Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Save the planet! Ask for directions dudes!

Relax  Kate. I'm sure Sawyer knows exactly where you are
A British insurance company with a bizarre pink website has discovered an easy way for men to reduce pollution and save gas: Ask for directions, jerk!

The company commissioned a study
showing that men blunder around lost for 276 miles each year in part because they refuse to ask for directions. Women, by comparison, are quicker to seek help and drive only 256 miles lost each year.

In fact, 41 percent of men have pretended they know where they’re going when they’re lost; and 12 percent refuse to ask for directions at all. Almost half the men said even when they ask, they don’t trust the directions.

The company suggests that we can all save money and gas and the planet by planning our trips better and not being so arrogant and proud.

That’s probably good advice. But I feel unqualified to offer an opinion, having never experienced this particular problem.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Taxpayer subsidies? I got your subsidies right here pal! (And why aren't my free market friends raising hell about this?)

One of the most persistent criticisms of efforts to stimulate clean energy jobs (wind, solar, etc.) is that it requires taxpayer funded government subsidies.

As Russ Harding of the Midland, MI-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy says in
a 2009 column “if the answer is yes (that they require subsidies), the end economic results are more likely negative rather than positive.”

The critics never acknowledge that the status quo is laden with huge subsidies for the coal, nuclear and oil that currently make up the bulk of our fuels.

Now we have some idea how much those subsidies are. And they’re huge.

The Environmental Law Institute has published a report, Estimating U.S. Government Subsidies to Energy Sources, 2002-2008. The findings: Subsidies to fossil fuels “totaled approximately $72 billion over the study period, representing a direct cost to taxpayers.”

Most of the fossil fuel subsidies were permanent alterations to the tax code. The largest, $15 billion, was the Foreign Tax Credit – a direct incentive for U.S. companies to invest in energy production outside the U.S. instead of in homegrown fuels made by Americans.

By comparison, most of the $29 billion in renewable energy subsidies were time-limited – a huge barrier to investors who are understandably unwilling to invest in industries that may get their tax breaks yanked at the whim of the next Congress.

So this raises two key questions:
1) As a country supposedly unified in increasing our energy independence and moving away from dangerous, unhealthy fossil fuels, why are we subsidizing the fuels we don’t want, rather than the ones we do?
2) Why aren’t so-called “free market” proponents like the Mackinac Center raising more – or any – hell about the tax breaks for fossil fuels? (Hint: Some of these organizations have funders with names like Exxon Mobil)

If we’re going to subsidize energy production, let’s subsidize clean, renewable, American-made energy. If we’re going to be purist “free market” proponents, let’s work to eliminate all energy subidies – and it makes sense to start with the biggest ones: Fossil fuels.

Anytime someone says clean American energy shouldn’t have to get subsidies to compete, they need to answer these questions. Every. Single. Time.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Weeks-long China traffic jam puts Michigan's construction season tie-ups to shame

In China, a 62-mile long traffic jam is entering its 10th day. Hopefully, this will get the attention of the Michigan Department of Transportation. Despite steadfast efforts this summer, MDOT – like the rest of the country – is falling behind the Chinese.

Michigan’s summer traffic tie-ups are legendary, but the Chinese traffic jam is now the gold standard and the envy of all developed nations.

It’s not that our elected officials aren’t trying. From the advent of the Model T, Michigan has steadfastly resisted investing money in public transportation options that might reduce road congestion; squabbled over who might control hypothetical regional transportation authorities; and created cities and suburbs that require personal vehicles to get to jobs and shopping centers.

But it’s not nearly enough, as China’s latest world-leading achievement proves. So we need to try harder.

We can start by getting rid of these do-gooders, Michigan by Rail, who are hosting more than a dozen public forums this summer and fall on the future of rail transportation in Michigan.

Whatever you do, please do not encourage them by checking their web site, finding an upcoming forum near you and giving them your input, which in turn will be given to MDOT and federal planners as they try and improve public transit options. And by all means, don’t let your elected officials know that you support public transit as a convenient alternative to building more and bigger roads.

If we want to catch up with China, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Why doe-eyed liberals aren't responsible for that extra-looking renewable energy surcharge

My DTE Energy electric bill has a separately delineated $3 charge for “renewable energy plan surcharge.”

But, tellingly, there is no similar line item for coal purchases, coal plant operation, or capital costs of coal plants. Nor is there any breakout for nuclear power. None of this, despite the fact that coal and nuclear account for 85 percent of electricity generated in Michigan.

So why is there a separate line item explaining $3 worth of my bill, but no clues as to what the remaining $65.51 goes to?

