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
here and our businesses? That’s something that the guidance from EGLE and the state of Michigan could provide and help, similar to Oakland County.
I think we play a role in that, as well as guiding.
In terms of cooperation among the various units of government, there is currently in place a general understanding among counties, at least in this area, that when major developments in an adjacent county are proposed, neighboring counties are notified and given an opportunity to assess the impact on such infrastructure items, like roads, etc., that may be affected. Should that approach be expanded to include environmental sustainability impact issues or issues such as emissions?
Absolutely, absolutely. I think that one easy thing to think about is EV (electronic vehicle) infrastructure. You know, when you’re traveling through different municipalities or different counties or on your way to the airport, you know, or wherever you’re driving – how can we be more connected with our EV infrastructure and thinking about that more regionally. Stormwater standards, how we’re managing our stormwater and how that is impacting our communities with either with the flooding or even just the process of trends transporting that water.
As you said, water doesn’t know any boundaries, as we saw from this summer of flooding.
Absolutely, absolutely. And when you think about the watersheds of something starting at the top and kind of draining to the bottom, that’s where we need to think about the resiliency to that as well, and how our different infrastructure systems can manage all that from how they travel underneath our roads that move from community to community. And so I think that that would be very helpful and coordinated efforts, in that, for us to kind of move together with that.
At some point, should there be more of a regional approach to the effort of achieving environmental sustainability or is that concept too far off the rails at this point?
I think that that’s the critical part. I definitely think more regionally, just because I’m working in Oakland County doesn’t mean I’m not talking to the other counties and figuring out what are they doing? What are their best practices? How are they tackling the climate emergency?
And I think that that’s the only way that we can move ahead and serve our communities and really make a dent in our greenhouse gases.
So you are talking to Macomb or Wayne or Washtenaw are the other counties?
Let’s return for a moment to specific Oakland County efforts to address sustainability and the issue of global warming. Do you envision the county leading by example on such things as moving to EV vehicle purchases, moving away from use of small off-road gas driven items, solar panels on county buildings for electrical power, for example?
Absolutely. That’s part of what we’re doing for our sustainability plan that we’re working on right now is what are those policies and practices that we need to put in place really taking a look at what we’re doing well, and what are those opportunities; a fleet management policies for electrification; thinking about our buildings; thinking about our renewable energy in our energy portfolio that we have – where we’re purchasing our energy and so forth. So yes, that has been what I’ve been working on over the last month and continue to work out.
Is the lack of supporting infrastructure like EV charging stations or yet to be developed longer-life batteries going to hinder some of those policy changes?
No, we just have to think about things a little bit differently.
In what way? Can you elaborate?
I think that it’s thinking about our infrastructure – thinking about how we can collaborate a little bit more collaboratively on how we’re developing projects maybe on either in Oakland County or on our campus specifically.
When we’re repaving a road, that’s the time to put in the infrastructure for EV charging stations. When we’re thinking about renovations on our building, how can we make our buildings more efficient? Is there an opportunity to include solar on our rooftops – putting those things into practice
Some of those items have been thought about, but not as comprehensively as we would hope. And so that’s why I’m here. That’s what I’m working on.
What role does mass transit play in the plan for environmental sustainability to address global warming? Do we need to begin reorienting our thinking in terms of not just expanding our road and highway networks, but forcing more of our energies and funding to mass transit to take more cars off the roads?
Mass transit is definitely part of it. The more the more we utilize mass transit, the less cars that would be on the road. And thinking about what that mass transit is like – using electric buses, for example, thinking about that, are there different technologies, maybe elsewhere throughout the country or throughout the world that folks are using that we can implement here? It’s definitely a sustainability tool, and something that we need to think about for our regional transit system within southeast Michigan.
On a related tangent, does the move to remote working due to the pandemic – which is expected to have a major lasting impact on work habits – help at least somewhat on reaching emission reduction goals?
I think that’s really interesting, and something that we’re talking about internally right now, too. How are we using our space? What space do we need?
I think that the pandemic has really shed a light on how we are interacting with our workspaces and our home spaces a lot differently. And that certainly, you know, if we’re not using buildings or not using them in the same manner that we were, we can definitely reduce our energy use. And that, you know, clearly has greenhouse gas emission impacts.
How are you looking at that? What’s the discussion like on that? You said you’re talking about it, but explain to people what that conversation really is like.
