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    Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your career background?

    A. Well, my degree is from Central Michigan University. I graduated with a degree in leisure services, commercial recreation. So I did a little bit of work in that field in some resort and some health clubs and then ended up through a variety of jobs getting into the environmental field. And I spent 12 years as a solid waste and recycling coordinator for Clinton County and Traverse County and came to work for the Sierra Club about six years ago.

    .

    Q. So how did you get involved with the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club?

    A. Well, the way I got involved was to get a job here. I actually I joined the Sierra Club before I came in for my interview, so I could say that I was a member and apparently that helped.

    Q. What is the role Sierra Club and what is the role of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club?

    A. What are the goals? Can you clarify the question?

    Q. What is the role or the goals of the Sierra Club and then the Michigan chapter of it?

    A. Okay. Well, the Sierra Club is all one big club. And the Sierra Club is the nation's largest and oldest grassroots environmental organization, so we are basically led by volunteers. There is staff at both the national level and the state level. And we basically implement and work according to direction that we get from volunteer leaders. And we have got a very extensive network of volunteers at the national level, at the state level, and at the group level which is multi-county areas. And we support the groups in ways that we can, and we work for the state level chapter executive committee. And the role of the Sierra Club is basically to protect, enjoy, and explore the planet using all legal means. So we deal with hundreds of different issues across the country, just about everything that you can imagine in the environmental realm the Sierra Club has been involved in. And in Michigan our issue agenda is set by our volunteer leaders.

    Q. Is there an International Sierra Club?

    A. I believe that there is a Sierra Club in Canada, but it is not a worldwide organization.

    Q. What issues is the Michigan chapter currently dealing with?

    A. The big issue for Sierra Club both at the national level and the state level right now is clean energy. There are dozens and dozens of proposals for coal fired and nuclear power plants, and the Sierra Club is very convinced by looking at a variety of different data that we do not need polluting and dangerous sources of power.

    Now is the time that our country should be investing in clean and renewable energy such as solar and wind and clean sustainable biomass and that sort of thing. So the climate aspect is really driving our agenda and that agenda focuses down on clean energy.

    Q. What types of alternative energy do you support?

    A. Michigan right now has a lot of opportunities in both wind and solar, those are probably the two biggest areas. The legislature last year passed a renewable portfolio standard that requires the state to start investing through its utilities in renewable energy. Our renewable portfolio standard is very low compared to some of our Midwestern neighbors. And in order for Michigan to be very competitive and in order to make Michigan a magnet for new industries that can build the pieces and the components and the parts for solar and wind generating systems, we actually need to have a much higher renewable portfolio standard that will really create a major demand for those components, thus it will create a magnet for manufacturers to come here and set up shop in Michigan.

    Q. What do you think of biodiesel and ethanol?

    A. Well, those issues run the gamut of really great ideas and really bad ideas. For example, the Sierra Club does not support cutting down mature forests to create biofuels, that is about the lowest and the worst use of our trees that you can come up with. There is one plant in Michigan that plans to produce ethanol out of trees, and we just think that we really should be focusing on using waste products rather than virgin timber or, maybe not virgin but even full grown timber. There are much better uses for mature oak and maple and beech trees than grinding it up, boiling it down, and making ethanol out of it.

    Q. I read on your website that the Michigan Sierra Club helped make Sleeping Bear Dunes a national park; I am correct on that?

    A. That happened before I came on board at the Sierra Club, so I don't know have a lot of background on that one. Our volunteers have been involved in a great many issues. Our volunteers have led the efforts to shut down the trash incinerators in Detroit, to have open space in the state, a variety of things. So much of what happens here happens with volunteers.

    Q. The question I am coming down to is there are a lot of companies supporting alternative energy, and they are helping to build wind turbines in Leelanau County and on or nearby Sleeping Bear dunes; how do you feel about this?

