By Michele Bourdieu
HOUGHTON -- U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow emphasized jobs that new energy technology would bring to Michigan and fielded questions from Michigan Tech University students during a brief visit to campus Thursday evening, Oct. 21. The visit was arranged in conjunction with her appearances at a fundraising breakfast for Gary McDowell, First District Democratic Congressional candidate, and a private meeting on small business legislation with local Smart Zone business leaders this morning, Oct. 22, in Houghton.
U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow addresses Michigan Tech University students and welcomes their questions in the Minerals and Materials Building on the Michigan Tech campus Thursday evening, Oct. 21. (Photos by Keweenaw Now)
"I don't think there's anybody who has looked after students more than Sen. Stabenow," said Michigan Tech University President Glenn Mroz, introducing the Senator to the students as a staunch supporter of Michigan Tech. "She is from Michigan, she is for Michigan, she is for you."
After greeting some distinguished visitors in the audience, including State Senator Mike Prusi (D-Marquette) and Dale Tahtinen, Michigan Tech University vice president for governmental relations, Stabenow spoke first about competition in today's post-industrial, technologically innovative global economy.
"We literally are competing with people around the world," she said.
After reviewing the effects of the economic crisis and loss of thousands of jobs in 2008, Stabenow talked about the Recovery Act, or Stimulus, under the Obama administration, and how Michigan has benefited from it. One aspect of it is the 30 percent manufacturing tax cut for companies that focus on wind, solar, electric vehicles and other new technologies -- which led to job creation for Michigan companies taking advantage of that tax cut. Michigan also received 1.3 billion of the 2 billion dollars set aside nationally for electric vehicle battery manufacturing partnered with businesses.
"Now we have at least 16 companies (helped by research going on in universities) that are developing parts for electric vehicles," Stabenow said.
While the good news is Michigan is not depending on other countries to support their industry but is now able to compete globally, she added, "the bad news is that we were losing jobs 1000 at a time and now they're coming back 100 at a time."
For students graduating in a few years, the job prospects should be getting better, Stabenow added. She explained how another aspect of the stimulus was the change to direct student loans -- without the banks -- which has increased the number of federal grants and student loans and allowed more people to go to college. At the same time, federal research grants are being budgeted to help universities, and Michigan Tech benefits from these every year.
She noted, as an example, that research "to protect our troops in the field" is done here at Michigan Tech.
Stabenow mentioned also new legislation to support small businesses with loans and new tax cuts -- the subject of her visit to the local Smart Zone business incubator today.
"The toughest situation right now is for a small business to get started -- to go to the bank and get capital for a loan -- because of what happened on Wall Street," she said.
"Even in the auto industry, most jobs in Michigan are in small business," Stabenow said. "They are suppliers."
Stabenow reminded the students of the important health care reform bill that allows young people to stay on their parents' insurance until age 26. They don't have to be in school or living with parents. The age 26 is the only criterion.
"The idea is to help somebody who's gotten out of school, trying to get started," she explained.
Stabenow also mentioned the fact that in three years, when this health care reform is fully implemented, there would be a Web site for health care exchanges where people can go to buy insurance at cheaper rates with better coverage.
Stabenow's "passion": the Great Lakes
Finally, Stabenow said she wanted to talk about her passion -- the Great Lakes. She first asked how many of the students were originally from Michigan.
"So the Great Lakes are in your DNA, right? They're in mine," she said to those with raised hands. "Protecting the Great Lakes is not just a slogan. It's very much what we're about. It's a huge natural resource. It really represents who we are. It's also an economic resource for us in many, many ways."
Stabenow said she was very involved in efforts to protect the Great Lakes, including working with the Army Corps of Engineers to deal with the challenge of the Asian Carp. She noted she is leading a legislative initiative to re-route the waters so that there will be a permanent hydrological separation between the (infested) rivers and the Great Lakes to keep this invasive species out of the Lakes.
"In my judgment protecting our waters is incredibly important, and it's also a major priority with me," Stabenow said.
In a brief interview about her work in defending the Great Lakes, Stabenow told Keweenaw Now she had first, in 2001, helped achieve a temporary oil drilling ban in Michigan (under former Gov. Engler) and in 2005 authored the current ban on U.S. offshore oil and gas drilling in all the Great Lakes.
To our question on the sulfide mining being pursued by Rio Tinto - Kennecott near Lake Superior, Stabenow replied she was not involved in the issue but was aware of it.
"I think there's a lot of legitimate questions that have been raised (about the sulfide mining) and I'm listening to what people are saying," Stabenow said. "The state needs to be aggressively protecting our natural resources."
