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The interview: Oakland’s sustainability officer

Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter in September 2021 took the forward step of appointing a new environmental sustainability officer who is responsible for integrating social, financial, and environmental sustainability perspectives and best practices into everyday operations not only for the county, but also for local city, township and villages. Erin Quetell, Oakland County’s first environmental sustainability officer, sat down with Downtown Newsmagazine News Editor Lisa Brody for a one-on-one interview to explain her responsibilities, what sustainability means for the county, local municipalities, and what individual homeowners can easily do to help achieve climate goals and carbon neutrality – and what it all means in simple, easy-to-follow terms.

Before you came to this job in Oakland County, you served as environmental sustainability planner for the city of Ferndale. What did that entail?

QUETELL: So, very similar to this role. I was housed in the Community Economic Development Department. So part of my role was to look at our planning and zoning and development projects, work with developers, as well as look at the sustainability efforts for the city as a whole. So things like water conservation, energy conservation, waste management, green spaces, everything that has to do with sustainability.

In Ferndale, you added solar array for the city, converted all the streetlights to LED, did a stormwater infrastructure vulnerability assessment and downtown waste management plan, greenhouse gas emission inventory, and did a mobility plan update. How did that prepare you for your work at the county, and what lessons and perspectives are you taking forward?

I have used that experience to integrate different practices into my current role such as looking at everything really holistically and comprehensively. I think about sustainability as a system, communities as a system. And there’s all these different parts that are integrated. And the position in Ferndale really prepared me for interacting with a lot of different types of stakeholders, a lot of different community groups, internally and externally.

And thinking about how municipal operations work and what we can do to improve them, how we can serve our community members, how we can serve our communities, thinking about what does it mean to be conservative with your energy and water? What does it mean for different waste management items and such like things like that. So, it really prepared me for this because I understood everything from a hyperlocal community level. And then I can think about that now of how to serve all communities in Oakland County.

Oakland County, and county executive Dave Coulter, has made a commitment towards environmental sustainability. The county says its mission is to “provide information, plans and options to promote conservation of Oakland County’s natural environment while supporting sustainable economic growth, development and redevelopment.” What really is “sustainability,” and what are practical climate goals for people just trying to go to work, take care of their kids, and pay their bills?

I always think of sustainability in these main three buckets: energy, waste, and water. Certainly, there’s other aspects to sustainability. But I think that a lot of people really understand those three items.

And when we’re thinking about how that relates to maybe personal efforts, or actions that people can take as thinking about are your lights in your own home converted to LEDs. We know that LEDs emit a lot less energy, a lot less heat. And so they’re a conservation way that you can implement in your own home.

Thinking about low flow toilets, low flow faucets – there’s different criteria that you can do. There’s Energy Star rated appliances, there’s WaterSense rated shower heads – things like that, that really are very tangible for somebody to think about, as well as even just thinking about different ways for transportation, or thinking about the products that they buy. There’s a lot of different ways that folks can think about sustainability and how it relates to them. And I think that it is affordable. I think that sometimes there are certain things that might seem expensive on the onset, but those savings that you have is really where you get the payback. You will significantly see your energy bill go down, your water bill go down, by implementing these types of efficiencies.

So it can be an investment at first but down the road, it’s the savings.

Sure. And then some things are actually now in the market are more affordable as far as sustainability because there are different products that you can buy. Maybe it’s thinking about the shampoo you use or the laundry detergent that you use. A lot of companies now are looking at that and how they can be more sustainable. What are the chemicals that they’re using – or not using – different natural products like that.

Too often, thanks to political gridlock in Washington D.C., states have had to take the lead on some issues, especially when it comes to addressing concerns about the environment. The same applies when counties are basically forced to take the lead when state lawmakers or an administration fails for whatever reasons to address issues of concern. So when Oakland County says it will “provide information, plans and options” – that is all well and good. But does the county have the legal muscle to implement county-wide policy for local communities to move the sustainability effort along quicker?

I think that that’s a really good question. An immediate example that kind of comes to mind is the thinking about our water stormwater standards that the county has been working on, recently released some updated standards for development and what that looks like. And that’s something that the county can have direct influence on of what this development do as far as sustainability for stormwater mitigation. How can we integrate more green infrastructure? And that’s just one way that the county can provide resources and support for things that are happening on the ground today.

Can you elaborate? Could there be mandates upon individual municipalities to follow through on the that?

I think that it’s more about collaboration, and thinking about the context of what municipalities are working on right now. The environment doesn’t realize municipal boundaries, right? Climate change doesn’t realize municipal boundaries. So what are those efforts that we can put in place that help everybody in Oakland County, all of the CVTs (cities, villages and townships). And it’s really thinking about those different ways that we can help support the efforts maybe that are already happening on the ground.

What could it cost communities, though? Individual CVTs?

Not quite sure. You know, I think cost is always one of those topics that is very tricky. Sometimes it can be something that is more affordable, sometimes there is a cost. I mean, certainly like every other operation or item that you implement, there’s some sort of financial element to that. So it just kind of depends.

