Steve Sawyer, A Titan of Environmental Activism

Steve Sawyer, one of the great environmental activists and strategists of our era, died July 31 from cancer. It came as a shock. Steve was a classmate at Haverford College, a friend for 45 years, and a heroic figure to me in our shared allegiance to safeguard Mother Earth.

Though his years were too short, what he accomplished in 63 has few peers. He was an important figure in stirring attention to the Earth’s deteriorating condition and rallying public support for solutions, first as a senior leader of Greenpeace and later as a top executive in the international wind energy sector. During the four decades of his work to limit industrial pollution, protect natural resources, and defend communities in peril, Steve played an outsized role in elevating environmental protection from a backbench civic issue to a top tier global priority.

All this occurred because Steve had grit and heart. He set big goals and was driven to reach them. He could grump and laugh in the same breath. He was engaging, trust inspiring, committed and dedicated — to his wife, his children, his work, his friends, and to his wire frame glasses and the beard he sported all of his adult life. To his guitar, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton. He never lost his New Hampshire accent. It was easy to see how determined he could be. Steve’s distinctive stride, big steps and shoulders hunched forward, was that of a man set on staying grounded and balanced, like a ship captain dominating a deluge.

Steve Sawyer in Auckland where French agents bombed the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. (Greenpeace photo)

His life’s work began as a Greenpeace canvasser in 1978, after graduation from Haverford. He quickly climbed into the top tier of executive leadership — serving as director of the U.S. office in Washington in the 1980s, and later as Greenpeace’s international director.

His tenure is unmatched at Greenpeace. In 1981, he led an engine conversion — drills and other power tools in hand — to replace the old engines on the Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace’s activist ship, with new diesel engines used on buses. As one of the few salaried Greenpeace staffers he shared his paycheck with volunteers.

He also helped to convert the Warrior to a sailing ship in 1984, just in time for a Pacific voyage in 1985. Among the many campaigns that Steve led was evacuating nuclear testing refugees from their contaminated Pacific atoll, challenging France’s underwater nuclear testing, and safeguarding whales and other marine creatures from nuclear dumping and energy development. Most importantly, he masterfully elevated a scrappy activist environmental group into a titan of global influence and action on climate change and almost every other signal threat to the planet’s people, animals, and plants.

Starting in 2007, following 30 years at Greenpeace, Steve was named the first general secretary of the Global Wind Energy Council, the Brussels-based trade group that he founded. In that role he shaped the mammoth adoption of wind as a credible source of electricity, a solution to climate change, and an industrial sector capable of employing millions around the world. He brought that message to international capitals, including Beijing, where party officials paid close attention. In the decade that Steve led the organization, wind energy generating capacity around the world increased nearly eightfold, from 74 gigawatts to 539 gigawatts, or about 8 percent of total worldwide electrical generating capacity. Almost 200 gigawatts were generated by China, by far the world’s largest wind energy producer.
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Will Americans Defend Our Democracy?

President Trump in Salt Lake City in December 2017 to announce two national monuments will shrink by 2 million acres. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SOMERSET, KY. — During the first week of March 2016, nine months after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, the Russian Federation’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU), opened their online assault on American democracy. The Russian military intelligence unit began to hack, according to Robert Mueller’s special counsel report, “the computers and email accounts of organizations, employees, and volunteers supporting the Clinton campaign, including the email account of campaign chairman John Podesta.”

By April 25, according to the Mueller report, Russians had stolen 70 gigabytes of data. On July 22, WikiLeaks released a horde of stolen insider details about Hillary Clinton’s campaign to the media just three days before the start of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

During the same period, another Russian intelligence unit was busy establishing social media groups and seeding American social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Instagram, with messages that lied about Clinton but were favorable to Trump. According to the Mueller report, the Russian accounts made over 80,000 posts and “these posts reached at least 29 million U.S persons and may have reached an estimated 126 million people.”

The consequences of what turned out to be the most damaging attack ever by Russia on the United States is not in dispute. Clinton’s run for the presidency was damaged by massive amounts of misinformation. Donald Trump’s campaign received an unlawful mega-boost from a foreign power.

