Weekly Mulch: The Dirty Truth about Natural Gas and Energy Innovation

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

The argument against natural gas got a boost this week, when a congressional investigation turned up evidence that oil and gas companies were using diesel gas to extract gas from the ground.

Natural gas companies have insisted that their newly popular hydraulic fracturing (known as “fracking”) techniques are safe, but as Care2’s Kristina Chew reports, “environmentalists and regulators have become increasingly concerned that the fracking chemicals—including toluene, xylene and benzene, a carcinogen, which are all from diesel gas—are seeping out into underground sources of drinking water, in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act.”

The mix-up

The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting an inquiry into the environmental impacts of fracking, and some states are considering more stringent regulations of the practice, including disclosure of the chemicals that go into fracking fluid. Gas companies have argued that the blend of chemicals is a trade secret and must be kept private, but the findings of the congressional investigation suggest otherwise. Eartha Jane Melzer reports at The Michigan Messenger, “In a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson… Reps. Henry Waxman, Edward Markey and Diana DeGette reported that although the EPA requires permits for hydraulic fracturing that involves diesel none of the companies that admitted using diesel have sought or received permits.”

And, as Melzer reports, diesel is the only chemical used in fracking that’s currently regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. That companies have been sneaking it into the ground does not strengthen the industry’s case for independence.

Ensuring that natural gas companies do their work without threatening water supplies is becoming ever more crucial, as the fuel becomes one of the go-to replacements for coal. In Massachusetts, for instance, some legislators are pushing for a coal plant in Holyoke to start using natural gas or renewable energy, rather than being shut down, as Nikki Gloudeman reports at Change.org.

Supporting renewables

And although renewables are thrown in there as an option, right now the clearest way to replace the amount of energy generated by coal is natural gas. This year’s line on energy policy from Washington, however, is that the country should support innovations in clean energy.

Will Obama’s new direction on this issue go anywhere? Grist’s David Roberts has been arguing that any energy policy that leaves out climate change is missing the point.

However, Teryn Norris and Daniel Goldfarb (also at Grist), of Americans for Energy Leadership, a California-based non-profit, have a smart rebuttal. They argue that clean energy needs the boost in research and development that Obama is promising. Ultimately, they, write, “these investments will drive down the price of low-carbon energy and pave the way for stronger deployment efforts — perhaps even including a strong carbon price at some point — both here and in the developing world, where the vast majority of future emissions will originate.”

But, about climate change!

And to be fair, the federal government is trying to lead the way on investing in renewables. As Beth Buczynski reports at Care2, the Department of Energy is working on a $2.3 million solar energy project that would power its Germantown, Md., location.

Not every one is willing to wait for investments to take hold, however. On the National Radio Project’s show, “Making Contact”, Andrew Stelzer examines what climate activists are doing, post-Cancun, to push forward debates on climate change. Ananda Lee Tan, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alterantives argues, for instance, “Community-led climate justice in the U.S. has been winning. The largest amount of industrial carbon that has been prevented in this country has been prevented  by community-led groups, grassroots groups fighting coal, oil and incinerators.”

Cause and effect

Whether the solution comes from industry, government, or grassroots groups, the country’s energy policy will change over the next few decades. And what’s troubling is that it’s not clear what the impact will be. Take natural gas: Washington favors it right now because it’s thought to have lower carbon emission than coal. But any time humans introduce new factors into the environment, they can have unexpected consequences.

That’s not only true for the energy industry, too. In Texas, for instance, the government is trying to eradicate an invasive plant species, a type of giant cane called Arundo that is growing all over the Rio Grande Valley. As Saul Elbein reports for The Texas Observer, it’s been hard to eradicate:

There are three primary ways to control invasive plant species: Kill them with herbicides, clear them with bulldozers and machetes, or attempt to introduce a new predator. The least controversial approach, clearing the cane, is not going to work. There are thousands of square miles of the stuff, and Arundo cane is nearly impossible to cut out. Each stalk has a thick taproot that sends shoots in every direction. You can bulldoze or chop the cane down, and it will grow right back. Worse, any stress on the plant—say a machete blow—causes it to send out more root stalks. Every chopped-up joint of cane that floats downstream can sprout another stand.

But, Elbein reports, scientists have come up with a different solution: They’ve bred wasps that originate in the same region as the cane to come in and eat it. They’ve also taken precautions that the wasps won’t have their own adverse impact on the environment by ensuring that they can only survive on this particular type of plant. But even then, it’s a tricky business.

