Weekly Diaspora: The High Cost of Cheap Labor

 

by Catherine A. Traywick, Media Consortium blogger

A new study about the effects of immigration on U.S. employment supports the long-standing arguments of immigration advocates: Rather than displacing American workers, immigrant labor actually makes our economy stronger. Kevin Drum has the details at Mother Jones.

Now, with reports that undocumented laborers are a mainstay of disaster relief efforts all over the country, Americans are beginning to get a sense of the unsavory work relegated to many immigrants, and the high price immigrants pay for the simple privilege of employment.

Undocumented workers driving wages up

Going back to Mother Jones, new research examining the relationship between immigration and U.S. employment found that—contrary to conventional anti-immigrant wisdom—immigration does not negatively affect American employment. Instead, immigration drives wages up by pushing low-wage American workers into higher-paying jobs.

Here’s how it works: As less-educated immigrants gravitate towards work that requires fewer English language skills (like manual labor), their less-educated American counterparts move on to higher-paying, communications-intensive work that capitalizes on their comparatively better English language skills. This naturally drives wages up, and makes for a more productive economy overall.

The irony, as Drum notes, is that those who complain about immigrants stealing American jobs are the same people who want immigrants to learn English and assimilate as quickly as possible. “If they did,” Drum argues, “then they’d just start competing for the higher paying jobs that natives now monopolize.”

Stiffed in New Orleans

The reality of being an undocumented worker in the U.S. is starker than most Americans realize. Not only are immigrants doing work that most would rather not, they are also often cleaning up the messes that Americans leave behind.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, undocumented laborers remain a key component of reconstruction efforts. Initially drawn to the city by the prospect of work and the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to suspend employment immigration enforcement, many undocumented laborers relocated to New Orleans to assist with rebuilding. But, as Elise Foley reports at the Washington Independent, their immigration status renders them especially vulnerable to rampant wage theft, threats of deportation and workplace violence.

The situation is so dire for many workers that numerous nonprofit groups have initiated projects in the city and are calling for legislation to combat the problem. However, a key concern is that rising anti-immigrant sentiment in other parts of the U.S. could exacerbate difficulties in New Orleans. If such sentiment results in even greater labor abuses or renewed immigration enforcement, whole communities of people who have been dedicated to rebuilding the city could find themselves without livelihood, or even be displaced.

Exploited undocumented workers clean up oil spills

Given the reality that undocumented workers are  charged with some of the dirtiest and most unsafe work American employers have to offer, it shouldn’t be surprising that U.S. companies rely on immigrant labor to clean up their worst messes. Not only do undocumented workers have fewer employment options, their immigration status renders them far less likely to report unsafe working conditions, exposure to hazardous materials, and underpayment—making them especially attractive to employers looking to save money or hide bad behavior.

So, naturally, undocumented workers were called in to deal with the catastrophic BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (though their compliance only earned them the undue attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and, more recently, an oil spill in Michigan.

As Todd A. Heywood at the Michigan Messenger reports, one company in particular has come under fire for hiring and then exploiting undocumented laborers. Hallmark Industrial, a Texas contractor hired to clean up the oil spill, allegedly paid its workers only $800 for up to 100 hours of work per week. Additionally, the company subjected them to unsafe and hazardous working conditions, and even failed to provide workers with on-site toilets—forcing workers to relieve themselves in the areas they were charged with cleaning.

Just 24 hours after the Michigan Messenger broke the story, Hallmark Industrial was fired from the oil spill clean up, its contract terminated by the company which hired it, Garner Environmental Services, Inc. Whether that’s a victory is questionable. Following the termination of the contract, 40 undocumented workers were arrested in Texas, on a bus chartered by Hallmark—presumably just returned from Michigan. While the termination of the contract ensures that its workers won’t be subjected to further workplace abuses, it also ensures that those same individuals must begin the difficult task of finding similar work elsewhere.

