Thursday, April 29, 2010

Oil rig disaster that could dwarf Exxon Valdez simply the cost of public policies we demanded

The oil rig catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is much worse than believed.  Perhaps 5,000 barrels a day are rushing into the ocean, and it could take months to stop. That’s 210,000 gallons each day. If it takes 90 days to fix, it’ll release 19 million gallons. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, by comparison, was 11 million gallons.

The economic devastation from the collapse of the shrimping industry, tourism and lots more may rival the ecological one:

This is part of the deal we make as a society when we collectively decide we want public policies that establish cheap, plentiful oil as Priority #1. It’s just collateral damage, and it’s predictable. There will be more oil spills, explosions, disasters, calamities despite our best technology and best intentions. We’re human and when we engage in risky endeavors to satisfy our addictions, occasionally very bad things happen.

So stop acting surprised or appalled. Let’s suck it up and take our medicine and not complain. Seriously. Any proposal that would significantly reduce our appetite for oil is assigned fringe lunatic status by the majority of voters and the politicians we elect. We told them we want cheap, plentiful oil so at virtually any cost. This is that cost. So are Middle Eastern wars. Global climate change. Children with crippling asthma. It’s the deal we made. Live with it.

We do have other options, but they’re generally ridiculed.

Slap a $1/gallon tax on gas to fund biofuels research, public transit or efficiency technology? Not even up for discussion.

Stop subsidizing infrastructure like roads, sewers, power lines and public services that create urban sprawl and accelerate our oil consumption in dozens of different ways? A communist conspiracy to take away our freedoms.

Increase fuel economy standards for vehicles? Well, we finally got a modest increase, but it took 30 years and is still considered by many as a radical notion foisted upon the auto industry by pot-smoking cave-dwelling hippies who hate the automobile industry.

The Gulf of Mexico disaster will, temporarily, legitimize discussion of some of these alternatives. And for a while the “drill baby drill” crowd will – on the advice of their focus group conveners and pollsters – shut the hell up. We also can expect not to hear calls for drilling in the Great Lakes for a while.

Then amnesia will set in. Gas prices will rise. And we’ll all go back to demanding our cheap oil at whatever cost, as long as it does not cause us immediate inconvenience.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

First U.S. offshore wind farm approval a wake up call for Michigan policy makers

The nation’s first offshore wind farm is on its way to reality in Cape Cod after federal approval announced today:

The Michigan Environmental Council says the Cape Cod decision should be a wake up call for Michigan legislators to get busy creating strong and sensible guidelines for wind farms in the Great Lakes:

In Michigan, no offshore wind projects have been formally proposed. But informal plans have already mobilized plenty of opposition from local who would rather not see turbines in their Great Lakes. Many of these NIMBY (not in my backyard) groups have adopted “environmental” names and themes. But I think it’s important to point out that, to my knowledge, no established Michigan environmental organization opposes wind turbines in the Great Lakes.

Most environmental groups, even Scenic Michigan recognize that there are viewscapes, sensitive ecological areas and special places where turbines should not be permitted. But, overall, they serve the greater good.

We tolerate ugly overhead power lines, chunks of land marred by electric substations, and junction boxes in our neighborhoods as the tradeoff for reliable, cheap electricity from coal. We can tolerate turbines in some areas of the Great Lakes for the same reason – with the added advantage that turbines have none of the coal pollution that sickens our children, poisons our air, makes our fish unsafe to eat and changes our climate.

The Cape Wind project overcame NIMBY resistance from the powerful Kennedy family. The Kennedys are typically strong environmental advocates. But just not in their backyard, one supposes.

The decision is one more step in the slow but steady progression of sensible energy policy in the U.S.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Breaking News: We're screwed!

U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear Asian Carp case. Welcome to the Great Lakes, savages:

Thanks to Gov. Granmholm and AG Mike Cox for trying to do the right thing. And thanks President Obama, for nothing.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"An awesome Earth Day warning" from 40 years ago!

I don't think the word "awesome" had quite the same connotation in 1970. Nonetheless:

At the end of his Earth Day broadcast on NBC News, April 22, 1970, anchorman Frank Blair reported an “awesome Earth Day warning” from climatologist Dr. J. Murray Mitchell who reported that manmade pollution “….could so warm the earth in 200 years as to create a greenhouse effect, melting the Arctic ice cap and flooding vast areas of the world.” See the warning at the end of the clip, here:

Happy Earth Day 40 years later: Some things never change!