“The wasps have to survive,” John Adamczyk, an entomologist running the project, told Elbein.  “They have to not all get eaten. Then it becomes a question of whether they can keep the cane in check.”

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.

 

 

Weekly Diaspora: Arizona’s SB 1070 Takes Nativist Fever Nationwide

by Catherine A. Traywick, Media Consortium blogger

While Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, was far from the first controversial immigration measure of its kind, it stands out as a hallmark of increasingly visible nativist sentiment. Numerous legal challenges and a federal injunction notwithstanding, the measure continues to inspire copycat legislation and attract millions in donations. Even as Arizona’s legislature attempts to outdo itself by pushing increasingly outrageous bills, as Care2 reports, SB 1070 remains center stage.

Perhaps one reason that the measure has gained such traction across the country is that its crafters have been unequivocal about both their intent and the law’s objective: Attrition through enforcement.

“That’s a fancy way of saying it’s public policy aimed at making the lives of immigrants so miserable that they leave on their own accord,” explained community organizer Marisa Franco on Making Contact, a National Radio Project program. Andrea Christina Mercado, organizing director of Mujeres Unidas Activas and another guest on this week’s show, added that the “attrition through enforcement” strategy exemplified by SB 1070 centers on three pernicious tactics:

“…One is to close off all possibility for economic survival, the second part is to deny access to justice for migrants, making it harder and harder to place a wage claim or a police report, and the third is to normalize mistreatment through rituals of humiliation and hateful language.”

SB 1070: coming to a state near you!

While reprehensible to immigrant rights advocates, the “attrition through enforcement” approach to the immigration “problem” is refreshing to immigration hawks. The strategy’s unabashed method of self-evicting undocumented migrants through calculated marginalization is the kind of tough, no-nonsense policy that hardliners appreciate. Consequently, similar measures have spread like wildfire across states and municipalities. That such laws directly defy federal immigration policy goals seems only to increase their popularity among immigration hardliners.

Case in point: The incoming wave of newly elected, anti-immigrant governors pushing for SB 1070 copycat laws. As Braden Goyette reports at Campus Progress, governors-elect in Georgia, Florida, Nebraska, Mississippi, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Oklahoma hope to follow in Arizona’s footsteps. Nebraska’s Dave Heineman (R) explicitly campaigned on that hope, and Georgia’s Nathan Deal (R) plans to push for a copycat law as soon as January 2011.

State legislators are moving quickly on similar laws as well. Most recently, Texas State Rep. Debbie Riddle (R) filed a spate of anti-immigration legislation in advance of the 2011 legislative session. According to Change.org’s Prerna Lal, Riddle’s bills would collectively limit immigrants’ access to public education, intensify the penalties for being undocumented in the state, and even prevent undocumented persons from driving there. In total, the proposed measures embody the attrition-through-enforcement philosophy by attempting to make it impossible for undocumented immigrants to live in the state with any measure of quality of life.

Setting the stage for anti-immigrant laws

The attrition-through-enforcement strategy is contagious. But, as ColorLines’ Seth Freed Wessler points out, infection follows a predictable pattern. Citing a recent Migration Policy Institute study, Wessler explains that anti-immigrant laws tend to pop up in largely homogeneous white communities that experience an increase in the population of immigrants. The actual size of the immigrant population doesn’t seem to matter, and the study found that crime rates are equally irrelevant (and have no correlation to rates of immigration). The only thing that does matter is growth, however small.

It’s important to note that in largely homogeneous communities, which generally tend to be segregated along ethnic lines anyway, small fluctuations in minority populations aren’t glaringly evident to most residents. Growth among immigrant populations doesn’t immediately or spontaneously spark nativist sentiment. In most cases, that growth is noted by incendiary elites, who then repackage and sell it back to the larger community as an “immigration problem.” In Wessler’s words:

Crime is not actually higher because of immigration but individual incidents of crime, or the presence of day laborers on street corners, are used as animating tools by restrictionist groups. Support for the resolutions are drummed up by local politicians and demagogues, as well as national groups that often play a role in drafting the bills, who concoct a narrative about dangerous criminal immigrants.

As I’ve written before, anti-immigrant sentiment is driven by the fear that, as immigrant communities grow larger and more economically competitive, their increasing political power will threaten the status quo. And so politicos feed the immigrant-as-criminal narrative to their communities, bit by bit, eventually passing pernicious laws intended to self-evict the threat.

