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.

November 11, 2014

All Illinois Democrats Have to Do for Re-Election Is...

My new blog at HuffPost. This may be the first Illinois election in years decided by downstate and the suburbs.
Quinn won 64.3% in Cook county, the same percentage he got in 2010. But with turnout down, he earned about 79,000 fewer votes out of Cook than last time. That's enough for a few Chicago-centric thinkers to claim, as they always do, that Cook county made the difference. But, even if Quinn had matched his 2010 turnout in Chicago, he still would have lost this election.

Also at Democrats for Progress and DailyKos.

November 5, 2014

Southern Illinois asks legislative committee to reject weak fracking rules

Yesterday Illinois was facing an environmental and economic crisis from fracking that was greenwashed by a Democratic Governor who told us regulation can make it safe. Voters were asked to choose between two pro-fracking candidates for Governor. Bruce Rauner won after many downstate voters decided they didn't like either choice and stayed home.

Illinois is now faced with an environmental crisis to be overseen by a Republican Governor who's unlikely to strictly enforce regulation. There's no more greenwashing fracking in Illinois. No politician can credibly claim they're protecting the environment with the weak law passed by the legislature. It's the state's top environmental threat.

The next politicians who may claim they can make fracking safe are legislators on JCAR. After delaying action until after election day, they're expected to vote on fracking rules Thursday. They must reject the rules to prevent poorly regulated fracking from moving forward under Bruce Rauner. Even strong rules would be meaningless if overseen by state regulatory agencies captured by industry. Passing the rules now, even with improvements requested by a few pro-fracking green groups in Chicago, would guarantee environmental disaster.

After JCAR rejects the rules, Pat Quinn has one last chance to fix his mistake by asking the legislature to pass a ban or moratorium on fracking during the upcoming veto session. It can still be done before Bruce Rauner takes office as Governor.

Southern Illinois grassroots environmental leaders sent the following letter asking JCAR to reject the rules.

November 4, 2014
Dear Members of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules:

The undersigned Illinois residents urge this committee to reject the Proposed Rules for the Hydraulic Fracturing Regulatory Act. We have identified numerous procedural deficiencies in the rulemaking process for these proposed rules, each of which is serious enough to have tainted the whole process. This Committee has the authority to reject the Proposed Rules, and we respectfully request that you do so at your November 6, 2014 meeting.

We have identified the following violations of Illinois statutory law committed during the rulemaking period for HFRA:
• IDNR failed to publish a summary of the 135 page proposed rulemaking in the regulatory agenda. (5 ILCS 100/5-60).
• IDNR failed to give sufficient notice of public hearings throughout Illinois; one hearing even received zero notice in the Illinois Register. (5 ILCS 100/5-40)
• IDNR failed to make an agency representative available to answer questions at any of the public hearings held in Illinois. (5 ILCS 100/5-40)
• IDNR refused some citizens admittance to the Chicago hearing. (5 ILCS 100/5-40(b))
• IDNR did not allow some citizens to speak at the Ina (Rend Lake College) hearing. (5 ILCS 100/5-40(b))
• IDNR provided an inadequate opportunity for the public to address the factual basis for its rulemaking depriving members of the public of complete participation in the rulemaking process. (5 ILCS 100/5-60)
• IDNR prejudiced the public's opportunity to comment, by making patently false statements in its first notice. (5 ILCS 100/5-40)
• IDNR failed to comply with the requirement of HFRA section 1-97 by not submitting the required report to the General Assembly by February 1, 2014, thereby depriving citizens the opportunity to evaluate that report during the limited time for public input on rulemaking. (225 ILCS 732/1-97)
• IDNR’s Delay in Publishing the Transcripts of the Public Hearings Prejudiced the Public’s Ability to Evaluate IDNR’s Rulemaking (5 ILCS 100/5-35)

In total, the statutory violations described here have deprived the public of its rights under the Illinois Administrative Procedure Act, and when considered cumulatively, the violations also amount to a violation of IDNR’s rulemaking duties under HFRA.

