Weekly Mulch: How to Avoid Fracking and Oil Spills in 2011

Editor’s Note: We’re posting the Weekly Mulch on Thursday this week because of the holidays. It’ll return to its regular Friday morning posting next week. Until then, Happy New Year!

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

2010 was a disappointing year for environmentalists.

This was the year Congress was supposed to pass climate change legislation, but each and every time Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed on the verge of pushing the bill forward, the effort fell short. In April, off the coast of Louisiana, the Deepwater Horizon explosion led to one of the worst environmental disasters in the country’s history, and in the aftermath, neither President Barack Obama nor Congress has pushed for the sort of strong regulations that would rein in the oil industry and the risk it poses to coastal ecosystems.

Meanwhile, a newly invigorated natural gas industry has been plowing forward with a controversial drilling technique called hydrofracking. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has committed to studying the environmental impacts of the practice, it’s unclear at this point how much leeway the industry will be given to use techniques that have contaminated water and air across the country. Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben had trouble convincing the president to take the small symbolic act of reinstalling a solar panel on the White House roof. And in November, the country elected a group of lawmakers who are skeptical that climate change even exists.

Hope springs eternal

But the news was not all bad, as Change.org’s Jess Leber reports. In California, green-minded voters defeated a proposition that would have rolled back the state’s ambitious climate law. Coal-fired power plants are closing in states like Oregon and Colorado, and mountaintop removal coal mining is losing its funding.  And cities like New York, Washington D.C., Denver and Minneapolis made it easier for their inhabitants to use bikes as a primary mode of transportation.

“All over the world, activists are fighting in their states, towns and cities to do right by the environment,” Leber writes. “They are also moving to pressure the corporate world. So while, given the results of Election Day in the U.S., progress in Congress will be an uphill battle, I’m confident there will be even more victories to report this time next year.”

A year can be a long time. Consider, for instance, Steph Larsen’s reflections on her farm’s first year. “I feel like I’ve lived a decade in the last 12 months,” Larsen writes in Grist. Last year, her pasture did not exist, and the farm buildings on her land had sat unused for years. But in the past 12 months, she’s grown cherries and tomatoes and squash, kept chickens and hunted for their eggs, and raised livestock that later became her dinner.

Larsen’s goals for her farm are modest: “to grow food for her household and community.” It can be hard sometimes to see how individual choices like hers can make a difference while global leaders cannot agree on how to reduce carbon emissions and industry continues to exploit and pollute the environment. But as Winslow Myers, the author of Living Beyond War, writes at Truthout, “the cause-and-effect relationship between what I do personally in my daily life and those planet-wide challenges has become infinitely clearer” over the past 50 years:

Now we can see how the two are connected – between my diet and the effect of industrial agriculture on the land, between my energy consumption and global climate change, between the chemicals in my laundry detergent and the health of the oceans – and between my political commitments and the world-destroying weapons built with my tax dollars….the reality is that I am so deeply connected to the whole entity that I am responsible for it, answerable to it.

Local leaders step into the breach

It’s true that individual decisions to turn down the heat, or eat local food, or bike instead of drive cannot turn back global warming. But in aggregate, they do make an impact. And although nationally and internationally, politicians are finding it difficult to create strong policies on climate change, that would reduce emissions, not all lawmakers are avoiding the issues. Franke James’ visual essay on climate change at Yes! Magazine puts it like this: “Don’t be fooled by the global leaders loafing. Local leaders and cities are making plans to adapt to climate change (because it’s affecting them NOW!) “

And ultimately, these sorts of decisions on local and individual levels do send a signal to leaders that their constituents care about keeping the planet healthy, care about preserving our environmental resources. To that end, check out these ideas for individual action from the staff and readers of Mother Jones.

And next year? Leaders like Bill McKibben are working to create a global movement around climate change, a people-driven movement that will convince legislators and negotiators that it is incumbent upon them to act. Look for them to start making lots of noise in 2011.

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.



All Politics Is Local

"All Politics is Local" is one of those sayings the political press never tires of repeating, but ignores most its implications anyway. Case in point, the plentiful and prominent coverage of Edwards endorsement by Iowa Congressman Bruce Braley, but no one seems to cover actual local officials endorsements. The press did finally take two seconds of notice the Obama endorsement by the Mayor of Des Moines, since that's the city most of the East Coast press stay in while doing there Iowa safari. So it also seemed like a good time to highlight John Edwards' announcement last week of a list of 52 Iowa County-wide elected officials endorsing Edwards.

