Proposal 3: Costs & Controversies

  • Green Energy Futures / Flickr

You can listen to the Environment Report story above or read an expanded version below:

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

(sound of coal pouring out of a rail car)

In Michigan, we get more than half of our electricity from coal and all of that coal is imported from other states.

Soon, you’ll be asked whether you want more of our electricity to come from sources like the wind and the sun.

Proposal 3 will ask voters to amend the state Constitution to require utilities to get 25 percent of their electricity sales from renewable sources (the proposal defines these sources as wind, solar, biomass and hydropower) by the year 2025. 

It’s called a renewable portfolio standard.  We already have one on the books: it’s a 10 percent standard utilities have to meet by 2015. 

Eric Lupher is with the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. It’s a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that has analyzed the Michigan ballot proposals.

“The positive is we’d be keeping up with other states and clearly reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, it’d be creating more renewable energy, it’s good for the economy, it’s good for the health of our residents, it’s motherhood and apple pie, it’s things we should believe in.”

But he says there could be drawbacks.  He questions whether we should put energy policy in the state Constitution.

“We might be precluding ourselves from adapting to the future or hurting utilities in their ability to make wise investments in the future because they’ll be strung to what we’re tying into the Constitution which is very difficult to change and costly to change.”

Here’s an excerpt from the CRC’s report on Proposal 3:

Renewable energy is a field that is dynamic in terms of the ability to generate electricity from different types of energies, the technologies for generating that energy, and the ability to balance energy produced by non-renewable sources with renewable energy. Adoption of this amendment would provide some leeway to adapt to changing circumstances, but a future constitutional amendment(s) may be necessary to allow electric utilities to keep current in renewable energy usage to comply with state law. 

Michigan does not have any other provisions in its Constitution that compel persons or businesses to engage in activities or perform tasks. The 1963 Michigan Constitution, even after being amended many times in its 49 year history, defines and limits the basic organs of power, states general principles, and declares the rights of the people. Even for the governmental types provided for in the Constitution – the state government, counties, townships, school districts, universities – the provisions define powers, establish officers, and enable boundary changes. The constitution does not compel any of those governments to perform an activity. The proactive requirements in Proposal 2012-03 requiring changes in behavior and investment in a particular manner for private entities – albeit regulated utilities – would be unique to the Michigan Constitution.

Lupher points out the cost of electricity is likely to go up whether or not Proposal 3 passes.

That’s one of the biggest debates between the two campaigns: how much this will cost. Both sides agree we’d have to build more wind turbines to meet the standard.

Steven Transeth is a senior policy advisor with CARE for Michigan. It’s the group leading the effort to defeat the proposal.

“We estimate the cost is going to be about $12 billion to implement. That includes the cost of building, installing and all the expenses that go into that.”

He says his campaign estimates that would mean each ratepayer in Michigan would pay about $2500 over 20 years.

But supporters of the proposal say those costs are overblown. 

James Clift is with the Michigan Environmental Council. He says the cost of implementing Proposal 3 would be closer to $10 billion.  And he says… the opposition campaign lumps businesses and residential ratepayers together.

“If you look at just residential ratepayers, that’s 4.2 million of those customers, they only use 40 percent of the energy. If you work out the math they should be paying $1000, not $2500.”

His group spreads that one thousand dollars over 25 years… and subtracts out fuel savings from burning less coal… and assumes we won’t have to upgrade some old coal plants.  They come up with an average cost of 50 cents per household per month.

As you can tell, the two campaigns use different assumptions and come up with much different price tags.

Liz Moyer is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. She’s the co-director of the university’s Center for Robust Decision-making in Climate and Energy Policy. She analyzed Proposal 3 in a new report at the request of University of Michigan faculty.

“I think the take home message is this isn’t dramatic on either side.”

She says Proposal 3 is likely to have a moderate financial impact on consumers.  She says at the most… if you pay $100 a month right now… by 2025 your bill could go up to $111 dollars to meet the new standard.  But she points out there’s a rate cap in the proposal that limits cost increases related to compliance with the renewable standard to one percent a year, so that portion of your bill would go up slowly.