When Michigan passed its renewable energy standard in 2008 (requiring utilities to provide 10 percent from clean energy sources by 2015), the utilities and their friends in the legislature wanted to make it perfectly clear  that the $3 increase was the fault of those idyllic tree huggers and their insistence on building windmills and solar panels and such. Renewable energy advocates lost their bid to simply fold the rate increase into the rest of the bill.

The renewable line item perpetuates the myth that power from nonpolluting sources is somehow an expensive, boutique hobby horse of weepy, doe-eyed, seitan eaters from Ann Arbor.

And it’s bull. When our rates go up because the price of coal rises, that increase is tucked right into the bill without any separate explanation.

In Michigan, we’ve made progress to a more sensible future. We’ve got a modest amount of renewable energy on the way, and have scuttled a number of ill-advised coal plants. But the Old Guard is not retreating without mining the bridges behind them. And the renewable energy surcharge is one of those land mines.

When it comes time to improve Michigan’s anemic renewable energy standard, it will be more difficult because of the visibility of the $3 surcharge. The response from ratepayers may well be just what the mine layers intended in 2008: “WTF? We’re already paying $3 extra on our bill!”


Saturday, August 21, 2010

No, the Holland City Council does not get to decide Michigan's energy policy

Another proposed coal plant has hit a brick wall in Michigan. State regulators, citing the state Public Service Commission’s conclusions, said that no new baseload electricity generation is warranted.

We can meet demand for the foreseeable future without expensive polluting coal plants, primarily through energy efficiency programs that save customers money (utilities aren’t gung ho on a plan that reduces the need for their product whether it's necessary or not).

Loren Howard, general manager of Holland’s Board of Public Works, said state regulators should leave them alone: "They have no authority over what's right for a community. That's left to our board of directors for the utility and the Holland City Council.”

Maybe Mr. Howard can explain that logic to the communities downwind of the proposed plant whose asthmatic children don’t get a vote. Or the workers in energy efficiency industries like HVAC contractors, window installers and insulation specialists whose jobs disappear if we’re content to just burn more coal. Or to the generation of parents 50 years hence, who will be saddled with the decision.

No, a Michigan energy policy should have some sort of big picture direction. It shouldn’t be the victim of hundreds of local governments making decisions in ignorance of their neighbors and of regional needs.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Why don't journalists do good watchdog reporting? Because no one cares until there's anthrax in the mail or oil in your fishin' hole

I wrote a story for the Detroit Free Press once about the offbeat work of a state agency whose responsibilities included protecting Michigan citizens from chemical and biological terrorist attacks.

Editors hated the story. The believed it was needlessly hysterical and legitimized the work of a state agency that was wasting taxpayer money on a threat so remote to be laughable. They chopped it up and buried it on an inside page.

Then Al Quaeda’s 9/11/01 attacks and subsequent anthrax attacks sent shock and panic through the country. The obscure scientists in the story were suddenly Very Important People and the notion of exploring our readiness against chemical attacks suddenly seemed urgent and newsworthy.

A similar dynamic occurs with every high-profile disaster. No one – editors, citizens, politicians – no one, gives much of a rip about stories examining our readiness for disasters until the disasters strike. Then, it’s a free for all of blame and second guessing.

A good journalistic investigation might have unearthed – before the Gulf Oil Spill -- a pattern of corner cutting and noncompliance on the part of BP. But it would have been a real sleep inducer. No one would have cared.

Likewise, someone might have written or broadcast a story – before Michigan’s Kalamazoo River system oil spill -- noting that Enbridge Energy Partners has been warned about corrosion in their oil pipeline. Such a story might have quoted Hugh McDiarmid Jr., spokesman for an environmental group saying : “We believe corrosion in the pipeline needs to be corrected immediately, or we are courting disaster.”

It would have only been read by geeks and zealots with online identities like BAD*SSMUTHA, NO_TYRANNY, and AYNRAND. They would have written anonymous comments: “take your hippie ass and your Prius and move to Red China you spoiled jerk from the People’s Republic of Ann Arborstan” or “you’re an environmental wacko trying to kill the last jobs in Michigan that Two Penny Jenny Grandmole hasn’t already!.”

I thought of this dynamic the other day when I spoke with a reporter working on a story about oil pipelines in Michigan that may be completely unregulated. Apparently, there are certain sections of intrastate oil pipe that are not regulated or inspected for safety by any state or local agency. If there’s a federal agency that’s supposed to regulate them, they haven’t done so for decades.

But the reporter told me the story may never get reported. It would take a good month of digging for a story that’s complex and raises warning flags, but wouldn’t get much reader reaction even in the wake of the recent oil calamities. Meanwhile, there are plenty of stories that will get readers talking that can be reported in a week, a day, or a few hours.

