Grand Rapids area Representative Vernon Ehlers has a reputation in West Michigan and beyond for being “friendly” to the environment and even being an “environmentalist.” This is often asserted as fact with little explanation, leaving Ehlers’ constituents with no real means of evaluating the claim. We decided that it would be appropriate to look into the claims and evaluate how Ehlers has voted and why he votes as he does.
We found that throughout his career in the federal and state government, Ehlers has generally supported “pro-environment” legislation. Moreover, Ehlers identifies some environmental causes among his “Key Issues” on his website. However, while Ehlers record is better than that of many of his Republican Party colleagues, there is area for improvement. Ehlers has received mixed rankings from environmental groups for his voting record and has consistently supported trade agreements with limited environmental protections.
Christianity, Republicans, and the Environment
Representative Ehlers advocates that Christians have a responsibility to the environment. In the late 1970s, Vern Ehlers–then a Professor of Physics at Grand Rapids’ Calvin College–participated in a research project focusing on “Christian Stewardship and the Natural Resources” undertaken by the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. The research was conducted with a number of Christian scholars and was ultimately published in 1980 in a book titled Earthkeeping that outlines the obligation of Christians to “care for the creation.” The book was updated in the 1990s and published as Earthkeeping in the Nineties: Stewardship of Creation with Ehlers working on the revision while campaigning for the Michigan legislature.
Ehlers also contributed to a 1998 book titled Caring for Creation: Responsible Stewardship of God’s Handiwork in which he authored an essay titled “Christians, Politics, and the Environment.” One can read the brief essay as a summary of Ehlers’ view on the relationship between Christianity and the environment. Ehlers asserts, “we have a major responsibility not only to use the resources of the earth but also to maintain and preserve them as we till and keep the Lord’s garden.” In the essay, Ehlers uses phrases like “our degradation of the environment” and “our ecological crisis” to acknowledge the seriousness of the environmental crisis and to place blame for it on humans–and Christians who have failed to be good stewards.
Ehlers addresses problems in some religious responses to the environmental crisis. He criticizes the idea of a “number one” religion that teaches people to look out only for themselves, saying that this attitude is thankfully passing. He critiques the idea of “scientism,” which is often articulated by people who believe that no matter how humans treat the Earth science will have an answer. Ehlers also rejects the idea of “environmental pantheism” that “sees god in everything, and as a result it sees God in nothing.” Ehlers cites the Gaia hypothesis that believes that regards Earth itself as a god. Ehlers argues that proponents of this vision believe only in a philosophy of no harm towards the Earth and asserts, “we have no further responsibility in terms of dominion or using the earth’s resources to meet the needs of the people on this earth.” Moving beyond problematic religious attitudes, Ehlers also asserts that many people negate their Christian responsibility by failing to hold a long-term view (Ehlers argues that “we have as great a responsibility to future generations as we do to the current generations”) and believing that there is an unlimited supply of natural resources.
Ehlers argues that not only do Christians have a responsibility to see dominion as service, but that this service can be manifested in political activity. Ehlers outlines how he believes that this political activity can be successful, articulating components that are required in “any good political action plan”–whether environmental or not. Ehlers begins by stating that people must “Be Well Educated,” particularly when it comes to being able to articulate and counter-argue against opposing view points. People must also “Understand the Complexity of the Issue and the Legislator’s Task,” becoming aware of the legislative process. Activists must also “Work with Others” if they wish to be something other than “one citizen coming in to complain about an issue,” with Ehlers placing emphasis on building alliances with non-traditional allies. One must also “Be Politically Active” with Ehlers arguing that people should not only vote in elections but also be active in volunteering for and contributing financially to political campaigns. A strategy must also “Be Effective” with Ehlers specifically citing the actions of the environmental group Greenpeace as being “outrageous” and capturing the attention of the press, but with their effectiveness being “among the lowest of the various environmental groups.” Finally, Ehlers tells citizen activists to “Be Sympathetic” and understand the difficulties–from public scrutiny to eighty-hour workweeks–faced by legislators.
In addition to advocating for Christian responsibility towards the environment, Ehlers has also rejected the notion that Republicans are “anti-environment.” In the Spring 2005 issue of Ej Magazine, Ehlers was one of the Republicans cited in an article titled “Conservatives for Conservation: Environment-minded Republicans kick start Roosevelt’s forgotten legacy.” In the article, Ehlers is quoted saying that “I think it’s a false juxtaposition to say that Democrats are environmentally-friendly and Republicans are not” before going on to state “I’m from the tradition of (Theodore) Roosevelt, but I take it a step further in not just dealing with conservation, but with pollution, invasive species and energy, and I do it out of my concern for the environment and my religious commitment to protect it.” In the past, Ehlers has received awards from Republicans for Environmental Protection on whose honorary board he serves. Republicans for Environmental Protection exists to “to resurrect the GOP’s great conservation tradition and to restore natural resource conservation and sound environmental protection as fundamental elements of the Republican Party’s vision for America.” It acts on this mission by endorsing Republican candidates, rating candidates, issue advocacy, and supporting candidates.
