Sunday, November 14, 2010

We’re talking trains again today, only this time the location in question is Texas, where there seems to be some enthusiasm surrounding the idea of railway infrastructure. Schenkel’s Earth Matters blog mentions the governor, Rick Perry, and Democratic Representative, Henry Cuellar, as specific supporters, but he also talks about the $5.6 million federally funded study aimed at assessing the feasibility of and options for a high-speed rail line linking Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Oklahoma City (Houston, by the way, is very hurt by the snub).

With three of the ten most populous cities in the country, and vast expanses of land between them, Texas should be a prime candidate for train transport. However, the fact that it is also one of the biggest oil producers in the country means that there are many influential people in Texas who have vested interest in keeping people in their cars. Bill White, a Democrat who ran against Rick Perry in this month’s election, says that a plan the governor put forth for railways running in a corridor through the state, as opposed to directly from city to city, is so crazy that it actually seems designed to promote more car travel.

I can understand this afternoon how following one author’s blog could be a very satisfying experience. While my initial reaction to Schenkel’s link back to his last post about rail transport was a roll of the eyes at what felt like self-promotion, I realized that I know more about this issue now than I did, and what I read in Earth Matters in Thursday gave me a context in which to read today’s story about Texas. How convenient that Schenkel has saved me the trouble of sifting through the web and let me know the important parts.

It is not reasonable to expect that one blogger will review and condense even most of the available material on a topic, or that he or she will present an unbiased report of the facts, and I worry that many readers do not keep those facets of the medium in mind when reading and quoting. That said, as long as we can remain skeptical – which is, after all, a requirement for all media consumption – blogs such as Earth Matters can be a very useful tool for those wishing to broaden their awareness of issues and increase the breadth of their knowledge.

There are only so many hours in a day and, interesting though it is, I won’t be spending mine reading six articles on federal funding for railway infrastructure. Would I spend 10 minutes looking through one post and a few links on the subject, though? Well, time will tell, but I’m glad to have the option.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The puffed-up native Chicagoan from Thursday’s post is eating her words today. More news from Andrew Schenkel and Earth Matters has informed me that Representative John Shimkus of the Prairie state is campaigning to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee. This is significant because he apparently believes that the infallible word of God/the Bible confirms that humans will not destroy the Earth. “The Earth will end only when God declares it is time to be over,” he says, and the “Earth will not be destroyed by a flood” (I’m not sure why Shimkus included that last part, but I’m not a theologian…maybe I missed the point). The Representative quoted the relevant verses from the Bible to the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment in order to prove his assertion.

This is dismaying. It is also particularly annoying because, after explaining that the dinosaurs flourished in a lush paradise with way more carbon in their atmosphere than we have now, he adds that the employees of four closed mines in Illinois are now out of work as a direct result of the Clean Air Act of 1990 (he has a big photo to prove the miners are real).

     It is important to note that Shimkus made these statements in March 2009. He sticks by them today, mainly to support his contention that trying to avoid climate change is a waste of taxpayer dollars, because whatever is going to happen is going to happen regardless of what we do (either because of God, or because the carbon levels of the planet have been changing since it came into existence, or because of dinosaurs…again, I’m not totally clear). It is a testament to the power of the Internet (and the blogging medium in particular) that the public can be made aware of past statements like this at important moments down the line. We can’t say whether this will give pause to those charged with choosing the future committee chair, but we can be pretty sure that they have it on their radar.

At least Shimkus does believe that climate change is real. Is that really what I’m grasping at for comfort? Oy.

Friday, November 12, 2010

It seems like Andrew Schenkel misses the midterm election drama already…or maybe he really is just reporting on what matters to green policy watchers. His post today concerns the jostling for positions and committee chairmanships that follows election season and will be going on until the new Senate first convenes early next year.  Did you know that Republicans are currently trying to woo two Democratic senators over to the other side and that, if they both switch parties AND Joe Lieberman declares himself to be a Republican instead of the Independent he has recently become, the Senate will be split 50-50?? I had not realized this and, while it is lovely to be reminded of what a fragile majority the Democrats currently hold, I find the scenario highly unlikely. Joe Lieberman did not become an Independent because it was an important stepping-stone in his journey to join the Republican Party; he became an Independent because he lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut (thanks, in part, to aggressive bloggers like us).