There’s a lot of moaning about how the media doesn’t cover substantive issues anymore. But journalists know from experience that sober, lengthy analyses of important issues don’t sell newspapers, don't drive up viewership and never gets much feedback from readers. Until the public cares, media executives, editors and advertisers aren’t going to either.

Usually, sadly, that takes a disaster.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

The new phone books are here! Ten pounds of useless, wasted resources that AT&T refuses to stop littering my doorstep with

In the 1979 movie “The Jerk” Steve Martin’s character is ecstatic when the new phone book arrives (The new phone book is here! The new phone book is here!)

Times have changed, but the phone book companies haven’t.

Each year without fail, 10 pounds of useless, virgin paper phone books are dropped on my doorstep and millions of of other households where laptops, iPhones and Blackberries have made the old paper monstrosities quaint reminders of the past.

It’s a huge waste of resources – timber products, inks, labor, and electricity-sucking machines that most of us don’t need or want.

So why is it so hard for AT&T to get the message that I DO NOT WANT THEIR PHONE BOOK?

For three years I’ve tried to navigate their phone system to find someone who can prevent the delivery of the unwanted product to no avail. Two years ago I even managed to chase down the delivery people as they made their way down the block.

Me: “Excuse me. Can you take these back please? (I am so polite!) I called last year and was promised these would not longer be delivered to my address.”
Him: (Uncomprehending silence)
Me: “Do you have a list of addresses that have asked that phone books not be delivered?”
Him: “No, there’s nothing like that. We deliver to every house.”

I assume Yellow Pages advertising rates are based in part on the number of households the companies can boast they deliver to, so they have a big incentive to keep littering doorsteps with the crap.

But there may be a growing movement to rein in the waste of resources.

A web site called Yellow Pages Goes Green purports to help you stop unwanted deliveries. At this location on the site you can type in your ZIP code and presumably find your Yellow Pages provider’s information to sign up not to receive the books. I signed up with AT&T the other day. We’ll see what happens next year.

The site says municipalities across the country are considering measures to help citizens put the brakes on unwanted phone books. Cities like Seattle are looking at options. So is the city of Stamford, Connecticut.

I couldn’t find anything about Michigan cities moving to keep companies from littering doorsteps with wasted paper, but then again Michigan’s not exactly on the cutting edge these days. Maybe Ann Arbor will step up to the plate?

In the meantime, they go straight into the recycling bin. Better than the trash, but an imperfect solution. Steve Martin would be crestfallen. But he probably has an iPhone.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Here's a self indulgent plug to fill the void while you wait for a real blog item

Yeah, I got a couple of burning issues I’m trying to find time to research and post. Most notably why the SOBs at AT&T saw fit to dump 10 more pounds of virgin paper phonebooks on my doorstep despite my concerted efforts for three years to halt delivery. I have an iPhone. I don't need a phone book. Much less three of them.

But for now I share with you Real Detroit magazine’s writeup of Mitten State as one of their favorite blogs. Thanks for the plug, folks:

"This is our favorite place to order a helping of green news with a big side of sarcasm. Michigan Environmental Council's Hugh McDiarmid (a former Freep writer) takes on environmental news with a cheeky twist that is so not AP style. For issues ranging from politics to the oil spill to why the hell Meijer only stocks Washington cherries during the Michigan cherry-growing season, Hugh is our guy."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Breaking News! Bicycles exposed by as a sinister plot by United Nations to control U.S. cities

Michigan has become the 14th state to adopt Complete Streets legislation that requires road planners to consider the needs of nonmotorized travel when designing roadways.

That includes, of course, bicycles.

But those carefree days when we believed bicycle use was harmless -- even beneficial -- has come to a cataclysmic, cruel and twisted end.

You see, the Republican candidate for governor of Colorado has learned the fearsome truth: Bikes are a sinister plot to turn Denver,and eventually the entire freedom-loving US of A into a puppet of the United Nations.

Denver’s B-Cycle program that provides 400 bikes for rent at locations across the city is part of a plot to “convert Denver into a United Nations community” and “threaten our personal freedoms.”

Dan Maes, a favorite of the Tea Party activists, warns that “this is all very well disguised, but it will be exposed.”

Clearly there’s a mole inside the bicycling community feeding Maes the truth, that the B-Cycle program, and Denver’s membership in a shadowy group promoting “gasp!” sustainable development is “part of a greater strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty.”

My suspicion is that the mole is the same person talking to Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. How else would they have discovered that Climate Change is a tremendous worldwide conspiracy to keep grant money coming into to climate scientists?

In Michigan, a coalition of 60-plus environmental, cycling and public health groups – with support from the Michigan Department of Transportation -- supported the Complete Streets policy. It was billed as a harmless, enlightened move to help make it easier for cyclists and pedestrians to navigate downtown traffic.

