Journalism junior Jessica Lipowski interviewed the energy program director of the Michigan Environmental Council, hoping to get an inside look.
Jessica Lipowski: What were your goals growing up?
David Gard: In terms of my job some day, I wanted to be three things. At one point I wanted to be an architect. At some point that changed, and I wanted to be a vet. And then I remember wanting to be a lawyer. I'm not sure how those things fit together. I guess a lot of it that explains why I landed where I did is I remember spending a lot of time outdoors. When I was a senior in high school, I worked on a surveying crew outside that summer. Our job was to go into those fields and woods in those areas and plot where those new streets were going to go for subdivisions. We saw bulldozers come in and rip out trees. You could smell that. I still remember that smell. I remember what it looked like to rip those things out. It was visceral for me on some level. I got thinking, "Are we doing too much? Are we thinking enough about how are we organizing ourselves and building our communities?" There needed to be more thoughtfulness about it. At some point, that kind of connected with what I wanted to do professionally and fit well with what I'm doing today.
Jessica Lipowski: What is your background? Tell me a little bit about how you got here.
David Gard: It's a varied background. I will tell you that it's not my first career. It's kind of like my third career. I came out of college with a degree in mechanical engineering (from Northwestern University). I spent four years in the Navy before I did anything else. When I got out of the service, I worked for a company out of Grand Rapids that designed conveyer systems. I wanted to do something else, but I wasn't sure what. I went back to school and three and a half years later, I came out of school with a M.B.A and with a M.S. degree in environment policy (from the University of Michigan). This is the first job I took out of graduate school back in 2002, and I've been here ever since. I've always had a really strong interest in environmental issues. I've been an intern for other non-profit groups in the past. I decided to do something really different than what I did before. I ended up really liking it.
Jessica Lipowski: With whom did you intern?
David Gard: I interned for a company that was based out of Norfolk, Virginia. I worked on the Elizabeth River watershed project. It's all about cleaning up the Elizabeth river watershed that drains into the Chesapeake Bay. I also worked for a group in Grand Rapids, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.
Jessica Lipowski: Why are you so close to the capitol? Why did you choose to be there?
David Gard: It was kind of a personal decision. I had geographical constraints that made me want to focus around mid-Michigan. I was lucky enough that what I wanted to pursue happened to be available. I was willing to try something different. I just went for it. It's a nice coming together for different things. But since I've been here, I do find it's good to be at an interesting place to work being in Lansing. It's exciting. It's almost an overload sometimes. There are so many meetings to cover, so many conversations to have, but if you're going to do this kind of work, definitely Lansing is the place to be. A lot of our issues are also Federal in nature. There are important debates going on in Congress about climate change, and some of the same things we've done on a federal level. We're also very interested in finding out who could support us in getting some really good things passed on the Federal level.
Jessica Lipowski: What have been your successes in both your personal life and career?
David Gard: Last year, the state legislators passed the package of energy bills that really, from my perspective, took years to finally get that done. There are three primary elements: a RPS, what is known as a renewable portfolio standard. This was where we wanted 10 percent of electricity by 2015 to come from renewable energy sources, like wind turbines, solar and biomass. There is a second part of that package that requires utilities to achieve a certain amount of energy savings through energy efficiency ... requiring 1 percent annual reduction of electricity starting by 2012. So that's good for you and me. It's kind of similar to the RPS. You can't do 1 percent or 10 percent tomorrow. It takes time to get it in place. The third thing is that integrated resource planning (we call it IRP for short when we talk about it). This is just a process that requires the public service group to compare all options... including more renewable sources and energy efficiency than required. First of all, is it needed, and two, it is that the best investment with that money? Should we be investing more in energy efficiency or building wind turbines first before we decide to build a plant? In order to make that comparison, ... they have to consider the costs that don't normally factor into rates: pollution related costs, environmental damage, impacts on health care, and certainly climate change. At some point, we're probably going to have a cost put on carbon dioxide emissions. It was very complicated legislation. I think it could have gone further. We're not completely happy with how it turned out, but it's a good first step with Michigan moving in the direction of clean energy. The Governor has turned out to be a really great spokesperson, stating we need to use investments and clean energy to pick up our state's economy and pick it up out of the doldrums. A lot of people are calling it green jobs. We import all of our coal, for instance. We spend billions of dollars to buy coal and burn it. So what we want to do is keep more of that money in Michigan...building wind turbines and installing solar panels and all kinds of activities that you do with Michigan-made equipment and using Michigan labor. This whole frame really has become front and center for the Governor, and if you pay much attention to what President Obama is talking about, he's put a strong team together that sees the world in this way and gets the value in this approach. I think that just didn't happen. It took a lot over the last three or five years, with a lot of grassroots and policy pressure all across the country, to get people aware of what people need to do and what the benefits are. A lot of collaboration with Midwest groups. It's like a prime area for doing these kinds of thing. We have a trained workforce, and we have very heavy carbon emissions. We can transform ... come up with a new and exciting clean technology. It's hard to point to one particular bill that was passed that came out of this effort, but I can see it when I open the newspaper or turn on the radio and listen to what's going on.
