Though the Need is Urgent, Earth Day’s Best Moment May Lie in Past


This week, just a day before the nation marked the 40th Earth Day, the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded 50 miles from the Louisiana coast, leaving 11 people dead, dozens injured, and a pulse of crude oil that is spreading across the Gulf of Mexico. The blast, which caused the platform to sink on Earth Day itself, came 16 days after 29 men perished in a West Virginia coal mine – the worst American mining disaster in 40 years.

The two calamities embody the relentless risks – human and environmental – that come with the unceasing pursuit of fossil fuel. They also highlight a stubborn feature of the original Earth Day – the consequences of America’s dangerous reliance on oil and coal – that has expanded and deepened in the 40 years since.

On Monday, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman are scheduled to make public a proposal for comprehensive climate and energy legislation they hope will change that vector. By some accounts the steps it takes to diminish oil and coal use will include a phased in cap for the electricity and industrial sectors. It may also contain a pollution fee for transportation fuels and new measures to foster the development and use of domestically produced cleaner energy alternatives.

In these and other provisions, the Senate proposal is said by Congressional staffers to differ substantially from the House energy and climate legislation enacted in June 2009. The House legislation contained robust measures to cap carbon emissions and to develop an emissions trading market that has potential to generate billions of dollars to accelerate the low-carbon economy.

In anticipation of the Senate climate and energy proposal, Public Opinion Strategies, a national market research firm, released on Earth Day the results of a poll that was conducted in five moderate to conservative states.  The firm found that a majority of 800 voters polled earlier this month in Alaska, Florida, Iowa, Idaho, and Virginia favored what the pollsters called an “overhaul the nation’s energy system to reduce polluting emissions and increase the use of renewable energy sources.”  The pollsters also discovered what they said was “strong support” – regardless of party affiliation -for any plan to put a price on carbon to also include refunds to citizens.

I’ll be busy on Monday reporting for USCAN on the Senate bill’s content, gather a summary of reactions from the climate action community, and describe the shape of the policy debate over the next few months.

Forty years ago, in response to the first Earth Day, 20 million Americans demonstrated their commitment to Mother Earth in marches, actions (I painted the White Plains train station and dragged tires out of the Bronx River), teach-ins and much more. The civic activism prompted a generation of bipartisan federal and state legislation that cleaned the air, cleared the water, and protected man and animal alike from a good number of industrial hazards. It also opened the way to a much more efficient economy that is many times larger today than it was then.

The legislation made public on Monday is driven by motives and energy that is consistent with the first Earth Day. But the political culture is so much angrier, divided, jealous, and immature — and that encompasses the behavior of extreme voices on every side. The result is that in an era when environmental dangers are just as urgent, and the potential for doing good just as keen, the federal government has scant chance to enact a measure that comes close to what’s needed.

— Keith Schneider

Biomass Gets Traverse City Go Ahead

aerial - downtown Traverse City

Just in time for Earth Day’s 40th celebration, the Traverse City Light and Power board voted last night to proceed with more due diligence — analysis, fuel studies, engineering designs, zoning decisions, many other data points — to acquire 10 mw of renewable energy with a state-of-the-art clean renewable wood biomass plant. Congratulations to the staff and board for making a tough and courageous decision. And thank you to Skip Pruss, director of the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth, and to Governor Jennifer Granholm, who today was recognized for the Leadership in Renewable Energy Award by the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association. Both Pruss and the governor provided vigorous support for the TCL&P proposal to build a small wood biomass plant.

Disappointing in all of the work that went into last night’s vote was the fact-thin, emotional, sanctimonious activism of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, which allowed and enabled extremists to hijack their organization. Not once did NMEAC offer a credible alternative for generating baseload power in an era of fossil fuel dependency that has produced documentable and visible damage to Michigan. Instead NMEAC embraced wild assertions about the risks to the region’s forests, the supposed threat from ash, the plant’s emissions, even providing a forum for irresponsible fear-mongering. At one of its forums in February a NMEAC-sponsored extremist stated as bald fact an outright fear-provoking falsehood —  that an old and much larger wood biomass plant in Cadillac burned tires for fuel.

It doesn’t and never did. How do I know? As a senior staff member of the Michigan Land Use Institute I helped a local environmental organization develop and execute the public interest strategy that denied the plant from obtaining a state permit for burning tires as fuel. NMEAC never corrected that whopper or any of the others it fostered.

TCL&P showed steady resolve and exceptional resilience in hearing from citizens, responding to their concerns at a time when the plain fact is that nothing they would say would satisfy the polemical, polarized conversation that NMEAC encouraged and that Traverse City’s weekly and daily newspaper inflamed. Once again, though, facts led to a reasoned decision and Traverse City’s reputation as a center of green progress was enhanced.

