Dirty Energy Industry's Sooty Palm Prints on Michigan's HB 5205

Dec. 16, 2014
Michigan’s HB 5205 redefines renewable energy to mean the exact opposite. NRDC’S Patrick Kenneally offers insight.

Credit: 林 慕尧 / Chris Lim

Michigan’s HB 5205 redefines renewable energy to mean the exact opposite.  NRDC’S Patrick Kenneally offers insight.

You know the quiet satisfaction you take when driving by a wind farm.  The awe at encountering human ingenuity and goodwill in the form of perfectly sculpted and pitched blades of over 100 feet garnering wind’s immense power with each sweeping rotation.  The relief of knowing that there are others who recognize the self-evident logic of powering our homes and businesses with unadulterated, inexhaustible, and ultimately restorative sources.  The enduring hope that renewable energy’s time has come.

You probably don’t get a similar warm feeling when seeing a heap of scrap tires on fire or equate its black, billowing smoke with environmental stewardship.   You may have to explain that to the Michigan House members that voted last week to pass HB 5205.  HB 5205 is a bill that unbelievably redefines renewable energy to include the burning of waste, like scrapped tires, for electricity.

Calling the burning of waste renewable energy is not just misrepresentative, it redefines renewable energy to mean the exact opposite.  Turns out, this cynical political stunt may have even more cynical and dark authors that have a financial interests in ensuring that Michigan’s energy policy regresses.

As originally presented, HB 5205 would have allowed for the burning of pet coke, a toxicbyproduct of tar sands oil refinement, to also count as renewable energy.  The burning of pet coke results in the emission of a number of pollutants, including those that cause acid rain (sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides)heart and brain disease (carbon monoxide), and climate change (carbon dioxide).

Until recently, there was a three-story, black mountain of pet coke taking up an entire city block on the Detroit River in Detroit.  This towering mound of industrial waste belonged to Koch Carbon, a subsidiary company owned by the Koch Brothers.  Koch Carbon purchases pet coke from a refinery in Canada and then sell it oversees to countries like China.

Wouldn’t it be great for the Koch brothers if they were allowed to burn pet coke right here in Michigan and at the same time subvert Michigan’s renewable energy laws that have reduced demand for their other oil and petroleum refining operations?  Wouldn’t you know it, the Koch brothers handsomely fund a shadowy group called the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC that seeks to enact “model bills” in state legislatures invariably designed to pad the bottom line of corporations like Koch Industries and establish anti-environmental ideology as legally binding.

When devising these “model bills,” ALEC secretly convenes taskforces made up of polluters that pay for the privilege pushing their agenda with attending state legislators.  ALEC then uses its members to covertly insert its legislation across the country.  HB 5205 was publicly endorsed at the Michigan Statehouse by the American Chemistry Council, an industry lobbying group and “Director” level sponsor of ALEC, and introduced by Representative Aric Nesbitt, an ALEC member.

HB 5205 is likely an ALEC-inspired effort concocted in response to the failure of last year’s “model bill,” the Electricity Freedom Act (EFA).  The EFA, introduced in various forms in 19 statehouses across the country by ALEC members, sought to eliminate or roll back those states’ renewable portfolio standards.  A renewable portfolio standard or RPS encourages the construction and use of renewable energy by requiring states to derive a certain percentage of their total electricity use from renewable sources.  Michigan enacted an RPS in 2008, ensuring that 10% of Michigan’s electricity will come from solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal sources (i.e. real renewable energy) by 2015.  Upon being introduced last year, the EFA was exposed as an ALEC bill, met with bipartisan resistance, and mostly shutdown.

HB 5205 is the dirty energy industry’s concession that they cannot win the renewable energy debate honestly; ALEC’s EFA debacle taught it that.  Unfortunately, however, profiteers like the Koch brothers gain nothing by deferring to the will of Michiganders or the merits of sound policy.

When asked for comment on HB 5205, Mr. Nesbitt responded, “[w]hether it’s tires or other things, that’s already happening and the environmentalists, these extreme environmental groups will stop at nothing to prevent our progress toward an all of the above energy policy.”

Respectfully, Mr. Nesbitt, our belief that words, such as “renewable,” should retain their intended meaning is not an extreme position.  It’s also not an extreme position to express outrage when environmental policies that make Michigan cleaner, more economically competitive, and healthier are coopted and degraded by Trojan horse bills concocted by polluters to feed their bottom line.

Patrick Kenneally is a staff attorney in Chicago for NRDC. This blog orIginally appeared in Switchboard, NRDC’S staff blog http://switchboard.nrdc.org

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

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