By Gary Wilson
It’s hard to change stripes; to change vocations or long-held beliefs and associations.
Want proof? Ask Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.
Mid-career, Jordan took a serious crack at professional baseball. In spite of his overall athletic skills he realized that basketball was his game, returned and continued to flourish by winning more championships.
That fundamental principle applies to those charged with protecting the environment too.
Consider this Detroit News headline: “Snyder taps ex-BP official to run DEQ”
That’s right, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder really did appoint a former oil company executive, Heidi Grether, to run the state’s equivalent of the U.S. EPA.
Post-Flint, people wondered how could he do that? The Detroit Free Press editorial board called the hiring a “sick joke.”
But on reflection, should we have been surprised? What were we expecting? That the business executive turned governor would hire an environmental activist?
Nope, it doesn’t work that way.
People don’t easily change stripes and Snyder couldn’t even after being confronted with the reality of his failings, as he was with Flint.
We all have a comfort zone where we like to hang out. When it comes to protecting the environment, the governor who bills himself as a “nerd,” prefers business executives.
Keith Creagh runs Michigan’s DNR but came to the Snyder administration from Neogen, a Lansing-based food safety company. Jon Allan is in charge of the Office of the Great Lakes, but his professional roots were firmly planted at Consumers Energy.
You get the picture.
Snyder is comfortable around other business executives especially in an area – environmental issues – that has been foreign to him. They have similar priorities and approach issues from an analytical perspective instead of a visceral one. They communicate in a shorthand that each understands. There’s inherit trust that would be absent with an enviro-oriented outsider.
It works, at least for them.
President Barack Obama has a comfort zone too and its rooted in two areas – social activism and pragmatism.
When he became president in 2009, his domestic policy priorities were climate change and healthcare reform, in no particular order. In fact, he hoped, given that Democrats controlled the Congress, to pass both early in his presidency.
But that’s not how it lined up.
It became apparent that he would have to put the gravitas of the presidency and his personal approval on the line and choose one. There was no political will in D.C. to take on the fight to pass two major and controversial federal programs.
Obama chose healthcare reform and it’s the law today.
Environmental groups weren’t happy. Climate change would have to wait for another day and the enviros felt like a bride left waiting at the altar for a groom who didn’t show.
But they misread Obama.
Forced to compromise (pragmatism) Obama stayed in his comfort zone, social activism in terms of healthcare for all. Climate change would have to wait for a second term and navigate through the minefield of the election process.
It’s not only individuals who have a hard time changing directions. Bureaucracies are known for rigid adherence to rules and to be resistant to change. The U.S. EPA is an example.
For better and worse the massive agency inches along doing its job at one speed – slow – in a world that is quickly accelerating. Quick reacting it isn’t. Drinking water quality is an example.
Toxic algae caused Toledo to be without safe drinking water for three days in 2014 and the EPA largely watched that unfold from the sidelines. This was a significant failure in an area where EPA has direct oversight.
I would have expected EPA to call a timeout and assess its role in the Toledo failure. It doesn’t get more basic than assuring safe drinking water.
But that didn’t happen.
A year later another failure of epic proportions unfolded in Flint and EPA watched it happen as it did in Toledo.
Flint’s tragedy is still playing out today and EPA at the highest level – Administrator Gina McCarthy – hasn’t even acknowledged the obvious: That the agency she leads with “protection” in its title, played a key role in denying Flint residents safe water.
Back to Snyder and his comfort zone.
His appointment of Grether to head Michigan’s DEQ is curious for reasons other than her oil company connections.
She won’t have responsibility for Flint’s ongoing recovery. That will remain with the DNR’s Creagh who has been managing the state’s role in Flint’s recovery since former DEQ director Dan Wyant resigned when the crisis hit a tipping point.
And in her first public meeting, Grether endorsed the Snyder administration’s earlier decision to do two studies of Enbridge’s controversial Straits of Mackinac pipeline. That wasn’t a good move given her previous oil company connections. Her already questionable credibility for the job was jolted on day one.
But studying issues is comfortable for executives. It buys time and provides a crutch so they can say, according to an expert study. You see what I mean.
Absent a role in those two key issues, what will she do? Is she a seat-warmer as the Snyder administration plays out the string until he leaves office in 2018?
It appears her primary job will be to effect culture change at DEQ.
Grether told a media gathering that her main goals are to improve employee morale and the public’s perception of the embattled agency according to a MLive report.
The agency was heavily criticized by the Flint Water Taskforce charged with determining how the water debacle happened. Justified or not, career agency staffers were said to be focused on technical compliance with regulations instead of protecting people.
But that’s more often the work of external consultants which again, business executives like Snyder love to hire. They perceive that there’s someone out there who can fix their problems.
Where does that leave the DEQ? With a human resources consultant at the helm?
One thing is clear.
Snyder now has 100 per cent ownership of the beleaguered agency and the work it produces.
I hope he’s comfortable with that.