Michigan does a legal about-face on climate change under new attorney general

"Under my watch, Michigan will not be a party to lawsuits that challenge the reasonable regulations aimed at curbing climate change."

General view of the State Capitol Building in Lansing, MI. CREDIT: Scott Legato/Getty Images for
General view of the State Capitol Building in Lansing, MI. CREDIT: Scott Legato/Getty Images for

In a dramatic shift, Michigan is withdrawing from four lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as the state’s new Democratic leadership moves to make good on climate action.

Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) announced Tuesday that Michigan will drop the EPA lawsuits targeting federal air regulations which the the state joined under the previous Republican leadership. Those lawsuits include challenges to Obama-era rules curbing power plant emissions like mercury, methane emissions from oil fields, and limitations on greenhouse gases imposed by the Clean Power Plan (CPP) — all targets of the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks.

“Under my watch, Michigan will not be a party to lawsuits that challenge the reasonable regulations aimed at curbing climate change and protecting against exposure to mercury and other toxic substances,” said Nessel in a statement.

Nessel’s predecessor, Republican Bill Schuette, notably endorsed former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who initiated the mass rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations. Schuette ran for governor in 2018 but lost to Democrat Gretchen Whitmer last November. Both Whitmer and Nessel touted environmental issues in their campaigns, highlighting access to clean water and efforts to address climate change in a state plagued by pollution and reeling from several water crises.


Environmental organizations broadly endorsed both Democrats during the midterms and applauded Nessel’s decision on Tuesday to withdraw from the EPA lawsuits. In a statement to ThinkProgress, Sierra Club Michigan’s legislative and political director, Mike Berkowitz, commended the move to abandon “dangerous and frivolous lawsuits” against environmental safeguards.

“[Schuette] led the charge against air emission safeguards, disregarding the impacts of climate change, and consistently siding with corporate polluters,” Berkowitz said, noting that his organization supports Nessel’s moves to restore “integrity and the values of environmental justice to the office of the attorney general.”

Other organizations similarly praised the move, which marks a decisive shift from Schuette and former Gov. Rick Snyder (R). In a statement, Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said that the move “sends a clear and timely message” on the importance of climate and environmental action.

“Michigan never had any business joining coal companies in suing the federal government over policies that protect our air and water from dangerous pollution,” said Wozniak.

Sean Hammond, of the Michigan Environmental Council, meanwhile praised Michigan’s “shift towards clean energy” and emphasized the importance of backing away from supporting coal in particular. The lawsuits have been seen as a hurdle to the state’s move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable power, something Whitmer’s office has indicated is a priority.


“With the overwhelming consensus that coal power has to be phased out as soon as possible to prevent imminent climate disaster, there is simply no reason for Michigan to remain in these cases,” Hammond said in an email to ThinkProgress.

Withdrawing from the EPA lawsuits isn’t Nessel’s only move that marks a pivot towards prioritizing the environment. She is also eyeing a controversial pipeline: Enbridge Line 5.

The aging pipeline runs under the Straits of Mackinac — the narrow waterways that flow between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas — bringing oil from Canada into the United States. Built in the 1950s, Line 5 is a long-running source of concern for residents, many of whom fear an oil spill could threaten aquatic life and potentially drinking water.

Whitmer pledged to shut down Line 5 if elected. But in a move widely seen as a way to undercut her authority, Snyder in his final weeks as governor pushed through legislation to ensure the construction of a tunnel to house Line 5’s oil and address the pipeline’s problems without decommissioning it. The project is set to cost upwards of $500 million and take a decade to complete.

Upon taking office, Whitmer requested that Nessel look into the legality of Snyder’s legislation. There has been no timeline given for a decision, but Nessel has indicated that the issue is a top priority and that the legislation has raised serious legal concerns.


Another key point of environmental concern for Nessel’s office is the state’s ongoing battle with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have been found in drinking water supplying multiple Michigan communities. Better known as PFAS, the chemicals are linked to numerous health problems, including cancer.

The attorney general, who criticized Schuette’s handling of investigations into the Flint water crisis, has also asked Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy to take over for Special Prosecutor Todd Flood. Nessel requested at the beginning of January that Worthy conduct an independent evaluation of the criminal cases associated with the issue.

Michigan’s environmental advocates are largely supportive of these moves and the Sierra Club’s Berkowitz emphasized the value of the state’s pivot towards environmental and climate action.

“Given the unprecedented challenges facing our Great Lakes, our climate, and our communities,” he said, “[Nessel and Whitmer] did not waste any time.”