— Keith Schneider

When Tea Party and Environmentalism Meet


Quick. Who said this? A leader of the Tea Party or an extremist environmentalist?

“You make a tragic mistake characterizing the new grassroots environmental movement blossoming in the resistance to the horrific idea of burning the life on planet earth whether it be trees, whales or crops for fuel  as “blowback.” Unless you mean blowback to the corporate funded environmental movement and their paid lobbyists, marketers, and “experts.” The public clearly understands the physics of burning and energy and knows that burning trees as green energy is folly and that little boutique biomass burners to allow small groups of elites to maintain the illusion they have “renewable” energy–while some players collect thousands even millions behind the scenes–is essentially a sin.

“The experts YOU trot out clearly provide data that says that burning our forests could never even replace a single fossil fuel plant in Michigan.  And that biodiversity and CO2 sequestration would be severely damaged.  They just hide these truths to collect their paychecks from the timber, biomass, and biofuels lobby. That is an intellectual crime.  The corporate funded environmental movement that pushes phony solutions to global warming like biomass and biofuels is dying.  Our bought and paid for environmental movement and their paid representatives and the politicians they have duped (for not much longer) will change or come crashing down.

“You can either get with this new grassroots environmental movement, or stand by the corporate and business interests hanging on to the biomass bone like a pit bull whose has a grip on someones face. From BP to Rio Tinto the SAME corporations who fund the rape of the planet are funding this phony “renewable” energy movement.  So when we fight the proponents of those who pretend tree burning is sustainable or green or doesn’t pollute or emit CO2, we are fighting the very same companies and profiteers that have been raping our planet for sometime now–and the politicians they have tricked or cajoled or funded into supporting them. The only question is how much damage will the corporate environmental movement do before getting out of the way of the truth and preventing CITIZENS from making a real plan to save ourselves from the horrible ways we have treated our planet, free of salesmen, lobbyists, and marketers and the undo influence of the pillagers who are funding what passes for an environmental movement these days.”

I learned years ago, while reporting for the Times on the relative risks of trace levels of dioxin and other toxic substances, that data and science fact can prompt excess in the language and behavior of people who have embraced another view, regardless of its pragmatism and reason. At that time the language of grassroots and community environmentalists looked very similar to the heated hate rhetoric of the Posse Comitatus, a racist anti-government right wing group operating in the Great Plains.

The same trend is emerging in Traverse City, where Traverse City Light & Power proposes a renewable energy plan to acquire 30 percent of its power from local renewable resources by 2020. Part of the proposal  — along with purchasing more wind, solar, landfill gas, and dramatically increasing energy efficiency — is to build a state-of-the-art clean renewable 10 mw wood biomass plant. The latter has caused concern among people who believe that burning wood is not a good idea and will harm the forest. Most of the statements, while based largely on emotion, are expressed largely in civil tones.

But the leader of the opposition, a filmmaker in Traverse City named Jeff Gibbs, is making a movie about opposition to wood biomass and has been busy stirring the pot with hyper-heated, bombastic, ego-inflating, Rush Limbaugh like hectoring. The statement above, vintage Gibbs, was made on a public email thread earlier this month.

Full disclosure: I have been helping TCL&P design and execute a public information and engagement program for its 30By20 plan.

Here’s another example, more raw, nastier, from another biomass critic named Sally Neal, who was writing to Steve Smiley, a friend and a clean energy expert who helped TCL&P build the first industrial-scale utility wind turbine in the Midwest in 1996. (see pix above) “Are you now or were you not a paid employee of TCLP?”, writes Neal, “like keith schneider who is paid to SELL TCLP’s biomass to the ignorant masses?………unlike you, schneider is an eco-poseur, and an insult to the community…….i know his whole story, and have had a real closeup look at who he is and how he works, and its not pretty… fact, very ugly indeed……….some have characterized him as a whore…will work either side of the street….doesn’t care, as long as he gets paid and told what to say.”

As founder and executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute I learned that one measure of success in public policy disputes is how badly the other side misbehaves. By that measure, TCL&P’s pursuit of the 30By20 renewable plan and its proposed biomass project is on the right track.

— Keith Schneider

Wood Biomass Projects Advance in U.S.

Just as the Traverse City Record-Eagle aims another editorial broadside to block the local utility’s decision to pursue a right-sized, state-of-the-art, clean, renewable 10 mw wood biomass plant, evidence of public support emerges from other states where the technology is being pursued with vigor.