Unemployed in California labor camps

Clearly, despite an inexorable willingness to perform low-wage manual labor, undocumented workers are not impervious to the unemployment epidemic. In U.S. labor camps—where migrant agricultural workers can find seasonal or even long term lodging near ranches—farm work is increasingly harder to come by.

As David Bacon highlights at New America Media, both undocumented immigrants and legal “guest workers” are adversely affected by the recession. While the latter possess work visas and may therefore stay in the country legally, both groups live together in the same labor camps, where they remain, ironically, unemployed. Given the present economic climate, there isn’t enough work for even the lowest-wage workers. And in spite of their legal status, even guest workers are barred from applying for unemployment benefits.

The recession has cast both undocumented and legally sanctioned agricultural workers into circumstances even more dismal than those advertised by UFW when it launched its “Take Our Jobs” campaign earlier this summer. Outlining the long hours, low pay, and back-breaking labor associated with farm work, UFW satirically invited American citizens to replace the scores of overworked and undocumented laborers that keep our agricultural industry afloat.

Though meant to be a tongue-in-cheek response to the misconception that immigrants steal American jobs, the campaign exposes a real, if unfortunate, truth about undocumented workers: Even as their presence drives Americans into higher paying jobs, Americans employers are all too happy to subject the undocumented to the worst indignities.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Pulse . This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

Weekly Diaspora: The High Cost of Cheap Labor

 

by Catherine A. Traywick, Media Consortium blogger

A new study about the effects of immigration on U.S. employment supports the long-standing arguments of immigration advocates: Rather than displacing American workers, immigrant labor actually makes our economy stronger. Kevin Drum has the details at Mother Jones.

Now, with reports that undocumented laborers are a mainstay of disaster relief efforts all over the country, Americans are beginning to get a sense of the unsavory work relegated to many immigrants, and the high price immigrants pay for the simple privilege of employment.

Undocumented workers driving wages up

Going back to Mother Jones, new research examining the relationship between immigration and U.S. employment found that—contrary to conventional anti-immigrant wisdom—immigration does not negatively affect American employment. Instead, immigration drives wages up by pushing low-wage American workers into higher-paying jobs.

Here’s how it works: As less-educated immigrants gravitate towards work that requires fewer English language skills (like manual labor), their less-educated American counterparts move on to higher-paying, communications-intensive work that capitalizes on their comparatively better English language skills. This naturally drives wages up, and makes for a more productive economy overall.

The irony, as Drum notes, is that those who complain about immigrants stealing American jobs are the same people who want immigrants to learn English and assimilate as quickly as possible. “If they did,” Drum argues, “then they’d just start competing for the higher paying jobs that natives now monopolize.”

Stiffed in New Orleans

The reality of being an undocumented worker in the U.S. is starker than most Americans realize. Not only are immigrants doing work that most would rather not, they are also often cleaning up the messes that Americans leave behind.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, undocumented laborers remain a key component of reconstruction efforts. Initially drawn to the city by the prospect of work and the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to suspend employment immigration enforcement, many undocumented laborers relocated to New Orleans to assist with rebuilding. But, as Elise Foley reports at the Washington Independent, their immigration status renders them especially vulnerable to rampant wage theft, threats of deportation and workplace violence.

The situation is so dire for many workers that numerous nonprofit groups have initiated projects in the city and are calling for legislation to combat the problem. However, a key concern is that rising anti-immigrant sentiment in other parts of the U.S. could exacerbate difficulties in New Orleans. If such sentiment results in even greater labor abuses or renewed immigration enforcement, whole communities of people who have been dedicated to rebuilding the city could find themselves without livelihood, or even be displaced.

Exploited undocumented workers clean up oil spills

Given the reality that undocumented workers are  charged with some of the dirtiest and most unsafe work American employers have to offer, it shouldn’t be surprising that U.S. companies rely on immigrant labor to clean up their worst messes. Not only do undocumented workers have fewer employment options, their immigration status renders them far less likely to report unsafe working conditions, exposure to hazardous materials, and underpayment—making them especially attractive to employers looking to save money or hide bad behavior.