The rulemaking process failed in its essential purpose; the proposed rulemaking violated mandatory statutory and administrative rulemaking procedures and prejudiced the public’s right and ability to participate in this important rulemaking. If JCAR finalizes these rules, then these rules will be incomplete, inadequate, and invalidly enacted to the detriment of Illinois residents who are landowners, mineral interest owners, and members of the communities where high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing would occur.

The undersigned below also believe it is critical for this Committee to realize that at the present time, IDNR does not have an adequate budget nor staff to supervise high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing under the HFRA or to monitor compliance with HFRA permits and HFRA.

We have been concentrating on the procedural deficiencies of the rulemaking, as described above, but we also have the following concerns about the health and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing that have been recorded in scientific research: contamination of water supplies, displacement of wildlife, noise and light pollutions, earthquakes and seismic risks, silica dust hazards, low level radiation exposure, and increased burdens on infrastructure, especially in rural communities.

Now is the time for JCAR to acknowledge the procedural deficiencies of this important rulemaking in our State’s history and to do the right thing in the best interest of Illinois residents. Please deny approval of the proposed HRFA rules.

1. /s/ Ms. Natalie M. Laczek
2. /s/ Ms. Penni S. Livingston
3. /s/ Mr. Vito Amastrangelo
4. /s/ Ms. Tabitha Tripp
5. /s/ Mr. Sam Stearns
6. /s/ Mr. Mark Donham
7. /s/ Mr. Nathan Czuba
8. /s/ Annette McMichaels on behalf
of Southerners Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment SAFE

If you'd like to send your own message to members of JCAR by Wednesday morning you can find their contact information here.

October 23, 2014

Illinois Wasting Millions on Another Coal-to-Gas Pork Project

My new blog at Huffington Post is on the latest Illinois coal subsidy fail. 

The state of Illinois is throwing millions of taxpayer dollars at another coal-to-gas plant just two years after a similar project ended in failure.
The Coal Development Fund has so far given Homeland Fuels two grants totaling$4.25 million in taxpayer dollars. The first grant was awarded in 2013 to fund a study for the proposed "Coal to Diesel Pilot Project" next to their coal supplier, which will apparently be a nearby Chris Cline-owned mine in central Illinois. The company moved addresses from Hillsboro to Litchfield before receiving a second grant for $3,500,000. There's no indication of how the plant would limit their global warming emissions or other environmental impacts.

Read and share the rest.

October 21, 2014

More "victories" in Illinois fracking law that are functionally useless

I'm looking at registration forms submitted to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources by companies that want to frack Illinois.

One company with a notorious environmental record was able to check the box saying it has no history of violations because the form only asks if they had a violation on fracking in the past five years. Have a violation for conventional oil & gas operations? No problem. You've only been operating in Texas where almost no one gets held accountable? No problem.

It's another part of the Illinois fracking law that sounds good but is basically worthless in practice. As a friend wrote; it would be like one of us having a regular driver's license, getting multiple DUIs and speeding tickets, and then deciding we wanted to get a CDL (commercial drivers license). Without having a search on our previous driving record, without having to take a new test, and only having to pay a license fee. Then if we got caught again, all we would have to do is change our name, and we could start with a clean slate all over again.

This reminds me of the Chicago-based green groups who negotiated the fracking law proudly bragging about the supposed victory they won allowing cities to ban it. Yet, the likely impacted areas are mostly rural counties where banning within city limits is no meaningful barrier to frackers. Countywide bans, which would have a meaningful impact, aren't allowed.

On another topic, the fracking registration forms say no permits will be issued until the rules are finally approved. A few groups who are focused on crafting better regulation made a campaign around getting Quinn to not issue fracking permits until the rules are final. Apparently, Quinn's IDNR never considered anything else. That campaign appears to have been a chew toy that kept groups occupied in a way that doesn't challenge Quinn or change the politics around fracking.

October 6, 2014

Who will be the climate change candidate in 2016?

Will the climate movement have a serious contender for President in 2016? Now's the time to find someone strong on the most urgent crisis of our time and serious about winning the White House.

Should that candidate be Hillary Clinton?  She says the right things. But the most significant actions of her career are promoting fracking as Secretary of State and letting the oil industry influence environmental impact studies for the Keystone XL pipeline. 