The Mueller report says neither Trump nor his aides participated in the online document thefts. But they actively encouraged their disclosure and dissemination, even after The New York Times, on July 26, 2016, disclosed that Russian intelligence was the source of the stolen campaign documents.

Washington during March For Our Lives demonstration. A display of constitutionally-protected citizen activism in March 2018. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Just a day later, on July 27, candidate Trump urged more such disclosures during a news conference in Florida. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. And five hours after that call to arms, said the Mueller report, Russian intelligence aimed their hacking expertise at Clinton’s email accounts.

Now America faces a cultural and political reckoning, one of the singularly momentous choices of this century. Trump vowed at his inauguration to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The question the country must answer is this: Does President Trump’s encouragement of the Russian election interference, and his unsuccessful campaign to impede the public assessment of what occurred, represent a violation of his oath of office?

I spent several days last week driving in Alabama and listening to local talk radio hosts express their clear conviction that Trump is innocent of any managerial mishaps. Conservative supporters of Trump are satisfied to let him skate. I also heard a select number of progressive voices tell me that actively pursuing more Congressional investigation was politically impulsive, even dangerous to Democratic candidates in the 2020 election cycle. A good number of Democrats also are prepared to let the president slide.

But what occurred in 2016 with Russia’s election interference, and in 2017 with the president’s effort to impede an investigation, is an egregious violation of the public trust and national security. A sacred rite of Democracy, free elections, was violated by a foreign antagonist. The Russians did not aim a missile or fire a shot. But their expertise in asymmetrical warfare, in data gathering and online messaging, succeeded in causing ongoing social division and poisonous political turbulence in the United States, and to some extent around the world. Rather than marching to the front lines of defense, the American president retreated to the dark hollows of lies, deceit, and cowardice.

His supporters are satisfied with the president’s behavior. But every other American must hold the president and his supporters in Congress accountable. That includes the Democratic leadership. How can they allow their 2016 presidential candidate be savaged by a foreign power without a powerful response? The credibility of their party and US democracy is at stake. The House must hold hearings on impeachment. The country must replace Donald Trump as president.

Heroes of the Ohio River Valley

Attorney Jennifer Garrison helped working people earn “life changing money” with a novel oil and gas leasing tactic. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

MARIETTA, OHIO – My definition of a hero is someone who defies convention, dares to challenge the powerful, does well by the public good, and deepens their own sense of purpose. I’ve crossed the paths of a number of these select individuals over the years, written about quite a few of them, and earned sufficient trust to call a handful of them my friends.

Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior in the 1960s — one of the greatest conservationists in our history, a legal warrior for victims of the American atomic bomb making industry — was a close friend before he died in 2010. Jim Olson — dean of environmental lawyers in Michigan who’s preserved miles of rivers, cleared pollutants from lakes, conserved great stretches of forest and wild habitat and helped me start the Michigan Land Use Institute in 1995 — is a dear friend.

One of the regions of the United States that enchants me with its singular influence on the American economy and culture, and the way industry, community, and nature form an uncommon heritage along its banks, is the Ohio River Valley. I’ve spent some time now getting to know its features, writing about its industries and cities, and learning about its citizens. Here I salute three, among others, as heroes.

Jennifer Garrison is a lawyer, a former three-term Democratic member of the Ohio House of Representatives, and the developer of a novel oil and gas leasing strategy that earned about 1,000 eastern Ohio landowners $300 million in income from development of the Utica shale. I met Garrison in Marietta, Ohio in 2012, soon after she’d convinced working families who owned land and controlled their mineral rights to join together and lease their minerals in large multi-thousand-acre blocks. This tactic defied the common method by drillers to single out and negotiate leases, one by one, and take advantage of rural families inexperienced in valuing bonuses and production royalties.