Thus far, 107 communities have passed anti-immigrant laws in the last 10 years, the bulk of them since 2006, when heightened discourse on immigration reform motivated anti-immigrant groups to redouble their efforts. A few years later, Arizona state senator Russell Pearce (R) teamed up with Kris Kobach—a lawyer for FAIR, the most powerful anti-immigrant group in the nation—to draft SB 1070 which has now unleashed a new wave of oppressive immigration laws.

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 Mulch: For Cancun Climate Summit, Activists Consider the Long View

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

A year ago, it seemed possible—likely, even—that President Barack Obama would sweep into the international negotiations on climate change at Copenhagen and make serious progress on the tangle of issues at stake. The reality was quite different. This year, the expectations for the United Nations Climate Conference in Cancun are less exuberant.

The conference will be held from Nov 29 to Dec 10 and the same issues from 2009 are up for debate. Countries like the United States, Britain, and Germany are still contributing an outsize share of carbon to the atmosphere. Countries like India and China are still rapidly increasing their own carbon output. And countries like Bangladesh, Tuvalu, and Bolivia are still bearing an unfair share of the environmental impacts brought on by climate change.

A very different set of expectations are building in the climate movement this year. If last year was about moving forward as fast as possible, this year, climate activists seem resigned to the idea that politicians just aren’t getting it. Change, when it comes, will have to be be built on a popular movement, not a political negotiation.

Climate change from the bottom up

Last year, climate activists put their faith in international leaders to make progress. This year, they believe that it’s up to them, as outside actors, to marshal a grassroots movement and pressure their leaders towards decreased carbon emissions.

“There’s a recognition that the insider strategy to push from inside the Beltway to impact what will happen in DC, or what will happen in Cancun has really not succeeded,” Rose Braz, climate campaign director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Making Contact’s Andrew Stelzer. “What we’re doing in conjunction with a number of groups across the country and across the world is really build the type of movement that will change what happens in Cancun, what changes what happens in DC from the bottom up.” (This entire episode of Making Contact is dedicated to new approaches to climate change, at Cancun and beyond, and is worth a listen.)

Fighting the indolence of capitalists

Here’s one example of this new strategy: as Zachary Shahan writes at Change.org, La Via Campesina, an international peasant movement, is coordinating a march that will begin in San Luis Potosi, Guadalajara, Acapulco, Oaxaca, and Chiapas, then converge on Cancun. The march will include “thousands of farmers, indigenous people, rural villagers, urbanites, and more,” Shahan reports.

After they arrive in Cancun, the organizers are planning an “Alternative Global Forum for Life and Environmental and Social Justice” for the final days of the negotiations, which they say will be a mass mobilisation of peasants, indigenous and social movements. The action extends far beyond Cancun, though. Actually, they are organizing thousands of Cancuns around the world on this day to denounce what they see as false climate solutions.

These actions echo the strategy that environmentalist and author Bill McKibben and other climate leaders are promoting to push for climate change policies in the U.S. All this talk about building momentum from the bottom up, from populations, means that anyone looking for change is now looking years into the future.

The U.S. is not leading the way

Of course, ultimately, politicians will need to agree on a couple of standards. In particular, how much carbon each country should be emitting and how fast each country should power down its current emission levels. The U.S. is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to agreement on these questions, especially due to the recent mid-term elections. As Claudia Salerno, Venezuela’s lead climate change negotiator wrote at AlterNet:

Unlike what many suggest, China is not the problem. China, along with India and others, have made considerable commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and are already working to realize them. Other developing countries have done the same, although we only generate a virtual drop in the bucket of global carbon emissions. The key player missing here is the U.S.

China, the U.S. and Clean Coal

The most interesting collaborations on clean energy, however, aren’t happening around the negotiating table. This week, The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote a long piece about the work that the U.S. and China are doing together on clean coal technology, the magic cure-all to the world’s energy ills.

In the piece, Fallows recognizes what environmentalists have long argued: coal is bad for the environment and for coal-mining communities. But, unlike clean energy advocates who want to phase coal out of the energy equation, Fallows argues that coal must play a part in the world’s energy future. Therefore, we must find a way to burn it without releasing clouds of carbon into the atmosphere. That’s where clean coal technology comes in. So far, however, researchers have had little luck minimizing coal’s carbon output.

A few progressive writers weighed in on Fallows’ piece: Grist’s David Roberts thought Fallows was too hard on the anti-coal camp, while Campus Progress’ Sara Rubin argued that the piece did a good job of grappling with the reality of clean energy economics. And Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum had one very clear criticism—that the piece skated over the question of progress on carbon capture, the one real way to dramatically reduce carbon pollution from coal. He wrote:

All the collaboration sounds wonderful, and even a 20% or 30% improvement in coal technology would be welcome. But that said, sequestration is the holy grail and I still don’t know if the Chinese are doing anything more on that front than the rest of us.

