March 20, 2015

Department of Interior Announces Big Rock Candy Mountain Management Plan

The U.S. Department of Interior made three announcements today. One establishes rules to protect the lemonade springs at Big Rock Candy Mountain. Second, is a management plan for unicorn populations on public lands.

The third announcement is for rules to produce safe, responsible fracking. Clearly announced on the same day because all three are all equally realistic things that exist in the same world of make believe.

March 19, 2015

America's Fracking Mayor: Rahm Emanuel

Sandra Steingraber gave an excellent comment for my new piece about Chicago's energy aggregation contract. 

I grew up Illinois coal country, just downwind from a massive, coal-burning power plant that sent all its power north to Chicago. When I was in high school, in the 1970s, that plant was the biggest polluter in the state, and everyone in my home town of Pekin all suffered from breathing its emissions. My 84-year-old mom, a life-long non-smoker, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema. And because that coal, when it burned, sent mercury raining down on our river, the local fish became too poisoned to eat.

Unfortunately, Chicago residents have been sold a bill of goods by officials who misrepresented a switch from coal to natural gas as 'clean' energy. Natural gas, predominately extracted by fracking, is anything but clean, and once again, people far from Chicagoland will suffer so that Chicagoans can turn on the lights. This time, it's Pennsylvania children living in the shale fields, rather than downstate Illinois kids living by the strip mines, whose health will be sacrificed. So, how is that progress?

For the climate, extraction by fracking results in tremendous leakage of methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more damaging for the climate than carbon dioxide over 20 years. For people, those living near fracking suffer a range of health ailments including respiratory illnesses, birth defects, and the threat of contaminated water and earthquakes. Chicagoans deserve better than false representations of natural gas as a clean power source; they need true leadership that boldly moves to renewable energy.
It's impossible to take Rahm seriously as an environmental leader after he sold fracking as clean energy. Read the rest at HuffingtonPost.

February 12, 2015

Lincoln loved taxing the rich

Happy birthday Abraham Lincoln!

When Lincoln anniversaries come around I sometimes enjoy comparing the views of the first Republican president to the Republican party of today. Tax policies offer a stark contrast. Lincoln supported progressive income tax structures that asked the rich to pay their fair share.

As a member of the Illinois state legislature, Lincoln defended a property tax because it would mostly be paid by the wealthy. Paul Simon's book, Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness, quotes Lincoln's letter on the tax.
...I believe it can be sustained, because it does not increase the tax upon the "many poor" but upon the "wealthy few" by taxing the land that is worth $50 or $100 per acre, in proportion to its value, instead of, as heretofore, no more than that which was worth $5 per acre. This valuable land, as is well known, belongs, not to the poor, but to the wealthy citizen.

On the other hand, the wealthy can not justly complain, because the change is equitable within itself, and also a sine qua non to a compliance with the Constitution. If, however, the wealthy should, regardless of the justness of the complaint, complain of the change, it is still to be remembered, that they are not sufficiently numerous to carry the elections.
Very Respectfully,
A. Lincoln
We live in different times. The voice of the wealthy few manage to outweigh the many poor in most elections thanks to unrestricted campaign spending. Illinois' new Republican Governor Bruce Rauner has discussed supporting a sales tax increase that would place a greater burden on the middle class and poor, rather than the 1% Lincoln preferred taxing.

As President, Lincoln created the first income tax. It was so progressive that most Americans paid nothing at all. Republicans today sometimes complain that half of Americans supposedly pay no income tax. That's exactly what Lincoln had in mind when he established a tax on those most able to pay.

Somehow, Lincoln's populist views sound more modern and relevant than today's Republican party that's captured by perpetually complaining billionaires.

February 10, 2015

Hunter Lake is still the dumbest idea in Springfield

I can't believe I still have to write about this. Hunter Lake is the dumbest idea going Springfield. Here's why:

1) There are good reasons why the permits were never approved last time and they still won't be approved after more money is wasted trying again. New dams like this one aren't getting built anymore. Anywhere.

2) Water usage is growing nowhere near the growth estimates CWLP used to demonstrate a supposed need. Water efficiency programs are working. And no, those programs have nothing to do with watering your lawn or washing your car.

3) The biggest water hogs in Springfield are the older coal power plants. They have a limited lifespan. When the two oldest coal boilers shut down then water usage will drop. A LOT. Which means there's zero need for a new Hunter mud flat.

4) Sunk cost fallacy. The fact that a lot of money has already been wasted on a bad idea is not a good reason to waste even more. I learned this in my freshman microeconomics course.

There's no good reason to waste millions more on a project nobody needs. Hunter Lake is nothing but a pork barrel project to make money for those who will finance and build it at taxpayer expense. It serves no other purpose.

Turn the land into a top notch nature area instead so Springfield will finally benefit from getting out of this foolish moneypit. We might even recover some of our losses down the road by selling the land to the Department of Natural Resources.

