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Consumer advocacy

COVID-19 pandemic reveals ‘energy crisis’

LANSING — The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed preexisting energy justice crises such as costly utility bills and the dangers of energy pollution, which may not have gained attention otherwise, according to a recent study.

The study, “The Energy Crises Revealed by COVID: Intersections of Indigeneity, Inequity and Health,” cites rural areas and tribal nations from Michigan, but says those issues can be seen across the United States and even globally.

Kathleen Brosemer is the lead author and an energy and environmental policy doctoral student at Michigan Technological University. She said she was inspired to write the study when Enbridge Energy brought its permit applications for the Line 5 pipeline to Michigan during the shutdown and she couldn’t participate in the hearing processes.

Brosemer is the environmental program manager for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, a tribe that strongly opposes the continued operations of Line 5.

“We were discussing all of these crises of energy sovereignty, energy justice, that are being magnified by COVID,” Brosemer said. “And we thought ‘Wow, there’s a chance here to get this out, and in this moment when these crises are so apparent, so blatant, they might get some attention.'”

Two of the crises outlined in the study regard utilities.

One is that not everyone has equal access to utilities. The other is essential services such as electricity, water and natural gas are treated as a consumer good that not everyone can afford.

Those struggling during the pandemic and who received short-term help with utility bills, may still face financial struggles in the long term, said Doug Bessette, a coauthor of the study and an assistant professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University.

Michigan put a moratorium on utility shut-offs and utility bills, Bessette said. “But the way that the state regulations work, these costs eventually need to be recovered. So even if a resident or a household is not paying their utility bills currently because of the moratorium, they will eventually have to pay those bills. So, it will eventually come down the line.”

On the other hand, Public Service Commission Chair Dan Scripps said he thinks the state is doing well by taking an aggressive approach in partnering with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to create a program that directly pays people’s energy bills with federal dollars under the CARES Act.

But those receiving financial assistance aren’t out of the woods yet, Scripps said.

Utility companies have also lost revenue due to the moratoriums that protect those struggling financially. At some point, these companies will try to recoup their losses. One option would be to increase rates for consumers, a request that needs commission approval.

When utility companies file requests, the commission will look at not only the additional costs, but also additional savings and revenue in an attempt to take a balanced approach, Scripps said.

“Customers are struggling and asking them to put up the bill for any additional costs is something that we find pretty challenging. I think it’s going to be a high bar to clear,” Scripps said.

The study also discusses the environmental injustice crisis in which those exposed to environmental pollution are more susceptible to COVID-19.

Bessette said the virus exacerbates the public health crises that rural, tribal and low-income communities already face, with higher rates of diabetes and asthma.

“This has been especially problematic in places like Detroit where COVID fatalities and hospitalizations have been higher than average and, of course, where there’s a number of communities that live closer to coal- and natural-gas-fired power plants than elsewhere in the state,” Bessette said.

Scripps said he agrees and has seen that situation align with racial disparities.

The commission is increasingly aware of and concerned about environmental justice considerations in its work, he said.

However, Scripps disagrees with the study’s claim of a regulatory process crisis.

The study mentions Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline and said the company is using divided public attention during the pandemic to push forward permit applications for its plans to drill a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac.

Scripps said he’s noticed a different response with virtual public comment hearings during quarantine.

Those who attended have had better opportunities to speak at online meetings without the added driving time they would usually need, according to Scripps. The commission’s most recent Line 5 hearing heard from about 70 individuals on both sides of the issue from across Michigan and out of state.

“My sense is that those numbers suggest that there is meaningful opportunity for public comment, and the public’s making use of it,” Scripps said.

But the study’s authors explain that while public comment exists, it has limited influence.

Bessette points out that despite it being easier for some would-be participants, those without necessary resources, like Wi-Fi access, cannot participate and engage.

And to participate in a contested case the commission requires interested parties to apply for intervener status, which requires legal representation.

The study argues this cost of participation makes it “meaningless” for those like native tribes who cannot afford it.

Those who need assistance with utility bills need to act now before assistance programs close at the end of September, Scripps said.

He suggests reaching out to a provider directly, calling 211 or going to the Public Service Commission website to learn what assistance programs are available.

Editor’s note: Taylor Haelterman reports for WKAR and Great Lakes Echo.

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