In every economic downturn, there must be a scapegoat. In the current mess, it looks like the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is moving up the charts and may be bound for Number One.

A scapegoat is variously characterized as the beast upon which the sins of the people are symbolically placed and then sent into the wilderness or “the object of irrational hostility.” Irrationality being a trademark of the political process, the DEQ is well on its way to the political wilderness.

In the last two months, Attorney General Mike Cox has said the DEQ is “viewed as a hostile occupational army” in some parts of the state, State Rep. Paul Scott has called the DEQ “ridiculous” for taking too long to approve pollution permits, and Jim Wellman, a State Senate candidate, has called for relaxing environmental regs to attract the steel and textile industry to Michigan. “"I don’t want our air to be like China or downtown L.A. used to be, but I think we ought to ease the restrictions," Wellman said.

House Democratic Speaker Andy Dillon even got into the act last week, attacking the DEQ’s approach to permitting of coal-fired power plants. He added, “That department needs to know that they are there to serve businesses in the state." Actually, that’s the job of the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. The DEQ’s mission is to protect and enhance Michigan’s environment and public health.

But let’s get back to the basic question: Is the DEQ a significant cause of Michigan’s economic suffering?

Common sense says no. The environmental regs so often complained about by politicians haven’t changed substantially since Michigan’s last boom times a decade ago. They didn’t punish the economy then.

In a much-quoted 1995 paper, MIT political scientist Stephen Meyer did the best he could with the numbers and concluded that “over the course of a decade states with stronger environmental policies enjoy a small net economic gain.” He didn’t say that the strong environmental rules caused the gain, just that they didn’t prevent it. Studies since then have backed him up.

But what is the specific reason so many politicos are lambasting the DEQ? It’s getting in the way of a couple of coal-eating, carbon dioxide-spewing power plants in part because Jennifer Granholm told it to. In early February she invoked a new state renewable energy law to direct the DEQ to consider alternatives to coal and energy efficiency before licensing the plant. Since the state is talking up the role clean energy can play in the state’s economic future, it only makes sense not to preclude that with a hurry-up decision on coal plants.

Many Michigan grassroots advocates have problems with DEQ, too: They think it’s too often compromised its mission in order to appease businesses. The case most often mentioned is the Dow Chemical file, which threatens to become immortal. The Granholm administration has been as engulfed in a mediation between Dow and the public as its three predecessors in a 30-year dispute.

At the same time all this is happening, rumors are spreading that DEQ Director Steve Chester, who has served Granholm since the beginning of her first term, is among candidates for the regional U.S. EPA top job in Chicago. If the Obama administration names him to the post, the governor has a chance to send an unequivocal message that she will not yield to the undocumented argument that the DEQ and the laws it enforces are a major culprit in Michigan’s stunning economic decline.

She could name a bold, vigorous and respected public servant or advocate to run the DEQ. She could also go along with the proposed merger of the DEQ with the Department of Natural Resources and make its director, Rebecca Humphries, the first woman to administer state’s environmental programs. In doing either of these, Granholm would courageously reject the argument that a major way to boost Michigan’s economy is to sacrifice the air, water and other natural resources that distinguish the state from so many other places.

In the end, bashing environmental protection is a cheap trick for pandering politicians. It’s a way to divert attention from policies that might work — policies that aren’t consistent with right-wing dogma. Smart Michigan voters will ignore the legerdemain.

(Dave Dempsey advised Gov. James Blanchard on environmental policy from 1983 to 1989. He is author of a book on Michigan’s conservation history and is communications director for the nonprofit organization Conservation Minnesota.)