Our Covered Wagon Stopped in Utah

Near Sugarhouse in Salt Lake City a magnificent park lies at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SALT LAKE CITY — Almost all of Utah’s 3 million residents — some 80 percent — live within ten miles or so of the Wasatch Front, which extends north to south for about 100 miles in the state’s northeast region. At the center lies Salt Lake City, a surprising city of 180,000 that is as modern, pleasant, and well situated as any in America. Near the city are magnificent trails that wind up into the mountains, which are drained by cold streams full of trout. Beyond the first ridge line are taller peaks and ski resorts that keep Park City hopping.

Restaurants are good. At Christmas the Mormon Temple grounds downtown are a festival of light. The business district is alive with foot traffic day and night. And the city has a decent NBA team, the Jazz, that this year boasts Donovan Mitchell, a University of Louisville first rounder who may be the rookie of the year in 2018.

To say that I’ve enjoyed it here is an understatement. It’s a western correspondent’s dream base. The airport is 20 minutes away, and flights anywhere in the West are two hours distant. At 85 mph, 600 mile drives to Montana or New Mexico are less than 8 hours away on clear highways, all of which are saluted by magnificent mountain ranges and expanses of tumbleweed desert.

The stories here also are compelling in ways that the East can’t really match. Because of the scale of the landscape west of the Mississippi, the tales to be told also are outsize. I’ve hustled to tell as many as I can. Almost every one has a political dimension that starts either in political Washington, or here in Salt Lake City. I’ve tried to keep the Los Angeles Times in front of other news organizations.

Salt Lake City, capital of Utah. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

A multi-billion dollar pipeline that is designed to draw billions of gallons of water annually from Lake Powell to slake the overly abundant thirst of an ambitious southwest Utah desert city. The White House effort to help the West’s struggling coal mines. The president’s attack on the Antiquities Act and his decision to shrink the boundaries of two big national monuments in Southeast Utah. The historically foolish and economically irrelevant administration gambit to lease public lands onshore and off for oil and gas development. The attack on the Endangered Species Act. A nuclear engineers’s dream of licensing an advanced reactor that could revive the U.S. commercial nuclear sector.
Continue reading “Our Covered Wagon Stopped in Utah”

Gina Lopez: What Determined Activism Looks Like

Former Philippines Environment Secretary Gina Lopez during one of her helicopter tours of mine sites. Photo/Keith Schneider

QUEZON CITY, Philippines — On June 20, 2016 Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines, asked Gina Lopez to join him in Davao City for an extended conversation about the condition of his country’s land and water.

It turned out to be an eventful encounter. The glib, rough talking, 71-year-old strongman former mayor of Davao City sought help from a 62-year-of woman known inside her wealthy family as the renegade daughter, and outside as an incorruptible foundation director and maverick environmentalist. As head of her family’s ABS-CBN Foundation Lopez led one national campaign to ban open-pit mining. She organized another to clean up a portion of the filthy Pasig River that flows through Manila just to prove it could be done.

When the meeting concluded Duterte extended Lopez an invitation to direct the weak and corruptible Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources. She accepted. On July 1, the day after Duterte’s inauguration and with his enthusiastic support, Lopez launched environmental compliance audits of the country’s 41 big hard rock mineral mines that eventually resulted in shutdown or suspension orders against 26 mines. She reviewed government approvals for 339 proposed mines and issued show cause orders to cancel 75 of them. In the last week of April the DENR banned new open-pit mines. The order came seven years after Costa Rica banned new open pit mines, and a month after El Salvador banned all mining.

And all the while during her 10 months in the post Lopez planted bamboo to clear the nation’s waters of pollution, and invested in environmental restoration projects that produced new jobs for indigenous communities. Lopez also started a joint police-military-prosecution task force that curtailed illegal logging and jailed offenders.

Rarely has an environmental officer in any nation so aggressively challenged the industrial community. Not surprisingly Philippine business interests mounted a ferocious counter attack within the Congress and the Duterte administration, which includes several cabinet members close to the mining industry. Two of the nation’s biggest newspapers, owned by mining companies, editorialized against Lopez and her enforcement measures.

The Sierra Madre mountain range in northern Luzon island is a target of 50 mine proposals. Photo/Keith Schneider

Lopez In Office 10 Months
A skilled organizer, Lopez proved to be tenacious. She countered with frequent tours of towns affected by polluting mines, and inspected dozens of mine sites by helicopter. Her exploits were covered in the media and on Lopez’s Facebook page that kept hundreds of thousands of Filipinos informed about the value of the closure orders. Continue reading “Gina Lopez: What Determined Activism Looks Like”

The Year Public Pressure Influenced Lending Practices

Development banks around the world face increasing public pressure as their lending practices support eco-damaging projects.
Development banks around the world face increasing public pressure as their lending practices support eco-damaging projects.