So, naturally, undocumented workers were called in to deal with the catastrophic BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (though their compliance only earned them the undue attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and, more recently, an oil spill in Michigan.

As Todd A. Heywood at the Michigan Messenger reports, one company in particular has come under fire for hiring and then exploiting undocumented laborers. Hallmark Industrial, a Texas contractor hired to clean up the oil spill, allegedly paid its workers only $800 for up to 100 hours of work per week. Additionally, the company subjected them to unsafe and hazardous working conditions, and even failed to provide workers with on-site toilets—forcing workers to relieve themselves in the areas they were charged with cleaning.

Just 24 hours after the Michigan Messenger broke the story, Hallmark Industrial was fired from the oil spill clean up, its contract terminated by the company which hired it, Garner Environmental Services, Inc. Whether that’s a victory is questionable. Following the termination of the contract, 40 undocumented workers were arrested in Texas, on a bus chartered by Hallmark—presumably just returned from Michigan. While the termination of the contract ensures that its workers won’t be subjected to further workplace abuses, it also ensures that those same individuals must begin the difficult task of finding similar work elsewhere.

Unemployed in California labor camps

Clearly, despite an inexorable willingness to perform low-wage manual labor, undocumented workers are not impervious to the unemployment epidemic. In U.S. labor camps—where migrant agricultural workers can find seasonal or even long term lodging near ranches—farm work is increasingly harder to come by.

As David Bacon highlights at New America Media, both undocumented immigrants and legal “guest workers” are adversely affected by the recession. While the latter possess work visas and may therefore stay in the country legally, both groups live together in the same labor camps, where they remain, ironically, unemployed. Given the present economic climate, there isn’t enough work for even the lowest-wage workers. And in spite of their legal status, even guest workers are barred from applying for unemployment benefits.

The recession has cast both undocumented and legally sanctioned agricultural workers into circumstances even more dismal than those advertised by UFW when it launched its “Take Our Jobs” campaign earlier this summer. Outlining the long hours, low pay, and back-breaking labor associated with farm work, UFW satirically invited American citizens to replace the scores of overworked and undocumented laborers that keep our agricultural industry afloat.

Though meant to be a tongue-in-cheek response to the misconception that immigrants steal American jobs, the campaign exposes a real, if unfortunate, truth about undocumented workers: Even as their presence drives Americans into higher paying jobs, Americans employers are all too happy to subject the undocumented to the worst indignities.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Pulse . This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

'No Drama Obama' Needs a Strong Second Act

by Walter Brasch

           The Obama administration is a welcome change from the Bush–Cheney years. Against severe Republican opposition, President Obama has kept campaign promises to reform health care, curb Wall Street excesses, create a federally-funded stimulus program to help bring the nation out of the recession, and to remove American troops from the needless Iraq war, which has already cost Americans more than $740 billion and 4,400 lives. He has also pledged to eliminate the Bush–Cheney tax cuts for the rich, while not raising taxes on the middle- and lower-classes.

           However, much of what the President is doing appears to be little more than an extension of Bush–Cheney values. And that is not what the Americans voted for when they elected him to office.

           Candidate Obama ran, and won office as an anti-war politician. President Obama has increased American presence in Afghanistan. In July, 66 American soldiers were killed, the highest number for any month during the war.

           Candidate Obama pledged to end the PATRIOT Act, which has done little to protect American safety and much to destroy American Constitutional rights, including freedom of expression, due process, and protection against unreasonable governmental invasion of privacy. However President Obama signed legislation to extend the Act for yet another year.

           During the 2008 campaign, both candidates Barack Obama and John McCain promised to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. However, President Obama, apparently scared by the right wing paranoids, hasn't transferred any prisoners to maximum federal security prisons in the U.S., any one of which should have little difficulty dealing with suspected enemy combatants among the general population of killers and rapists.

