More Fear Sown By Opponents to Clean Energy


About a year ago, while consulting with Traverse City Light and Power on the utility’s plan to generate 30 percent of its energy from renewable resources, I recognized the surprising and damaging trend developing within grassroots environmental groups to sow fear and block clean and renewable energy projects.

That trend is growing bigger. Opponents to a big Duke Energy proposal to build the 112-turbine Gail Windpower installation in Benzie and Manistee counties here, many of whom view themselves as grassroots environmentalists, deployed a polemical film and junk science to scare people.

Late last month, my friend and former colleague at the New York Times, Felicity Barringer, reported that opponents to wireless smart meters, used to improve energy efficiency, are fighting a plan to install the devices, accusing them of causing cancer. Electromagnetic radiation from the meters, say critics, can injure living tissue, though multiple studies have failed to conclusively link such radiation to human disease. Sitting in front of the television years on end, for example, can certainly produce pyschic and bodily harm. But it won’t be from the electromagnetic radiation produced by the appliance.

That won’t mollify opponents, of course, who advance the “be safe rather than sorry” view of risk management, regardless of what the science says, especially if they ideologically oppose new technology. I’ve interviewed activists charged up about the purported risks of electromagnetic radiation. A few talked to me from their cellphones.

You recall, if you read this blog, that fraud science was also used in the struggle over a wood biomass gasification plant in Traverse City. Instead of embracing a utility proposal to build a state-of-the-art energy plant, a clean renewable proposal that would provide 10 mw of electricity and replace an equal measure of dirty coal-fired power, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council fought the plan. The Traverse City-based group, using a couple of hectoring regional residents and some out-of-state activists touting rubbish science, built a fear-based campaign that accused the utility of proposing an industrial monster. The high-tech plant, about as big as a bakery, was said by opponents to be a grave risk to public health, would slaughter the forests, and disturb the peace. The region’s two major news publications and broadcast media embraced the activist message and the plan died in June.

At the time I noted that the bitter language and hyperbolic authoritarian tone of the Traverse City greens, some of whom I’d worked with for years, sounded a lot to me like the language of the local Tea Party. Felicity reports the same phenomenon is occurring in northern California, where greens are trumping up charges of health consequences over the use of smart devices that Tea Party activists view as a threat to privacy.

You wonder how the United States can progress when so many people share the same nervous view of the future?

— Keith Schneider

The Next Era of Hydrocarbon Development: Well Underway and Dirtier Than the First

big-haul-rigs Highway 12 - Choke Point: U.S.

The most direct path to the nation’s newest big oil and gas fields is U.S. Highway12, two lanes of black top that unfolds from Grays Harbor in Washington State and heads east across the top of the country to Detroit.

The 2,500-mile route, parts of which were used by Lewis and Clark to open the American frontier, has quickly become an essential supply line for the energy industry. With astonishing speed and influence, American oil companies, Canadian pipeline builders, and investors from all over the globe are spending huge sums in an economically promising and exceedingly ecologically risky race to open the next era of hydrocarbon development. They are steadily replacing the dwindling “conventional” pools of oil and gas with “unconventional” fossil fuel reserves contained in the carbon rich sands and deep shales of Canada, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountain West.

Colorado, Utah and Wyoming hold oil shale reserves estimated to contain 1.2 trillion to 1.8 trillion barrels of oil, according to the Energy Department, half of which the department insists is recoverable. Eastern Utah alone holds tar sands oil reserves estimated at 12 billion to 19 billion barrels. The tar sands region of northern Alberta, Canada contains recoverable oil reserves conservatively estimated at 175 billion barrels and with new technology could reach 400 billion barrels. Deep gas-bearing shales of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountain West, Great Lakes, Northeast and Gulf Coast contain millions of trillions of feet of natural gas. If these projections turn out to be accurate, there would be enough oil and gas to power the United States for at least another century.

