OPINION: Proposal 3 supplies constitutional calling

By Gary Maveal

Some people oppose Proposal 3 because they feel its renewal energy standard doesn't belong in our Constitution. But our urgent need to abandon fossil fuels--and our utility-driven legislature's demonstrated inability to do so--clearly refute this objection.

A review of Michigan energy policy suggests that the people have every reason to dictate fundamental change on this issue through their Constitution.

Proposal 3 will mandate that utilities deliver 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources (e.g., wind, solar, biomass, and hydro-power) by 2025. Michigan law now requires 10 percent of energy from renewables by 2015, a truly modest goal given that half of the states have much higher standards ranging from 15-33 percent.

Our Energy Predicament Demands Bold Measures

In the last two decades, most have come to agree that our reliance on fossil fuels is contributing to climate change and that sustainable energy policies have serious health and national security implications. We read that carbon dioxide levels are already beyond dangerous limits. We have become numb to news that the polar ice caps are melting. We can see for ourselves that our lake levels are dropping. Mountaintop removal in Appalachia and strip mining in Western states have transformed large parts of the U.S. into moonscapes as a legacy of our coal habit.

Yet little has changed when it comes to using coal and we seem bent on burning it until it is exhausted without a real plan for the future. Michigan utilities deliver 58 percent of our energy from coal from other states at a cost to consumers of $1.7 billion per year. How long can this be sustained?

Again this season, politicians have had little to say about rising to the challenge of weaning our country off fossil fuels. Recall the talk several years ago of a debate in Congress on a comprehensive national policy? It could have included a national standard for renewable energy sources--but it died quietly in 2007 after pressure from the nation's energy producers lobby.

Since that time, work to mandate alternative energy sources has moved to the states. At every stage, Michigan's energy lobby has enjoyed overwhelming success in Lansing resisting any fundamental shift to renewables.

Renewables Are Simply Not Our Utilities' Priority

Michigan's unambitious 10 percent standard adopted in 2008 was actually a significant win for the utilities, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy.

In exchange for committing to a slight shift to renewables, the utilities lobbyists demanded and won repeal of Public Act 41 of 2000. The prior law would have deregulated the energy field and given consumers the benefit of competition among providers of energy. (The 2008 legislation capped the amount of "choice" at 10 percent of the utilities' portfolios).

At the same, the 2008 law reduced the extent of regulation of energy companies' rates to consumers. As a result, since 2008, residential electricity rates have jumped 47 percent for Consumers Energy customers and 28 percent for those with DTE!

Proposal 3's supporters have reason to be convinced that a constitutional amendment is needed for the citizens to wrest some control over the future of our energy policy. The undeniable fact is that the energy companies wield undue influence in Lansing. DTE and Consumers Energy aren't committing to anything more than the 10 percent standard that will be met in 2015. The utilities have proven they hold power over our elected representatives--they are working hard to do the same with voters.

Indeed, our electric providers are spending millions of dollars to defeat Proposal 3. Ironically, their ads warn the "special interests" are trying to dictate state energy policy.

This is pot-calling-the-kettle "coal black" hypocrisy of the highest order. DTE Energy owns one of the largest coal transport companies in the country, which has more than 8,500 rail cars for importing coal to the Midwest. That asset will become less valuable with real competition from renewables.

Mandating clean and safe energy from public utilities is an issue of governance worthy of the Constitution. Citizens have every right to declare fundamental environmental policy. Committing to renewables will help ensure we pass on a legacy of stewardship of our resources to future generations.

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Gary Maveal is a Professor of Law at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

Published: Fri, Nov 2, 2012

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