           President Obama had failed to clean up the corrupt Minerals Management Service of the Department of Interior, which under the Bush–Cheney administration had become little more than feckless advocates for Big Oil. About a year into the Obama administration, the MMS exempted BP from filing a full environmental impact statement. Against the advice of environmentalists, and his own statements while a candidate, President Obama allowed continued deep water drilling in the Gulf, claiming that safety concerns were met. About a month later, the BP oil rig ruptured, killing 11 workers and leading to the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It took five weeks before President Obama finally placed a six month moratorium on deep well drilling, only to have that moratorium overturned by a Louisiana judge with financial ties to the oil industry. The Obama administration appealed that order and issued a broader moratorium. By then, more about 200 million gallons of oil had spilled into the gulf, killing wildlife, the fishing industries, and tourism.

           Although Candidate Obama  promised better transparency in government—and to a certain extent has succeeded—as President he allowed BP and his own government to place severe restrictions upon the media that were trying to give full coverage to the spill. 

           The transparency credibility issue surfaced again this month when the Defense Department rejected the application for Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings to accompany troops in Afghanistan. Hastings had accurately reported the political statements by Gen. Stanley McChrystal that led the President to fire him for the nature of his comments that "undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of the democratic system."

           Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama had said he believed in gay marriages. However, President Obama, although extending the rights of gay couples, has yielded to the fears of irrational conservatives and says he opposes same-sex marriages, but believes in civil unions. Unlike President Obama, supporters of same-sex marriage include Bill Clinton, Laura Bush, and Cindy McCain.

           The Republican leadership tried to block extending unemployment benefits during the Recession; it was weeks until President Obama spoke forcefully against the Republicans, which has earned its label as the "Party of 'No.'" Hopefully, President Obama will be quicker to denounce the prattle of Republican leaders who are mounting a campaign to reduce Social Security benefits.

           Solely for political reasons, the Bush–Cheney administration took gray wolves off the endangered species list one week before Barack Obama became president. Slightly more than a year after taking office, President Obama officially continued the Bush–Cheney policy. The action by both administrations allowed the killing large numbers of the 1,600 wolves in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho and Montana, often by state officials from helicopters and often into the dens that housed pups. No matter what the federal government said about wolves not being endangered, there were two realities. First, the Cattle Industry lobby wanted wolves removed, although federal subsidies reimburse ranchers for any livestock killed by wolves. The second issue is that wolves are competition for hunters, a majority of whom tend to be conservatives or supporters of Republican philosophies. While wolves kill for food or to protect their pack, human hunters may claim they hunt for food, but go to extraordinary lengths and expense to stuff and display their "trophy kills," and often will kill animals, such as bears, prairie dogs, and coyotes that have no food value. Unlike their human competitors, wolves usually don't use guns with telescopic sights, buy all kinds of whistles and electronic calls that mimic the cries of other animals, use elevated shooting stands, send out decoys, or even create elaborate steel-jaw traps. They never take their prey back to a cabin, consume 6-packs, and tell stories with other wolves. A federal court this week ruled that gray wolves in the Rockies were not only an endangered species, but stopped state-supported wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana.

           Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, against severe opposition, pushed through some of the most critical social legislation in the nation's history. Harry Truman stood up for his principles and for the benefit of the people when he lashed out at a "do-nothing Congress." Candidate Obama was elected on a forceful campaign mantra of "Change you can believe in," and not "A slight variation of present policies that you can maybe live with."

           President Obama is known as "No Drama Obama" because of his quiet intellectualism.  He needs to be more forceful, both in fully supporting social legislation he and his base believe in as well as attacking the vicious smears, lies, and distortions from the extreme Right Wing. If President Obama continues to pandering to the conservatives, and continues a slide into compromise that dilutes necessary social justice legislation instead of trusting the millions who voted for that change he promised, especially when he has both the power of the presidency and the votes in Congress, he will be a one-term president, hated by both the right and the left.