Keweenaw Now also asked Stabenow her opinion of Virg Bernero, mayor of Lansing and Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
"I think Virg is terrific!" she answered. "I live in Lansing. He's created jobs, and I think he'd be a great governor."
Stabenow fields students' questions
Questions from the students ranged from the "Cash for Clunkers," which the Senator sponsored, to electric and diesel cars, nuclear energy, and fast trains.
Update: Following her presentation and question-answer session, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow chats with students from Michigan Tech's EcoCAR team -- Jason Socha, team leader, and Jamie Kleinendorst, outreach coordinator -- who presented her with a special "EcoCAR" t-shirt in appreciation of her visit.*
Concerning the "Cash for Clunkers," Stabenow said it kicked in just in time to help auto sales and put money in the pockets of consumers, allowing them to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle. It also brought about 60,000 people back to work.
"From an economic standpoint, it was a complete winner," she said.
Stabenow admitted one of the problems of the program was that older engine parts had to be destroyed, although other parts of the vehicle could be recycled. If it were to be done again, as a long-term program, she added, it would have to be focused on a much higher fuel efficiency.
She said legislation is being proposed for the next session in November to encourage electric and natural gas vehicles. It also proposes setting up 15 areas in the country as models for infrastructure needed for the electric car.
One student asked if there is any tax incentive for people to buy diesel cars, which are cleaner than gasoline cars and get better mileage.
Stabenow said it was only the electric vehicles that have the $7500 tax cut, but research is being done on diesel and Chrysler is taking the lead on that, while GM has made a business decision to make the electric car.
In reply to a question whether the electric car is really environmentally better, considering the cost of electricity and pollution from power plants, Stabenow said one idea is that the electric vehicle would be charged at night, during low-peak times, which might even allow electric vehicle owners to sell electricity back to the grid. The other very important piece of the question is how to produce electricity with cleaner energy.
"That piece is the piece that we have been trying to get done with a comprehensive energy policy in D.C.," Stabenow said.
As an alternative to cars, Kevin Vayko of Almont, Mich., a Michigan Tech senior in environmental engineering, said he had recently been in France for a few months and was impressed by the high-speed trains. He asked the Senator if there were plans for high-speed rail transportation in the U.S.
Kevin Vayko of Almont, Mich., a senior in environmental engineering, poses for a photo with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow after her presentation at Michigan Tech on Thursday, Oct. 21. Vayko asked the Senator a question on high-speed rail development.
Stabenow replied it was beginning -- with a project to put an East-West high-speed rail line between Detroit and Chicago.
Concerning nuclear power, Stabenow mentioned DTE Energy's plant in Monroe, Mich., (Fermi 2) and their plans for a second one, for which they are now going through a permitting process. She said the community there is very supportive of it.**
Noting the "trade-offs," Stabenow said the challenge on the nuclear front is the waste, while the positive side is zero emissions and better technology, including recyclable parts.
"I think it has to be part of the mix," she said. "I'm really an 'all of the above' person. Right now about 70 percent of our energy in Michigan comes from coal; and from an environmental standpoint -- and for jobs -- we need to move away from that, but we're not going to move away completely when we have such a big footprint on coal."
Stabenow also mentioned biomass -- fuel from wood products -- now being produced in the U.P. She said what she finds exciting, as a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is that new renewable energy offers both innovation and jobs while helping us become independent of oil -- a national security issue -- as well as cleaning up the environment and attacking global warming.
"The next great vehicle or clean energy process may be created by somebody in this room, so as far as I'm concerned we have only our own talent and ingenuity and curiosity," Stabenow told the students. "We've been the innovators, and we need to be innovators in a global economy."
Michigan Tech President Glenn Mroz thanked Stabenow for her visit and reminded the students of the importance of voting in the coming Nov. 2 election.
Michigan Tech University President Glenn Mroz thanks U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow for her visit and reminds students of the importance of voting.
"What you do when you vote does matter," Mroz told the students. "If you vote, you do matter."
The Senator also mentioned she was looking forward to coming back to see the snow statues at Michigan Tech's Winter Carnival, one of her favorite events.
*Learn about Michigan Tech's participation in the EcoCAR challenge on their Web site.
** See Eartha Jane Melzer's Feb. 17, 2009, article, "Cancer questions grow around Fermi nuclear plant," in the Michigan Messenger. The Fermi 2 plant recently had its designation as a Clean Corporate Citizen renewed by the state for three years: See Southeast Michigan Business and Industry News: "Fermi 2 Nuclear Power Plant Gets Redesignation." See also the Oct. 20, 2010, Monroenews.com article mentioning workers at the plant: "Fermi refueling to start next week."