    A. I think that wind power in Michigan can be deployed both safely, effectively, and without significant environmental impact. We have to be careful about where wind turbines are placed so that we don't disturb the natural environments that people want to retain as sort of pristine natural environments, but there is a tremendous amount of wind capacity in Michigan on farm fields, out in the Great Lakes beyond the viewscape. The bird issue, the bat issue all of those issues I think can be dealt with in a safe and effective way to allow Michigan to really deploy a significant amount of wind power without doing any real harm to the environment.

    Q. Can you explain a little bit about the bird issue?

    A. Well, birds follow migratory paths, and those migratory paths are fairly well understood. So just simply paying attention to where those routes are and avoiding them is the key. And wind turbines have been improved in terms of their technology, the blades spin slower so they are not as significant a hazard. Far more birds run into buildings in Michigan than will ever be killed by wind turbines. So we don't see the bird aspect as a major problem, those flyways can be avoided.

    Q. There are a lot of wind turbine companies that have come in and they are trying to put their turbines up but they have been caught in a "catch 22" where the cities and the counties are making their own laws and ordinances, and then the state is trying to promote alternative energy, but there is a lot of height restriction for big ones and short ones; have you been doing anything to advocate with those companies?

    A. That is not something that Sierra Club has been specifically involved in. There are going to be a lot of decisions that have to be made at the local level. Some communities are going to want to pursue wind power as a manufacturing base, some want to pursue it as a generation goal, some are actually seeing it as an actual draw for tourism. So each community really is going to need to make some decisions.

    Right, I still think that there is a probably a little bit of nimbyism not in my backyard attitude about wind turbines. We have seen the same thing with cell phone towers and other things that people ultimately get used to. There was a lot of controversy and a lot of resistance to putting up cell towers around the state. Nobody likes the fact that they are there, and probably would rather have them gone, but they are there and they really don't significantly bother most people. So I think wind turbines are another issue where the public will ultimately come around.

    The price of energy produced by coal and nuclear is hugely expensive. And when people sit down and they actually take the time to understand that investing in solar panels and in wind turbines is going to keep their power costs as low as possible in comparison to having to build coal and nuclear power plants, which is going to be tremendously expensive, wind turbines don't look so bad when you can keep your electricity costs modest.

    So I think when people start weighing all of the factors involved in electricity and energy generation that they will actually see that wind turbines and solar panels are a good thing for Michigan, for our economy, our job growth potential, and the environment.

    Q. How do you feel about power plants; do you have a support for one or another?

    A. Right now the existing coal and nuclear power plants are sort of a necessary evil, there are a number of them in Michigan. They are relatively dirty. Some of them are very dirty, polluting the environment with mercury and a variety of other toxic emissions.

    Coal is not going to last forever; there have been major price fluctuations in coal and the equipment to build coal plants. What the Sierra Club wants to see is no new coal plants. We have the opportunity right now of changing the direction of Michigan as it pertains to our energy generation by focusing on renewable, clean energy and moving away from the technologies that cause environmental and public health harm and cost a tremendous amount of money. Now is the time to make that switch.

    Q. What do you mean by new coal power plants?

    A. Well, a year or so ago there were eight proposed coal fired power plants for Michigan and one nuclear power plant. Michigan does not need any of those power plants if we invest appropriately in solar and wind technologies and the even more important aspect is investing in energy efficiency.

    Michigan's buildings are tremendously inefficient and most of the energy used in our economy and society is from buildings. So what we need to do, and what the state is already doing, is investing significantly in energy efficiency in order to tighten up people's homes; add insulation, put in new windows, put more efficient heating and cooling systems in, appliances like refrigerators. Once we have invested fully in energy efficiency, the demand for new coal fired or nuclear power generation in this state will be non existent.

    Q. While we are making progress in finding alternative energy and lowering the amount of pollutants emitted into the our environment what happens on one side of the world causes an effect on opposite side of the world; for example, according to various sources, one to two coal power plants are erected every ten days in China; how does this affect us?