But, far more important than the list is the "New Partnership" program Edwards proposed along with the release of endorsements. The "New Partnership" pledges five steps to address the failures of the federal government in its relationship to local governments. As I assume many of you know based on your own community, local governments across the country are struggling to fund basic services, cities have barely recovered from the first Bush recession according the National League of Cities, and this is before the next possible Bush recession comes.

I am not going to argue that the struggles of local governments are as critical as Global Warming, Iraq, or Universal Health Care. Then again the local governments' funding problems are orders of magnitude more critical to American's daily lives than Social Security reform, and, of course, receives not even a fraction of attention in media.

Local governments are the day to day face of government for most Americans and provide the services people rely on the most. More than that, the struggles of our local governments are largely a reflection of the struggles of our communities and the disdainful treatment of the locals by the feds reflects the disdain the DC system has for everyone outside of it. So I think the issue and Edwards' response is well worth highlighting.

Interestingly, Edwards 'New Partnership' starts off his pledge to pass Universal Health Care:

Passing Universal Health Care and Relieving the Burden on County Health Departments: Counties in Iowa and across the nation face skyrocketing health care costs, including rising costs for employee health care as well as uncompensated care in county hospitals and public clinics as a result of the 47 million Americans without health insurance. Edwards' plan to require insurance for all Americans will eliminate uncompensated care. His plan will also save money for local governments - including school districts - by bringing down costs and improving quality through steps like better preventive and chronic care, electronic medical records, and encouraging proven treatments.

(Emphasis Added)

It's a point far too often lost in debate, but double digit health care inflation is killing local governments, as it is US businesses. Local governments are also the ones often left holding the bag when the 47 million uninsured Americans are forced to get emergency care.

There's some other vital stuff in the Edwards pledge too, particularly:

Full Funding for Special Education: For decades, Washington has failed to meet its promise to pay 40 percent of the cost of special education. It fails to provide even half that amount, placing an enormous burden on school districts and property taxpayers to make up the difference. As president, Edwards will introduce a budget that puts the federal government on track to meet its full and fair share of special education funding.

Funding for Special Education, or the lack thereof, is one of those perennial snubs Washington gives to communities across the country that has both real and symbolic importance. I hope the Democratic congress will actually move on this issue before the next election, but it'll take a President committed to it to get to full funding and to stay there.

Edwards also includes his plan to revitalize rural economies, new proposals to lower local government procurement costs, and pledges basically more and better transportation spending. All these are very good points, some of them, such as Universal Health Care, obviously weren't proposed just to make things better for city and county governments. But, looking at them from that perspective is great way to both highlight the proposals' importance and help connect these issues to people's communities and lives.

As a bit of unsolicited advice, I hope support for local governments is something Edwards continues to hightlight. It's a great under-the-radar way to differentiate himself from his rivals, provide a substantive outsider message and these unsexy issues issues have real traction for people, as anyone who watched the Massachusetts Governor's race could verify. In fact, there are a number of other Edwards proposals that could already be added to the New Partnership program such as his great Cities Rising program, highlighted here yesterday. The federal government's responsibilities to our communities have been disregarded in the borrow and spend Bush era, just like just about every other federal responsibility, and candidates could do much worse to keep that frame in mind whenever they talk about issues.

Part of the MyDD campaign volunteer blogger series- AJ

[editor's note, by MassEyesandEars] Cleaned up typographical errors

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The Internet for State and Local Campaigns

Lately I've been thinking about information and it's relationship to political activism on the Internet.  Fifteen years after first logging on I am still amazed by how much information is available to me on the the Internet and how well organized most of it is.  But what really blows my mind are how many ways I have to share information with others and organize around it.  Usenet, blogs, YouTube, Wiki, podcasts, listserv; there are so many tools available to users and the potential within each one seems endless.

The vast array of tools can also present a problem for political activists.  Try as we might no one can utilize everything.  At the same time everyone has their own preferred way of receiving information.  I often run into this hurdle when I want to get the word out about an issue or campaign locally.  My first instinct is of course to blog, but not everyone I know reads the blogs.  Some people will read a link if you email it to them, others will want text.  And I have a few people who rarely check their email but will happily read anything printed out and passed around at a meeting.  While I recognize the importance of getting the word out to as many people as possible after awhile the effort can become tiresome.

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Blog Local

Thanks to Chris Bowers for giving me this opportunity and to the MyDD community for being so welcoming. Some of you may know me as CGG which was my old name here for commenting.

Yesterday was one of the craziest days I've experienced in Connecticut Politics, and believe me with last year's Senate race I've witnessed some serious political craziness.  First, Lou DeLuca The Republican State Senate minority leader, was arrested, and charged with conspiracy to commit threatening.  The arrest was the result of a longtime investigation into mob influence on the State's trash hauling industry.  Then, late last night, after two years of essentially doing nothing about energy, the CT House overwhelmingly passed an energy bill compromise that probably won't do anything to lower our sky high electric rates.