Harmless? HA! “That’s exactly the attitude they want you to have,” Maes said.

If we are discriminating about who we elect to the State Legislature this fall; we can ensure that the diabolical Complete Streets legislation is repealed; once again making our cities safe from United Nations domination!


Environmental savvy propels Bernero, Snyder to election victory in Michigan gubernatorial primaries! (or maybe not, but let's believe it tonight)

Rick Snyder
So businessman Rick Michigan (the artist formerly known as Rick Snyder) and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, (dubbed the “Angriest Mayor in America”) have won the Republican and Democratic primaries for Michigan governor tonight.

Since politics and elections and judging voters’ intentions is a complicated, tricky, unpredictably opaque business, it would be naïve and silly of me to suggest that the reason they won was because Bernero and Snyder were among only three of seven candidates with the courage to appear in an environmental debate in the spring sponsored by the Detroit Free Press and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

Virg Bernero
Or that both men, especially Snyder, were way ahead of their primary foes in demonstrating an understanding of how natural resources are integral to public health and the economic vitality of Michigan.

Or that both were endorsed by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (and Bernero by the Michigan chapters of the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action).

Or that both were able to articulate how so-called “environmental” issues aren’t about saving frogs and wagging fingers at Hummers……they are about modernizing our energy choices to stay competitive in the global marketplace; making our cities places where young people want to live, party, work and sleep; and keeping shitty things like carp and chemicals and sewage out of the world’s greatest freshwater system that we are so blessed to have on all sides us (that’s north, west, east, and…well, we are a pleasant peninsula but we do have Ohio to the south).

So I won’t say any of that. And, plus, both candidates are kind of wild cards so it’s difficult to know whether their rhetoric will match their deeds once elected.

So, I will stick to something safer and more defensible: It will be a good feeling to wake up tomorrow knowing that the two candidates who best understand the value of natural resources to the Great Lakes State are still standing.


Sunday, August 1, 2010

The episode where Frank Beckmann assures us the Kalamazoo oil spill is no big deal, and that we shouldn't be mean to Enbridge Energy because they have people helping clean it up.

Oil trapped against a boom on the Kalamazoo River Friday
So by now you probably know that Enbridge Energy Partners had a little malfunction with one of their oil pipelines, one that federal regulators repeatedly warned the company about. Something like 1 million gallons of crude was dumped into the Kalamazoo River system where it has coated banks, choked off wetlands and disrupted the lives and economies in numerous local communities.

I was down there Friday checking it out, and it’s a God awful disaster. Yes, disaster. Even though WJR’s Frank Beckmann has declared it much ado about nothing primarily because no one has died. Frank says we shouldn’t condemn Enbridge because they have workers cleaning it up, and that government red tape is to blame for the problem. Frank, on his radio show, also beat up on the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment because they didn’t have enough respirators to go around to their people doing sampling. Of course, it was the right wing cavalry in the legislature that has stripped the agency of nearly 75 percent of its general fund money in the past decade, vilified it as a job-killing band of regulatory thugs and even tried to eliminate the division within the agency that responded to the oil spill! And we wonder why they don’t have an adequate equipment budget?

(There was a time when Frank had a mind of his own and wasn’t afraid to use it, but he’s increasingly is content to only parrot Rush Limbaugh these days.)

Since the whole media world is covering the spill, I’m content point out that there is a plethora of excellent coverage happening, most notably at my alma mater the Detroit Free Press where Todd Spangler and Jennifer Dixon did an excellent job Sunday of explaining the regulatory environment that lets the Enbridges of the world take calculated risks with the world’s greatest freshwater ecosystem. (An exception is the Freep’s web headline last night, cheerily pointing out that half the 1 million gallons has been collected, but failing to note that each remaining gallon gets tougher as it settles into wetlands, smothering bacteria and plankton and choking off the entire bottom of the food chain).

The Environmental Protection Agency is taking the lead on the response to the spill.
(EPA, another band of job-killing thugs except when, well….when it become apparent maybe polluters shouldn't actually be allowed to regulate themselves)

Meanwhile, the National Wildlife Federation has released a report noting that Michigan ranks 9th highest in oil spills in recent years.

The next time Frank Beckmann decides to declare a disaster zone a non-disaster, I suggest he do a show from the region where can talk to the people I did -- the lifelong hunter and fisherman near tears at the despoiling of his cherished river valley; the campground owner forced to simply shut down her business at the peak of summer season; or the golf course superintendent told not to use his sprinkler system that draws directly from the river lest the fairways get coated with oil.

These are the people who will still be dealing with this spill in six weeks, six months and six year -- long after the TV cameras and most of the politicians have moved on.