Big, Big Energy Boom
The explosion in development of unconventional fossil fuel reserves raises an insistent issue for the nation. At a time when the country invested roughly $100 billion in 2009 to claw its way onto a renewable energy path, its richest and most politically powerful industry is hurtling in the opposite direction, developing on a massive scale sources of energy that cause considerably more environmental harm – including pouring more climate-changing gases into the atmosphere — than conventional oil and gas drilling. The logical economic and political endpoint for the oil and gas industry, one that should invite invite panic among environmental activists, is to elect more conservatives to the House and Senate, close off federal funding for clean energy, and produce enough unconventional oil and gas to perpetuate the fossil fuel economy for decades.

That, in essence, is what’s occurring along Highway 12. Oil companies use Highway 12 to reach a good portion of the new oil and gas domain. They transport equipment 900 miles north to Alberta, Canada, where they are spending $15 billion annually to develop the region’s tar sands, the single largest source of oil imports to the U.S.

Midway across North Dakota, now the fourth largest oil producing state in the country – 100 million barrels this year — and where 1,000 wells will be drilled in 2010, Highway 12 crosses the $5 billion 2,151-mile Keystone Pipeline. It is the centerpiece of a $31 billion network of major transport lines either planned or under construction to carry oil from the middle part of the continent to refineries in Texas, Oklahoma, and Illinois that are being modernized and expanded at a cost of more than $20 billion. Several more of those refinery expansion projects lie on the highway’s eastern end in the Great Lakes and upper Midwest. In all, according to company reports and state economic development offices, the oil industry is spending nearly $100 billion annually to perpetuate the fossil fuel era.

What About Climate and Clean Energy
But even as one of the largest energy booms in history has erupted along a great arc of the continent that reaches from northern Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast, the consequences are prompting civic discontent, lawsuits, and political battles in state capitols. The boom also is producing fresh scars on the land, new threats to scarce reserves of fresh water, and portentous questions about the effect of the boom on increasing emissions of climate-changing gases.

Oil industry executives say their investments are consistent with the national goal of producing more energy to increase security. Oil companies are also profiting handsomely from the exploitation of these unconventional sources of oil and natural gas. The stakes became clear earlier this year, when ExxonMobil paid $41 billion to buy XTO Energy, a major player in unconventional fuels production, especially natural gas.

Last year, in a much-disputed draft environmental impact statement that summarized the need for a new Keystone XL pipeline to transport oil from unconventional reserves to American heartland refineries, the State Department tacitly backed the big oil boom. “The increasing demand for crude oil in the U.S. cannot be entirely met by efforts to conserve use of refined petroleum products or the increased use of renewable energy,” said the State Department. “As crude oil demand increases, the overall domestic supplies of crude oil are declining.” The department’s analysts added that without the pipeline and the new supplies of oil it would carry, the country “would remain dependent upon unstable foreign oil supplies from the Mideast, Africa, Mexico, and South America.”

Environmental leaders, particularly those in the Northwest, view the boom along Highway 12 much differently. “’Concerned’ would be putting it mildly,” said K.C. Golden, the policy director at Climate Solutions, a climate and energy research and advocacy group in Olympia, Washington. “I’m pretty sure this is not what Lewis and Clark had in mind when they opened doors to the West.”

Road to Oil and Gas
One of the flashpoints is occurring in northern Idaho and eastern Montana, where oil companies want to use Highway 12 to dispatch the largest convoy of oversized trucks ever assembled. The trucks, nearly as long as football fields and so wide they cover both lanes of the highway, haul refining and processing equipment that weigh hundreds of tons and are as tall as a mansion.

Conoco Philips was granted a road permit Idaho last month to haul four Korean-built oversized processing units from Lewiston, Idaho, where they were offloaded from Columbia River barges, to the company’s expanding refinery in Billings, Montana. Earlier this month, Idaho Second District Judge John Bradbury revoked the permits, asserting that the state did not adequately assess the hazards of the shipment, particularly to citizens if an accident involving one of the immense processing units blocked the highway. Local officials in Montana are considering similar legal action.

The court judgment in Idaho, which is set for an appeal today in the Idaho Supreme Court, could have significant ramifications for ExxonMobil Canada, which wants to make 207 oversize hauls next year along US 12. Exxon’s truck will haul even larger Korean-built units to be assembled into a new tar sands oil processing plant in Alberta. Using Interstates or railroads is not an option, says the company, because the loads are too big to fit under bridges.