When he gets back to the point, Schenkel discusses potential changes to Senate committees that are key to energy politics: Energy and Natural Resources, Environment and Public Works and Agriculture. In all seriousness, the post touched on an interesting facet of the legislature that is monitored much less closely than the elections themselves. How did it come to pass, for example, that the Republican chairman of the Environment and Public Works committee, James Inhofe is a climate change denier? In a 2005 speech, Inhofe referred multiple times to those who were upset by his calling global warming a hoax as “environmental extremists,” and called their belief in global warming “an article of religious faith.” Unfortunately, Schenkel doesn’t predict that Inhofe will be replaced as chairman.

How likely is it that the two other “Blue Dog” senators mentioned by Schenkel (Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska) will change parties? According to the U.S. Senate’s website, 21 senators have changed parties while in the Senate since 1890. Only 3 of those switches have occurred in the last decade (including Mr. Lieberman’s), and only 7 have occurred since 1970. Only three times in history has a Democrat joined the Republican Party.

Joe Manchin, as governor of West Virginia, speaking about a recent lawsuit regarding coal mining regulations filed against the EPA by the state.

The odds are decent that Manchin and Nelson will stay put for now, which is a relief as far as our little majority is concerned. However, if “blue dog” implies that their tendencies in environmental matters list to the right anyway, it may be little consolation that they belong to the Democratic Party.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

No trains for the badger state

As a native Chicagoan, I thank my lucky stars that Democrat, Pat Quinn was not voted out of the governor’s mansion on November 2nd. As it turns out (according to Andrew Schenkel and Earth Matters, Republican governors are starting to balk at the idea the stimulus money provided by the federal government for the development of railway infrastructure should have to be put to its designated use.

Wisconsin is the example Schenkel gives from WBAY of a state whose governor-elect, Republican Scott Walker, claims that American people made it clear decades ago that they didn’t want to be bound by “fixed-track passenger rail.” Other Republican governors have apparently echoed his dismay that the money can’t simply be put into other projects of their choosing. States like Illinois would be happy to have that money, should Wisconsin decline to invest in trains. Quinn’s homepage even has a giant story about the state’s plans to link Iowa City to Chicago via Moline, Illinois by high-speed rail by 2013. Certainly, my sister in Iowa City (along with whoever lives down in Moline) will be thrilled by this news.

Unfortunately, I was completely disappointed to find that Schenkel’s post lacked any discussion regarding Walker’s claims. Refute, Schenkel! Isn’t that the point of working outside of a traditional news organization? On what basis are we to believe that Americans don’t want to have the option of taking trains? During the 2.5 years that I lived (car-less) in France and Belgium, I personally visited innumerable small towns in Western Europe cheaply and fairly efficiently by train. I also got to work and everywhere else I needed to go by train, as I did in Chicago and as I do in Boston. In places where public transportation – be it urban transit, commuter rail, or longer distance transportation – is an option and is not more expensive than flying (ahem, Amtrak), it seems to be quite popular. I wanted Schenkel to point this out and provide some links to prove it.

Needing a car is what causes people to prefer cars. Give them a viable alternative and find out how they really feel. Europe knows what I'm talkin' about...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The U.S. and the Precautionary Principal

Fracking: yet another instance of the United States’ refusal to adhere to the “precautionary principle” in environmental affairs. Today’s Earth Matters blog by Andrew Schenkel was devoted to Halliburton and its opposition to the EPA’s request that it provide the agency with the formula of chemicals it uses in the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of rocks in order to extract natural gas. I can’t help but wonder if Schenkel’s choice of topic (not that vilifying Dick Cheney is anything new) is related to former president Bush’s interviews on the Today Show, which brought Dick Cheney’s name back into public discourse this week. The public is primed to revisit the subject of the former vice-president and his company’s dirty dealings.

Schenkel's post reports that the EPA requested that nine companies provide the EPA with their recipes for the chemical cocktails they use in fracking, and that Halliburton is the only company that has not yet complied with the request. According to the Wall Street Journal, the EPA has, thus, subpoenaed the documents so that it may confirm whether they endanger public health by contaminating ground water. Halliburton’s PR staff has cried foul, saying that the agency has not given them sufficient time to gather the 50,000 pages they requested. However, Schenkel reports that they have also objected to the request on the grounds that the EPA is requesting proprietary information, which, if leaked, could cost Halliburton any advantage its recipe is giving it in the industry. Halliburton’s website also boasts that the EPA has studied and reviewed the fracking process, but also saying that once the highest risk chemicals are identified, they will “work to eliminate” them from their fracking formula.