“It’s not going to bankrupt Michigan. It’s not going to save the world and stop global warming. It’s not going to be free; it’s not going to be disastrous.”

An excerpt from her report:

Analysis of wind resources suggests that the proposed expansion of Michigan’s renewable portfolio standard to require that 25% of the state’s electricity sales derive from renewables (Proposal 3 on the 2012 ballot) can be met by its 2025 target date with a moderate direct financial impact on the consumer. Impacts on average Michigan electricity rates could be from 3.5-11% depending on the continuation of federal subsidies and details of implementation. Proposal 3 does allow the option of wind generation in some out-of-state areas with significantly higher windspeeds and therefore lower costs than in Michigan. Responsibility for balancing local interests vs. costs is left unclear in the statute and would likely be placed on the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC).

Moyer says the bottom line is: whether you’re willing to pay more for more renewable energy.

On Thursday’s Environment Report, we’ll take a look at how we might produce all that renewable energy. I’m Rebecca Williams. 

Michigan Lawmakers Oppose United Nations Plan

  • Horseback riding was restricted to certain trails in the Pigeon River Country State Forest in 2008, in part to preserve a place for a wild elk herd. (Photo by Peter Payette)

Environmentalists in Michigan have been on the defensive since the last
election. Republicans rolled back shoreline protections they say were onerous and they limited the ability of the state to conserve land. New bills in the works would open up more places to motorized vehicles. And now some of the lawmakers leading the charge on these issues say they’re worried about something more ominous. They want to strike back against what they see as a global conspiracy. Peter Payette reports:

The town of Vanderbilt has seen better days. The village bills itself as the gateway to the Pigeon River Country State Forest, a few miles down the road. But the Gateway Restaurant in Vanderbilt closed in 2009.

That was a year after horseback riding was restricted to certain trails in
the forest.

The owner, Ernie Schuster, says business was already tough then because
of high gas prices.

“Probably 50 percent of our business was from the horseback riders. Then
after the DNR put the stops to most of the riding out there, and campsites, most of the
riders said they weren’t coming back because it just wasn’t worth it and
basically collapsed our whole economy in this town.”

Some lawmakers point to Vanderbilt as an illustration of a larger

Among the more prominent is State Senator Tom Casperson from

Mainly, Casperson just thinks there are too many environmental rules.

But he says the obstacles that communities come up against on land use
issues are baffling.

“We can’t get trails put in for ORVs. We’re kicking horse people
out… pretty much when it comes to recreational activity, if you’ve got to build anything or connect anything, it’s a battle to get it done. Why?”

Casperson says he was dismissive when it was first suggested to him
that the answer is a global conspiracy.

This is commonly referred to as Agenda 21.

That’s the name of a report issued 20 years ago by United Nations about
stuff like controlling pollution, combating poverty and helping farmers.

The report is non-binding.

It’s not a treaty.

But Casperson says he often comes across plans in Michigan that seem
to connect to ideas in Agenda 21.

“Most citizens if you tell them something like that is going on I think most
people would say ‘You’re crazy.’ I’m still not convinced except for all these

This summer State Representative Greg MacMaster from Kewadin
introduced legislation meant to outlaw Agenda 21.

It makes it illegal for any government in Michigan to implement parts of
Agenda 21 that infringe on private property rights.

It would also ban organizations that are accredited by the U.N. to help
with this program.

MacMaster thinks the United Nations is a threat to the property rights of
U.S. citizens.

“I took an oath in office that I was going to protect and defend the Constitution of the
United States and the Michigan Constitution and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Conservationists say all this is disturbing.

Paul Rose is on the board of the Pigeon River Country Advisory Council.

He says he didn’t take any of it seriously until he saw the legislation.

“It just seemed too preposterous, too absurd to take seriously. Obviously, we all know there are a certain number of conspiracy theorists out there. Some people are mentally and emotionally just wired to be prone to these sorts of things.”

Rose says in the case of horses in the Pigeon River Country, there are a
number of reasons for the restrictions, like preserving a place for the
wild elk herd there.