With a record like that, it's hard to imagine what Clinton can say to convince skeptical primary voters that a politician notorious for having her finger to the wind will suddenly became a stalwart champion against powerful fossil fuel interests. This is the same person who backed off from her signature issue, universal healthcare, for roughly ten years after the '93 setback and retreated to safer talking points about prescription drugs for seniors.

Is it reasonable to believe someone who has played it safe for her entire career will suddenly become obstinate against the most powerful interests in Washington? The cost of taking only small, politically easy steps in classic Clintonian fashion will be many more lives lost in climate change disasters. The future of civilization as we know it depends on electing a President who will take the kind of bold, courageous action that neither Hillary nor her husband (the Neville Chamberlain of the climate crisis) have demonstrated during their careers.

Clinton's approval numbers have nosedived to under 50% since she left the Obama administration and stepped back into the spotlight. Despite the inevitability narrative around Clinton, it's realistic to believe a candidate can challenge her in Iowa and other early primary states. That fear is why her supporters are so determined to discourage anyone else from running.

The dream candidate for the environmental movement who could start with enough money, name recognition, and experience to seriously challenge Clinton is Al Gore. I would love to re-elect Gore, but he hasn't expressed interest in running. Yet.

Bernie Sanders speaks boldly about climate change but it doesn't sound like he's serious about winning the election. Most primary voters and donors aren't interested in wasting time on a campaign that's only trying to raise issues. If we're discussing dream candidates, I'd be excited to see Obama's former Labor Secretar, Hilda Solis bring her focus on environmental justice to the election. 

Among those talking about running, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley has the most impressive record of acting on climate. Stroll through the Climate Change Maryland website to see how other states should do it.

It's not mere window dressing. Maryland passed a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act in 2009, released a plan in 2013, and has set the goal of reducing emissions 25% by 2020. 

O'Malley's big test is how he acts on fracking. Some Democratic leaders and big green funders are a little slow to acknowledge that natural gas isn't a realistic solution to climate change. Even if you don't account for methane leaks, switching from coal to another fossil fuel simply can't produce the kind of greenhouse gas reductions required to address the crisis.

Most of the environmental grassroots have a more reality-based position. The movement against fracking is passionate and growing rapidly. If O'Malley supports fracking his previous actions won't help him in the Democratic primary. He'll be just another lackluster candidate with a mixed environmental record.

Among those already running, Martin O'Malley looks like the most likely candidate for the climate change movement to unite behind but he'll have to take a strong stand against fracking.

September 24, 2014

Congressional candidate Mike Bost says fracking is safe but environmentalists want people to die

Illinois Republican Congressional candidate Mike Bost has some unusual beliefs about environmentalists and fracking. In a recent radio interview, Bost said about environmentalists:
"...if it was up to them, people should die and everything else should exist. Now, I know because I was in the negotiations with them."
Bost was referring to his role negotiating the law that will open Illinois to fracking. Several groups based in Chicago, including Faith-in-Place, NRDC, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center participated in negotiations and supported the law over the objection of environmentalists in areas that will be most impacted.

Now, I wasn't present for negotiations but I've never heard staff for any of those groups suggest anything remotely similar to the opinion that people should die and everything else should exist. In fact, most climate change and anti-fracking activists are involved to save human life.

Many of us noticed that fracking made North Dakota the deadliest state to work in.

We're bothered that fracking operations use chemicals known to cause cancer respiratory problems, birth defects and other health impacts.

We know the massive increase in trucks transporting dangerous chemicals is yet another unavoidable deadly hazard, especially since toxic spills shutting down I-57 in southern Illinois is already a regular story.

Since fracking contributes to climate change we're also working to reduce climate disasters like extreme flooding in southern Illinois.

But Mike Bost is excited about fracking because it will bring tax revenue and jobs. He's willing to sacrifice human life for the sake of transient temp jobs that will mostly go to out-of-state workers for the profit of out-of-state companies. And he has the balls to accuse environmentalists of not caring about human life?

