Hugh McDiarmid is Communications Director of the Michigan Environmental Council, a charitable organization and coalition that, through the political process, works to make changes that benefit Michigan's environmental movement..
Marina Csomor: Can you tell me a little bit about the Michigan Environmental Council and the work that it does?
Hugh McDiarmid: The Michigan Environmental Council was formed in 1980. It is a coalition of environmental, public health, and faith-based groups from across Michigan. We have more than 60 members, and we don't have individual memberships. Other organizations are members. We are dedicated to improving and defending Michigan's natural resources and public health. And we are sort of the voice in Lansing for a lot of our member groups who are not based near the capital and don't have the staff or expertise to sort of keep track of Lansing politics and good legislation and bad legislation and what the governor and state agencies are up to. So we're sort of the voice in Lansing, where the laws are made.
Csomor: What role does the Council play in the political process - in actually passing environmental policy?
McDiarmid: We do some policy work, some research, and we participate in a lot of work groups and things that are convened by the governor or the legislature or other groups to kind of lend support for good environmental policy. We do some lobbying directly with state legislators, asking them to vote on behalf of the environment and to oppose legislation that would harm the environment. We do a lot of connecting people and organizations with each other. We have policy people who know a broad range of folks, and so if there's a couple groups working on a issue, they may not know they have allies somewhere in Lansing; there's another group in Lansing working on it; and we try to pull people together and sort of facilitate coalitions because if you've got ten groups kind of working separately on different areas of the same issue, and you can pull them together at the same table, and have a concerted message and put pressure on the political process, it works better if everybody works together. So we do a lot of that kind of stuff too.
Csomor: Does the Council have a hand in every single environmental policy process that takes place in Michigan government? Or do you pick and choose?
McDiarmid: We have limited resources like everyone else, so we have to prioritize where we spend our time or effort, both [based] on what's most important and what's achievable; what's practical. And at different times we have different issues bubbling to the surface. You know, right now with renewable energy and energy efficiency being the center stage, our energy policy guy is working harder than ever. There's [been] a lot of legislation related to that in the last few years that has come up to the surface. A couple years ago, our main focus might have been water because we had Great Lakes Compact and Water legislation that was kind of the highest priority. And who knows, maybe next year it will be land use or revitalization or urban cities or something like that. So it kind of depends. But we do pick and choose.
Csomor: With the environment being such a big issue, it seems like you would have to pick and choose because there are so many different areas to focus on.
McDiarmid: We don't do it all ourselves. Our member groups are spread across the state, and we also have members who we work with - the Sierra Club and the Clean Water Action - who also have Lansing-based offices. So, we each sort of have areas of expertise. Clean Water Action does a lot with water. Sierra Club has been doing a lot with pollution from factory farms. So, when people inquire about issues with us, a lot of times we don't have the answers. We say, "Oh, you need to talk to the Sierra Club. Or you need to talk to the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor who's the expert in this issue." That's all part of connecting people, the folks who can help them too.
Csomor: How do you see the Council's role changing with the new governor, Rick Snyder, in office? Will it be any easier or any harder to find support for environmental legislation?
McDiarmid: That remains to be seen. A lot of people want to make predictions on what sort of governor Governor Snyder's going to be, and it's impossible to tell. We're cautiously optimistic about where he'll end up on the issues. He's got some environmental background. He was a board member with a nature conservancy for a long time, so it's obvious he has an interest. And some of us have heard him speak on environmental issues and talked to his staff, and he seems to understand environmental issues. He's talked about a lot of good policies.
Csomor: Which policy out of those that the MEC has helped to pass are you the most proud of? Do any in particular stand out as great achievements?
McDiarmid: There have been a couple in recent years. I've been with the Council since '06, and I would say that the water legislation that was passed in 2008 - the Great Lakes Compact was one of those, and along with that, the legislature passed some water protection legislation in Michigan that is the only science-based water withdraw legislation in the country. So, I think we made great strides in 2008 in protecting the water of Michigan. It has 18 percent of the world's fresh surface waters. We really have our unique ecosystem here. If you've lived here all your life, you sort of take for granted, "Oh yeah, the Great Lakes." You know, you don't realize what a great global resource that is. So that's one thing.
The other thing is, in 2008, the legislature passed the state's first renewable energy standard which requires the state's utilities to generate at least 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the year 2015 and also implemented some energy efficiency standards so that the utilities, in addition to selling power to people, will be required to help them save energy and save energy costs. So, those were two really important steps forward in more sensible energy policies in Michigan.