Rose says talk of a global conspiracy shortcuts debate with fear.

“The ideas themselves should not be threatening and to me, the debate
needs to take place on these ideas as they relate to resource management
in Michigan and not who shares those same values.”

What a ban on Agenda 21 would do is not clear, not even to
Representative Greg MacMaster.

He says he wants to hold hearings to see exactly what influence the
document has.

For the Environment Report, I’m Peter Payette.

Great Lakes a Campaign Issue in 1st Congressional Race

  • Rep. Dan Benishek (R) and challenger Gary McDowell (D) both say the Great Lakes are valuable, but they disagree on how best to protect them. (Courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video, Flickr)

The candidates looking to represent Michigan’s northernmost congressional seat call the Great Lakes the “jewel of the Midwest” and a “treasure of immeasurable value.” Both say they’re committed to keeping the lakes healthy. But they vehemently disagree about the best ways to do that. Linda Stephan reports:

Climb the lighthouse tower at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula  — where the two Grand Traverse bays meet … and look out over rocks and exposed bottomlands.

The shallow surf dried up years ago and levels on Lake Michigan are now at near-record lows.

Both Republican Congressman Dan Benishek and his challenger – former state Representative …and Democrat …Gary McDowell say that concerns them.

But in a recent debate – Benishek – who’s a surgeon – said he’s skeptical of claims this has anything to do with climate change.

“Well, frankly, I’m not sure how significant global warming is.  I spend a lot of time in the sciences and I’m not sure what’s happening with the climate.”

A bi-national report from the International Joint Commission earlier this year listed uncertainties for Great Lakes water levels due to climate change – including reduced ice cover in winter …and more evaporation year-round. It also says local rainfall may mitigate those effects in lakes Michigan and Huron.

Benishek thinks the bigger concern is that dredging near the southern end of Lake Huron in the middle of last century has lead to water losses for both lakes.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman in Detroit says… there have also been times of record high water levels since that last dredging.

In debate, Gary McDowell responded – it’s crazy to ignore the science behind global climate change.

“I think just virtually every scientist who’s not working for BP, the Koch brothers or Dr. Benishek agree that we have to do something.”

The candidates in this race are not leaving the negative messaging to outside interest groups.

Benishek has criticized McDowell on his business record.

The McDowell campaign has repeatedly criticized Benishek for his environmental voting record.

Clip from political ad: “Dan Benishek voted to get rid of our clean water laws and let cement companies put more mercury in the lake. Gary McDowell’s the one looking out for us. I think we need a congressman like that.”

Benishek: “You know, it’s just amazing to hear these repeated attacks…

Again… Dan Benishek:

“I didn’t vote to gut the Clean Water Act, that’s just not wrong [sic]. We haven’t voted to put more mercury in the lakes, that’s just not true. You know, we are working to stop the over-reach of federal bureaucrats in Washington.”

Benishek did vote to amend clean water laws – to restrict federal regulators from imposing new standards … unless the states approve.

Likewise – he did vote to repeal emissions standards for cement manufacturers.

But Benishek says – these were not votes cast to allow more pollution … but to end what he calls “job-killing” federal regulations.

Thoughtful decisions – he says – that shouldn’t be reduced to soundbites.

Benishek says – as the state with the most fresh water shoreline in the basin – Michigan is best poised to set its own standards.

Gary McDowell disagrees.

“The Great Lakes are bordered by eight states, two Canadian provinces. How can you have that many rules and regulations and making sure that they are protected?”

Benishek and McDowell agree on this: whoever takes the seat in January will represent the congressional district with the most freshwater shoreline in the country… and a place where recreation and tourism are not just fun and games.

They’re key economic drivers.

For the Environment Report, I’m Linda Stephan.

Great Lakes Futures Project & Extreme Weather

  • Courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video, Flickr

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

A new project is going to try to predict the future of the Great Lakes. 

It’s appropriately named: the Great Lakes Futures Project.  It’s a collaboration of 21 universities from the U.S. and Canada. 