Surprisingly, this is considered a competitive race. Fracking is highly controversial in the district. A poll taken last year showed southern Illinois evenly split on whether fracking should be allowed, with 54% of independents opposed. That's remarkable considering the same poll claims 80% support coal mining. Opposition is growing but there's a conspicuous absence of regional or statewide polls on the topic since then. His support for fracking will cost Bost support among moderates and independents.

Because I'm pretty certain no real-world environmentalist ever expressed to Bost the views he claims, I have to wonder what imaginary tree-huggers he was negotiating with. Do other people see them? Do they always take human form? Does he typically win arguments with his imaginary enemies or lose? Hopefully someone on his staff can help if these mysterious negotiators make more demands.

September 19, 2014

Congressman Shimkus faces backlash to deceptive fracking comments

Illinois' most embarrassing Congressman, John Shimkus, faced an outraged backlash for pro-fracking statements he made on facebook. He's already well known as a climate change denier and conspiracy theorist on the fringe of the energy debate. Although there's a long tradition of coal mining in his district, fracking is very controversial.

Shimkus has a steady stream of constituents who regularly respond to his misleading and foolish facebook posts. But several posts supporting fracking attracted unusually strong pushback.

The first recent post linked a radio interview in which Shimkus says fracking, "isn't really new. Its been around since the 40's." This is a common talking point industry propagandists use to confuse people.

Some forms of vertical fracking have been around for decades. Recent debates and regulation are focused on horizontal, high powered fracking, which people in the industry know was developed in the 90's. Shimkus then says with no irony that "it's difficult to separate what's fact from fiction these days." That's especially true when someone's Congressman is lying to them.

Shimkus then posted a picture of a fracking operation with the comment, "Looking forward to seeing this in Southern Illinois" that generated 85 mostly brutal responses from downstate residents.

  • Great idea! Let's frack away our future! Goodbye geological stability. Hey...we're going to need more lawyers, doctors, and environmental remediation services in the area to deal with all of the negative impacts of fracking. What a short sighted plan.
  • Southern Illinois has beauty beyond compare. Crystal clear water to drink. Clean air to breath. Why in the world do you think God would want you to do anymore to this area than has already been done by strip mining and underground mining? Piling shale on the ground making our highways nasty. Please rethink this highway of thinking. You've been there for us in the past, please think of our future.

  • Proof we have the best congressman money can buy.

  • I'm not looking forward to such ruin of our region. Ban fracking. Put your support behind wind, solar and energy efficient design please, Otherwise, you do not have my vote.

  • Can we put one next to your house?

  • Yeah, because that well is so much more beautiful than Shawnee National Forest and the surrounding land. Idiot.

  • They are fracking in Central Illinois bypassing the Regulatory Act by staying under the volume that would cause them to wait for the rules to be finalized and by using fluids other than water to frack. See what they can get away with in this state! The Regulatory Act is going to be useless against these companies.

  • In 2012 the State of Texas reported $1.5 billion in revenues from all fracking activities. That same year the Texas Department of Transportation determined that fracking truck traffic was causing $4 billion in roadway damages statewide annually.
  • You support this you will condemn us all .It is your obligation too get the facts. Remember John we live on two fault lines.

  • "this" should be NO where near Southern Illinois. Trashing the land, air and using precious water to frack the earth? Oh also fracking near New Madrid fault....are you so out of touch you don't see that?

  • So, will the first "test" sites be in YOUR backyard, contamination affecting YOUR family? Most folks boosting southern Illinois look forward to seeing forests, rock formations, lakes, and... Wineries... This picture does none of those justice. It also makes me want to move for the sake of my baby boy!!!!!!!

  • You are totally wrong about this issue; Illinois is one of the most beautiful states in the union with some of the best water anywhere. Now you want to ruin it? What the hell is wrong with you? We intend to fight this fight to the end!

  • You can't restore ruined buildings from earthquakes, and you can't restore polluted water once it has made people sick. You are gambling with people's lives, to make a few dollars for a few people, most of whom don't need it. Shame on you.