Many climate advocates see an opportunity to block the ExxonMobil convoy and slow the development of the Canadian tar sands, the fastest growing source of C02 emissions in Canada, according to the Pembina Institute, a respected Canadian environmental think tank. “My primary concern, of course, is the intended use of the equipment,” said Golden. “The idea that we would parade these weapons of mass climatic destruction through the main arteries of a region that fancies itself a proving ground for sustainable prosperity is more than a little galling.”

The oil and gas industry is undeterred. The Bakken Shale that lies 10,000 feet beneath a 200,000 square mile expanse of North Dakota, Montana, and Sasketchewan is said by the USGS to contain over 4 billion barrels of oil, and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Oil industry geologists say there is much more than that in the Bakken, and in a second oil-rich shale reserve, the Three Forks, that lies below it.

Oil wells in the Bakken Shale are capable of producing 4,000 barrels a day or more, according to state figures. Spurred by the Bakken riches, energy companies are spending tens of millions of dollar to lease mineral rights in Wyoming and Colorado and are drilling exploratory wells in the Niobrara Shale, which geologists say share many of the same oil-bearing characteristics.

“It just almost boggles the mind,” Lynn Helms, the director of North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, told a veterans group in Minot on September 2. “It is not like the traditional oil and gas play.”

The energy boom, though, is alarming environmental groups because government studies show the unconventional reserves are tearing at the land, generate more C02 emissions, and use three to five times more water to produce oil or natural gas than conventional reserves. “It’s a pact with the devil,” said Randy Udall, a consulting energy analyst from Colorado. “The tar sands and shale oil and shale gas require a lot of water. It sets up a collision course for the West.”

Water-Energy Choke Point
A 2006 study by the Department of Energy that looked at rising energy demand and diminishing freshwater supplies found that the collision between the two was occurring most violently in the fastest growing places that also happened to have the scarcest water resources – California, the Southwest, the Rocky Mountain states, and the Southeast.

It takes four to six barrels of water to produce one barrel of tar sands oil, which is four times more water than it takes to produce oil from conventional reserves, according to a 2009 study by Argonne National Laboratory. Much of the water to produce oil from Canadian tar sands comes from the Athabasca River, which runs through the northern Alberta mining district. In 2008, according to Energy Alberta, tar sands mines used 184.3 million cubic meters of water — 48.7 billion gallons.

Just 10 percent is returned to the river, which a number of independent studies say is visibly depleted and rapidly deteriorating. The balance is poured into toxic tailing ponds as big as lakes, containing more than 1 trillion gallons of waste water combined and so polluted that at least 1,600 ducks that inadvertently landed in them have died, drowned by the tarry water.

Moreover, producing tar sands oil, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, emits 40 percent more greenhouse gases than oil produced from conventional reserves.

Producing oil and gas from the Bakken formation also uses a lot of water because
getting to the oil and natural gas requires rupturing the deep shale to open spaces and crevices through which the oil and gas can flow. The pulverizing process, called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” involves sinking drill bits two miles deep then turning them to move horizontally through the shale. An armada of tank trucks haul 2 million to 4 million gallons of water to each well site where pumps shoot it down the well at such super high pressure – 8,000 pounds per square inch – that the rock splits.

The practice is dangerous. Just a day before Helms’ appearance in Minot, an oil well undergoing fracking near Kildeer ruptured. The blowout leaked 100,000 gallons of fracturing fluid and crude oil before being plugged two days later.

Fracking has caused contamination of surface and groundwater in other states, as well, and harmed drinking water in some communities, according to a number of reports from local environmental organizations. The EPA is readying a report on the hazards of fracking, due next year.

Earlier this year, the volumes of water needed to frack the Bakken Shale also generated concern among state fisheries and wildlife officials in North Dakota. In February, a supervisor with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department formally opposed a farmer’s plan to sell a third of the water in eight-foot-deep Trenton Lake to a Texas energy developer. “Trenton Lake just doesn’t have the depth and capacity without seriously impacting the lake,” said the supervisor, Fred Ryckman. “The oil industry can find water elsewhere.”

