When It Comes to Climate and Clean Energy, “Just Say No” Has Become Too Popular

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Monday, in the parlance of Washington policy and journalism, was scheduled to be a potential day of breakthrough in the work to achieve action on the warming climate. Senators John Kerry (Mass.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) had announced that they’d come to consensus on what a bipartisan energy and climate policy fit for the 21st century looked like. The results were to be unveiled at a news briefing that had global import.

Instead nothing happened. It was like reeling in a sailfish, all fight and silvery splash, only to have the beast die on the way into the boat.

This is the third time in five months that that I’ve been involved in climate and clean energy campaigns that culminated in less than they promised. “Just say no” is emerging as a far easier answer than saying yes to progress.

In Copenhagen in December, nearly 200 nations gathered at the largest summit ever with the express purpose of reaching agreement on a climate treaty. Instead what they came up with was a novel accord that points in the right direction and may not achieve more than that.

In Traverse City, a small utility’s bid to acquire 30 percent of its energy from local renewable resources, including a state-of-the-art clean right-sized clean burning 10 mw wood biomass plant, generated such fierce hyperbole about unfounded risks among some environmentalists that you’d have thought the utility was proposing a 100-acre toxic waste site for the middle of town. The local push back, led by a grassroots environmental group, is consistent with similar resistance in 30 other states to proposals for new wind, solar, geothermal, wood biomass, and transmission lines. This week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to decide on a big offshore wind farm in Massachusetts that has been the focus on a popular opposition campaign. The clean energy transition may not be televised.

Now comes the Senate’s attempt to push through a climate and energy bill, which over the weekend got washed up on the shoals of partisanship, immigration policy, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s re-election, and the powerful climate change-denying communications machine operated by America’s fossil fuel collective.

Today, Senator Reid retreated just a bit and sought to assure his Democratic and Republican colleagues that debate on the climate and energy bill would come before debate on the immigration bill. That makes sense since there is no immigration bill to debate in the Senate. But Graham, a very lonely Republican in the climate and clean energy space, has not yet indicated whether he’s ready to participate in introducing the ready-to-go energy bill that he’s spent months shaping with Senators Kerry and Lieberman.

The politics of stasis — of doing nothing — is brought action on climate change to a crawl, and that may be kind. The public will to act, to reduce emissions of carbon, to provide for the safety of the planet and all its inhabitants, is just not apparent in the United States, or in much of the rest of the developed world.

Clearly, a new operating program is needed politically and a new communications frame and strategy needs to be developed. Today the Environmental Protection Agency made public a new report on climate change effects that are getting worse:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are increasing. Between 1990 and 2008, there has been about a 14 percent increase in emissions in the United States.
  • Average temperatures are rising. Seven of the top 10 warmest years on record for the continental United States have occurred since 1990.
  • Tropical cyclone intensity has increased in recent decades. Six of the 10 most active hurricane seasons have occurred since the mid-1990s.
  • Sea levels are rising. From 1993 to 2008, sea level rose twice as fast as the long-term trend.
  • Glaciers are melting. Loss of glacier volume appears to have accelerated over the last decade.
  • The frequency of heat waves has risen steadily since the 1960s. The percentage of the U.S. population impacted by heat waves has also increased.

Still, people in the United States aren’t much concerned. They are clearly indicating,  in grassroots fights and in support for lawmakers who counsel to do nothing, that they are satisfied with the way things are. That is a dangerous sentiment in an unsettled world making powerful and swift transitions in every important sector — the economy, markets, the environment, energy, population, and competition for resources.

— Keith Schneider

Cape Wind Awaits Federal Approval

cape-wind-farmAs the 40th anniversary of Earth Day draws closer, wind energy developers in Massachusetts are awaiting word from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar about a permit to proceed. Cape Wind, which wants to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm near Nantucket, earlier this month reached agreement with Siemens to purchase 130 turbines, a move praised by Massachusetts Democratic Governor Deval Patrick and Ian Bowles, the Massachusetts secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

It’s difficult to see how the Obama administration, which pressed for more than $100 billion in clean energy investment in last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus bill), would disapprove the Cape Wind permit. The project, though, has come under fire from the Kennedys and other prominent Massachusetts families. And the fight over whether to proceed has gone on for most of a decade.