Don Scavia is the director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan. He’s one of four project leaders.  He says students will team up with a counterpart from the other country, along with a faculty mentor.  The teams will develop white papers outlining the biggest things driving change in the Great Lakes region. 

“They’ll be looking at things like climate, economics, demographics, chemical and biological pollution, invasive species. What have the trends been in the past 50 years and what do we expect trends to look in the next 50 years?”

Scavia says climate change is making everything more complicated.

“Almost everything we see, every one of those stresses we worry about are getting more difficult because of climate change, because of the change in precipitation patterns, because of the warming of the lakes, because of the warming of the atmosphere in the region, makes those standard problems even worse, so it really is the set of problems we’re used to on steroids.”

Scavia says the university teams will hold a workshop in January.  They’ll ask government agencies, industries and environmental groups to join them.  And the group will talk about the best ways to manage the Great Lakes in the future.

The project will cost about $200,000 dollars. The 21 universities are splitting the bill.

(music bump)

This is the Environment Report.

Here’s one of those headlines that’ll probably confirm your hunch:

Weather-wise, this January through September was the most extreme the country’s ever experienced.  Kate Wells tallies up some of the local ripple effects:

Let’s just flip back through the 2012 calendar, shall we?

First, there was the winter-that-wasn’t.

“It started with the non-winter of 2012. It was one of the warmest Januarys and Februarys on record.”

That’s meteorologist Jeff Masters. He’s based in Ann Arbor and is a big name in the weather-blog world.

He says that warm winter led into a stormy spring, with a big tornado in March –

“Which ripped through Dexter, Michigan, causing a lot of damage there. And in addition to March we had summer in March.”

Weird, unprecedented 80 degree days in early spring, that tricked all our apple blossoms into blooming and killing off that crop.

And that was all just a warm up to this summer. Literally.

“You never see corn like this this time of year. No ears.”

That’s Michigan farmer Jon Drozd speaking to MLive reporters this summer.

“’88 was the worst drought anyone had ever seen. Until now. Now this one’s the worst.”

All of Michigan’s counties were declared disaster areas. Nationally, it was the third most expensive disaster in U.S. history.

Plus, it came with some of the hottest days and worst air pollution Detroit has ever seen… and a bumper crop of West Nile virus.

If all of this makes you feel uneasy, meteorologist Jeff Masters says he’s hearing that a lot.

“Something is up with the weather. Absolutely. You don’t have to be a meteorologist to know that.”

He says Michigan’s climate has reached a sort of tipping point.

“I think we’ve moved into a new climate regime. I mean, the climate that I knew growing up is no longer our climate. We’ve moved to a new, higher energy climate.”

Masters says that means more extremes on both ends: massive droughts and frequent storms.

So when it comes to extreme weather, 2013 just might give 2012 a run for its money. For the Environment Report, I’m Kate Wells.

Related Environment Report stories:
Climate Change and Extreme Weather

Hard Freeze Hurts Michigan’s Cherry Crop

Coping with a Historically Low Crop in the Cherry Capitol

Hedging Bets on Wine Grapes in Northern Michigan

Team Resumes Search for the Griffon

  • Le Griffon (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The search for the oldest shipwreck in the Great Lakes has resumed.  The team that believes it has found the wreck is moving ahead after closing a legal dispute with the State of Michigan.  They’re trying to prove that what they’ve found in Lake Michigan could be a French ship that disappeared in 1679.

It’s been thirty years since Great Lakes Exploration began searching for the Griffon.  In fact, the original team has been at it so long, they’re running out of time to see it through themselves.

Jim Cucharski is one of the original divers on the team.  But he’s not in the water today because he recently had a heart attack.

In fact, just one of the original divers, Cucharski’s brother Tom, is in good shape for diving this week.

“You know, time takes its toll. We’re all getting older. I was like thirty years old when I started this and I’m 63 now, so, yeah, it doesn’t get any better, you know?”

The group out of Dayton, Ohio spent countless vacations up here camping and combing the bottom of northern Lake Michigan.

Their leader, Steve Libert, lives in Virginia these days. Libert says his interest in the Griffon goes back to junior high. That was when he first heard of the French explorer Robert de La Salle, and his ship with a mythical animal carved on the stern; half lion and half eagle.

