Six months ago in southwest Michigan, a 50-year-old pipeline carrying dirty tar sands oil from Alberta, burst outside of the town of Marshall, spilling almost one million gallons of heavy tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River, a Great Lakes tributary. Today, even while the incomplete Kalamazoo clean up moves forward with backhoes digging out contaminated riverbanks in the background, it may come as a surprise that an effort is underway in our nation's capital to loosen pollution laws, regulations and enforcement. It may be an even bigger surprise that one of the supporters of this effort is a Congressman whose district includes the Kalamazoo River: U.S. Representative Fred Upton (R-MI), of Michigan's 6th Congressional District.
One might expect that Congressman Upton would know far better than to try to weaken pollution standards. He should know all about the inadequate and spotty oversight that contributed to the Michigan spill. He should be fully aware of the scourge of pollution on the landscape. He should be fighting to prevent this sort of thing in the future. And he is in an excellent position to help protect his District, as well as the nation, from dirty energy pollution as the new Chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees environmental protection and energy policy.
But instead, Chairman Upton seems to be embracing the polluters' agenda.
Upton is calling for the Environmental Protection Agency to be stripped of critical authority to enforce important pollution laws, such as its power to regulate dangerous air pollution from dirty energy sources under the Clean Air Act. He is co-signing Wall Street Journal Op Eds with petroleum industry apologists, advocating that the EPA be prevented from using its authority to fight climate change caused by dirty energy. He has even badgered the State Department to speed up approvals for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would move filthy tar sands crude (the same stuff that his own district’s waters) nearly 2,000 miles across some of America's most sensitive and critical underground water sources.
Serious concerns about the pipeline have been raised by multiple federal agencies that are reviewing the proposal. Despite these concerns, and despite his own experience with the Kalamazoo River tar sands spill, Congressman Upton has called the review "…a prime example of the over-burdensome regulatory system that is killing the private sector." In place of careful review, the Congressman wants to stop the analysis and review of the project so that the pipeline approved immediately.
It is a strange situation to see the Congressman take this tack in his new job as Chairman. At one time, Congressman Upton supported new clean energy policies. As Gene Karpinski notes, Upton has the 12th highest lifetime House Republican environmental score from the League of Conservation Voters and co-authored a measure to set efficient lighting standards that would have banned incandescent bulbs. His current statements are in clear conflict with his previous leadership on energy issues, when he understood that the way to a renewed economy was through clean energy and made statements calling climate change like "a serious problem that necessitates serious solutions." Maybe he has forgotten about the ugly Michigan oil spill of six months ago, and how that dirty energy threatened the health, safety and economy of his state. Or how he voted for the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990 that he seems to be undercutting today.
We need to remind him. The pipeline failure and the tar sands spill into the Kalamazoo River brings into stark view the risks and costs of our current reliance on an increasingly dangerous fossil fuel economy. This experience, and the related negative health impacts of aging energy facilities, should bring Congressman Upton back to his sensible record of support for clean energy as the path to renew our economy and our communities. The broken pipeline and subsequent spill show that stripping the government of its ability to make scientifically based decisions, and blocking its ability to enforce laws that protect Americans from pollution, is not the path to a healthy economy. It is the path to danger and decline.