 [Assisting on this column was Rosemary Brasch. Walter Brasch's latest books are the witty and probing Sex and the Single Beer Can, a look at American culture and the mass media; and 'Unacceptable': The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina, which discusses governmental neglect that magnified both the damage from the hurricane and the BP oil spill. Both books are available at amazon.com, and other stores. You may contact Brasch at brasch@bloomu.edu.]

 

 

 

 

'No Drama Obama' Needs a Strong Second Act

by Walter Brasch

           The Obama administration is a welcome change from the Bush–Cheney years. Against severe Republican opposition, President Obama has kept campaign promises to reform health care, curb Wall Street excesses, create a federally-funded stimulus program to help bring the nation out of the recession, and to remove American troops from the needless Iraq war, which has already cost Americans more than $740 billion and 4,400 lives. He has also pledged to eliminate the Bush–Cheney tax cuts for the rich, while not raising taxes on the middle- and lower-classes.

           However, much of what the President is doing appears to be little more than an extension of Bush–Cheney values. And that is not what the Americans voted for when they elected him to office.

           Candidate Obama ran, and won office as an anti-war politician. President Obama has increased American presence in Afghanistan. In July, 66 American soldiers were killed, the highest number for any month during the war.

           Candidate Obama pledged to end the PATRIOT Act, which has done little to protect American safety and much to destroy American Constitutional rights, including freedom of expression, due process, and protection against unreasonable governmental invasion of privacy. However President Obama signed legislation to extend the Act for yet another year.

           During the 2008 campaign, both candidates Barack Obama and John McCain promised to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. However, President Obama, apparently scared by the right wing paranoids, hasn't transferred any prisoners to maximum federal security prisons in the U.S., any one of which should have little difficulty dealing with suspected enemy combatants among the general population of killers and rapists.

           President Obama had failed to clean up the corrupt Minerals Management Service of the Department of Interior, which under the Bush–Cheney administration had become little more than feckless advocates for Big Oil. About a year into the Obama administration, the MMS exempted BP from filing a full environmental impact statement. Against the advice of environmentalists, and his own statements while a candidate, President Obama allowed continued deep water drilling in the Gulf, claiming that safety concerns were met. About a month later, the BP oil rig ruptured, killing 11 workers and leading to the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It took five weeks before President Obama finally placed a six month moratorium on deep well drilling, only to have that moratorium overturned by a Louisiana judge with financial ties to the oil industry. The Obama administration appealed that order and issued a broader moratorium. By then, more about 200 million gallons of oil had spilled into the gulf, killing wildlife, the fishing industries, and tourism.

           Although Candidate Obama  promised better transparency in government—and to a certain extent has succeeded—as President he allowed BP and his own government to place severe restrictions upon the media that were trying to give full coverage to the spill. 

           The transparency credibility issue surfaced again this month when the Defense Department rejected the application for Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings to accompany troops in Afghanistan. Hastings had accurately reported the political statements by Gen. Stanley McChrystal that led the President to fire him for the nature of his comments that "undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of the democratic system."

           Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama had said he believed in gay marriages. However, President Obama, although extending the rights of gay couples, has yielded to the fears of irrational conservatives and says he opposes same-sex marriages, but believes in civil unions. Unlike President Obama, supporters of same-sex marriage include Bill Clinton, Laura Bush, and Cindy McCain.

           The Republican leadership tried to block extending unemployment benefits during the Recession; it was weeks until President Obama spoke forcefully against the Republicans, which has earned its label as the "Party of 'No.'" Hopefully, President Obama will be quicker to denounce the prattle of Republican leaders who are mounting a campaign to reduce Social Security benefits.