Almost 150 oil and gas drilling rigs are operating in North Dakota this month, nearly tying a state record, and more than all but two other states. Some of more than 7,000 laborers from other states that migrated to North Dakota’s oil and gas fields used Hghway 12 to get there. The state unemployment rate has dropped to 3.6 percent – the nation’s lowest. And when North Dakota’s budget cycle ended in June, Budget Director Pam Sharp reported an $800 million surplus.

In short, not too many in North Dakota’s state government are really worrying – yet — about the water supply.

— Keith Schneider

Analysis: U.S. Senator Inhofe’s Denier Rhetoric Not Heard in Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN — On the day that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed up to the United Nations climate conference to say that the U.S. would contribute to a global clean energy and climate action fund that could grow to $100 billion by 2020, Senator James Inhofe also appeared in Copenhagen.

Earlier this month the Oklahoma Republican, one of Capitol Hill’s fiercest critics of climate action, told reporters that he would travel to Copenhagen with a “truth squad.” Its express mission: dispute climate science and disrupt the COP15 talks, which end tomorrow.

But the weight of urgency to meet tomorrow’s deadline and the intense diplomacy occurring around the clock now transformed Inhofe’s planned roar of perceived fact into a politically diminishing squeak. Briefly circled this morning by a group of reporters inside the Bella Center’s media center, Inhofe looked fidgety and uncomfortable as he accused the news media here of “being on the far left,” asserted that climate science was “debunked,” and promised that the chance of the Senate approving a proposed climate and energy bill was “zero.”

“Nothing binding will come out of here in my opinion,” Inhofe said, referring to the negotiations. “And if it does it will be rejected by the American people.”

Weak Appearance

Inhofe’s conservative allies in government and the media are certain to describe his visit as a heroic act of political principle – confront the lions of climate action in their own den and all that. But a more significant outcome of Inhofe’s three-hour Copenhagen visit could be the political consequence it may produce in Washington D.C.

The Oklahoma Republican, who steadily elevated his career to national significance – in the model of former Alabama Governor George Wallace — through calculated confrontation and rhetoric strategically calibrated to excite and inflame, miscalculated every aspect of his trip here.

The timing was wrong. The audience was not receptive. And Inhofe’s message was a blur for foreign reporters – Senate politics, hijacked emails – and old news for American journalists.

Indeed, there was real news to report. The U.S. started the day here with a surprising commitment to help finance a $100 billion climate and energy fund, the first time the country has formally recognized the magnitude of the investment needed globally. Clinton did not specify how much the U.S. would commit or its schedule, but did say that it was predicated on the Chinese allowing the world to measure and verify carbon reductions there.

The Chinese followed later in the day – no surprise — with assurances that it would be much more open and transparent in reporting progress on commitments it made last month to reduce carbon emissions.


Photo: J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue co-founder Bill McKibben spoke at the vigil, which intended to put pressure on world leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama, who arrived for the final day of the conference.

A Day of Progress Ignores Oklahoma Senator
The climate negotiations, fraught with disagreement and slow progress for almost two weeks, seemed to open up after both announcements. NGO experts close to the delegations said the talks were starting to move with more pace. The chance that the 192 nations here would reach a deal on climate change that makes a difference came into clearer focus. In other words, there is little space today in the momentous global conversation on climate and the economy for a whiny American senator from the Great Plains.

Inhofe left Copenhagen looking weak, a little unstable, and kind of kooky. No doubt, the Congressional delegation — led by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — that arrived here today took note.

Inhofe’s revealing performance capped a tough week for free market conservatives in Copenhagen. Early in the week several meetings on climate science and the stolen emails, including one organized by Americans For Prosperity, an activist organization financed in part by coal and oil interests, attracted audiences of less than a dozen participants. The stolen emails, flogged by Sarah Palin and the right as evidence of a conspiracy to cook the science on warming, were ignored in Copenhagen. Instead negotiators vigorously defended the scientific consensus on the causes of climate disruption and its consequences.

Oklahoma’s Favorite Son in D.C.

It’s too early to tell, of course, what effect Inhofe’s silly visit to Copenhagen will have on his standing in Washington. It’s almost certainly not going to injure his stature in Oklahoma.