    A. Everything that people do in terms of generating power around the world affects all of us because we live not only in the global economy but global warming is a global phenomenon. So it does affect us even though those coal plants are going up in China. What Michigan and what the United States needs to do is to become a world leader in clean renewable energies based on solar and wind and other sources of power that do not pollute the environment. Then we need to demonstrate to the world that it works and export that technology to other countries. There are a lot of countries that have tremendous resources in either geothermal power, in solar power or wind power and those sources of energy need to be tapped first. But we can't demand that other countries do what we refuse to do ourselves.

    Q. Are there other groups that you work with?

    A. The environmental community as a whole is very united around the idea of shifting from a dirty energy model to a clean energy model. So we work with organizations like in Michigan, Clean Water Action, the Michigan Environmental Council, the League of Conservation Voters, and dozens of other organizations both environmental, faith based groups, business groups, labor unions. I think there is a growing group of people that realize how important it is for Michigan to shift to this new cleaner energy economy. So it is not just environmentalists. It is a much broader spectrum of the public who realizes that we have to make the shift towards clean energy.

    Q. Who are a lot of your opponents when it comes down to legislation and other issues?

    A. The opponents of clean energy right now are primarily the utilities. They have a vested interest in their coal plants, in their nuclear power plants, and building coal and nuclear plants is what they have done for decades. They have not been challenged on that status quo ever. Now we are challenging the way they do business and saying look, you can't continue to do this, you can't continue to make a profit at the expense of rate payers and at the expense of the environment with dirty power. There are ways to make profit from clean energy and they need to start shifting in that direction.

    Q. Are there some looking to build new coal power plants cleaner or some alternative type of things?

    A. Coal plants are never clean. The whole notion of clean coal is ridiculous. Coal is dirty from the minute it is dug out of the ground until it reaches the atmosphere, and then the particulates and the mercury and everything make its way into our lungs and the lakes. There is no such thing as clean coal. It is a misunderstanding, I think, that the utilities are perpetrating in order to make people believe that coal can still be a major player in our future. And I think when people understand all of the facts about the environmental and health costs of dirty power, the climate effects of dirty power, the writing on the wall, coal is on its way out. And I think the sooner the utilities start to really aggressively invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy in a real way, the sooner Michigan's economy will start to recover and the sooner we will make real steps toward solving the problem of global warming.

    Q. So do you see a significant impact for the environment as far as the new policies being implemented by Michigan and the Congress, for example, as you mentioned earlier, Michigan has recently passed for power companies where they made a mandatory law that 10% of our energy must come from clean energy; and then in Congress they were doing things to make cars more fuel efficient; do you think this will help us a great deal or is it just a step forward?

    A. Well, it depends on what the final legislation looks like at the federal level. But, I mean, both state and the federal government are going to have to play a role in moving our economy towards a less fossil fuel dependent economy.

    In Michigan our renewable portfolio standard is fairly weak, as a matter of fact, it includes coal fired power plants; it includes trash incineration. So those fuels, coal and garbage, are not clean. And there are significant environmental ramifications. Those particular forms of energy should not be in our renewable portfolio standard.

    So our efforts in this particular legislative session in Michigan is to eliminate those dirty sources of power from our renewable portfolio standard and increase the standard significantly from a very weak 10% to a very strong 30% by 2025. If we had a 30% by 2025 renewable portfolio standard requirement and a stronger energy efficiency program, we would be the nation's leader in clean energy in Michigan.

    It is going to take some guts on the part of the legislature to pass those bills in the face of opposition from the utilities, but it would be a major step toward solving Michigan's economic problems because we would be a magnet for new manufacturing facilities, and we would be a leader in addressing the problem of global warming.

    Q. So what do you hope to accomplish with your time in the Sierra Club?
    I also know that you hold meetings or rallies every six months. Can you explain a little bit about the rallies that you hold?

    A. Well, we hold rallies periodically. We did one just the other day at the Capitol. That was in support of clean energy. And we had a dunk tank where you could dunk the coal barons that are making lots of profit at our expense.