The new wood biomass projects are a clear indication that momentum for the technology and fuel source is pushing ahead despite misplaced public opposition in a number of states, including Michigan. The key issue in managing growing numbers of new biomass plants is the fuel supply. Clearly, damaging forests to generate power is in nobody’s interest. The same is true for not ensuring sustainable forest practices to produce a steady supply of wood that keeps prices stable. One reason that Traverse City Light and Power is considering wood biomass is that the price of natural gas has been so volatile in recent years.biomass

For reasons that may never be clear to me, northwest Michigan’s largest daily newspaper has embraced the hysterical (forests will be “slaughtered), and factless (ash is toxic, emissions are higher than a coal-fired plant) reasoning of a group of extremely ill-informed environmentalists to argue against the TCL&P wood biomass proposal. Today it published a report from Cadillac, 45 miles south of here, where wood biomass has generated power for decades. Though editors emphasized the more emphatic views of some residents, the reporter actually found considerable comfort with the old plant, even those close to the plant. The paper never mentioned that the state-of-the-art plant proposed by TCL&P is much smaller, much newer, much cleaner.

Fortunately a more informed and pragmatic view about the value of state-of-the-art biomass generation is starting to emerge. A public opinion survey by Northwestern Michigan College shows 55 percent of the utility’s customers support the wood biomass proposal, a finding that was not covered by the Record-Eagle. The mayor of Traverse City, environmental lawyer Chris Bzdok, supports the biomass proposal, as does the director of the state Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth. The Record-Eagle, which closely reports on every statement made by critics, also didn’t cover the public meeting that featured the DELEG director’s endorsement. The Michigan Land Use Institute issued a report several weeks ago that called for greater focus on energy efficiency and found room for what it called a small wood biomass plant like that proposed by TCL&P.

Full disclosure: I helped TCL&P design and execute its public engagement process. When weighing the options for generating baseload power, something that TCL&P customers need, the utility has three choices: coal, the dirtiest fuel of all; natural gas, which is not renewable and subject to price swings; and wood biomass. The latter proposal is right-scaled, local, fueled with sustainable forest practices, generates much lower emissions than coal, is highly efficient with its combined heat and power and gasification design, keeps $4 million annually circulating in the community that is now being sent to Wyoming, railroads, and a downstate coal-fired utility, will employ around 20 people to operate and 20 more in supplying fuel, and represents a $30 million high-tech investment in renewable energy generation.

Other communities also have weighed the options and chose new biomass generation. Just last week these projects received press attention:

Green Mountain College in Poultney this week opens a small wood biomass plant that will produce 20 percent of the electricity used by the Vermont school and 85 percent of its heat. The $5.8 million combined heat and power plant will is burn 4,400 tons of wood chips a year, replacing 200,000 gallons of heating oil..

“It’s a huge movement forward for a college that’s trying to educate about sustainability across the curriculum,” Bill Throop, the provost, told the Rutland Herald.

The project is the result of nearly five years of work by students and staff to respond to energy security, peak oil concerns, renewable energy, and the climate crisis. The intent was to replace the school’s oil-fueled boiler with a cleaner, renewable, and more efficient power plant. Similar plants operate at Bennington and Middlebury Colleges in Vermont. The Bennington plant is pictured above.

In New York, NRG Energy Inc. last week was awarded a 10-year contract from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) for power generated using renewable biomass fuel at its Dunkirk Generating Station in western New York. The project, which is expected to come online by the end of 2011, will produce up to 15 megawatts of the station’s output.

“Adding sustainable biomass to the fuel mix cuts emissions and supports the state’s goal of producing 30% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015,” said Drew Murphy, President of NRG’s Northeast Region, in a news release. “This project will also create up to 50 processing and transportation jobs in western New York and produce enough electricity to power 12,000 households.”

Last year, the New York Public Service Commission expanded the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 30 percent renewable electricity by 2015, up from the 25 percent level set in 2004. The change prompted NRG to propose using biomass as a primary fuel at its Montville Generating Station after repowering one of the facility’s existing units to produce up to 40 MW of electricity. In Louisiana, NRG has created a 20-acre test site using locally grown switchgrass and sorghum to be used as a biomass fuel at its Big Cajun II plant.

Speaking of Louisiana, Baton Rouge may soon be the site of a $124 million wood pellet-making plant, whose products will be sold overseas and used as fuel. William New, the Wisconsin-based chairman and chief executive officer of Point Bio Energy LLC of Baton Rouge, said the plant will employ between 85 and 100 people and generate 500 to 1,000 other related jobs as it taps the area’s timber industry for its raw materials and makes use of the port

“The capacity of the plant is 400,000 to 450,000 tons a year,” New told the Associated Press. “We have ongoing discussions with a number of people in Europe to take all or part of the production of the plant.”