Named a senator in 1994 — to replace Senator David Boren who resigned to assume the presidency of the University of Oklahoma — Inhofe has won with strong margins three times, the latest in 2008 by gaining 57 percent of the vote.

His primary financial support comes from the fossil fuel industries whose climate science-denying interests he vigorously advances. Since 2000, according to Oil Change International, the coal and oil industries have contributed $1.13 million to his campaigns. Oklahoma is the number three producer of natural gas, the number six producer of crude oil, and is home to seven big coal-fired power plants, according to the Energy Information Administration and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

And Inhofe’s role as one of President Barack Obama’s most aggressive opponents appears as secure as any in the Senate. Just 34 percent of Oklahoma’s voters supported the president in the 2008 election. Only Wyoming disapproved of the president more.

Keith Schneider, a former New York Times national correspondent, is senior editor and producer at Circle of Blue. Reach Keith at Read the previous installments of Schneider’s COP15 blogging here, here, here and here. Follow Circle of Blue’s continued coverage of the Copenhagen climate talks.

Radical Republican Economics: The End

Thank God, it’s over. The radical right is retreating back to the dank, dark, fetid corner from which it sprang 30 years ago. The wreckage they’ve wrought has left a nation unable to govern, an economy that will be wobbly for years, a president drained of credibility, and a capable nation doubting its own creativity and strength.

But if there’s one enduring value to the meltdown in leadership in Washington and the financial markets in New York it’s this: The cynical, hypocritical, dangerous ideology of the right has been exposed for the fraud it is. Though it involves money and credit and financial transactions I know nothing about, the credit crunch seems like the natural disasters I periodically reported on over the years.

Like a flood, a torrent of history and economics has drowned institutions that seemed untouchable only a year ago. Like fire, the financial crisis has raced through the White House and both houses of Congress, through the Fed and the Treasury, burning through the old forest of lies and making way for new leadership, new values, new goals. Like a category 5 hurricane, the foolishness of stripping away oversight, and removing sound management has blown through the bank accounts of the rich, and torn through the pension assets of the working class.

We all are paying a price. But our sympathies should lie only with those who steadfastly warned of the mess and resisted the right wing’s manifest lies.

In the 1990s I learned that it was absolute silliness to be sympathetic with the right. At the time the Michigan Land Use Institute, the organization I founded, was battling toe to toe with the free market governor, John Engler, his allies in the energy industry, and a group of movement ideologues who’d taken over the state Department of Environmental Quality. The issues were safety, environmental security, and fairness. Engler had essentially unbridled the natural gas industry, made millions of acres available for them to drill new wells, ignored environmental safeguards, bullied local governments that complained, and privately negotiated an agreement that led the industry to reduce royalty payments to thousands of families even as the value of gas increased. They did this all under the banner of the “free market,” deregulation, property rights, government-has-no-business-being-involved-in-business messaging that had brought Reagan and his acolytes, Engler among them, to power.

The gas industry’s behavior caused a furor in Montmorency, Otsego, and Antrim counties. I received five to ten calls a day from working people who’d been pushed around, or whose drinking wells had been damaged, or whose livestock had been injured by oil company trucks, or whose royalty checks had unexpectedly declined. They asked for help and we provided a lot of expertise in how to respond. But after a while I got accustomed to asking the callers who they voted for. And invariably they told me John Engler. I’d have to explain to them there really wasn’t much more we could do. They’d voted for the one-sided, anti-consumer, anti-environment, industry insider conduct that was now knocking them around.

It’s been hard to make that case with working people. But it’s true. The Crandall Canyon mine collapse in Utah that killed six miners and three rescuers in 2007 can be directly traced to the disinterest and disinvestment in regulating mine safety, the result of Republican ideology. The mine was located in a red county, and miners and the families of those who died had essentially voted for the hands off practices that contributed to their deaths.

Same with the chemical plant and refinery explosions that killed workers in Texas and the Deep South over the last 25 years. The weakening of work safety rules, the lack of enforcement, the disinterest in protecting people in dangerous jobs is a hallmark of Republican government, and has been so for nearly 30 years. But the installations that exploded were located in red counties. The men and women who died were red voters. Their families supported the Republican way of government that contributed to the deaths of those they loved.