Today is the 40th anniversary of the original Earth Day. The milestone was part of an interesting show that aired this week, “Earth Days,” on PBS’s The American Experience:

The show was a vivid reminder of how little has changed in many respects during the past 40 years. Partisan politics rather than science and common sense still dictate decisions about environmental protection. Powerful lobbies for the chemical and utility industries still call the shots. And environmentalists are still schizophrenic about whether they should work for within the system for incremental change, or from outside the system for revolutionary shifts.

None of this is news to my colleagues in the Michigan environmental movement.

When it is simply a matter of money and power – who can hire the best lobbying firms and who has the capacity to funnel the most money into legislators’ campaign coffers – we lose. The big boys on the block are the same as they have been for a long time: The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau, the Michigan Manufacturers Association, the electric utilities, and the big corporations.

Fortunately, one other thing hasn’t changed in 40 years: The collective power of people is the one certain force than can defeat the lobbying goliaths. Richard Nixon was no environmentalist, but he proclaimed the first Earth Day and signed the Clean Air Act in response to a groundswell of public support. In Michigan, public sentiment in favor of clean energy choices was a key factor in many legislators’ reluctant votes to pass Michigan’s first renewable energy requirements in 2008. And just last week, mercurial Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson backpedaled on his legal challenge to Michigan’s smoking ban law – after only a few hours and more than 100 made constituent calls and e-mails!

The trouble is, most people don’t demand that kind of change unless they sense impending doom or some sense of desperate urgency. For example, the anti-war youth of the 1960s; the environmentalists of the 1970s; or even the Tea Party activists of 2010 (jury still out on this one).

So maybe our Earth Day resolution shouldn’t be riding bikes or changing light bulbs or recycling. Maybe it should be demanding something of our elected officials each week. One phone call or personal letter (not an e-mail) specifically asking them to support a piece of legislation or vote some bad bill into oblivion.

If you need ideas, subscribe to the Michigan Environmental Council's Capitol Update or check out the organizations on the “Place of Interest” on the right hand side of this page. Many of them have multiple options to keep you abreast of current issues.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

U.S. military's renewable energy goal puts Congress, Michigan to shame

Don’t believe the liberal peacenick wackos when they cry about our dependence on fossil fuel being a national security problem? Then maybe you’ll believe the military:

This study released today by the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate details how the Department of Defense has set a goal of producing or procuring 25 percent of its electric energy needs from renewable sources by 2025. They also plan a U.S. Navy "green" carrier strike group to run completely on alternative fuels by 2016.

Think how sheepish some terrorist will be explaining how his cell was wiped out by some pansy carrier strike force that didn’t even run on Mideast oil!

It makes you wonder, if the military, which accounts for 80 percent of the U.S. government’s energy consumption can set a 25 by 2025 renewable energy goal, why the hell can’t the U.S. Congress? And why can't Michigan strive for something better than 10 percent by 2015?


Monday, April 19, 2010

Michigan Green Leaders contest chips away some cynicism: Maybe everyone really is special?

Presenter at awards ceremony: “There were so many terrific and qualified nominees that it was incredibly hard for the judges to pick a winner!”
Translation: “We’re spewing this BS because we want to make everyone feel snuggly, warm and special even though some of these simpletons don’t even deserve our free bagels, much less this award.”

That’s pretty much my mindset, after covering way too many half-baked awards events and back-slapping-attaboy ceremonies. Everyone is special. Right.

After slogging through 351 nominees as a judge in the Detroit Free Press’ first Michigan Green Leaders contest, I’m humbled to admit it’s change my view:

With the exception of perhaps a few dozen, every one of the nominees is doing something positive, tangible and often selfless to help protect Michigan’s natural resources. In most instances, their efforts were a financial boost to their businesses, schools or household budgets.

It was refreshing to read about 300 people, businesses and institutions who are doing great things for our state. And I can say that with a straight face.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Detroit's Campus Martius earns national recognition as a successful urban park

Vibrant public spaces are critical for the health of cities and those who live, work and visit them.

In recent years Detroit has made significant strides. The banks of the Detroit River were walled off for years by a foreboding phalanx of buildings and concrete. It is now an accessible and thriving walkway showcasing the beauty of the river and urban fabric of the city:

And now the Detroit Free Press reports that Campus Martius Park was named a top urban park by a national organization: Campus Martius beat out competing parks from cities including Boston, New York and Seattle.