  • Fracking destroys. Fracking destroys wildlife. Fracking destroys tourism. Fracking destroys drinking water. Whoever is for Fracking has no empathy for our planet.

  • You are either incredibly stupid, incredibly uncaring, or a combination of both if you look forward to seeing this in Southern Illinois. Do you also look forward to the earthquakes that will devastate Southern Illinois? Do you look forward to the land and water being destroyed? What is WRONG with you politicians? Is that almighty dollar that you're getting from all of these people destroying our planet going to be worth it when you also don't have decent air to breathe, water to drink, or constituents to vote for you? I hope all politicians supporting fracking are ousted from office as soon as possible. Fracking in Southern Illinois is a terrible, terrible thing and the fact that you don't know this makes me sick.

  • With all due respect, Congressman: ABSOLUTELY NOT! No way are the people of southern Illinois prepared for the noise, traffic, and pollution this will create. Take fracking to Chicago!

  • NO! This is *not* a sight I want to see in Southern Illinois, now or EVER! We live on two active faults. I have friends in many areas that have allowed fracking. They have constant earthquakes. No job, no income, is worth endangering millions of lives. Please re-think this.
  • why weren't we considered for the Tesla Plant, you have any idea what 6500 decent jobs would mean to this district, well are you trying to bring long term development here? oh and talk to folks in Ohio about fracking jobs, transients living in hotels and apartments leaving on Friday, lots of work for restaurants, bars and gas stations and when the crews move on so do those crappy jobs...
I could copy dozens more.
    Shimkus got cute with his response and posted a graphic of outdated and out of context quotes from former and current Obama administration officials. Then another of academics who have worked for the industry claiming there has been no water contamination from fracking.

    I added my own comment this time that got 13 likes.
    243 cases of drinking well water contaminated in Pennsylvania. Does it bother anyone else to have their Congressman lie to them?
    Plenty of others chimed in with more stories, studies, and facts to correct Shimkus' attempt to mislead his constituents.

    I understand this scientific compendium is not covered in money, and therefore you are not likely to read such things, but you might try reading a peer reviewed medical research that provides a significant body of evidence that fracking is inherently dangerous to people and their community.
    Why don't you ask these people! Dennis and Tamera Hagy and sons, Jackson County, WV (Equitable gas wells 1,080 feet away)
    Exposure: Water – arsenic, lead, barium and Bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate, radon levels were 1,233 pCi/l with the maximum contaminant level set at 300.
    Symptoms: Neurological symptoms, headaches, rashes, and vomiting, eyes burning, oddly tired; one son spitting up blood
    or Danny and Sharon Kinney
    Location: Salem, WV
    Gas Facility: Antero Resources gas well
    Exposure: Water – arsenic at .060
    Symptoms: Unknown, replacement water or relocated; cracking house foundation
    Plus this powerful personal response:
    My parents are ranchers. They have lost water pressure at their ranch for the first time in twenty years because three of their neighbors are selling off their water to fracking companies. They were also involved in an auto accident a few years ago because the traffic has gotten progressively worse on the little state highway they retired on. We don't have the cancer clusters mapped out yet, but we will in a few decades time, we'll have the epidemiological connections with silicosis understood to a greater degree too by then; cold comfort to the people who will be suffering from it, and silicosis is a pretty awful way to die. The companies won't disclose the contents of the chemicals they inject into the ground, but they do use known carcinogens. Local communities vote to keep fracking out, yet are over-ruled by state judges, like what transpired in Fort Collins, Co. earlier this year. You quoting EPA and Energy officials is probably not the most disingenuous thing you've done (how many of them are now working for energy companies I wonder?), but sincerely if it were your family, and their livelihood was at stake, would you still call fracking safe?
    Shimkus has an incumbent protection district but he's facing a serious Democratic opponent for the first time in his new district, Eric Thorsland. Besides taking a reality-based position on climate change, Thorsland's family owns an organic farm. His website says he "believes food security and water quality issues are top priorities and has witnessed firsthand the effects of a changing climate on his farm."

    There's a clear choice between Thorsland, who supports building a long-term sustainable economy, and Shimkus who would sacrifice the regions' future for a few years of transient temp jobs.