We’re really looking at department by department and how people are using the buildings that we have – taking inventory of our buildings. That’s a big part of the AECOM sustainability plan of how people are using that space. Simultaneously, we’re looking at the different capital improvement projects that we have, you know, that we’ve been discussing, and that have been part of our, our planning processes.
So maybe some of those plans have shifted, maybe you don’t need those because people aren’t coming back to work?
Exactly, and in that same way – actually, that’s what we’re looking at. You know, it kind of shook us up a little bit. And so we’re having discussions about what’s the best and highest use of our facilities and how do we need to kind of adapt and change.
Water, water issues, lakes – they dominate the narrative in Michigan as the Great Lakes State. Sadly, in the last decade, that has taken an ominous tone with the Flint Water Crisis and more recently, the discovery of lead in the water in Benton Harbor. But we know that many older communities in the state, including in Oakland County, have had water and sewer issues, lead service line connector problems, and other water-related infrastructure headaches. How can they be discovered before more children and other vulnerable populations are further negatively impacted, and as the environmental sustainability officer, how do you and Oakland County move to aggressively tackle them once they are discovered – or is that not even part of your assignment in this new position?
This is a very good question and a very important one. We’ve had conversations with WRC (water resources commission) and how they’re handling everything. I think that the nice thing about this is even though there are some unfunded mandates with those water requirements from the state that a lot of communities are taking this very seriously and are required to report on the status of their lead service lines, and fix them. And so that’s really important.
It’s also education, too. There’s more ways that lead gets into the water that I don’t think people realize. So if you think about your faucets in your home, you have a little thing called an aerator. It’s recommended that you that you clean them very regularly, because different debris can get caught in there.
How do you do that?
You just unscrew at the point where you have your faucet – you unscrew that little part, open it up, it’s kind of like a little screen, rinse it underneath the water and then replace it – it’s pretty easy.
And just thinking about your fixtures in general, if it’s fixtures that were made, I think it was something like before 2014 or something like that, could still have potential parts made out of lead. And that was permitted. So think about replacing your faucets, if you’re able to, and having your water sampled, if you haven’t had it sampled, that’s just an easy way and it’s free.
It is free? How can people go about getting that done?
There are different locations that you can pick up water sampling bottles, like Home Depot or Lowe’s. You can just go to a big box hardware store. And then you can always contact the Water Resources Commission as well. And you can also see what water sampling efforts are happening in your community as well.
There are lots of older homes in the county that have built a long time ago. How dangerous is older paint?
Lead paint has definitely been around for a while as far as as an issue, and there’s different reporting requirements, depending on how old your house is. It’s definitely something to be concerned with, especially if you live in an older home that’s, you know, older than 1970’s or so. And that’s just something to be really cognizant of, especially if you’re buying a new home, learning about it, making sure you’re using safe good products in your house.
Climate goals are the new buzz words – but many of us don’t really know what that translates to in everyday practice. What can residents do to work towards sustainability while being mindful of climate change?
I think that related to climate, specifically, it’s thinking about things like what type of vehicle are you driving and what are your driving habits? Do you have to drive your car to the store in that way?
You know, I know that not everyone lives in a downtown area, but even thinking about when you go into a shopping area, do you have to move your car from Target to Meijer or whatever, within the same shopping center – you could walk instead. Think about that. And I know that not everyone’s able to do that. And certainly that’s for able-body folks who can do that and have the luxury of that.
Other things are just thinking about your spending habits. It’s so easy to buy from Amazon, and then it shows up the next day if you’re a Prime member. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but just being a little bit more cognizant of it – are there ways that you can minimize the amount of boxes. there’s different things that different companies are doing now to kind of consolidate some of that,
As well as supporting our local merchants, which is so critical, which is to shop local.
Shop local. Absolutely. And just really thinking about that. What are the products that you’re using? What are the products that you’re buying? How are you spending your money, because that really contributes then to putting a pressure on those businesses, on the business community to have more sustainable practices. If they know that you’re interested in recycled content or low chemicals, or what have you, there’s a lot of different ways that have those ancillary benefits to the climate goals that we have.
So many of us had gotten into the habit of bringing in our own shopping bags to the grocery store, and then the pandemic hit, and they wouldn’t let us. So should we be doing that? Is it okay to use their plastic bags? What should we be doing?