Public parks, walkways, rails and greenspaces often are considered luxuries when it comes time to slash tight budgets. But there’s strong case to be made that these lands are integral parts of a well functioning city and the sense of community and well-being that attracts residents and businesses.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Oakland County Exec Brooks Patterson reverses plan, won't sue to stop state smoking ban!

For anyone who called and e-mailed Brooks (see the post immediately below), thank you and congratulations. We changed his mind!

In a surprise reversal, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said Thursday he intends to withdraw a lawsuit filed Thursday against the State of Michigan for not providing the requisite funding to counties to enforce the smoking ban law, which takes effect May 1.
"I have had 70 phone calls and 30 e-mails criticizing what I was about to do," said Patterson. "I am a public servant. I work for these people. So I have decided to withdraw the lawsuit." 


Brooks Patterson taps taxpayers to fund fight against smoking ban: Gee thanks Brooks!

Michigan's ban on smoking in bars and restaurants takes effect May 1. But Oakland County Executive, L. Brooks Patterson, plans to use my tax dollars to go to court and stop it:

Here's my letter to his aides. His PR guy is Bill Mullan, who you can reach at if you're inclined to let them know how you feel.

I am a 14-year resident of Oakland County. (Gerry, you may remember me from my days covering Oakland for the Freep in the late 90s?)
I have a good deal of respect for the stewardship of taxpayer money that Brooks Patterson's administration has exhibited over the years.

But this expenditure of taxpayer money to try and stall an important public health measure -- the smoking ban approved by the legislature and signed by the governor -- is unconscionable and ill advised.
I understand the "unfunded mandate" logic. But I can not recall the county ever going to court prior to this on the many unfunded mandates that have been handed down over the years. (I may be wrong, and I trust Gerry will set me straight if that's so).
I can remember the resolutions passed by the County Board in the 1990s complaining bitterly about unfunded mandates. If there were a tactical decision on choosing a legal test case, surely it would not be a popular public health measure that requires -- relative to many other mandates -- a rather limited amount of manpower and paperwork.
I understand the county, like all of us, is cutting back and trying to make ends meet.
Spending scarce taxpayer money to fight an important public health law is inconsistent with the Patterson Administration's typical fiscal prudence, and a violation of the the Executive Office's promise to look after the health and financial well being of its constituents.


Hugh McDiarmid Jr.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Phosphorus: Bane of Michigan's lakes and ponds, staple of the Creature from the Black Lagoon

I took back two SUV-sized bottles of Costco dishwasher detergent Sunday after discovering, belatedly, that they contained both chlorine and phosphorus. Neither is necessary for clean dishes. Both are hazards to the environment and a burden on our tax-funded wastewater treatment plant.

Costco won’t be able to sell the stuff anyway starting July 1, when a ban on phosphorus in dishwasher detergent takes effect in Michigan:

Phosphorus is junk food for aquatic plants. It runs into lakes and ponds from septic systems, from overburdened treatment plants, and especially from fertilizer applied to agricultural fields and residential lawns. There, it accelerates plant growth that chokes ponds and lakes with mats of nasty weeds. Those plants also hog all the oxygen in the water, killing other organisms including fish.

Plus, the nasty weeds mess up boat propellers and are no fun to swim through. Unless you are the Creature from the Black Lagoon, photographed here shortly after testifying against phosphorus bans. (Bonus points here for anyone who has watched the movie:

Many counties in Michigan already have banned phosphorus in lawn fertilizer. State lawmakers, someday when pressing matters like protesting Meatout Day or getting re-elected aren't holding them hostage, will get around to passing a ban on phosphorus fertilizer:

Just like dishwasher detergent, there’s no need for phosphorus lawn fertilizer. Something like 95 percent of residential soils tested have way more than enough. The laws banning phosphorus make exemptions for anyone who has a test showing the need, is starting a new yard, or has some other special circumstance.

Meanwhile, any respectable retail outlet has low- or no-phosphorus lawn fertilizer available. Don't be that creature from the Black Lagoon.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

The National Park system: A grand idea that almost didn't happen, and why it matters today

It would be suicidal for a politician today to advocate selling off Yosemite National Park,  the Grand Canyon or our own Isle Royale Island (pictured). But little more than 100 years ago the whole concept of national parks – managed and preserved for all the people of the nation – was a radical and most controversial idea. Lots of people were scornful.