           Solely for political reasons, the Bush–Cheney administration took gray wolves off the endangered species list one week before Barack Obama became president. Slightly more than a year after taking office, President Obama officially continued the Bush–Cheney policy. The action by both administrations allowed the killing large numbers of the 1,600 wolves in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho and Montana, often by state officials from helicopters and often into the dens that housed pups. No matter what the federal government said about wolves not being endangered, there were two realities. First, the Cattle Industry lobby wanted wolves removed, although federal subsidies reimburse ranchers for any livestock killed by wolves. The second issue is that wolves are competition for hunters, a majority of whom tend to be conservatives or supporters of Republican philosophies. While wolves kill for food or to protect their pack, human hunters may claim they hunt for food, but go to extraordinary lengths and expense to stuff and display their "trophy kills," and often will kill animals, such as bears, prairie dogs, and coyotes that have no food value. Unlike their human competitors, wolves usually don't use guns with telescopic sights, buy all kinds of whistles and electronic calls that mimic the cries of other animals, use elevated shooting stands, send out decoys, or even create elaborate steel-jaw traps. They never take their prey back to a cabin, consume 6-packs, and tell stories with other wolves. A federal court this week ruled that gray wolves in the Rockies were not only an endangered species, but stopped state-supported wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana.

           Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, against severe opposition, pushed through some of the most critical social legislation in the nation's history. Harry Truman stood up for his principles and for the benefit of the people when he lashed out at a "do-nothing Congress." Candidate Obama was elected on a forceful campaign mantra of "Change you can believe in," and not "A slight variation of present policies that you can maybe live with."

           President Obama is known as "No Drama Obama" because of his quiet intellectualism.  He needs to be more forceful, both in fully supporting social legislation he and his base believe in as well as attacking the vicious smears, lies, and distortions from the extreme Right Wing. If President Obama continues to pandering to the conservatives, and continues a slide into compromise that dilutes necessary social justice legislation instead of trusting the millions who voted for that change he promised, especially when he has both the power of the presidency and the votes in Congress, he will be a one-term president, hated by both the right and the left.

 [Assisting on this column was Rosemary Brasch. Walter Brasch's latest books are the witty and probing Sex and the Single Beer Can, a look at American culture and the mass media; and 'Unacceptable': The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina, which discusses governmental neglect that magnified both the damage from the hurricane and the BP oil spill. Both books are available at amazon.com, and other stores. You may contact Brasch at brasch@bloomu.edu.]

 

 

 

 

Weekly Mulch: Kicking Our Addiction to AC—Why DC Needs to Step Up

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

This summer, Americans are cranking up their air conditioning. At the same time, Senators are letting climate legislation cool its heels in Washington. Ultimately, both of these summer trends are contributing to climate change. Air conditioning dumps greenhouse gases into the environment, and without climate legislation that caps the country’s carbon emissions, America’s share of global carbon levels will only continue to grow.

But if it’s hard for individuals to give up air conditioning on some of the hottest days in decades, it’s even harder for the country to give up fossil fuels altogether. Just yesterday, BP finally capped the well that has been spewing oil into the Gulf—it took the company almost three months. Yet even in Louisiana, the state hardest hit by the BP oil spill, workers are supporting the oil industry and pushing back against the Obama administration’s temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling.

How can the country give up the controlled climate it has become accustomed to? We depend on fossil fuels to keep us cool and to keep our economy pumping. In both cases, the answer is not to go cold turkey, but to come up with an innovative solution.

Brrr, it’s cold in here!

Americans are as addicted to A/C as they are to oil. “Just since the mid-1990s, as the U.S. population was growing by less than 15 percent, consumption of electricity to cool the residential, retail and automotive sectors doubled,” writes Stan Cox at AlterNet. That cool breeze creates greenhouse gas pollution—the equivalent of 400 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

Cox talks to several admirable people who live without air conditioning. They offer advice like consuming pitchers of ice water, opening your windows at strategic times, and canny use of fans.