Csomor: Michigan is working to become a leader in alternative energy and sustainable practices. How would you rate the state's progress in achieving this aim?
McDiarmid: I've been very pleased in the last few years with the strides Michigan has made to accommodate job growth in the renewable energy field. You know, the economy has been in the dumps for a long time. I think it was the years 2002 to 2008, green jobs saw a growth in Michigan when almost every other sector of jobs in Michigan declined quite a bit. Stacked up against something like the auto industry, it's a pretty small number of jobs. But I think everybody realizes that Michigan needs to diversity its economy - that we can't absorb more blows like the one that happened to the auto industry. I think that Michigan is poised to be a national and even international leader in green job growth if we keep the momentum up, and that's what we're going to be urging Governor Snyder to do. Obviously he's not Governor Granholm, and he doesn't want to be Governor Granholm. He's Republican, and she's Democrat. But we think that clean energy jobs and clean energy generation is something that should be non-partisan.
Csomor: Michigan has countless other problems to tackle, including a struggling economy and a significant budget shortfall. Will energy and environmental legislation be a priority? Should it be a priority?
McDiarmid: It's tough to answer that question in sort of overall terms, but let me talk about energy first. Support for clean energy businesses goes hand in hand with remaking Michigan's economy. And a lot of these issues aren't trade offs - aren't either-or propositions with the environment or the economy. The issues that we're working on now, because we understand that there's not a lot of money for discretionary things, are issues that are helpful for the environment and the economy.
For instance, wind turbines are one example of that. There are places making components for wind turbines in Michigan - manufacturing people, laid-off auto workers, who are engaged in creating the gears and the mechanisms of wind turbines. The more Michigan invests in wind turbine technology and Great Lakes wind turbines and everything else, the better off our economy will be. And the more wind turbines you have, the less you have to rely on coal. So, that's a win-win situation where you can create job growth and protect the environment at the same time.
There are some other issues where maybe there are some regulations that maybe need to be put in place that an industry wouldn't favor. Those need to be determined on a case by case basis. But, clearly the economy impacts environmental protection. We've seen the state agencies that protect the environment have their funding slashed quite a bit and the pollution hotlines aren't being answered, clean up of orphan underground storage tanks that are leaking gasoline and such that don't have any responsible parties to go back and make them clean it up. That's pretty much coming to a standstill because there's no money for it, and that's a shame. So, those are the kind of challenges we face. We can go and talk to legislature about how important this is, but we're one of many voices there. So we need to find some creative approaches rather than just yelling for an even smaller slice of a smaller pie.
Csomor: Does the Council look to other states for ideas for environmental policy? Are there any states in particular that set a good example?
McDiarmid: It depends on the issue. When our policy people think about some change to a state law or policy or some new state law or policy that might be beneficial to Michigan, we certainly look to other states to say, "Well, where has it worked elsewhere? How can we adopt and adapt that same model to Michigan?" We often, because we're so defined by water in Michigan, look to see what our other Great Lakes states are doing. We are hopeful in the next few days that the legislature will pass a law banning or restricting phosphorous in lawn fertilizer because it's a pollutant that contributes to algae growth and all kinds of other bad things, and it's really unnecessary on almost all lawns in Michigan. So, when we look around, and we look at Wisconsin and Illinois and Minnesota, they've already passed bans. Michigan's proposed phosphorous restriction laws are sort of based on what the other Great Lakes states are doing, and we think it's important to look at those and see what we can do that worked in other states.
Csomor: What is the next big policy project that the MEC plans to tackle?
McDiarmid: We plan to work in all our policy areas, but looking into 2011 and the new administration, right now we're doing a lot of work on transit - especially train passenger rails through Michigan. We got a lot of federal money recently - $161 million in federal grants - to help improve the train tracks between Detroit and Kalamazoo to pretty much turn it into a high speed rail system, which would cut something like an hour and half of train travel time between Detroit and Chicago. Which obviously has tons of advantages and will help the economies of both states, moving people back and forth. So, Michigan needs to come up with some matching money. To leverage that money, we need to come up with $30 or $40 million of Michigan money to match with that in order to use that money for high speed rails. So, we're trying to get that money from the legislature, either before they leave this year or next year. And we'll be pushing to make train travel and bus travel and light rail and all sorts of things in our cities to help make the cities more livable and help people move back and forth and have an array of options and some opportunities to do some cleaner commutes and save some money.
For more information about the Michigan Environmental Council visit http://www.environmentalcouncil.org.