Policy Tracker: Railway merger could mean more pollution for Michigan


Dear Michigan Climate News readers,

This edition of our monthly policy tracker explores bills to promote ethanol and a funding measure to promote methane gas infrastructure. These updates follow the European Parliament's designation of natural gas as a "green fuel" for investment purposes and begs the question: Is gas green?

We aim to help keep you up-to-date on the latest state and federal government policies impacting climate and the environment in Michigan.

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– Nina at Planet Detroit

On to the policy update:


Proposed railway merger raises pollution concerns from Texas to Michigan

A railway expansion in Detroit could bring more air pollution to an area already dealing with several polluting industries and high asthma rates. The Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) has been calling attention to Canadian Pacific Railway’s $25 billion plan to purchase Kansas City Southern, which would mean more train and semi-truck traffic in southeast Michigan.

MEC sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Surface Transportation Board (STB) urging it to consider how the proposed merger would exacerbate existing environmental injustices in Detroit. During a webinar, Conan Smith, president and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council, called the merger a “back door strategy” to bring notoriously dirty tar sands oil through the country after the failure of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Other voices speaking out against the merger include U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who sent a letter to the transportation board citing harmful impacts to the environment, pedestrian safety, commuter rail service and emergency response times. U.S. Representative Katie Porter (D-CA) wrote to the STB saying the merger would increase shipping costs, allowing Canadian Pacific to “extort businesses.” In Houston, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis has raised concerns similar to MEC’s, saying the merger would bring more trains, traffic and health problems to a county with a history of heavy industry and air pollution.

“The merger is going to increase the train traffic. It's going to increase the likelihood of accidents. It's going to put communities at greater risk, particularly black and brown communities,” Michael Dorsey, board vice-chair for MEC, said during the webinar. “It's a nefarious, insidious way to undermine the advances we've been making against climate change and to keep pushing dirty energy and deliver 20th-century problems on us in the 21st century.”

Canadian Pacific’s estimates show that with the merger, Detroit would receive 50% more freight and 62% more semi-truck traffic, adding to existing problems with trucks in Detroit, which bring diesel emissions, noise and structural damage from the continuous vibrations caused by the heavy vehicles. These diesel emissions could increase levels of particulate matter and other pollutants as well as contribute to the formation of ozone. Southeast Michigan is already in nonattainment for ozone, which can trigger asthma attacks.

And although trains are more fuel-efficient than trucks, diesel locomotives still produce significant air pollution.

It’s unclear how the STB might rule on the proposed merger. All but one of the board’s members were appointed by former President Donald Trump, whose administration worked to undermine environmental protections and regulatory enforcement. But Smith said that the board at least offers a way to “impede or influence the merger process.” And Zoe Middleton, a policy advisor for Commissioner Ellis, noted during the webinar that there would be an environmental screening process that could offer another avenue for environmental advocates to challenge the issue.

More state policy updates:

Budgeting: In July, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a $57 million general budget bill covering several priorities like roads, public health, and economic development. Environmental measures in the bills include $48 billion for lead service line replacement, $5 million for testing water from private drinking water wells, $130 for an electric vehicle teaching, training and development center at the University of Michigan and $205 in “enhancement grants” that would provide $40 million for Detroit’s Joe Louis Greenway. (Crain’s)

At the Michigan Public Service Commission:

DTE rate case: The Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) held an in-person meeting in Detroit on DTE Energy’s pending rate case, which looks for $388 million in additional revenue. The increase would cost the average residential customer as much as $10 a month. The utility says the increase is necessary to improve reliability and achieve its net-zero goals. However, the Defend Black Voters Coalition opposes rate increases from both DTE and Consumers Energy. “If the MPSC grants these rate increases, it will be Black women who will be disproportionately carrying the burden, and we won’t take it,” said Eboni Taylor, Michigan executive director of the Mothering Justice Action Fund. Activists claim the utility discriminates against poorer, brown and Black communities by deprioritizing grid upgrades in those areas, something they termed ‘utility redlining.” (Detroit News, Michigan Advance, Planet Detroit)

Additional scrutiny: The MPSC approved a cost recovery plan for DTE’s gas and pipeline company, DTE Gas Co., but said costs from using the NEXUS pipeline would face “scrutiny and may not be recovered.” The NEXUS pipeline is a partnership between DTE and Enbridge that carries gas for 256 miles from eastern Ohio to southeast Michigan.

Funding boost: The MPSC set the funding factor for the state’s Low-Income Energy Assistance Fund at 90 cents, a 3-cent increase from the year before. Investor-owned utilities collect this amount monthly from each retail customer to fund the energy assistance program for low-income households, providing a maximum of $50 million in assistance each year.

Start shopping: Michiganders relying on propane for home heating should start shopping for locking in supply for the winter, according to the MPSC. The commission says customers can save money by buying propane ahead of time or getting a fixed-price plan.


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