At Care2, however, GinaMarie Cheeseman rebels. “My response to the…premise that we just have to learn to live without air conditioning is a definite, ‘Hell, no!’” she writes. Her solution? Not to give up a modern technology that improves many days, but to turn to an atmosphere-friendly product—a new-fangled A/C unit called DEVap, which is “50 to 90 percent more energy efficient than traditional air conditions,” she reports.

Highway to ‘Hell, no!’

Across the country, the response to an offshore drilling moratorium has echoed Cheeseman: “Hell, no!” After a federal judge (with a financial interest in the oil industry, of course) shut down the initial ban, the administration came back this week with a new version that “is based more on specific safety concerns and less on the simple depth of the well,” as Public News Service reports.

In The Nation, Mark Hertsgaard talked to Louisianans who disapproved of the ban altogether.

“When a airplane crashes, do you ground every plane in the country? No. You find out what caused the problem and fix it. You don’t punish the entire industry,” one fisherman told him. Hertsgaard came away with a surprising conclusion:

“It may be shocking to read in The Nation, but a blanket moratorium on new deepwater drilling may not be the best policy to pursue in the wake of the BP disaster. No state in the union is more addicted to oil than Louisiana; the oil and gas industry is responsible for roughly 25 percent of the state’s economic activity. If you abruptly cut off a hardened heroin addict, you can kill him; there is a reason physicians prescribe methadone rather than cold turkey.”

At GritTV, Hertsgaard and I discussed the problem of how to move forward, if a ban on oil drilling won’t fly.  The country needs to adopt new solutions—like Cheeseman’s A/C unit—before throwing out the old. Hertsgaard learned, for instance, that Louisiana has the strongest program for solar energy in the country.

“Louisiana has by far the strongest solar tax credit—50% off of your solar installation,” Hertsgaard said. “And if you add onto that the 30% credit that Obama administration passed earlier in his presidency, Louisiana homeowners can go solar for 80% off.”

PACE-ing ourselves

Why doesn’t every state have such a strong solar program, though? Even a disaster like the BP oil spill could not budge federal leaders to move the country towards a safer, cleaner energy future via strong policies. The version of energy legislation that now looks most likely to come to a vote in the Senate drops a carbon cap altogether. It could require renewable electricity standards which mandate that a certain amount of electricity production comes from renewable energy sources, but many states already have similar, if not better standards.

One way to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels is to improve the energy efficiency of homes and businesses. There are huge gains to be made here. Better efficiency across the economy could reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2030, according to the Center for American Progress. The Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans encouraged homeowners to build houses that met federal efficiency standards. But a decision last week by the Federal Housing Finance Agency essentially killed this type of assistance.

“Cities can continue to offer PACE, but then Fannie and Freddie must impose stricter lending standards on all local borrowers—even those who never intend to take out PACE loans,” Alyssa Katz explains at The American Prospect. “In effect, the new guidelines force mayors and city councils to choose between promoting energy efficiency and improving the health of their already battered real-estate markets.”

Two cities that were using the loans—San Francisco and Boulder—have stopped issuing them, Katz reports. Yesterday, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) did introduced the PACE Assessment Protection Act of 2010, which requires the FHFA to support PACE, but there’s no guarantee that legislation will pass through Congress, Grist reports.

Policy trumps innovation

That chilling effect is exactly the opposite of the sort of policies the country needs from Washington. As Christian Parenti writes in The Nation, fancy devices (like Cheeseman’s DEVap) cannot fix the climate crisis on their own:

“An overemphasis on breakthrough inventions can obscure the fact that most of the energy technologies we need already exist. You know what they are: wind farms, concentrated solar power plants, geothermal and tidal power, all feeding an efficient smart grid that, in turn, powers electric vehicles and radically more energy-efficient buildings.”

“According to clean-tech experts, innovation is now less important than rapid large-scale implementation,” Parenti explains. “In other words, developing a clean-energy economy is not about new gadgets but rather about new policies.”

It would be nice if those new policies pushed the country to decrease energy use, instead of mimicking programs states already have in place, or worse, undoing good work that’s going forward on the local level.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

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