The link between Republican values and personal disaster just hasn’t broken through until September 2008. Now there is no mistaking the consequences of a government narrative, aimed at working families, that substituted distractions — abortions and guns and gays — for the hard work of sound policy and careful fiscal management. With clever words designed to foster false resentments, Republicans masterfully fooled people into thinking that they shared something with the rich; that tax cuts, deregulation, property rights, and smaller government would actually make their lives better. Mix in racism, sexism, anti-semitism, and an abiding willingness to lie. It was a powerful witch-promoting brew.

Now it’s done. The cleansing will be painful. But at least we know that what lies ahead will be different and better.

Take Back America, The Narrative


WASHNGTON — The Hip Hop Media Lab, an online non-profit that introduces low-income kids to the possibilities of making money with their creative talent, is a partner this week in producing the annual Take Back America conference. So is, Living Liberally, Netroots Nation, and USAaction. This is the sixth edition of a three-day fest designed to introduce liberal America to some of the movement’s new icons — the New Organizing Institute, Hip Hop Caucus, and One Hood, among others — and to pay homage to some old ones — Jesse Jackson was in attendance today.

To be sure, the conference affirms earnest goals that would make America better. Those include ending the war, winning the 2008 presidential election, burying freemarket conservatism, promoting a national health care program, and developing a new economy that rebuilds the American middle class. Behind the broad themes are specific concerns — clean energy, environment, social justice, global climate change, media reform, restoring trust and faith in the legal system, and dealing with the crumbling banking system and housing markets are much featured in plenaries and sessions.

The important question, of course, is whether progressives can actually take back America. They’re making progress. A white woman and a black man are contenders for the presidency. Global climate change is a top tier public concern in the United States and around the world. Clean, green energy — renewables, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, rapid transit, high performance buildings — represents one of the largest and fastest-growing industrial realms in the United States.

Last summer, the American Solar Energy Society published a study that found 8.5 million Americans already work in green-collar jobs and that the various green energy and energy efficiency industries added $933 billion annually to the nation’s gross domestic product. Those industries included manufacturing the equipment and production of solar, wind, biomass, hydropower, hydrogen, and fuel cell power. It also included building efficient buildings and vehicles. By 2030, the authors predicted, 40 million Americans (1 in 4 working Americans) would be in green collar jobs and the value of the green collar industries in which they worked will add $4.3 trillion to the US economy.

But does all of this add up to a narrative that the majority of Americans 1) understand, and 2) embrace. That, friends, is not at all clear. Republicans built the governing majority that has essentially ruled America for a quarter century by convincing people that a handful of core ideas — tax cuts, deregulation, self-reliance, free markets, security, and prayer — represented the core chapters of the great millennial story of America. That it didn’t work is self-evident. The Republican narrative has produced one disaster after another — Iraq, mortgage crisis, dwindling incomes, widening gap between rich and poor, sanctioned torture, Katrina and New Orleans — and has given progressives an opening.

Yet can they jump through it and win? Maybe. And it’s not because of how progressives talk about their issues? They say too much with words that most people can not taste, touch, and see. One session here, for instance, is called, “Imperial Sorrows: The Domestic Costs of Policing the Globe.” Say what? Another is called, “Enpowering Workers: Progressive Imperative.” Who are we talking to? The introductory government class at Penn?

But we just might win because of two other progressive strengths that fit the 21st century. We’re much better at building the unlikely alliances, executing the effective convenings across race, class, regions, and workplaces that is so vital in this collaborative century. Labor, greens, Latinos, African Americans, women’s rights organizations, business executives, progressive think tanks, diplomatic organizations, research groups, city and state leaders are among the 2,000 attendees. And progressives do a very good job disseminating their work in their own media, much of it Web-based and on independent broadcast outlets.

The media center here is one of the conference’s nerve centers. Dozens of broadcasters congregate morning to night on “radio row,” interviewing attendees and guests. Behind a blue curtain in the same room is “bloggers row,” where roughly as many digital scribes work. And behind us are representatives of familiar magazines — Ms.Magazine, Mother Jones, The Nation, Washington Monthly, In These Times — and even more that I’m just coming to know — My, and Tapped.