Nice touch. Jennifer Garrison framed this New York Times piece I wrote about her work in 2012. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Garrison’s cooperative unified approach provided mineral owners considerable influence in gaining much higher value for their minerals, and much larger signing bonuses and royalties, for agreeing to let fuel developers set up drilling rigs and production platforms on their ground. Garrison’s leases also included safeguards for land and water that went well beyond state requirements for fossil fuel exploration and development.

I visited with Garrison this week in her office in a renovated 19th century home on Third Street. She’s thinking about retiring from her legal practice, expressed disappointment that none of her grown children plan to live near Marietta, and might set up a landowner rights organization. Campaigning in the public interest is in her blood. She laughed and said, “I know how much work that will be.”

In my travels along the Ohio I met two other people that merit inclusion in my gallery of heroes. One is Ron Payne, former mayor of Owensboro, Kentucky, who led that city’s campaign to rebuild its riverfront and downtown business core. In the process of enacting a tax increase, and recruiting state and federal investments that raised $125 million, Owensboro also succeeded in attracting about $150 million in private investment that has remade the city into one of the most innovative and thriving places on the Ohio River.

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Coastal Louisiana’s Garden of Alligators, Zydeco, and Conservation

Edward McIlhenny flooded a 35-acre pond and erected a big net over his rookery in 1895 to save Snowy egrets. The net disappeared. The birds stayed. Their descendants are thriving. (Photo/Keith Schneider

LAFAYETTE, LA —Avery Island, which draws its name from a family that settled here in the 1830s, is renowned for the Tobasco hot sauce brand that Edmund McIlhenny invented after planting pepper seeds amidst the live oaks in 1865. Another historic breakthrough credited to the family is the work his son, Edward Avery McIlhenny, accomplished in safeguarding much of the island’s subtropical landscape as a conservation preserve and especially with the rookery he built to protect Snowy egrets.

In increasing the island’s egret population from under ten when he started in 1895 to over 100,000 by 1911, McIlhenny pulled off one of the great species preservation feats in American history.

Avery Island’s famous product. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Avery Island is on the National Historic Register for its role in American commerce and conservation. It’s one of the surprising delights I encountered during the few days I was in the Lafayette area while on the way to Houston to report for ProPublica. The story of American ecological preservation is always defined by the confrontation between natural values and industrial business principles. It’s been that way since Thoreau spent all those weeks on Walden Pond. It’s been that way since John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt camped in the Sierras in the weeks prior to formally establishing Yosemite National Park. Continue reading “Coastal Louisiana’s Garden of Alligators, Zydeco, and Conservation”

Confrontation of The Century – Gas vs. Renewables

TVA’s big combined cycle natural gas generating station in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky opened two years ago. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Last September California affirmed its commitment to supply all of the state’s annual demand for electricity with renewable sources of energy by 2045. New Mexico enacted similar 100 percent renewable legislation. This month Minnesota pledged to be the third U.S. state to achieve 100 percent renewable electrical generation, committing to do so by 2050.

The three states are joined by nine other states considering the 100 percent commitment, and 100 American cities that made the 100 percent renewable pledge.

Bravo! In the global contest to slow the advance of warming and dangerous meteorology Americans are investing in industrial evolution and human safety. The idea that clean energy is a path to planetary sanity is alive with elected leaders in American cities, and select counties and states. The advance of the rational energy brigade was felt only three years ago in the White House and Congress, too. But maybe that changes in 2020.

But even as technology, competitive prices, and consumer demand opens electricity markets to clean energy — at a rate considerably faster than most energy analysts anticipated — one fierce headwind is pushing hard to stall the advance. Behind that headwind is a storm of natural gas.

Since 2010, when I first reported on the unconventional energy boom sweeping across the United States and Canada, the dimensions of the development of new sources of oil and natural gas have only grown larger. Last year developers produced 29 trillion cubic feet of gas or 79 billion cubic feet per day. This year, according to the Energy Information Administration, wells in the United States are projected to produce 101 billion cubic feet per day.

Royal Dutch Shell is building a $10 billion chemical plant to turn ethane into polyethylene for plastics manufacturing. (Photo: Keith Schneider)

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