    I think the other thing that you are referring to is our Lobby Days, which we do every six months. And those are events where educated citizens from our membership come to Lansing and go out in teams and lobby their lawmakers. It is a very empowering event, we usually have about 85 people participate. So we end up having about 25 to 30 teams of lobbyists, citizen lobbyists, go out and meet with well over 100 lawmakers in a single day. So those are very powerful civic engagement activities that we incorporate as part of our legislative work.

    Q. So have you considered the lobbying efforts a success in affecting the way legislation goes?

    A. I think the Sierra Club lobbying efforts have been very successful, one at raising the awareness of our issues in improving, if you will, the Sierra Club's image as a serious environmental organization, it has some power at the Capitol. Whether one group or not can make or break a particular piece of legislation that doesn't usually happen, and that is why we work in coalition with other groups because the more organizations that are calling for clean energy and better policies, the better. So I think the environmental lobbying efforts from the Sierra Club, the advocacy work that we do through things like rallies and the cooperation that we have with a very wide and diverse coalition of other organizations on issues that we are working on, really do make a difference.

    Q. When you go to lobby for certain pieces of legislation or something government related, who usually supports your ideas for what you are lobbying for?

    A. Do you mean which lawmakers or which other groups?

    Q. Which lawmakers or type of political parties or does it vary between different politicians?

    A. Well, the Sierra Club is a non partisan organization, which means that we do not align ourselves with either the Democratic or the Republican Party; however, environmental issues as a whole have become very partisan. If you look at almost any environmental organization scorecard, where we actually score the votes on environmental issues that come up for a vote in the House or the Senate, both at the state and the federal level, what you will see is the Democrats as a whole supporting environmental protection and the Republicans opposing it. Now, there is, of course, some crossover. There are a few Democrats that oppose aggressive environmental protection programs and there are some Republicans that support environmental protection. But in general, unfortunately, the environment has become a very partisan issue and, in general, the environmental community finds more support within the Democratic Party.

    Q. With your time being with the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, what is it that you hope to accomplish?

    A. On which particular issue?

    Q. Like while working here, what is it that you hope to walk away accomplishing, your goals?

    A. My goal is to try to influence state law, the construction of state law with the power of our members and to empower our members to make themselves and their demands more visible at the Capitol, and to hopefully help counter the private interests and the money interests that industry sometimes bring to bear on the legislature.

    Because of the term limits in this state, I think that special interests and special interests lobbyists and their vast communities of political action committee money have a significant amount of influence on public policy. Citizen groups have a far less impact on public policy. We don't have millions of dollars to hand out to lawmakers. But we work with the presumption that with facts, with integrity, and with the power of the people behind us, we can make real changes in the way the policies are made.

    Q. With Michigan's term limits, has that affected a lot of what you do, like with new people coming in all of the time, particularly our representatives that is every two years; do the issues change very quickly as for what you lobby for?

    A. Actually, the term limits and the short terms of the House of Representatives in particular, is a real challenge for organizations that try to educate. Education on a variety of issues takes a long time. And when lawmakers are having to run for office every other year, and their term in the house is a maximum of six years, it makes the education process that much more difficult. So we spend a lot of time going back over the same information for new lawmakers every other year. This takes away from the amount of time we can actually devote to making real policy changes. So yeah, it is a big challenge, and it is something that I wish we could fix in Michigan, but at the moment we are sort of stuck with it.

    Q. Is there anything else that you would like to add or share?

    A. No, I appreciate you guys taking on the environment in your policy class and the fact that you are interested in the whole energy issue. And I hope you all get involved as citizen lobbyists and advocates for a stronger, clean energy future for Michigan.

    Q. Thank you.

    A. You're welcome.

     


    For more information about the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club, visit their website at:

    http://www.michigan.sierraclub.org/index.html

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    The Michigan Policy Network is a student-led public education and research program to report and organize news and information about the political process surrounding Michigan state policy issues. It is run out of the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University, with participation by students from the College of Social Science, the College of Communication, and James Madison College. 

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    Meet your Policy Fellow: Natalie Tononi

    Anonymous and Natalie Tononi serve as energy and environment policy correspondents for the Michigan Policy Network. Natalie is a first-year student in Lyman Briggs College at MSU.