SOMERSET, KY — Rex Tillerson, the chairman of ExxonMobil, asked by president-elect Donald Trump to serve as secretary of state. Scott Pruitt, the climate-denying, energy-financed attorney general of Oklahoma, nominated for EPA administrator. Rick Perry, former governor of Texas and a board member of Energy Transfer Partners (developer of the Dakota Access Pipeline), nominated to oversee the Energy Department.

The intent in Trump’s brotherhood of black fuels is clear enough — stabilize erratic global markets, push energy prices up, recover assets that were on the way to being stranded, and cash flow again on producing expensive oil, coal, and natural gas.

Ample fossil energy supplies and favorable prices serve as the two central themes of Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again.” In service to that goal Trump invited Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, to sit as a sort of cabinet member ex-officio. The Koch brothers, along with the executives of most every other American fossil energy company, cheer from the bench.

Americans of clear mind and useful values are demonstrably nervous. The White House and the executive offices of the world’s fossil fuel companies are powerful forums to exert influence. Can Trump and his fossil fuel allies succeed? Of course they can. I do not, however, believe they will.

I’ve reported extensively since visiting the Indian Himalayas in 2013 on the more powerful global trends that not only are impeding conventional energy development, they have initiated a sweeping transition in production practices, technology, and use. Coal production and consumption is falling in China. The Philippines is closing damaging mines. Civic rebellion is blocking new coal-fired power plants in Bangladesh, and impeding development of oil and natural gas pipelines in the United States.

Solar and wind generating technology is now cheaper than new coal-fired power generation and comparable in cost to natural gas-fueled generation. India is abandoning its mega power program to build mammoth 4,000-megawatt coal-fired power plants. Instead it is pursuing new solar and wind generating installations. South Africa has developed one of the world’s successful clean energy development programs.

Floods, droughts, earthquakes, and fire are causing havoc in the world’s fossil energy regions. And the costs of developing all of the fossil fuels is rising as prices for alternatives drop.

It is these trends that are stranding billions of dollars of resource assets around the world and causing a growing panic in the halls of government, boardrooms, and executive suites. And none are likely to be slowed.

This year, during seven weeks of reporting in South Africa, I learned about another new and powerful trend that is reshaping markets around the world — the pressure that communities and a select group of investigative groups are putting on the world’s big banks to change their lending practices.

The headwinds of transition are whipping through the energy sector. The Trump administration’s effort to stabilize oil prices confronts the elements of the rugged weather — erratic markets, new transportation and efficiency technology, and rapidly rising production costs. He may try to suspend NEPA requirements on big projects. He also could try to withdraw non-profit status from important NGOs, a tactic developed in other nations. But the American president-elect and his allies face powerful civic opposition around the world and in the red rural counties that voted for him. Here in Kentucky, I wrote about a big fight over a natural gas pipeline. Continue reading “The Year Public Pressure Influenced Lending Practices”

Cities Are Stronghold of Performance in Maelstrom of American Disarray

Ohio's capital city adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending. Photo/Keith Schneider
Ohio’s capital city adopted a reconstruction plan for encouraging development 14 years ago that emphasized three unexpected ingredients: more grass, less water and targeted taxpayer spending. Photo/Keith Schneider

COLUMBUS, OH — In the year of Trump it’s plain that the United States is entering a new and reckless age. Our federal lawmakers neglect their constitutional duties to legislate in the public interest. Ideology and inflexibility, the gravest threats to a democracy, are elevated as virtues on the political right and political left. Random massacres occur with weekly frequency. Fear and distrust and racism and hate have been unleashed as mainstream attitudes.

Where are the places that inspire order? Where are the places that effectively manage their affairs with a goal of adding to civility and the common good?

Perhaps it is surprising, but a good number of American cities answer those questions. As readers of ModeShift know, some of my time each year is taken up with reporting real estate articles for The New York Times. Generally the narrative that emerges from details about construction costs and square feet amounts to a profile of the cities that I visit.

What I find, from New York to Boston to San Francisco, Grand Rapids to Louisville, Buffalo to Cleveland to Toledo to Cincinnati, is that many of America’s big cities, and a good number of its mid-size cities, are thriving. Largely without the help of the federal government and state Legislatures, elected leaders are collaborating with business executives and civic organizations to invest in ways that respond intelligently to the market conditions of this century.

In each city the formula for progress differs in the specifics. Buffalo reorganized itself around a university medical center and a transit line. Toledo turned to Chinese investors. Cleveland spent $800 million on entertainment and transit infrastructure – two stadiums, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a bus rapid transit route, and moving a commuter rail station — to invite $5 billion in mostly private downtown redevelopment. Sacramento tore down a moribund downtown shopping mall and built a new arena for the NBA Sacramento Kings.

Taken collectively, though, the various development strategies pursued by American cities have some common traits. Excellent elected leadership and pragmatic business collaboration are essential to developing and executing redevelopment ideas that take at least a decade, and often a generation, to complete. Redevelopment plans incorporate one or more of the following ingredients — competent municipal agencies, park construction, improved transit, strengthened schools, public safety, adequate amounts of reasonably priced housing, recruiting innovators and entrepreneurial businesses.

