Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
As you probably know by now, Governor Rick Snyder has appointed Heidi Grether, a former BP executive, to serve as the new director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (“MDEQ”). Grether’s appointment took effect on August 1, 2016.
The MDEQ is the executive-branch department primarily responsible for environmental protection. It has authority over several areas, such as air quality, groundwater, drinking water safety, oil and gas regulation, solid-waste management, and numerous other aspects of pollution control.
Grether has been widely criticized because of her work in the oil and gas industry, including as a communications official for BP America during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She was also registered as a BP lobbyist for several years. In light of Grether’s background and previous work experience, observers have questioned whether she is genuinely committed to the MDEQ’s mission of environmental protection.
Under Article 5, § 6 of the Michigan Constitution, appointments by the Governor stand confirmed unless they are disapproved by a majority of the members elected to and serving in the Michigan Senate within “60 session days.” Despite what you may be thinking, “session days” are not necessarily days when the Senate meets in Lansing. Unlike in previous times, the Michigan Legislature of today is essentially in year-round session, and a “session day” is any day during a legislative session — including a Saturday or Sunday — irrespective of whether lawmakers are on recess or actually meeting at the Capitol. See Smith v Auditor General, 165 Mich 140, 144-146; 130 NW2d 557 (1911); OAG No. 4329, pp 494-499 (November 3, 1964). Hence, since Grether’s appointment took effect on August 1, the Michigan Senate has until September 30 to reject it.
Next Wednesday, the Senate Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on Snyder’s appointment of Grether as MDEQ director. In theory, the committee will consider whether to reject Grether. In reality, however, the hearing will likely be just for show.
Consider the composition of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. The committee is chaired by Senator Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba), and made up of five members (only one member is a Democrat). Casperson certainly isn’t known as a champion of environmental protection. He has introduced several pieces of legislation to deregulate the mining industry. And as FixTheMitten first reported last spring, Casperson has sponsored a bill to make it substantially more difficult for the MDEQ to promulgate environmental and public-health regulations. Specifically, Casperson’s bill would create a committee dominated by business and industry representatives (including from the oil and gas industry) with the statutory power to veto any proposed MDEQ rule.
Do you suppose Casperson will be troubled by Grether’s past as a corporate lobbyist for the oil and gas industry? I seriously doubt it. On the contrary, Casperson probably considers Grether’s tenure at BP to be one of her finest qualifications.
And then there’s the matter of timing. Even if the Natural Resources Committee happens to recommend that the Senate disapprove Grether’s appointment, and even if the matter actually moves to the floor for a vote, senators will have just four scheduled legislative days to act — September 8, 20, 21, and 22. Thus, unless the Senate adds more legislative days to its September calendar (which isn’t very likely), it will have a very narrow window of opportunity to vote on the question of rejecting Grether’s appointment.
Lastly, and most obviously, Republicans dominate the Michigan Senate with an overwhelming majority of 27-10-1 (one seat is currently vacant). How likely is it that 19 of the members elected to and serving in the GOP-dominated chamber would actually vote to overrule Snyder’s choice?
The appointment of Grether to lead the MDEQ was astonishingly tone-deaf, even for Snyder. Quite simply, it made the Governor appear disconnected from reality, and broadcast the idea that Snyder does not view environmental protection as a priority — hardly a good message to be sending as the Flint Water Crisis continues to percolate. If for symbolic reasons alone, I believe the Senate should reject the appointment of Grether and force Snyder to pick someone more suited to serve as the state’s top environmental-protection official. But I’m pretty sure that won’t happen. In fact, I’ll go one step further: If you believe that next week’s committee hearing on Heidi Grether will be anything other than a show trial, you’re dreaming.