January 20, 2015

Historic Grassroots Victory Stops Central Illinois Coal Mine

An eight year battle against a central Illinois strip mine ends in victory for the community of Canton and Orion township. An arm of Springfield Coal Company asked the Department of Natural Resources to terminate their permit for their North Canton Mine before a court hearing challenging errors in permit approval.

"The naysayers told us we couldn't fight city hall and the mine. They have more money. But we stayed the course," said Brenda Dilts, Chair of Canton Area Citizens for Environmental Issues.

The permit challenge hinged on the mine's potential impact to streams and Canton Lake, which supplies water to roughly 20,000 people, but opposition rallied around many ways the community would be harmed, including noise, water well contamination, heavy truck traffic, and airborne pollutants. Only a road and fence would have separated the mine from residents in Orion township, Dilts said. "Now people are free to enjoy their country living and well water."

Dilts wrote a letter to the editor in 2006 after hearing a presentation by the company and the Department of Natural Resources at a city council meeting. "I came home from vacation to voicemails messages full of support for my letter. Only one message was negative. We decided to start having meetings. Twelve people came at first to write letters. Then we had 25 and soon we outgrew our meeting space at the library. We organized until we became a legitimate source of pain for the company."

Read the rest at EcoWatch.

January 16, 2015

Governor Rauner's Environment & Energy Adviser Represents Many of Illinois' Worst Polluters

Check out my latest at Huffington Post blog.

One of Bruce Rauner's first appointments as Governor is a troubling sign for citizens hoping he'll protect the public and environment from toxic pollutants. Rauner's new Policy Adviser for Environment & Energy is Alec Messina, previously Executive Director and registered lobbyist for the Illinois Environmental Regulatory Group (IERG).

At IERG, Messina represented the interests of some of the state's largest polluters, including Peabody Energy, ExxonMobil, Chris Cline's Foresight Energy, Prairie State Generating Company, Dynegy Midwest Generation, Ameren, ADM and others.

I write more about the appointment and Rauner's first policy statements on energy at the link.

Also worth reading is Bruce Rushton's article at Illinois Times about some of Messina's actions in the Blagojevich administration.

January 2, 2015

Can Illinois Learn From New York's Victory Against Fracking?

Illinois environmentalists are cheering the spectacular success of the movement to ban fracking in New York. The victory is justifiably spurring reflection on how it was done. What happened in New York that Illinois environmentalists can learn from?

  • Environmental and public health groups made an unambiguous, united push for a ban or moratorium, not regulation.
  • They kept constant, aggressive grassroots pressure on Governor Cuomo and other politicians, especially during election season.
  • State government conducted a thorough study on potential public health impacts before fracking began.
  • They took the fight to small towns and potentially impacted rural areas, not just New York City.
  • As Mark Ruffalo wrote, "The fact that we didn't let the big greens come in and make back room deals was also important to note."
  • They engaged in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, including over 90 arrests near Seneca Lake since October.

Essentially, New York fractivists took the opposite approach of most big green groups active in the Illinois statehouse.

Illinois greens started with a basic chemical disclosure bill several years ago rather than organizing the passionate grassroots desire for a ban. Although there were efforts to ask legislators to pass a moratorium, statehouse green groups remained focused on various regulatory bills. Some of them eventually won a seat at the negotiating table with industry lobbyists to write a regulatory law by ignoring the loud and frequent objection of environmentalists in impacted areas who said regulation cannot make fracking safe.

During the past year, pro-regulation groups joined Governor Pat Quinn in remaining silent about his unpopular support for fracking. Sierra Club even issued a greenwash endorsement of Quinn as a "climate leader" despite his horrible record on fossil fuel extraction.

Several groups continued to engage in the regulatory process without meaningful buy-in or communication with the downstate anti-fracking movement. They tell environmental audiences they prefer a ban, but told legislators they'll settle for regulation. The result is a deeply divided movement that's less effective on all energy issues.

What's next for Illinois?

More fractivists are focusing on county government, like a victory lead by Illinois People's Action to stop a proposed oil drill in McLean county. Union county is forming a group to study the impacts of fracking and conventional drilling at the urging of the Shawnee Sentinels. There's a good reason why Illinois law doesn't allow counties to ban fracking. Some of them would actually do it.

In southern Illinois, lifelong residents and grandmothers are training to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to stop fracking operations. Additionally, momentum is building to form a coalition similar to New York that will coordinate statewide action between groups.

Illinoisans made their opposition to fracking clear through unprecedented participation in the public hearing process and by choosing not to show up for Pat Quinn on election day. But the industry's farcical campaign to marginalize fractivists as a tiny fringe continues to have lingering influence among legislators and reporters in the statehouse. One result is inadequate coverage given to the anti-fracking movement. Fractivists can't rely on regional news outlets traditionally sympathetic to fossil fuel interests to get our message out.