Free-market proponents led by the timber, railroad and mining barons of the time pounded away at the heresy of making tracts of land off-limits to profit-making ventures.  The scoffed at President Theodore Roosevelt’s idea that land should be set aside for the people’s enjoyment.  Or that the beauty or restorative nature of wild landscapes had a public value.

Roosevelt’s creation of the national parks system – and the establishment of the US Forest Service to protect it – was such a close victory that might just as easily have been lost to political opponents doing the bidding of private industry.

It’s impossible to imagine to what degree our great nation would be diminished had President Roosevelt lost that fight. Our national parks would surely have been stripped of their iconic sequoias and all the rest the old growth timber; poisoned by mining wastes washing through creeks and rivers; and carved up and sold off piecemeal for resorts, amusement parks, private preserves, Chuck E. Cheeses, Hooters, miniature golf and God knows what else.

It was a visionary thing, this National Parks idea, documented in Ken Burns’ recent PBS series:
The national parks saga is worth keeping in mind today, as we struggle to maintain the public’s access to natural resources. Make no mistake, those rights are constantly under assault:

-- In Benton Harbor, prime Lake Michigan sand dunes were taken from a public park for a private golf course:

--In 2007, the Michigan Supreme Court severely limited citizens’ rights to take legal action to protect the state’s publicly held natural resources:

--There regular proposals to sell Michigan state parks:

--And as we speak, a well orchestrated campaign is under way to crush proposed legislation from Rep. Dan Scripps that would affirm something that seems self-evident: Michigan’s groundwater belongs to the people of Michigan and we’re all entitled to use it. Property rights groups have convinced lots of folks the bill involves government owning the water, fees to use your own well water, or charges for farmers who irrigate fields. All bullshit.  The bill is all of three paragraphs, and doesn’t say anything like that:

Our publicly-held resources aren’t socialist plots to hamstring corporate America. They are tremendous, inspiring valuable assets that are equally available to waitresses and millionaires. They are owned every bit as much by you and I as they are by Bill Gates or Donald Trump. And I don’t know about you, but I’m fighting to keep my share.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Celebrating success: The stirring comeback story of the Detroit River

Environmentalists are notoriously leery of celebrating good news. The moment you acknowledge how much cleaner a river is or how much less smog is in the air above a city, it will be seized on by some people as a good reason to gut the laws and other protections that made the improvement possible in the first place.

So with the caveat that we have a long way to go, let’s revel in the comeback of the Detroit River, as chronicled in today’s Detroit News:

It was only a generation back that the Rouge River, which flows into the Detroit River, caught fire due to the industrial chemicals and flammable debris floating on its surface. The Detroit River still suffers from its image an industrial cesspool. Visitors are often shocked to learn that it is a world-class walleye fishery. And I’ll never forget the story of the biologist who – using a crude egg trap hastily cobbled together from duct tape and Home Depot scraps -- confirmed in 2001 the first spawning sturgeon in the river in 30 years.

John Hartig, featured in the News’ story, is a true hero in the battle to protect what’s left of the natural systems that nurture the river. But he’s just one of thousands of Michiganders who fought tooth-and-nail during the past 40 years to bring the river back. Those fights occurred in the halls of Washington where Congressman John Dingell helped pass the Clean Water Act, to the very shores of the Humbug Marsh where grassroots citizens fought for more than a decade to keep condos from destroying the last remaining coastal wetland along the U.S. side of the river.

The river is cleaner because of laws requiring treatment of human sewage and regulations limiting toxic chemical releases among many other measures. It’s a stirring example of how a committed citizenry, demanding strong stewardship of our natural resources from elected officials, can make a huge difference.

There are powerful lobbies trying to weaken the very laws that created this success: An apathetic electorate is a sure-fire way to ensure that they succeed. That’s worth considering when you you’re your votes this August and November


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Coal mine tragedy: Sometimes tougher government oversight looks better in hindsight

I listened to Paul W. Smith’s show on WJR Radio this morning. Smith (pictured) is a strong advocate for smaller government and less regulation. He has guest hosted for conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. This morning he spoke of Massey Energy, owner of the West Virginia coal mine where at least 25 miners died earlier this week after an explosion.