Jessica Lipowski: What are the tactics you use to influence state public policy, both personally and through the Michigan Environmental Council?
David Gard: The first thing that you have to arm yourself with is good information. We put a pretty high premium on being right and having facts that can be backed up, and if we make assumptions, we make sure they're credible. You should always challenge assumptions and facts. But when people do that to us, we're standing on solid ground. We do a lot of work making sure the policy ideas that we develop are really based on facts and reputable data and hopefully what we're suggesting will actually work. That's not enough, of course, because politics is the other huge piece of this. We try to take the benefits of the policy we're talking about, in this case a lot of the benefits with green investments, lower greenhouse gases, less pollution and healthier ecosystems around us. But that doesn't really connect with a legislator who is elected every two years and whose people are losing jobs and houses, the incredible short-term concerns they're dealing with. We have to find the benefits that we're putting forward that address those concerns. It has to excite the people that are supposed to vote for it. We explain to them why this will benefit their constituents ... explaining how what they've voted for will help their constituents and help them get to a position. Environmentalists are not the best messengers with certain audiences. Some people would read my business card and automatically discount me as someone they couldn't trust. They think about whatever they associate environmentalists with. So we need to find credible allies for people that don't trust us so much. So if we think about it, there are businesses out there or start up companies that are trying to grow into this sector. What we do, in turn, is we quote those people and explain to them why it's important for their business. Often times, they get it. So we try to bring them to Lansing and let them tell their story, through hearings, testimonies, etc. So if someone tells it like it is and a legislator is persuaded, and no one knows I'm involved, I don't care. I just want to support the policy. It's finding allies that can carry your message better. We focus heavily on the private sector, health professionals, and often times, labor. We have a great interest in working with labor groups. They have a very powerful kind of grassroots power that people kind of listen to. Another thing that we do quite often is trying to get our message out in the media. We write opinion pieces, Letters to the Editor, and we try to do things that attract reporters, whether it's getting interviewed on TV or printed in a newspaper story. A lot of Web outreach. There are a lot of different creative ways that we can get our message out.
Jessica Lipowski: How have you influenced the creative process to inform both the government and the public?
David Gard: It's a team effort. I work with some really smart people. One of the guys here used to be a reporter for the Detroit Free Press and did environmental reporting for many years. It's really helpful when you can get those people that are used to writing these things on deadlines and who knows what works and what doesn't and what competes with reporter's attention. They can give reporters the information they find useful to write a good story. And that's just one example.
Jessica Lipowski: How do you try to influence the public, if at all?
David Gard: A few ways. One would be what I referred to earlier, about the media. It could get as sophisticated as if there is one legislator that you'd like to move on something. You'd want to map over their district, what papers do they read, what television stations air in their district, and try to get them to write an editorial or cover an event, or Town Hall meetings where you might invite the legislators to come. They love to talk about what they're working on. That's one way to try and get the public involved. Another way is through our member groups, approximately the 60 member groups we represent. Groups such as Environmental Michigan, Sierra Club, and Clean Water Action ... are experienced at grassroots lobbying and getting people tuned in and engaged and colleting that public interest and pushing it in one direction. That is a very important component that we do ... collaborating with those groups that do very well. Our job is primarily to represent them in Lansing, just to make sure their voice is represented in legislative hearings, debates, administrative meetings, where a lot of decisions are are being made. We're there for groups that need to be represented, environmental groups, and public health, people who really care about those types of issues. We have 60 member groups. These are groups all around the state of Michigan who see value of us doing that for them. It's a partnership. While we represent them here, we also seek their help. We want people in their districts out where they are. They know the people, know the organizations in the local area and do that really important networking for us. We can collect all that, that good energy and that good political power and attention and do something creative and effective with it.
Jessica Lipowski: How are your tactics different, if at all, trying to influence the federal government?
David Gard: It's pretty much the same. We have districts around Michigan and we have member groups. The constituents of state legislators are the same, except with a Federal Congressperson and two Senators. One of the things that is a little bit different is you have expert groups who are partner or allies, based in Washington. They focus most of their attention on Congress, so we'll be following their lead and relying on them to have the in-depth discussions in Washington (D.C.) that we can't always be a part of it. We work together that way.