Endorsements and Voting Record
Representative Ehlers has a long history of receiving praise from environmental groups in Michigan and beyond. In the last election, Ehlers was endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters. This praise has occasionally translated into financial support for his campaign, such as a 1995 contribution by the League of Conservation Voters PAC. In the past, Ehlers has received several awards from environmental groups, including an “Outstanding Elected Public Official” award from the West Michigan Environmental Action Council in 1986, a “Legislative Conservationist of the Year” award from Michigan United Conservation Clubs in 1988, a “Michigan Environmental Legislator of the Year” award from Michigan Environmental Defense in 1990, a “Congressional Leadership Award” from the National Council on Science and the Environment in 2003, and the 2006 “Helen & William Milliken Distinguished Service Award” from the Michigan Environmental Council.
Moving into his voting record, Ehlers has a consistent record of supporting pro-environment legislation. Various ratings by groups such as Environment Michigan (69%) and Republicans for Environmental Protection (71%) have given Ehlers a moderate rating on the environment. An evaluation by Project Vote Smart found that Ehlers’ voting record is consistent with addition environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters (75%) and the American Wilderness Association (66%). In 2006, Ehlers voted in favor of many of the “Key Votes” on the environment identified by the League of Conservation Voters. In his most recent term, Ehlers has been given a 69% rating for his votes in support of the environment. In the past, Ehlers has voted to begin implementing the Kyoto Protocol, recognizing the importance that he has given to global warming (it is worth noting that in a 2006 candidate debate Ehlers said global warming might “help” some areas). Summaries of Ehlers’ voting record on the environment in the 109th session (2) and 110th can be found online.
Some key votes on the environment by Ehlers over the past year (as identified by the League of Conservation Voters) are representative of how he tends to vote on environmental issues:
08/04/07 – Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act of 2007 – YES – An energy tax bill including provisions aimed at reducing oil and gas tax subsidies for renewable energy, energy efficiency, and hybrid vehicles.
08/04/07 – New Direction for Energy Independence, National Security, and Consumer Protection Act – YES – The House energy bill required utilities to produce 15% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015 along with incentives for energy efficiency. Environmental Defense criticized the bill saying it will “cut 0% below current levels.” On this vote, Ehlers rejected an amendment designed to facilitate liquid coal and oil drilling. He supported an amendment that requires utilities to generate 15% of their electricity from renewable sources.
06/27/07 – Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations, FY 2008 – NO – Ehlers voted against this bill appropriating money $27.6 billion for the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and related agencies. Ehlers supported amendments to the bill designed to prohibit pursuing oil shale reserves on public land, prohibit funding of roads in the Tongass National Forest, prohibited the EPA from implementing rules designed to weaken the Clean Air Act, prevented the Interior Department from issuing new leases to offshore natural gas development, and requiring a national intelligence estimate on global warming to be submitted to Congress.
Ehlers has also used his position in Congress to argue for the environment in a capacity beyond voting for legislation. He serves on several committees that address environmental issues, including the Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment, the House Committee on Science and Technology, and the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Ehlers has also called publicly for dramatic increases in fuel efficiency and has called for an increase in sustainable energy research and production. Ehlers has also been in the media recently opposing plans to divert water from Michigan. Ehlers has also worked to create further collaboration on protecting the Great Lakes and has introduced legislation on the issue.
To be sure, Ehlers does have a fairly impressive record on the environment–especially when compared to many of his Republican colleagues. However, there are two key areas–trade and war–on which Ehlers’ actions undercut his pro-environment reputation.
On trade, Ehlers has supported most major neo-liberal trade agreements. These votes include support the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the Peru Free Trade Agreement (Peru FTA) that had environmental agreements based on the model that exists within the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). These provisions have been criticized extensively by environmentalists, especially for provisions that allow environmental regulations to be challenged in front of secret tribunals as “barriers to trade.” Ehlers also supported GATT, an agreement that led to the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO has allowed for a similar weakening of some U.S. environmental laws.
Ehlers has been a consistent supporter of the Iraq War since the lead-up to the war in 2002. Opponents of the war raised concerns about the environmental impact of the war before the invasion, and unfortunately, much of what they warned about came true. Environmental degradation and the destruction of public health systems exacerbated civilian suffering and damage to Iraq’s environment will continue to affect the country. Even before the most recent invasion, the environmental legacy of the 1991 Gulf War had drawn attention. During that war, Iraq set fire to oil wells and released water into the ocean and desert animal and plant life was damaged due to the movement of troops and heavy equipment. There are also persistent concerns about the impact of depleted uranium (DU) weapons and the low-level radioactive dust present in the desert. During the 1991 war, 640,000 pounds of depleted uranium weapons were used and the weapons were extensively used in 2003. DU is a waste product of the process used to enrich uranium ore and has been used in weapons because it is dense and offers armor piercing capabilities.
Ehlers has also occasionally voted contrary to the environmental movement. An example would be his support of the Healthy Forests Act, which was designed by the Bush administration to “thin” forests in order to reduce the chance of forest fires. It was criticized by a number of environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society saying that it had more to do with opening federally manage forests to logging than with preventing forest fires.
Ehlers has also supported nuclear energy.