate that people choose to publicly criticize her within hours of her appointment, rather than reach out to meet with her and discuss her plans for the department.”
Heaton’s indignation is laughable because as of this writing, Snyder has not made Grether available to the media, despite numerous requests.
The optics of that? A big middle finger to the citizens of this state.