Jessica Lipowski: What are your challenges? Who are your typical opponents?
David Gard: For my work in energy, a lot of people tend to be concerned with rising energy costs and trying to keep those costs as low as possible, so part of the challenge is that you've got utility companies, like Edison and Consumer's Energy. Their business model is to sell more energy, and the more energy they sell us, the more money they make. The challenges there are if we want to get them to invest in energy efficiency so their customers will use less energy, that means less money for them and their shareholders. We need to figure out how to solve that problem and recreate the business model so they can make money selling us less power. We need to find the incentives. There are people trying to work on that problem right now, and utilities are trying to figure that out. They have a lot of people and are used to doing things a certain way. There's a lot of invested interest in the way things have been done ... but this challenges people to think differently and how we can do things. If you're used to seeing big, centralized power plants and transmission wires all over the place, it's hard to get people to imagine something different.
Jessica Lipowski: How have your opinions of state politics and policy changed as you have become more involved in government?
David Gard: I'm frustrated sometimes by the incremental approach that legislators often take. I think that might be more a function of the system they work in. Legislators, if you talk to them, they want big change on a lot of different issues that they think is needed. The way things are set up, it's hard to do that. What tends to happen is they want to have some kind of consensus that at least everybody can kind of buy into. They tend to maybe take what is a great idea for certain reasons ... and that gets really watered down through the process. By the time they act on anything, it could be really incremental. I think that's the continual frustration for me. Another problem that I've seen is term limits for legislators in Michigan. I've talked to people who have been around Lansing for many years. There are pluses and minus to term limits. The minuses involved are you have a lot of turnover, so you don't develop much institutional knowledge, before they have to go. You might get people in the legislation that doesn't know much yet. Nowadays, the requirements require people to be in the position that they don't have a command on the issues yet or on the ways the process works. I think that impacts the way things have been done around here. I've heard that complaint a lot.
Jessica Lipowski: Have you seen an increase in members over the past few years, related to the future environmental concerns?
David Gard: It's kind of pretty consistent about where we are for a while. I've seen it as high as 70, but it dips. Sixty is a sweet spot, where we've been for a while. When you add a group, it might be a small group that formed around a specific issue, like a watershed that they really wanted to protect, and so they form a group of really engaged citizens, organized themselves. They ally with the MEC because we can help them with their issue in Lansing. Once they achieve success, they no longer need to be an organization. If we can get victories where people aren't required to put effort in anymore, then that's a win.
Jessica Lipowski: What does the future hold for MEC?
David Gard: We're kind of in the same boat as everyone else these days, with other organizations, businesses and universities. Everybody is recognizing that we're in this period, with a lot of things up in the air. A lot of challenges we face: economically, I'm increasingly reading about peak oil, where we can no longer take for granted that we're going to have plentiful resources that we've never questioned. Especially as other questions around the world, their quality of living explodes and people are replicating the American Way of doing things around the world. These are really serious issues. The future of a group like us is leading people to understand the scope and severity of the challenges we face. The environmental movement started back in the late 1960s or 70s. Back then it was focused on things you could see: power plants and dirty cars, but that's where it needed to start. That was the front and center. But over time, I think the challenge has been once you get some of those solutions under control, the problems become more dispersed and harder to put your finger on. They all add up. The best example of that is climate change, because you can't see it, and it's got these big delays built into it. What our future holds to be really successful is to be good communicators and help people understand why this is relevant to our lives. Everyone is worried about the economy right now, and people aren't getting why the economy is wholly surrounded by the biosphere. It's all based on the resource space, the health of the air, the water resources, and all these things. All the trends are in the wrong direction. Take agriculture for instance. We've created an agriculture system that is very energy intensive. We throw all these fossil fuels into creating our food. We're depleting huge aquifers across the water table ... It's easy to ignore things like this when they're not eminent, but a lot of the trend lines are not favorable. To close that loop, people are thinking about the economy but we can't solve where we are right now and build a viable long term prosperous economy until we think about the other things and take into account and take care of the things that the others depend ... They don't factor in the whole cost all over the place. Energy prices might rise a bit, but over there, health care costs might dramatically reduce.
Jessica Lipowski: What is your future at MEC?
David Gard: It's hard to say. I really don't know. It's really fun doing what I'm doing. There's a lot of things happening and growing support to move along some of those directions from what we've been doing. Hopefully I can play some small role in bringing that about.