I think that’s a really good point. Now that we know a little bit more of the science, especially depending on your comfort level, using reusable bags, as long as you’re washing them and keeping them hygienic, which you should have been doing anyway, before the pandemic. But that’s certainly something to think about too. And that’s going to be an interesting challenge for the sustainability professionals, is those single-use plastics and that single-use mentality, because we’re so fearful, rightfully so, of spreading any sort of germs or viruses. And that’s going to be one of our challenges over the next few years, I think, what does that waste management look like?
Any other tips for residents on sustainability and climate everyday practices? Should people be considering buying EV automobiles yet without a lot of EV charging stations? Or do you think that’s going to be coming?
I think that’s coming. It’s not an if but when, and a lot more of the big automotive companies are creating a lot of EVs in their portfolio. Certainly, it’s something that helps. I know that sometimes it’s not as accessible for everybody. And so I think that that’s something that business needs to consider is how they can make it more accessible to the everyday user.
I think that it’s very exciting for developments, such as the F 150 Lightning – that will be the first truck that’s a little bit more available for the masses. I know that there’s a lot of range anxiety for the EV charging stations. But I think that that’s where Oakland County and others can think about how to make interconnectivity corridors for that.
So what do you propose for Oakland County? What do you see happening on that?
I think it’ll look like something, some sort of strategy on appropriate placement. The state of Michigan has already done a lot of work on our major right-of-way corridors, such as I-75, or 96, or 94. And then it’s really thinking about what are those other right-of-ways. How do we make Telegraph more connected? How do we make Grand River more connected? What about the Woodward corridor? And I think it’ll look like some sort of strategy of where those are placed, working with the CVTs (cities, villages, townships) for that placement and coming up with something to help support that.
You’re relatively new in this job. You’ve got your future here in front of you. What do you hope to realistically accomplish in one year? Five years? Ten? Please elaborate.
First and foremost, it’s completing the sustainability plan for our campus facilities and operations, that’s going to be completed by mid-next year. And that will really help guide and provide actions to what we do next. And that will be just for the Oakland County campus. We’re doing a greenhouse gas emission inventory of all of our facilities, including our parks as well. Every facility that the county owns and operates – making sure that we are leading by example. And cleaning up some of the things that we need to and supporting the opportunities that we have.
And then at the beginning of next year, really looking at how I can serve the communities. Maybe that’s a climate action plan, maybe that’s a sustainability plan. We’re really thinking about what does that mean for us to support the CVTs. How can Oakland me be a partner in that, and looking externally at that. And then, ideally, meeting some sort of interim goals of our carbon neutrality. So if we have this goal of 2015, to be carbon neutral, what can we do?
What does carbon neutral mean?
It’s thinking about how to reduce the amount of carbon that we are emitting. So that’s implementing renewable energy sources that don’t use coal or natural gas or gasoline or anything like that. Any kind of carbon source. And if we are using that carbon source, how are we offsetting it by those renewables. So then when you have kind of like a net zero carbon neutral, so it’s not putting more carbon into the environment. It’s staying kind of status quo, and even reducing the amount of carbon that we’re putting into the environment.
What about five years from now?
So focusing on the science-based targets of what we find out from our greenhouse gas emission inventory, and what are those big items that we can focus on for reducing our greenhouse gases. That might look like really thinking about our fleet, thinking about our transportation. Buildings are some of the highest emitters. For our buildings to be more efficient, it’s because they use electricity, they use gas, a lot of our buildings are 24/7, especially for our emergency management. And so really making sure we’re having the highest-efficient buildings that we can, and then introducing some sort of renewables. So that’s what I see in the five-year range of really making our buildings very efficient, our operations really efficient, thinking about what that means and targeting those high emitters to really start those reductions. And part of it too, honestly, is just culture. It’s building a sustainable culture, it’s infusing sustainability to everyday practices and operations. Making it tangible, making it easy making, it relatable.
Ten years down the line, hopefully, you’re still in this position. What do you hope to achieve?
Ten years down the line would get us to about those 2030 goals. I know that a lot of the effort is to reduce our emissions by 50 percent. So it’s really thinking about pretty aggressive work towards what that means – similar to what I was talking about earlier is like what that means for involving some sort of renewable energy systems, but then maybe even tackling it at a bigger scale of thinking about how can Oakland County be partners with our utilities, with our business community, really making transformational change for our region. And that’s what I see happening, but who knows, who knows?
Something new could come up.