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Issues of the Environment: State Senator Jeff Irwin looks to advance more environmental legislation and policy in 2024

Michigan State Senator Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor)
Senator Jeff Irwin
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Michigan State Senator Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor)

Overview

  • Governor Whitmer delivered her annual “State of the State” address on Wednesday, January 24, 2024. This year’s speech was notably more focused on housing and expanding educational opportunities, while the 2023 address included more infrastructure priorities including incentivizing green energy in Michigan. 
  • The largest housing investment in state history was a top priority of Governor Gretchen Whitmer's State of the State address Wednesday evening in Lansing. Gov. Whitmer called for $1.4 billion of state and federal money to be used to build or rehabilitate 10,000 homes of all sizes and varieties. Its effects would give long-lasting benefits to peoples' environment, health, and finances.
  • The Michigan Environmental Council noted that the 2024 speech was less focused on environmental priorities. In 2023, the Democratic party profited from a majority in both the House and Senate, but passing bills could be challenging in 2024 because of a tie in the House.  
  • The slim Democratic majority helped to accomplish some of the environmental priorities from last year. Governor Whitmer secured long-term funding for the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) Fund early in 2023, and the state has struck a handful of deals with electric vehicle battery plants.
  • The efforts have faced pushback amid concerns that few guardrails exist for companies benefiting from billions of dollars in benefits, and some Democratic lawmakers are pushing for legislation to rein in the SOAR program and ensure companies are creating the high-paying jobs they promise.
  • Gains were made in clean energy legislation. The Democratic-led Legislature delivered to Whitmer bills that will require utilities to deliver 100% clean energy by 2040. Companion legislation will let state regulators override local decisions about where to allow large-scale wind and solar arrays. 
  • Democrats called the legislation a game-changer in the fight against climate change, but Republicans argued the new policies will raise energy rates for consumers and blasted the majority for trampling on the right of local communities to block developments they don’t want.
  • Jeff Irwin, Michigan State Senate (D-15th District) and Chair of the Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) Appropriations Subcommittee, says his office is committed to several pending bills with priorities on continuing progress on clean energy, including bills to permit community solar and other local clean energy projects that decentralized energy production and distribution; polluter pay legislation; and lead safe legislation that makes communities safer. 

Transcription

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and today is the day Governor Gretchen Whitmer will release her budget proposal for fiscal year 2025 at 11 this morning. Environmental health and sustainability has been a big part of her administrative goals and aspirations to this point, and we anticipate the new budget will have more investment toward that end. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. Our guest is a state senator from Ann Arbor. Jeff Irwin also serves as chair of the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy Appropriations Subcommittee. And, Senator Irwin, thank you so much for the time today.

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Thank you, David.

David Fair: I think that those working in the environmental sustainability and advocacy realm were probably hoping to hear a little bit more on those particular issues from Governor Whitmer in her State of the State address. I suspect they will learn more about the environment and climate plans for 2024 when the budget is released later today. Based on conversations and meetings you've had to this point, is that a fair assessment?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: I think that is a fair assessment. I think we're going to see more in the budget, particularly when it comes to investing in climate resiliency and investing in the sort of enforcement staff that we need at the department to make sure that we're holding polluters accountable. But certainly, I would like to see action on not just budget moves, but also legislation that would help close some of those loopholes in terms of corporate accountability.

David Fair: In a brief overview, when you speak of legislation, how do you define your environmental agenda for 2024?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, first, I think it's important to acknowledge that in the State of the State, the governor talked a lot about the big successes with clean energy and the bill that we passed that set a standard, so that we would have 100% clean energy by 2040 and 50% clean energy by 2030. These are aggressive new standards that are going to drive investment in energy generation in Michigan. That was really positive, and I'm hoping that, now in 2024, we can build on that progress by looking at a number of items. I still think that there are some unresolved issues within energy policy, specifically allowing community solar--these medium-sized arrays--that people can subscribe to and have their bills credited. I think we also need to improve the pricing system for people who generate energy on their rooftop. Those are a couple of priorities that we were not able to address within the confines of that clean energy legislation. And I also think there are some things we can do around controlling methane releases in the system--you know, requiring capping of wells, changing the way we compensate the utilities for gas that they lose in their system are both things that we can do that have a meaningful impact on climate.

David Fair: Issues of the Environment continues on 89 one WEMU. And we're talking with State Senator Jeff Irwin today. Again, as you mentioned, among the priorities to push for passage of bills to permit community solar, rooftop solar or other projects that decentralize energy production and distribution. How strong is the pushback from the utilities on this?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, on that part in particular, the utilities provide very strong pushback. And, look, they exist to make money for their shareholders. And any time the public is stepping in the way in generating their own electricity, that's a challenge for the utility. And so, I think the opposition from those forces and from the utilities, specifically, has been the reason why we have policies in Michigan that make it less economically viable to invest in rooftop solar than it would be if people got a fair price for the energy they put back on the grid.

