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DTE natural gas project in northern Michigan begins amid climate concerns

yellow coils of pipeline
Coils of pipeline sit at the job site of DTE's natural gas project in Mesick (Izzy Ross/IPR News)
  • DTE is laying 20 miles of natural-gas pipeline around the villages of Mesick and Buckley in Wexford County
  •  The project gets underway even as the state works to cut fossil fuels and reach carbon neutrality
  • Supporters call natural gas a ‘bridge’ to renewables, while critics call it a bad investment

This coverage is made possible through a partnership between IPR and Grist, a nonprofit environmental media organization.

The wet and windy Friday afternoon in April wasn’t ideal for a groundbreaking ceremony. But Buckley Mayor Takis Pifer was all smiles.

“How big of a deal is natural gas? It’s huge,” he said.

DTE Energy is planning to lay down about 20 miles of pipeline to get natural gas to residents and businesses around the villages of Mesick and Buckley in northern Michigan’s Wexford County.

Pifer, who previously worked as an analyst for DTE, said most people in the area heat their homes with propane or wood stoves, and giving them another choice of fuel makes sense.

people standing in a circle with shovels
Buckley Mayor Takis Pifer, third from left, at the groundbreaking ceremony of DTE's natural gas project. (Izzy Ross/IPR News)

One of the big draws of the project is cost. According to DTE, it will cut heating bills. That — plus a short payback period for customers — made the decision to pursue the project easy, Pifer said.

“Propane was good, but natural gas is so much cheaper. That's why it becomes really the front-runner,” he said.

In Michigan, natural gas is the primary heat source for more than three quarters of households, and it's the leading source of electricity.

The use of natural gas for electricity has grown even as the state’s climate plan aims to cut fossil fuels and reach carbon neutrality in the coming decades. That trend follows the fuel's growth in the United States' electricity sector, spurred by lower prices, according to the International Energy Agency. (The IEA has also forecast a decline in demand for natural gas to heat U.S. homes and businesses, due partly to federal incentives for heat pumps and energy-efficiency measures.)

As the state tries to transition away from fossil fuels, projects like this are viewed as a step in the right direction by some and a bad investment by others.

Natural gas and climate

Natural gas is made up mostly of methane. And methane is extremely potent — much more efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.


“We call it methane gas or fossil gas, because it is a fossil fuel,” said James Gignac, who manages policy in the Midwest for the Union of Concerned Scientists, which promotes science-based policy solutions and has long been a voice for fighting climate change.

Experts say what we call fuel matters. A 2020 study from Yale found that Americans tended to view natural gas much more favorably than oil or coal, and associated it with things like “environment” and “clean,” while methane had more associations with terms like “greenhouse” and “climate change.”

Gignac said while burning natural gas may produce slightly fewer emissions than propane and is better than wood, it’s important to consider the total footprint.

“There's also leakage from the gas production and transportation system from where it's extracted and then moved through pipelines,” he said. “So methane gas is a significant contributor to climate change pollution.”


While companies across the country have long lauded natural gas as a cleaner energy source, leaks occur throughout production and delivery, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The environmental think tank RMI reported last July that a leakage rate of just 0.2% could put the climate impacts of gas at the same level as coal.

After a major methane leak at a Pennsylvania storage reservoir in 2022, the federal government began rolling out new rules for gas storage facilities, along with plans to fine companies for leaking methane.

Michigan’s Healthy Climate Plan calls for reducing reliance on natural gas. But by no means has the state shunned the fuel, which can be more affordable than other fuels typically used in rural areas.

A ‘bridge’ to renewable energy?

The Mesick-Buckley project received $7.28 million through a state grant for what the public service commission called “low-carbon energy infrastructure." That made the project possible, covering much of the roughly $17 million bill.

Moving away from coal is vital to reducing emissions, Gignac said, but those efforts should focus on electric heating instead of gas.

“It's really important to carefully scrutinize any proposed investments in building new gas plants, when we have these alternative technologies that we need to really be focused on ramping up as quickly as possible,” he said.

DTE is changing how it operates; it’s planning to shut down its last coal-powered plant by 2032. Ultimately, the utility says it's aiming for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. And it has maintained that natural gas is an important part of its transition away from coal.

Proponents have long called it a “bridge” fuel between other fossil fuel sources and renewable energy, like solar.

But critics disagree.

“What they’re calling a bridge fuel — really, it's a bridge to nowhere, because we are in the midst of a climate crisis,” said Ashley Rudzinski, the climate and environment program director with Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, a nonprofit in northern Michigan.

Rudzinski is disappointed that DTE is continuing to invest in natural gas.

“It's really important to invest locally and invest in systems that are going to improve our energy security and the reliability of our grid,” she said. “And for us, that means renewable energy.”

Back in Mesick, at the site of northern Michigan’s newest natural gas project, politicians, real estate agents, a school superintendent and contractors all gathered under a tent at the groundbreaking ceremony. Huge coils of pipeline and excavators sat, waiting, in the background.

“Natural gas is one of those ways that we’re reducing our carbon footprint,” said Scotty Kehoe, DTE’s gas operations director for Greater Michigan. “While natural gas might not be a renewable energy source, it is a very clean energy source.”

Michigan has the most natural gas storage capacity of any state — almost an eighth of the country’s total storage.

Kehoe said DTE can buy and transport the gas from places like Ohio and Pennsylvania and store it in natural underground reservoirs until they’re ready to distribute it to customers. That allows companies to buy gas for low prices during the summer and, according to Kehoe, sell it at lower prices during the winter.


And he doesn’t see it going anywhere anytime soon.

“I believe that natural gas will always have a place and a responsibility in the foreseeable future, in helping us provide that safe, reliable heat source and energy production, while helping us to get to whatever that future technology is that really gets us to our ultimate goals,” he said.

For those who want to move away from fossil fuels entirely, that future is troubling.

DTE has said the project will be finished and ready to deliver gas by the end of the year.

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