Curiously, he seemed in agreement with a guest who suggested it was a travesty that Massey was allowed to continue business as usual despite repeated fines and safety violations like those chronicled in this NY Times article:

But what would Smith’s reaction have been if environmental groups, unions or workplace safety advocates tried shutting the mine down earlier this month? My guess it would have been a theme of “fringe nutcases and government bureaucrats meddle in the free market, threaten the jobs of American workers and raise our energy prices.”

Sometimes the concept of more aggressive government regulation looks better in hindsight. In fact, Market Watch already suggests that the mine tragedy will result in tougher regulations nationwide:

There’s a balance to be struck between necessary regulation and the free market. Critical thinking on how to achieve that balance doesn’t play well as a knee-jerk response to a tragedy. Nor does it have a place in a political climate where nuance is punished, compromise is sin, and angry “all or nothing” philosophies are the order of the day.

Such is the case for many of Michigan’s elected officials. At the State Capitol, there is a reliable core of lawmakers whose loathing for environmental regulators – primarily the state’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment – is palpable. They are unwilling to do the work necessary to distinguish good laws from bad, or reasonable enforcement from unreasonable. For them, any environmental regulation is bad. And any enforcement action is heavy-handed.

Sometimes stronger rules or more zealous enforcement by government regulators are not necessary.

As recent events demonstrate, sometimes they are.


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

New 'green' dry cleaning solvent: Not so much

My city's DDA recently posted a link to a Fox 2 news story on a dry cleaner touting a new "green" solvent: Dry cleaners are apparently marketing DF-2000 as "organic."
DF-2000, created by ExxonMobil is marginally less toxic than the PERC it replaces. PERC is being phased out in a small number of dry cleaners, but not nearly enough. It is, as my former boss Lana Pollack used to say, "ethylmethylbadstuff":

But the DF-2000 that replaces it (as the story points out) is still a petroleum solvent. And (as the story doesn't point out) it is a neurotoxin with volatile organic compound releases. It's often also marketed as organic. That's technically true, in the same sense that gasoline is organic because of its hydrocarbon compounds.

A better option, when possible, is to have your cleaners press your clothes after handwashing them. Or a process called "wet cleaning" though it's more expensive and I'm not sure of any cleaners in my vicinity offer that. Here's a link to a 'green" dry cleaning explainer:


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Climate Change: Smoking gun fizzles, Princeton physicist accuses me of issuing propoganda!

The British House of Commons’ investigation into the hacked e-mails of climate researchers is complete. To jog your memory, this is the so-called “Climategate conspiracy” smoking gun that was going to blow the lid off the climate change hoax and reduce 40 years of climate research to a smoking pile of rubble.

The Washington Post said the investigators criticized “a culture of withholding information” but concluded that “the integrity of its climate change research was not in doubt….The 14-member parliamentary committee said in its report that it had found nothing to challenge the "scientific consensus" that global warming is occurring and influenced by human activity.” 

Here’s the Post’s writeup:
And here’s the Brits’ investigation:

None of this is likely to slow down die-hard skeptics. For them it merely means the British House of Commons is in on the conspiracy along with the rest of us. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. If your scientific research or your laymen’s understanding of it affirms that climate change is a problem, BANG! you’re part of the hoax and nothing you say henceforth can be credible. End of story.

Speaking of skeptics, a Princeton physicist – in a publication of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy - has accused me of issuing a “propaganda statement” via a press release I issued on behalf of the Michigan Environmental Council. The release blasted the credentials and motivations of a torturously skewed panel of climate “experts” convened recently by the Mackinac Center.

Here’s our press release:
Here’s the Mackinac Center’s piece with the Princeton skeptic (who, it should be noted, is a smart and distinguished researcher in a field with some relevance to climate science, but is not a climatologist): Http://

So if you’d like to read them and decide for yourself where you find the propaganda, I’m cool with that! No pun intended.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Civil dialogue? WHAT THE F***#@!!^&!!@ IS WRONG WITH YOU?!!

I’m trying to limit my topics here to environmental issues with an occasional personal aside. But today, Good Friday, I leave with a link to a column by John Lindstrom, publisher of Michigan’s Gongwer News Service.

John’s observations apply to environmental debates along with health care and all the other public policy “discussions” where anyone who’s not screaming epithets at the opposition is considered a traitor:

“…the growing inability to civilly disagree, to even engage in argument without reducing the dialogue to playground semantics, and to be unwilling to consider opposing points and look at broader context is both depressing and worrying.”

Here’s his full column in this week’s online Dome Magazine:

Thanks John.