Like Michigan, some Massachusetts citizens and grassroots environmental organizations are fighting the advent of the clean energy transition with everything they’ve got. Massachusetts last year put a moratorium on wood biomass development pending the completion of an independent analysis of the risks that is due to be finished by June 1. And wind projects are not only opposed off Nantucket. Several more on Cape Cod have come under fire from citizens.

In Michigan, meanwhile, offshore wind projects in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan have raised concerns, largely due to aesthetic reasons. And a state-of-the-art wood biomass plant has caused a small ruckus in Traverse City, where critics assert it will result in a “slaughter” of the state’s forest. Fuss disclosure: I am assisting the utility in its public communications and engagement strategy.

A friend of mine, a prominent editor in Traverse City, called the other day to express is his dismay at the stridency, crazy facts, outright wrong assertions and scare tactics, even extremism deployed by a number of environmental voices in the biomass debate. “I always believed that what lay behind so much of the local environmental movement here was just NIMBYism,” he said. “This debate has just confirmed it.”

Indeed, it’s not a proud moment for those of us who’ve been involved a long time and sweat the details of public campaigning, applying real facts, reason, maturity and pragmatism in struggles as important as the clean energy transition is to northern Michigan, the state, and the nation.

— Keith Schneider

Blocking Wood Biomass, Blocking Coal in Michigan — Does it Make Sense?

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Eartha Jane Melzer, one of the reporters in Michigan whose work merits close attention, posted a piece a week ago on Michigan Messenger that described the legal work the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council are doing to block a big new coal-fired power plant in Bay City.

Here is one of the important events associated with the transition to the clean energy economy. On one hand environmental organizations are pursuing legal suits and other actions in and out of Michigan to block new coal-fired utilities. More than 100 new coal-fired plant proposals have been halted, according to the Sierra Club. Last year at the Democratic National Convention I had a chance to speak to Carl Pope, then the Club’s executive director. He confirmed my sense that the Beyond Coal campaign was the most successful grassroots organizing project in the Sierra Club’s 118-year history.

That’s a good thing for the planet and the advent of the transition away from polluting, expensive, and obsolete fossil fuel.

On the other hand citizen groups, NIMBY’s, and other local advocates have joined with a number of grassroots environmental organizations around the nation, including one in Traverse City, and are seeking to block important clean and renewable alternatives. I’ve been writing about the grassroots push back here on Mode Shift. I became interested — full disclosure — after Traverse City Light & Power asked me to help them design and execute a public information and engagement program to enable citizens to help choose an appropriate renewable energy path.

I’ve found that all of the clean energy alternatives are under pressure — wind, solar, geothermal, transmission lines, and biomass here in Michigan. Even efforts to improve energy efficiency are having a hard time being implemented in communities. The WSJ wrote a piece about that earlier this year from Boulder, Colo.

For the moment and the foreseeable future utilities in Michigan and the Midwest have five choices to supply baseload energy — the kind that runs 24/7, 365, which is not yet available with wind and solar. They have coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear, and wood biomass.

In almost every case in which alternatives are under challenge, Traverse City included, the default position for utilities is more coal or more natural gas. Efficiency and conservation gets you part of the way to a solution, but only part of the way. Power is still needed for families and businesses and industry.

The Traverse City utility has bought wind, bought landfill gas, investigated solar, and proposes to build a state of the art, clean-burning (much cleaner than coal), efficient combined heat and power, right-scaled (10 mw), home-grown (fits the region’s move to local foods, local regional land use and transportation plan), gasification wood biomass plant fueled by waste wood from Michigan’s timber and forest industry. It would employ 20 to manage the plant and 20 involved in supplying fuel. Among the array of available alternatives to Michigan’s coal-fired power plants, a state-of-the-art plant that burns wood at small scale seems to me to be a prudent way to proceed.

I recognize this is tough stuff. In my career as a grassroots environmental advocate, and founder and former executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, when we got in the way of a Wal-Mart (Charlevoix, early 2000s,) the region retained a wetland and an intact downtown business center. When we replaced bypasses in Petoskey and Traverse City, we got back intact wild rivers, forests, and land use and transportation plans designed to foster more compact and prosperous communities. When we helped kill proposals to drill for natural gas and oil along the Lake Michigan and Lake Huron shorelines, we preserved some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

When grassroots environmental organizations oppose a right-scaled, local, state-of-the-art, clean-burning wood biomass plant their “win” is no victory at all. If they succeed we all get more coal, likely from the same new plants that their major environmental organization brothers are trying to block.

— Keith Schneider