On Wednesday Gov. Jennifer Granholm addressed Michiganders in her annual State of the State address. In the speech she announced the four major areas on which she plans to focus her attention: the job market, citizen protection, health care and education. No surprise, she wants change. In discussing plans for how to improve the job market, she honed in on alternative technology, heralding it as having “blockbuster potential” for the state.

The biggest banner she waved was an energy package she encouraged legislators to pass. Granholm said it would result in DTE Energy and Consumers Energy spending $6 billion on renewable energy sources like wind turbines, creating up to 17,000 jobs.

All of this sounds great. In a state that has long been kept in the oil age by an automotive economy struggling to keep its head above water, I welcome change of any sort, especially of the eco-friendly variety. But I have a confession: I’m confused.

Because of what the state is allowing to happen, I’m also a bit skeptical. An excellent example can be found in Detroit, home to Marathon Oil’s fourth-largest refinery. The plant processes close to 100,000 barrels of oil per day, mostly heavy crude oil from oil sands. This process hardly has a reputation of being environmentally friendly. Yet since its acquisition of Western Oil Sands, Inc. in July, the company has proposed plans for expansion of its Detroit location, plans that have met little resistance from the state.

Granholm said on Wednesday night that “we must commit as a state to use alternative energy to meet our own energy needs.” The growing Marathon plant processes oil, hardly an “alternative energy.” Regardless of how much wood pulp Michigan recycles to make bio-fuel (another pat on the back Granholm gave the state), what message does allowing the expansion of pollution and reliance on obsolete technology send? The answer, in the context of the governor’s claims, is a contradictory one.

I’m also a bit confused about some of the assumptions she seemed to make. When she addressed the potential influx of jobs as a result of the development of alternative technologies she stated, “There’s no question that these jobs are coming to our nation. The only question is, where?” The answer, for her, is Michigan.

But why? What will draw alternative technologies to the great mitten-shaped state? Granholm said that it is because we have “manufacturing infrastructure,” “available factory space” and “a skilled workforce,” not to mention wind and water.

Indulge my quick tangent. Before she pats herself on the back too much, it’s worth pointing out that she likely had little to do with the existence of local wind and water, barring some type of unholy alliance with Captain Planet that didn’t leak out during the gubernatorial race.

Secondly, touting “available factory space” – or factories that remain unfilled because we have failed to significantly improve a failing economy – is a bold move. And while there are certainly skilled workers in Michigan, what is her plan is for retraining these workers to use the new technologies?

More importantly, will these “advantages” be enough to overcome the state’s stellar selling points like its crumbling roads, staggering lack of public transportation and overwhelming crime rates? I think not. When Forbes released its list of America’s Most Miserable Cities this week, Detroit took the top spot. Rich white investors don’t look kindly on those types of statistics.

The bottom line is that I have my doubts. Granholm’s euphemistic claims confuse me when compared with reality, but I’m willing to give optimism a try. At least alternative energy has entered the conversation. What we need to do now is set about achieving these goals with open eyes. Michigan must stop the development of old, polluting technology if it really wants to focus on cleaner, newer technology. It’s time to acknowledge the challenges it faces in attracting new industry, addressing them instead of glossing them over.

I’m not saying Granholm won’t make strides toward developing a new energy economy; I’m saying I want to know the answers to my questions first. I agree with her that it’s time for change. I agree that creating this economy in Michigan would be a great thing for the state. I just want to be careful that, in her efforts to help the state green and grow, she makes promises she can keep.

– Kate Truesdell can be reached at ketrue@umich.edu.

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