What the movement does next year won't make the impact it should if most of the public and politicians don't hear about it. That's why the movement needs it's own source for accurate, full coverage of how extraction industries are impacting the state.

Illinois environmentalists had discouraging setbacks in 2014. Resolving to follow New York's example will bring more success in 2015.

December 5, 2014

Media Bias is 25 Sports Writers and Zero Environment Reporters

Any news outlet that distributes information unflattering to Republicans or views out of step with conservative ideology will be hounded with cries of "liberal media bias." The badgering will continue until all news outlets are as "fair and balanced" as Fox News. But the most consequential expression of bias in the press is in what stories are covered and what's ignored.

I checked reporting staff listed on four of downstate Illinois' largest newspapers: The Peoria Journal-Star, Belleville News-Democrat, State Journal-Register, and Southern Illinoisan. They list 25 sports writers and editors between them. They name zero editors or reporters primarily dedicated to energy, climate change, and the environment. That's your media bias.

The same problem exists in national news outlets but the impacts hit harder in local news. The most important stories are sometimes covered by reporters who have limited subject background. Fewer environmental stories are covered at all. And when there's news about a fertilizer plant opening in central Illinois, for example, no one mentions that they're some of the most potentially dangerous facilities for workers and the environment.

I should acknowledge that I've been interviewed by a number of excellent reporters who do a good job covering energy issues. In particular, Springfield's alternative weekly, Illinois Times, has been picking up the stories others ignore for years. The Harrisburg Daily-Register doesn't shy away from asking tough questions about the coal industry. The best pro-environment editorials in the Southern are usually from, ironically enough, Sports Editor Les Winkeler.

But it's disappointing that there aren't more exceptions. Many other good reporters are limited by the decisions their publisher and editor make about assigning resources.

Newspapers often write about the influence campaign contributions have on politicians. I'd like to see the same principles of disclosure applied to the news industry. Why not release an annual report about advertising revenue from the fossil fuel industry plus the financial interests of media parent companies? Call me a cynic but I suspect those financial factors have something to do with the for-profit media's failure to focus on pollution and climate change.

What should we do then? There's no shortage of stories to be covered in Illinois with the recent expansion of coal mining, the threat of fracking, the future of coal plants on the line, and clean energy struggling to expand its presence. Twenty-five reporters wouldn't be enough!

This is why I'm launching Illinois Energy Justice. The site will chronicle energy issues from the front lines of the state's energy transition with writing by myself and others. It will also be a collaboration with grassroots groups to highlight their work on coal, fracking and clean energy.

My kickstarter page will fund the launch of a website and expenses for my first round of stories focusing on the work of grassroots groups opposed to fracking. I've broken several stories missed by others, including the state mine safety regulator who was taking political donations from a coal mine operator, and millions in state grants going to coal industry pork projects. I'd like to break many more.

If you're tired of environmental stories and viewpoints not getting the coverage they deserve, now is the time to do something about it by donating.

November 13, 2014

Profile in Cowardice: Senator Don Harmon Fracks Illinois

A clip from my latest up at HuffingtonPost

An industry lobbyist told reporters he was thrilled with the updated rules, while environmental groups were forced to admit they hadn't even seen the changes.
Senator Harmon directed the process as chair of the committee. He could have insisted the rules be made available to the public in advance. He could have insisted that changes be debated in public. He could have asked committee members to explain their vote. He could have done a roll call vote instead of a voice vote so citizens have a public record of where their representatives stand. He could have made the rules stronger or rejected them completely. Instead, he gave the oil & gas industry exactly what they wanted. 
The Illinois fracking law was negotiated by lobbyists behind closed doors with no southern Illinois environmentalists invited. The rules were finished the same way, but this time even the pro-regulation statehouse green groups were shut outside.
Thanks for reading and sharing.

November 12, 2014

It Doesn't Pay to Be a Fossil-Fuel Democrat on Election Day

This was a difficult election for Democrats and it was even worse for Democrats still pushing fossil fuels. The Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Coal Caucus lost his seat along with a slew of others who tried to prove they're as pro-coal, pro-oil, and pro-fracking as any Republican. 
There are plenty of examples like Grimes in Kentucky. Or Tennant and Nick Rahall in West Virginia who mimicked conservative talking points on coal in their losing races. Mary Landrieu is expected to lose in a Louisiana run-off. If you can't run on clean energy and climate change in a state that saw Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil disaster, then you're an incompetent politician. 
No state made the point more clearly than Illinois, where Democrats serious about climate won reelection while fossil-fuel Democrats lost. Governor Pat Quinn once bragged about passing a bill to launch fracking along with lead Senate sponsor Mike Frerichs. Quinn lost reelection after spending months avoiding the issue (and anti-fracking protesters).
Read the rest here and thanks for sharing.