“It was a figurehead to ward off evil spirits and they called it the Griffon.”

The location of the Griffon has been the subject of some debate over the centuries.

Libert says he was criticized for looking in Lake Michigan by people who thought the wreck was in Lake Huron. That’s because it was said that it went down among the Huron Islands.

“But the Huron Islands, according to Indian, meant rough and wicked, the term Huron, so what that told me was there was still a possibility that ship could be in Lake Michigan.”

So Libert’s group searched around the islands off the Garden Peninsula near Green Bay, and in 2001, they found a wooden beam sticking up from the bottom with a few pegs in it.

Survey work done since then has started to outline the shape of something buried beneath it: something that is curved like the hull of a boat and close to 20 feet wide, which is the size of the object they’re looking for.

So now they are trying to figure how long it is.

Mark Holley is a nautical archeologist.

“That’s your sub-bottom profiler. Essentially it’s just a big glorified fish finder. You know how a fish finder will send down a cone of sound? This is actually going to send down a beam… and it’s going to be a foot wide beam of intense, low-frequency sound and with that you can penetrate and see up to 100 feet into the lake bed.”

With the device strapped on the back of the boat, they cruise back and forth over the area where they believe the shipwreck is. Once all this information is processed they should have an outline of whatever is down there.

The next big step would be to get the shovels out and dig. But that will require a permit from the State of Michigan, and this group has not been on the best of terms with the state.

In fact, they’ve fought in court for most of the last 20 years.

But Steve Libert is convinced there’s a shipwreck down there and that they’ll soon demonstrate it’s worth a look.

“This location is not going to stay hidden for a lot of years. There’s going to be people coming in here, diving, dropping huge anchors trying to plow the bottom and if we don’t get those permits to start excavation that site could be destroyed.”

But nothing quite like this has ever been done in the Great Lakes.

When asked what kind of proof might be sufficient to get a permit to dig, the archeologist on the team said he has no idea.

New Community Monitoring Plan for Eagle Mine

  • The Eagle Mine is 25 miles northwest of Marquette, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Kennecott Eagle Minerals)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

The Eagle Mine near Marquette is under construction. It will be mining mostly nickel and copper along with smaller amounts of other metals.

The company Rio Tinto owns the mine.  They’ve received their state and federal permits, but those permits are being challenged in court.  The mine has been divisive in the community.  A lot of people want the mining jobs, and many others are worried about the impacts the mine could have on Lake Superior and nearby rivers.

Dan Blondeau is a spokesperson for Rio Tinto.  He says the company will be spending about a million dollars on environmental monitoring that’s required by their permits.  But he says residents have been telling them that wasn’t enough.

“For the last several years, community members have told us they’d have more trust in environmental monitoring if it was done independently.”

Rio Tinto just signed formal agreements with a nonprofit group.  The company will pay $300,000 a year for independent testing around the mine area, the mill and certain transportation routes.  Dan Blondeau says this kind of agreement is a first for Rio Tinto.

“It’s really unprecedented. We have not been able to find another example of something like this in the U.S. or globally.”

The Superior Watershed Partnership is the group that will conduct the testing.

Carl Lindquist is the Partnership’s executive director.  He says the group was opposed to the mine from the beginning.  But once it was clear the mine was going forward, they wanted to be involved as watchdogs. 

“You know, mining is a big part of our history in the U.P.  So it’s been a divisive issue in the community since the beginning and this monitoring program has been one of the few things that’ve come out of the whole Eagle Mine that has generated support from all sectors.”

Lindquist says his group’s scientists will be in charge of the testing, and they’ll be using labs approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.  They’ll be taking split samples to verify the samples Rio Tinto’s workers take and make sure they’re getting the same results.  They’ll also be looking for pollutants in the air, groundwater and surface water. 

Lindquist says anybody can suggest tests they want to see done.  And he says they’ll post all of their data online.  He says Rio Tinto will get a chance to comment on any tests that show a chemical is above a state or federal standard.

