From the Headlines – August 16-20, 2021

Power failure: At the beginning of the week, 20,000 DTE Energy customers were still without power, following the storms that had knocked out service to around 800,000 homes on the previous Thursday. This latest round of outages has drawn attention to the utility’s track record of long and frequent outages even as it enjoys high-profit margins and executive compensation. Here are some lowlights from a week’s worth of frustration:

  • $25: That’s how much money DTE Energy and Consumers offer to customers who have lost power for 120 hours during “catastrophic conditions”, i.e. when more than 10% of their customers have lost power. During an unofficial catastrophe, rate-payers can get the $25 dollar credit when they lose power for 16 hours. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has called on these companies to  “provide greater credits to assist customers who have lost hundreds of dollars or more in food and alternative housing costs.” (MLive) 
  • Not your imagination: Michigan ranks fourth nationwide for the highest number of annual power outages, according to a 2019 report from the Energy Information Administration. DTE Energy says it has increased its tree-trimming efforts to prevent power outages from downed trees and branches but claims that moving wires underground across their network is too expensive. They estimate that it would cost as much as $30 billion to do so. (Detroit News) 
  • Getting worse: Michigan Public Service Commission Chair Dan Scripps notes that climate change is increasing the stress on DTE’s aging power grid. “The two largest storms in the company’s history were this one, and in 2017. In the last four or five years, their biggest storms in company history. And that’s the future I think we have got to be prepared for,” he said. (Michigan Radio)
  • Negative taxes: DTE Energy’s corporate executives likely had a lot of money to buy diesel for their generator-powered hot tubs last week. On account of the CARES Act and other tax advantages, DTE Energy had a -16% federal tax rate last year, according to a report from the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy. This amounted to $247 million in savings on $1.5 billion in pre-tax income. In 2019, it was reported that former DTE Energy CEO Gerry Anderson made $11 million in total compensation. (Freep, Detroit News)

Corner office: Meanwhile, IPCC report be damned, DTE’s pipeline spinoff company DT Midstream Inc. has some hot new digs in the Dan Gilbert-owned Ally Detroit Center (formerly One Detroit Center). The company currently has 91 billion cubic feet of gas storage and operates 2,400 miles of pipelines in the eastern U.S. “The company is growing, so I expect we will grow our staff over time,” said CEO David Slater. But the progress of such companies may spell disaster for the rest of the world if they keep contributing to the fossil fuel use that is driving the climate crisis. “It may feel uncomfortable saying that fossil fuel companies, their investors, and the politicians who enable them are the enemies of progress,” writes scientist Simon Lewis. “But if we care about our collective future we need to say it, again and again, without flinching: using fossil fuels today is destroying our future.” (Crain’s, Guardian)

Where’s the bus? Detroit bus riders are suffering the effects of a dramatic reduction in the number of bus drivers employed by the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT). Before the pandemic, 530 drivers worked for DDOT, now there are only 270. Pullout rates–or the number of buses leaving for their routes on time–was 96% in 2019, but declined this June to 77% in the morning and an abysmal 57% in the afternoon. Mikel Oglesby, executive director of DDOT, said the agency is “aggressively” recruiting more drivers and may begin running fewer routes to ensure that the ones they do have will run on time. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that a bus with a quarter of its seats full produces 33% less greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than the average single-occupancy vehicle, a number that can increase significantly with fuller buses. (The Dig)

Interwebs: As part of a 2021 settlement, Marathon petroleum agreed to maintain a website for the next three years with air monitoring information from around its facilities in southwest Detroit. This site is now active, providing live updates on concentrations for particulate matter (PM10), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and several other pollutants. Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) says the web page will also provide weekly data on volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The settlement was the result of numerous air quality violations and resulted in the company agreeing to spend $500,000 on community projects–like an air filtration system at the Mark Twain School for Scholars–as well as paying $82,000 in fines. In 2007, Marathon received $175 million in tax breaks from the city of Detroit. (Detroit News, Free Press) 

Microplastics: Reporting from Crain’s draws attention to the problem of microplastics–or tiny particles of degraded plastic waste–in the Great Lakes. These particles can absorb toxic chemicals or bacteria from the surrounding environment and then enter the human body through drinking water, fish, or products like beer brewed with Great Lakes water. Not much research has been done on this topic “We don’t know the ramifications of this on human health,” said Sherri Mason, a chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. “That’s kind of the front end of this research, understanding what does this mean? Is there some safe level of ingestion? We don’t know.” (Crain’s Detroit Business)

Parched: For the first time ever, the United States federal government declared a water shortage at Lake Mead, one of the Colorado River’s main reservoirs, which helps supply water to much of the Southwest. “As this inexorable-seeming decline in the supply continues, the shortages that we’re beginning to see implemented are only going to increase,” said Jennifer Pitt, director of the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River program. For now, the shortage will only affect farmers in Arizona, but this makes further cuts in coming years more likely for the approximately 40 million people that rely on the Colorado River. Researchers say that the warming associated with climate change has produced much of the shortage, causing soils to dry out and soak up snowmelt before it can reach the river. (NY Times)


Our reporting 

runs deep.

Get the latest local enviro news in your inbox with Planet Detroit.

Scroll to Top