Michigan utility giants DTE Energy and Consumers Energy have given state lawmakers nearly half a million dollars in campaign contributions this year, according to new state disclosures that come amid worries that the same legislators will weaken key bills to accelerate the transition to clean energy in order to appease the utilities. 

Political action committees (or PACs) tied to DTE and Consumers have channeled a total of $479,450 to campaign accounts tied to legislators, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and broader party funds between January 1 and October 20. The filings, released this week, show funds affiliated with 119 of 148 state legislators – 80% of the body – have taken utility money this year. House and Senate energy committee members and chairs are notable beneficiaries, including some who promised to usher in a new era of utility accountability after widespread power outages earlier this year. 

Michigan Democrats, who won full control of the state government in last year’s election, have also campaigned on plans to pass strong climate legislation, anchored by a bill – SB 271 – that would require utilities in the state to transition to 100% clean electricity by 2040. Utility leaders have balked at the proposal and insist they are doing enough on their own to facilitate the clean energy transition, even as they continue to plan investments in fossil fuel infrastructure

Lawmakers have since loosened the bill’s standards through negotiations, drawing ire from environmental justice and clean energy groups who say utilities’ outsize political influence is a main barrier to addressing the climate crisis. 

Legislators’ changes could clear the way for the continued use of methane gas, a fossil fuel. The changes would permit the use of biomethane, also called “renewable natural gas” (RNG) to generate electricity. RNG, which is typically captured from landfills, dairy and livestock facilities, may be useful for decarbonizing some industrial purposes, but would be expensive and impractical to burn to generate electricity, while threatening communities with increased pollution. The revised bill also allows for burning gas with carbon capture technology. Dozens of environmental groups called those features of the bill “significant concerns” in a letter sent to state lawmakers last month.

“[Legislators] want to be able to say that they did the right thing on energy, and they want to make utilities happy,” Christy McGillivray, political and legislative director for the Sierra Club Michigan chapter, told Planet Detroit in October. “And that’s not actually possible.”

The Senate passed SB 271 on party lines, by a 20-18 margin, on Thursday. The bill advanced alongside legislation that sets a higher energy waste reduction requirement for electricity generation and a bill requiring utilities to address reliability, affordability, and service quality as part of integrated resource plans submitted to the Michigan Public Service Commission.

Utility giving spans both parties, favors Democrats

While campaign contributions from both DTE and Consumers PACs spanned both parties, both utilities’ spending skewed toward Democrats. Of the $266,900 doled out by DTE through October 20, $156,500 — roughly 59% — benefited Democrat-aligned accounts. Of the $212,550 disbursed by Consumers, $112,750 — about 53% – padded Democrats’ funds. This comes after a DTE-affiliated dark money nonprofit gave $2 million Democrat-aligned funds in 2022, the Detroit News reported.

Nearly one-third of the utilities’ overall PAC giving occurred recently, with $147,850 flowing into campaign accounts between July 21 through October 20, the most recent disclosure period. DTE gave $83,850 in that span, while Consumers gave $64,000. This spending came as lawmakers began debating the 100% clean energy bill and other climate measures in earnest, facing pressure from environmental advocates to keep bills intact and pass them before the legislature adjourns in November. 

Campaign contributions made earlier this year coincided with key moments this legislative session, including the introduction of clean energy bills and backlash to extended outages that blanketed much of Michigan after a February ice storm.

The top recipients of utility PAC money this year are party funds that broadly support Senate Republicans ($45,500), Senate Democrats ($41,000), House Republicans ($36,000), and House Democrats ($30,000). 

The utilities’ slight preference for Republican funds did not outweigh the overall favor they showed Democratic legislators. House Speaker Joe Tate, one of the most influential Democrats in Lansing, stands out for raking in roughly double the utility money that any other individual lawmaker took. Funds affiliated with Tate have received $30,000 from utility PACs this year, including $20,000 from DTE, plus a series of contributions totaling $10,000 from Consumers. 

The House, where Tate plays a big role in setting the legislative agenda, will take up energy bills soon.

The data that informed this analysis are available here, sourced from Michigan Department of State filings for DTE and Consumers PACs. Legislators who have fully returned DTE and Consumers PAC contributions this year are listed as receiving $0. Legislators not listed did not receive utility PAC contributions this year.

Posted by Karlee Weinmann

Karlee Weinmann is a Research and Communications Manager for the Energy and Policy Institute. In her previous role at the City of Minneapolis, she focused on climate and land use policy and led development of nationally recognized ordinances that increase transparency of home energy costs. Karlee was also a researcher for the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and, before that, a reporter covering Wall Street dealmaking for a legal newswire. She lives in Minneapolis.