All right. So you’re not thinking that there could be unfunded mandates, that if the county passes something that there might be funding that would be available.

I don’t think that’s a very sustainable way to think about policy. I know that it’s been very frustrating when other unfunded mandates have been forced upon our communities, and that’s not something that I am interested in pushing forward.

Is the county prepared to lobby in Lansing for legislation to dictate state-wide policies to reach environmental goals? A good example would be the law recently adopted in California that over a couple of years will ban the sale and use of so-called gasoline fueled small off-road engine items like chain saws, weed trimmers, golf carts and similar items – all of which create emissions equal if not greater than gas-propelled autos.

Sure. I think that there’s been a lot of conversations and what sort of support we could provide in that realm. There are things specifically within the energy sector that I think that Oakland County can be part of those conversations and what it means for our communities. I think that innovative policies such as that of thinking about our vehicles, and thinking about our small machines is really interesting. And it’s something that we can see would make sense for here in Michigan or here in Oakland County.

Has there been any discussion with executive Coulter and his administration as you’ve begun your work to think about that lobbying work to promote sustainability?

Yeah, absolutely. We have leadership conversations and discussions all the time where we’re really trying to focus on especially the infrastructure bill, and what that can provide and how that can support sustainable goals. And so we’re definitely talking about that. And I’ve had a few different ideas and nothing yet – I’m still new on the job, but certainly I’ve had those conversations.

If part of the county’s effort is to help local communities move toward environmental sustainability, shouldn’t there be some sort of assessment of current standards in the communities so plans can be developed? In the most recent past administration in Oakland County, when there were county-wide efforts of this nature involving local communities, the county would help fund part of the expense of achieving goals. Has that been under discussion with county executive Dave Coulter? Does the county have earmarked funding for your effort or is it expected that the county will benefit from the recently passed federal funding initiative?

Yes, we have thought about what that looks like for sustainability, externally facing. What we’re doing internally right now is conducting our sustainability plan for our operations and facilities. And we’re hoping that through that we can have a little bit of a model and show how we are leaders in sustainable ability and climate resiliency – and then how that translates to communities. We’ve thought of different innovative things like, perhaps it’s a package of ordinances or resources, and so on and so forth.

We have a lot of really great staff at Oakland County, and they’ve been thinking about this for a long time. And now that I have my role here, I can start to lead them a little bit and lead the county and to think about how we’re serving our communities. So we’re definitely looking at that. As I start to learn more from our different departments, and amplifying and supporting everything that they’re already doing, and then looking at the opportunities of where we can serve them as well.

Does the county have earmarked funding for your effort or is it expected that the county will benefit from the recently passed federal funding infrastructure bill that was just signed into law?

I think it’s a little bit of everything, kind of all of the above. It’s really looking at what’s the work that we’re already doing, and how can we amplify it. I’m a department of one, it’s just me for right now, so I’m working really hard.

Is there money earmarked for you?

We have been talking about that, and discussing that. Right now, what we have so far is working on the sustainability plan. And then a lot of that will help guide what we’re going to be doing for our facilities and operations specifically, and what sort of budgets we need to put in place for that.

And then certainly looking at the recently passed infrastructure bill as well as ERP funding and how we can leverage that and sustainability and climate resiliency.

Do you have any idea how much money the county will be receiving from the feds at this point from that legislation?

Not sure yet. We just had a conversation earlier today. I think that’s kind of on our to-do list to figure out exactly what that would look like. I think everyone’s really excited about it. So we’re hopeful that we’ll have something pretty significant coming to our communities.

In September of 2020, Gov. Whitmer ordered EGLE’s Office of Climate and Energy to coordinate the state effort to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 through development and implementation of the Michigan Healthy Climate Plan. That office is supposed to provide guidance to local communities in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting renewable energy and generally moving to a clean energy economy. Although that was just a year ago when the executive order was issued, did you interact with the state when you were in Ferndale? What role do you see the state playing in your efforts?

Yes, we kept an eye on all of that in the city of Ferndale. We passed our own climate emergency ordinance and resolution, talking about where we played and how we fit into that. I know that there have been commitments for Oakland County to become carbon neutral by 2050, as well – thinking about our internal operations.

The state has a lot of really great programs so far, and really thinking about this funding opportunities. There’s also this group that they started called the catalyst communities, which where communities can listen into some interactive webinars and listen to some subject matter experts about what they can do for their communities, or individual municipalities. Counties as well. Anyone in municipal government to think about how they’re serving their local government for the sustainability goals. That’s something I’ve been involved with.

I think another opportunity for the state is really to provide is what you mentioned – a guidance, a framework. What are the critical things that we collectively need to do together because it’s that notion of thinking about it regionally – because the environment doesn’t know municipal boundaries, so if we think about it more regionally – how are we serving the Great Lakes? How are we serving our residents