Over the next month or so I’ll be reporting on cities in the South and Midwest – Columbus, Cleveland, and Chattanooga –all of which are doing well. They are following effective redevelopment strategies that are much bolder, and more effective, than anything pursued by most states and certainly by America’s imprudent Congress. The latest report from a city making strong progress in adding value to the lives of its citizens is from Columbus, which I visited early in May. Continue reading “Cities Are Stronghold of Performance in Maelstrom of American Disarray”

This Is South Africa

Cape Town's water supply starts in this magnificent valley near Stellenbosch, north of South Africa's largest city. Photo/Keith Schneider
Cape Town’s water supply starts in this valley near Stellenbosch,
north of South Africa’s largest city. Photo/Keith Schneider

CAPE TOWN, South Africa
— There may be no other place on Earth where the land unfolds with such breathtaking beauty, where the green waves of KwaZulu-Natal valleys and the purple summits of Karoo desert ridges have such a powerful emotional lease. From the cold blue ocean waters of Cape Town to the limitless highveld expanses of Mpumalanga, South Africa’s geographic magnificence serves to both inspire this nation — and mock its racial divisions, government mismanagement, and misguided carbon-intensive economic strategy.

South Africa has no frilly edges, no centers of juvenile mirth or artifice. There are no enclaves of hyper-intellectual, digitally-driven, fabulously confident venture capitalists investing in online apps that change the world. There are no communities that specialize in making movies like Hollywood, or music like Nashville, or baseball like Cooperstown. One of the country’s most-visited tourist destinations is an Atlantic Ocean island where black activists were imprisoned before they became president. The red carpets that South Africans talk about are not entrances to galas. They are the blood of victims of government-sanctioned massacres.

What South Africa embraces in abundance is passion. Passion for the land. Passion for progress. Passion for 22 years of liberty since the 1994 elections that ended Apartheid. Passion to prove that the endowment of optimism, the allegiance to justice that led to the election of Nelson Mandela as the new republic’s first president isn’t lost in a gout of corruption and cronyism fostered by Jacob Zuma, the nation’s fourth president. “What scares me the most in current day South Africa,” writes Solly Moeng, a communications consultant, in the April 13, 2006 edition of Fin24.com, “is the growing realization that we have placed our fate squarely into the hands of a bunch of politicians who, now faced with the growing prospects of losing much of the power they’ve taken for granted all along, might stop at nothing to retain it.”

The 96-megawatt Jasper solar station in Northern Cape province. Photo/Keith Schneider
The 96-megawatt Jasper solar station in Northern Cape province. Photo/Keith Schneider

Passion steers South Africa’s progress now. In seven weeks of travel, in talking to scores of people of all races and ages in eight of the country’s nine provinces, people expressed their deep frustration about the country’s mounting social and economic turmoil. They displayed a patriot’s commitment to understand the sources of the tumult and resolve them. And everyone marveled at the gifts that God and nature had bestowed on their beloved country.

TISA. This is South Africa. Here are other notable features of South Africa’s distinctive place on Earth:

Love — Though too many black South Africans struggle with numbing joblessness and poverty, and too many white South Africans despair at the diminished state of their country, blacks and whites share the most important human values. South Africans are generous, unselfish, and full of love. Everywhere in South Africa we were invited into homes, hugged and fed, and celebrated as new friends and not as strangers. Our experiences in black communities were especially appealing. Though millions of black families live in informal settlements with limited access to running water and decent sanitation, the grinding conditions seem not to have diminished the communal tribal culture that has developed over centuries. Families live together in two or three homes side by side, whether it’s in informal settlements, on a suburban street, or in compounds of round thatched-roof huts in the countryside. Wherever they reside, black families share resources, and rely on younger adults to care for babies and the elders. Communities also do the same. People gather in groups to consider facts and reach decisions collectively. The communal culture builds trust and produces generous volumes of love that black South Africans lavish on each other and on visitors.

A laid off farmworker with her children on a sugarcane farm in Mongolia. Photo/Keith Schneider
A laid off farmworker with her children on a sugarcane farm in Pongola. Photo/Keith Schneider

Despair — For nearly a century, until the practice ended in 1994, South Africa’s white Afrikaans Apartheid government bullied its black, colored, and Indian communities. Whites occupied the best jobs, the best neighborhoods, the choicest lands. People of the three other races, and especially black South Africans, were confined to designated neighborhoods and regions without liberty to travel, go to good schools, buy land, or seek employment outside of menial labor. The oppression produced viral hatred of government. The election of Nelson Mandela as the first black president in 1994, and the adoption of a constitution that stressed human rights and justice, produced waves of popular optimism about opening a new era of freedom and opportunity fostered by a competent government elected by all of the people. Two decades into the 21st century, though, South Africa is managed by an ineffective and corrupt administration making numerous poor decisions about economic development and social progress. South Africans of every race despise what’s happening to their country. One consequence is that President Jacob Zuma is under siege from South Africans and opposition parties seeking his impeachment. See Circle of Blue’s Choke Point: South Africa archive here.
Continue reading “This Is South Africa”