As I'm following both of these stories, my new gig here at MyDD is always on my mind.  What should my first post be about? How do I balence work at both blogs, especially when so much is going on here at home?

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California's Proposition 90 is a Trojan Horse

Time to kick off my November election coverage, starting with one of the worst of the propositions - number 90. I will probably be fine tuning this and other posts on various initiatives and candidates, and I'll post a comprehensive final version a week or two before the election. I also hope to have, as usual, Tim Redmond of the Bay Guardian to discuss the statewide measures on my October radio show.

Capitalizing on the negative public reaction to the recent eminent domain case decided by the Supreme Court decision, Proposition 90 is essentially intended to force governments to privatize more services while altering 900 years of common law upon which the security of public infrastructure is based. What most property owners don't realize is that they don't really own their property. They own a tenancy in it. The commonwealth owns all of the land within its jurisdiction. Accordingly, it can exercise "eminent domain" to seize land for the public benefit, the Constitution requiring compensation of fair market value of the property.


The case of Kelo v. New London involved the seizure of property in order to sell it to developers, the theory being that economic development is a "public use" that eludes the minimal 5th Amendment restrictions. The Supreme Court majority voiced reservations about the policy, but refused to null the seizure on the basis that the Connecticut local government had met Constitutional terms thus rendering the issue a state matter with no federal jurisdiction.

Since the decision various states have visited the question of reform at that level, specifically placing more restrictions on the purposes for which state or local governments may invoke their commonwealth rights to the land. Unfortunately, certain special interests have been pushing additional agendas into these reform proposals, and Proposition 90 is one of those "Trojan Horse" initiatives.

Currently, the law of "takings" requires that government compensate property owners when a new zoning, regulation, or statute is passed that deprives the property owner of the essential value of the property. This measure would reduce the standard to merely "substantial" value, and the measure doesn't bother to define the term which will open government up to a floodgate of litigation. Thus every law that could possibly have any impact on property, from rent control ordinances to environmental regulations. Even residential zoning ordinances would be at issue, as well as limited growth, parcel size minimums, ag zoning, worker safety laws, unionization rights, and virtually any benefit from basic urban civil engineering. The measure provides an ill-defined exception for public health and safety, and you can bet that more than a few governments will be trying to expand the scope of that exception, which will lead to even more litigation.

The actual portion of the proposition that actually deals with eminent domain is problematic in it's definitions, but less of an issue for me. "Public use" would be limited to seizures for purposes in which the government would either occupy the property itself, or lease it to a private entity that allows for public entry (such as a mall, baseball stadium, or university). It couldn't be used for private housing, nor private industry, and that's fine with me except that it does reduce a local government's ability to comprehensively plan local development. On the downside, the measure also fails to provide an exception for areas that create a public nuisance without a showing that each and every parcel contains the source of that nuisance, thus hampering redevelopment projects. And it couldn't be used to promote a new industrial or other local economic base in furtherance of a general plan. Personally, since general plans are often dictated by private monetary interests, I think this measure is going to backfire on some of the proponents - the proposal does thus incorporate some characteristics of karma.

And the measure places the burden of proof on government in any court battles, while depriving it the ability to recoup attorney fees.

And the measure also allows property owners to collect more than the value of the property itself, including presumably costs the property owner may have incurred in anticipation of his/her/its own uses, essentially requiring the government to put the owner back into the economic position it would have been but for the taking. Does this mean they're entitled to speculative profits? More lawsuits, and enormous costs to the taxpayer.

The normally conservative San Diego Union-Tribune had this to say:

The initiative then veers into radical territory in two ways:

It declares the compensation for seized property must reflect the value of the project to be built on the site, meaning an astronomical increase in the compensation taxpayers must provide.

It requires that private property owners be fully compensated when any government regulation causes their property to lose value. Decisions on matters as mundane as traffic lights, parking meters and noise abatement could be argued as having negative effects on property value. The vagueness of the initiative suggests this is just what sponsors want – an atmosphere in which local officials contemplating basic questions of governance see legal peril and costly lawsuits at every turn.

Did the trial lawyers surreptitiously take over California's eminent domain movement?

So, while we hope those appalled by eminent domain abuses continue lobbying the Legislature for reform - Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, is a key player on the issue - we hope that this dismay doesn't translate into support for Proposition 90. It is a radical overreach that would create vastly more problems than it would correct.

Plenty more here and here.

And for an account of the movement behind this proposition and similar proposals in other states, please read this High Country News article.

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