According to Wood Resource Quarterly, the demand for wood pellets is around 8 million tons a year in northern Europe, and that number is expected to double or triple over the next decade. The global trade for woody biomass, particularly pellets, nearly doubled between 2003 and 2008, to around 3 million tons.

Production capacity in North America grew from 1 million tons in 2004 to more than 6 million tons in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia two companies — Nova Scotia Power and NewPage — announced plans last week to develop a new 60 MW biomass co-generation facility. The $200 million plant is under review by the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, and if approved could be finished by late 2012.

The project, according to local news reports, is expected to create an estimated 150 new jobs in Northern Nova Scotia, primarily in the forestry sector, in addition to maintaining the Port Hawkesbury mill’s existing workforce of approximately 550 employees. Approximately 50 person-years of employment will also be created during the construction phase.

Circle of Blue is “Changing the Face of Journalism”


Bob Giles, a son of the Midwest, former Pulitzer Prize winning editor at the Akron Beacon Journal, and then again as editor and publisher of The Detroit News, has been the curator since 2000 of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. A working newspaper journalist and editor since 1958, Giles knows a thing or two about reporting. He just published a piece in Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, on the future of online journalism. The article cites Circle of Blue, the Traverse City-based online multi-media news organization, as a prime example of the “news-gathering experiments that are changing the face of journalism.”

“As journalism quickens the pace of its move to the Web, Circle of Blue is filling a niche by providing specialized content that is considered essential by an audience of shared interests but that can’t be found in such detail anywhere else,” Giles writes. “In many ways, it is reflective of a shift in how we define journalism, or at the very least, in how we go about producing and sharing it.”

“Some of these new ventures will fail, some will succeed. But the vitality of the start-up culture suggests that if the twilight of newspaper journalism is upon us, a fresh capacity to sustain journalism is charging forward. Circle of Blue is among several non-profit news organizations testing one of the industry’s most-discussed ideas: that serious journalism can be supported with funding from a variety of sources behind carefully constructed firerewalls built on traditional standards of journalistic ethics. It is a prototype of a business model that supports specialized coverage, but it in fact embraces characteristics common among other start-ups and experiments that hold promise as a new way of paying for serious journalism.”

Giles’ article, thoroughly reported and stylishly structured, aptly captures the resolve and excitement gathering around serious independent online journalism. Stephen Engelberg, a friend and former colleague at the New York Times,  who helped win a number of Pulitzers in New York, just won another with his colleagues at Pro Publica, the first online Pulitzer ever awarded.

Giles is right on target in citing Circle of Blue as an especially effective model of what is possible in the new online reporting space. Next week J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue’s director and co-founder (with his wife Eileen) convenes a strategic planning and design session in San Francisco with a group of creative people he’s met from around the nation and world. The two-day session, facilitated by The Value Web, is intended to take Circle of Blue’s multi-media news desk to a new level of engagement, innovation, and effectiveness.

And that’s saying something. Since its founding in 2002 as an online newsroom covering the global freshwater crisis, Circle of Blue has dispatched multi-media news teams to cover some of the world’s most important water stories on five continents. It’s gathered journalists, scientists, and designers to produce probing reports that have made it the single most important source of breaking news about freshwater issues in the world. It’s done so with the highest standards of reporting, writing, design, photography, videography, and motion graphics.

Still, the real miracle of Circle of Blue, an aspect that wasn’t reported in Daedalus, is that Circle of Blue has produced its work, established new dimensions in multi-media environmental journalism, and influenced important global organizations like the World Economic Forum, on an annual budget that has never exceeded $250,000. Funders span the horizon, from a small New York family foundation to MolsonCoors.

For three years I’ve served as senior editor, writer, and producer at Circle of Blue, working a few hours a week under an agreement with Carl and Eileen. My roles also include fundraising, strategic advisor, outreach staffer, and occasional trip planner. I’ve joined Carl on Circle of Blue reporting  and development trips to Sydney, Stockholm, San Francisco, New York, Washington, Denver, and Aspen. (That’s Carl (l) and me (r) in the pix up top with Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2007.)

Every month that passes Circle of Blue draws closer to gaining that major foundation grant that scales up the news desk and enables Carl to finally build, in Traverse City, what he calls “the newsroom of the future.” Bob Giles’ piece in Daedulus is the latest sign that the moment is drawing ever closer.