On every front, then, the view on climate change is now a long one.

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.

 

 

Weekly Mulch: Fighting the Joe Millers of the World

 

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Joe Miller, Sarah Palin’s choice candidate for one of Alaska’s Senate seats, does not believe in climate change. That didn’t bother Alaska voters: this week, Miller bested Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the state’s Republican primary.

If that weren’t worrisome enough, it also emerged that the fossil fuel industry spent eight times more than environmental groups on lobbying in 2009, the year the House passed the climate change bill. It’s been a bad year already for environmental causes, and as the November election edges closer, progressives might want to start working overtime to regain momentum on climate and energy issues.

Murkowski was solidly against the idea of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulating carbon. But she was willing to talk about cap-and-trade programs, and at the very least, she was willing to admit climate change was happening. Depending on how November’s election shakes out, the shift towards climate-denial in Congress may only worsen. A slew of Republican candidates are convinced that, as one put it, “only God knows where our climate is going,” as Care2 reports.

A tougher tomorrow

Current political trends bode badly for the planet. If Congress couldn’t pass climate legislation while are in Democrats control of the House and Senate, there’s little hope that lawmakers will step up when facing opponents who don’t believe in climate change.

Carla Perez has a few ideas about how progressives and environmentalists can fight back — and they begin with accepting that, yes, giving up fossil fuels would mean sacrifice, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Perez, a program coordinator at social justice group Movement Generation, appeared recently on National Radio Project’s Making Contact and imagined how life would look without fossil fuels:

No iPods. No iPads. No plasma TVs. No motorized individual vehicles. No plastic bags. No pleather boots for $9.99 from Payless…. Then again, no island of plastic twice the size of Texas. No plumes of sulfuric acid over Richmond, California. No skyrocketing rates of cancer and diabetes concentrated in native and people of color communities all over the world. No spontaneous combustion of flames off of contaminated rivers.

“How bad would it be?” she asked.

Target practice

To move from iPods to environmental justice, though, people like Perez will have to keep politicians like Joe Miller out of Washington. In an interview with Yes! Magazine, Riki Ott, a marine biologist and Exxon Valdez survivor, makes a good point about the challenges that environmental advocates face.

“This BP disaster, like the Exxon-Valdez, is more than an environmental crisis—it’s a democracy crisis,” Ott says. “Right now we’re playing the game: Going through regulatory arenas, tightening some laws. But that’s not good enough. The real question is, how do we get control of these big corporations?”

Electing politicians that don’t take corporate money or listen to industry lobbyists will help. Another way to move away from the dominance of fossil fuel companies is offering real alternatives to using their products.

Brave new NOLA

In New Orleans, in the five years since Katrina hit, the people rebuilding the city have worked to create greener alternatives, as Campus Progress reports. Here’s just one example:

Go Green NOLA encourages homebuilders to think small, since smaller homes use less energy. The group also makes suggestions such as installing windows and insulation systems with special attention to local weather and climate — think: humidity, and lots of it—and using shade trees and other landscaping to help beat back the southern sun.

Change can happen without devastation preceding it. In Massachusetts, the Green Justice Coalition worked to ensure that environmental justice provisions made it into the state’s $1.4 billion energy efficiency plan, The Nation reports. What’s more, the coalition made certain that Massachusetts citizens would feel the impact of the new plan directly:

There will be a financing plan to make energy-saving home improvements more affordable. Many of the 23,300 jobs to be generated by the plan will go to contractors who pay decent wages and meet “high road” employment standards. Finally, four pilot programs across the state will test a radically new outreach model by going door to door and mobilizing low- and moderate-income families in building greener neighborhoods.

Women lead the way

Progress doesn’t happen on its own, of course. At RH Reality Check, Kathleen Rogers suggests that female leaders make all the difference. “Women get the connections between climate change, public health and economic growth, because climate change is disproportionately affecting women,” she writes. “A new generation of women entrepreneurs, leaders and civil society, have demonstrated the potential for being the solution to the climate crisis. But they must be mobilized and given an opportunity to influence government and business.”

Rogers is right. Leaders are out there. Just listen to the whole of Carla Perez’ comments on Making Contact. The Green Justice Coalition’s Phyllis Evans also gets it. And even Sen. Murkowski was willing to work on climate change compromises, on some level.

Of course, it’s not just women who can lead the country and the planet away from current environmental and democratic crises. Paths forward are emerging; anyone can follow them.

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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