“That doesn’t stop us from posting anything.  But let’s say there is – I don’t want to say a violation – but an exceedance, we want to get that out as soon as possible; they do have the opportunity to provide their comment and both will be shared.”

Lindquist says one of his main concerns is making sure the monitoring is kept at arms’ length from the company.  He says to do that, the money from Rio Tinto will be handled through the Marquette County Community Foundation.  He says they’re also seeking additional funding sources.

But others are worried the additional monitoring will not be enough.

“There’s just no way that $300,000 is an adequate amount of money to achieve any sort of comprehensive monitoring over that much terrain and for so many parameters.”

Michelle Halley is an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation.  Her group is suing to challenge the company’s state permits.

She says her group is concerned about the type of mining that will take place at Eagle Mine. It’s often called sulfide mining and it can produce sulfuric acid. That can be highly toxic to people and wildlife.

“In almost every location where sulfide mining has occurred there has been contamination of groundwater or surface water and usually of both.”

The company insists it can mine safely.

But there are many people watching what happens.  Rio Tinto is one of several companies planning to tap into potentially billions of dollars worth of metals in the Upper Peninsula.

I’m Rebecca Williams.

NRC Releases Preliminary Palisades Results

  • The Palisades Nuclear Power Plant near South Haven, MI. (Photo courtesy of Entergy Corporation)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

The federal agency that regulates nuclear power plants released more information about a leak over the summer at the Palisades plant near South Haven. The plant has one of the worst safety ratings in the U.S. after a number of problems last year.  (You can learn more from our timeline of the problems at Palisades over the past two years.)

Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith has been following developments at Palisades. There’s been at least three water leaks at Palisades this summer. Lindsey, remind me which leak this was?

Lindsey: “This one is arguably the most important because water was leaking from the actual vessel that holds the nuclear reactor. It’s important that water covers the reactor completely. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn’t allow any leakage like this so the plant shut down in August to fix it.”

Rebecca: It has been fixed, right? Do we know what caused it?

Lindsey: “Yeah, the leak has been fixed and Palisades is operating. We know that the leak was coming from a tiny hole in one of the reactor’s control rod drive mechanism. Plant operators can move these control rods in or out of the reactor vessel to control the rate of the reaction.

But we still don’t know what the root cause of the hole was. During a briefing Monday afternoon, NRC branch chief Jack Giessner noted that there was a similar leak from the control rod drive mechanisms – he calls them CRDMs – in the past.

“All the CRDMs were replaced in 2001. That was one of the drivers for why we did an special inspection. We said ‘hey, it’s only been 11 years and we have another through-wall leak.'”

It’s not clear how quickly the hole formed. Palisades operators believe it formed slowly over eight years.  The NRC says that’s possible but believe it could have been only two years. We won’t know that for another three or four months.”

Rebecca: What else did Giessner say about the leak?

Lindsey: “He estimates that up to 10,000 gallons of water leaked from the reactor vessel over 33 days.  He says the radioactive water was contained in the building and then processed like normal radioactive liquid and there were no safety concerns for the public.

I asked Giessner how well he thought Palisades responded to the leak. Because an independent safety assessment done last spring said there was a “repeated emphasis of production over safety.”

“I think they were prompt to shut down. I think the NRC’s assessment when they were getting ready to start up we weren’t happy with their performance in that case and we took specific action.”

Giessner says the NRC had to prompt Palisades to do a more thorough inspection before restarting the plant.”

Rebecca: So what’s the bottom line here?

Lindsey: “The bottom line here is that Palisades is under more scrutiny because of the recent safety problems. The NRC wants to be more transparent about what’s going on there. So that’s why the agency took this unusual step of releasing preliminary results of its inspection.

We’ll get the final results of the inspection in a few months. But in the meantime, the NRC is in the middle of a different, even bigger inspection.  This one is to follow up on the poor safety culture among workers at the plant that led to Palisades’ poor safety rating.  The results of both of these inspections will impact the safety rating, but we won’t know the final results for a while.”

Rebecca: Thanks Lindsey.  Lindsey Smith is Michigan Radio’s west Michigan reporter.