David Fair: You're on the advisory board of the citizens group Ann Arbor for Public Power, and, for a variety of reasons, it believes the city would benefit from creating its own utility and moving away from DTE. Other cities have successfully done so in Michigan. Why do you believe in Ann Arbor and elsewhere in Michigan this is an important part of the path forward when it comes to our energy policy?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, the conversation that we're having right now, having a municipal authority, having a utility that was essentially governed by the voters rather than the shareholders, would mean that these ideas around distributed generation and allowing people to generate more on site and feed that energy back into the grid and be treated fairly, all those conversations would be easier because instead of fighting with Wall Street shareholders, we'd be negotiating with our own community about what would make sense. And that's exactly what's happened in places like Lansing that allow much more customer-based energy production because of their municipal structure. But the real reason that drove me to be supportive of this idea and want to explore it more is that when I look around the state of Michigan, there are, I think, 44 municipal utilities, and they almost uniformly provide cheaper, more reliable power, and many of them also provide more clean power, in addition to it being cheaper and more reliable. And so, look. I have a responsibility to the public interest here in the area I represent, and it seems to be transparently in the public interest to lower people's bills and have more local control and power over this critical resource.

David Fair: And widening our scope back out. Again, the legislation you mentioned does require utilities to deliver 100% clean energy by the year 2040 came with some companion legislation that would allow state regulators to override local decisions about where to allow those large scale solar and wind arrays. Democrats like yourself hailed that legislation as progress and as necessary to meet the ambitious goal of 100% clean energy. The State Board of Canvassers has now approved language for a petition drive that seeks to repeal that law. How concerned are you that that's going to be successful?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Yeah, well, there were a number of pieces of companion legislation. I really want to take just a moment to tangent to highlight Senator Shink's legislation. Senator Shink represents much of Washtenaw County, and her legislation gave the Public Service Commission the authority to consider climate when approving the utilities' plans. And that is quietly a really important piece that I wanted to highlight. But to get to your question, David, do I think that this ballot initiative will get the necessary signatures to get on the ballot? Probably not. But if they do, I think it will probably fail, because people generally have strong feelings about property rights. And when a farmer wants to put up a solar array on their land, most folks, I don't think, would like the idea that their neighbors would be able to just tell them no and tell them, "No. I'm sorry. You can't realize the economic value of your land because we don't want to look at that solar panel." So, I don't think it will ultimately be successful, even though folks have appropriately strong feelings about local control. I think that people also have appropriately strong feelings about property rights. And what the Legislature essentially did was we aligned the zoning rules for solar to be more protective, but, ultimately, fundamentally similar to how we do it for pipelines or for oil and gas wells or for energy transmission lines or a number of other elements of energy infrastructure that are already exempt from zoning.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU. We're talking with State Senator Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor. He's our guest on Issues of the Environment. The governor's Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve Fund, or SOAR program, as it's called, has secured some long-term funding. It's been busy and brought a handful of deals to the state with electric vehicle battery plants. A lot of folks question whether the incentives offered to secure these deals is truly going to pay off in terms of jobs, tax revenues, advancing the technology quick enough to meet EV and greenhouse gas emission goals. Why do you believe incentives are the way to go on that front? Or do you?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, I don't really think the incentives are generally the way to go. I think incentives are one tool in a toolbox of many tools, and they're really not the most important tool. That's why, throughout this process, I've been advocating for more investments in housing and in public transit and in education, the kinds of things that really matter to develop our economy and provide prosperity to future generations. Having said that, the pitch that the governor made was this. Governor Whitmer came in and she said, "Look, the state of Michigan has a tremendous amount of our economic activity wrapped up in internal combustion engines. We see this transition happening within the industry. And if we fail to land some of these bellwether energy battery plants, we're going to also fail to land the suppliers that will follow after them. And it's going to have a big negative impact on Michigan's economy in the immediate term." I found that to be a compelling argument. And she proposed to redesign the tools that were there to incentivize these types of companies to come here. And in concert with that, we also made some minor changes to the budget: investing more in community centers, investing more in housing and community development, investing more in local placemaking grants. So, those are some of the things that people like me tried to make sure were included in the overall plan. But, that's ultimately, I guess how I see this issue. I don't think incentives are the way to go, but I think that they are a minor part of an overall strategy that should lead with education, housing, transit services that make it great to live in a place.

David Fair: Well, as we look at the current legislative session, getting anything passed, at least for the moment, is going to be difficult. In the House, there is a 54-54 split, at least until a special election on April 16th to fill two vacant seats. Those seats are in districts that lean Democratic, but there is no guarantee. Now, if both of those seats don't go to Democrats, how do you assess the impact on the environmental agenda of both yourself and the governor for this year?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, it probably halted, if I'm being honest with you and your listeners, David. I mean, there was once a time when I was a child where there was a lot of bipartisanship in environmental protection. And Governor Milliken had a lot of conservationists who cared about streams and all of that---and hunters. It was a different environment. Ever since the late 90s, there's been this shift in the Republican Party where they have locked arms around protecting the fossil fuel industry. And I don't understand it, but I've seen it happen so many times that I think if the Democrats lose a majority in the House, that probably halts, certainly, any ambitious and even probably moderate proposals to improve the environment, protect the Great Lakes, and support clean water.

David Fair: I thank you for taking the time today. We could go in 12 different directions for a long period of time, and perhaps we'll have the opportunity to follow some of those conversations in the future. I appreciate it for today.

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Yeah. Thanks for having me on. You know, I love to talk about this stuff, and that's super important. So, thanks for the focus that you put on it.

David Fair: That is State Senator Jeff Irwin, discussing the environmental priorities as Governor Gretchen Whitmer prepares to release her fiscal 2025 budget proposal later this morning. Senator Irwin is chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. For more information on our conversation, visit our website at wemu.org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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