The EPA’s actions mark an important step toward the use of the precautionary principle by American regulatory bodies. The European Union has already stated that this principle will guide its regulations with regard to public health and safety and environmental health, but the United States has not embraced it on the same level. Little wonder why. In essence, the principle states that the use of any substance or action that may cause harm to human health or the environmental may be restricted or prohibited until scientific evidence can prove that it does not cause undo harm. This is in contrast to the rule of thumb that a product or practice may be employed until scientific evidence proves it to be unsafe. The principle is opposed by untold numbers of firms whose profits rely on innovative products containing chemicals in new combinations or practices that affect the environment, and the U.S. government is unlikely to oppose its big business lobbies any time soon in order to implement this principle. The government has also been promoting natural gas as an important energy resource on which the U.S. should focus going forward.

The precautionary principle is the way of the future, though. We will learn eventually that it pays to think long-term. Just because the technology does not yet exist to prove conclusively that something is safe, doesn’t mean we should just use it and cross our fingers. Profits are important and alternative energy sources are certainly in demand, but that kind of short-run thinking is extremely harmful for the public. In taking Halliburton to task for not disclosing the chemicals it is using in its processes, the EPA is publicly acknowledging just that.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A few thoughts on links

Andrew Schenkel’s blog, Earth Matters, singles out Texas today as the state with the largest number of lawsuits filed against the Environmental Protection Agency. The governor, Rick Perry, who assumed the position when George W. Bush left to become President, and has just begun his third term, has filed 7 lawsuits against the EPA in the past 9 months. The blogger describes the article in the Arizona Daily Star and its comparison of Texas’s adversarial relationship with the EPA to California’s continued implementation of the agency’s regulations as they make progress in their efforts to curb pollution.

As most bloggers do, Schenkel gathers information from the Internet in order to prepare an article that proves his point to his readership. The (well-documented) concern this raises is that I am directed to a very limited number of articles on his chosen topic each day. His post is well organized, though, with a statement explaining the genesis and main focus of the article, then several examples of the ways in which Texas state officials have challenged the EPA’s authority, one statement made in response by an EPA official in August, and a short list of other states and actors who have recently made similar challenges, leading him to conclude that Texas is the loudest, but not the lone voice in the fight against EPA regulations.

Unfortunately, (and this brings me to a very general remark about the nature of blogs) organization and structure, while crucial, are somewhat devalued in a style that uses hyperlinks throughout an article to establish credibility or believability. Personally, I do not feel better off with the ability to stop reading a post each time something needs verification or attribution in order to read a separate article, which could link me to others, and so on and so forth until the end of the Internet. What is the desired outcome for bloggers? Is it simply the most efficient way to attribute sources and the easiest way for readers to see for themselves? Do they believe that most readers will visit linked pages as they go, thereby destroying the flow of the original post? Does anyone think that people will hold out and click on all of the links after having read the entire post? Do they think that the mere presence of links is enough for most people to view the blog as credible, and that many readers won’t even bother checking the source of the information? I suppose they may just understand and accept that this is the prevailing format for the medium, but I think they must cringe at the thought of people reading their work in such a disjointed way…like musicians whose carefully crafted albums are now downloaded piecemeal from iTunes.

MNN’s state pages are an interesting component of Schenkel’s blog. The network has created pages on their site for each American state, and readers can link to them any time Schenkel mentions one to learn about the state’s energy and political issues, local correspondents, resources and “top green businesses,” among other things. This is certainly one way to foster interest in your website, and it can give the reader a sense of the state’s recent history as far as energy issues are concerned. However, it strikes me that each state’s name is linked to its MNN page, as though these pages present the state as an entity, rather than the state in the context of a green blog.

In short, the use of links seems to me to fraught with potential issues and, although I appreciate the direction they provide, I fear I may be too linear for this medium.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The earth is round and global warming is real (a.k.a. one day you'll believe)

Andrew Schenkel is my kind of pundit. His blog on the somewhat regrettably named Mother Nature Network, or MNN, is called Earth Matters, and covers the effect of U.S. policies and political actors on an array of energy issues. The simple fact that there is enough happening in American politics to fuel a daily blog on the subject is encouraging in itself. Add to that the facts that Schenkel  a) comes across as a concise, well-read advocate of increased government attention to energy and climate issues with a good sense of perspective, and  b) covers a broad range of topics at the national and state levels, and I think the odds are good that even the most hesitant blog reader will probably make it through the week (and may even gain some perspective herself).

His topic today, the announcement in the Los Angeles Times that 700 climate change scientists will deliver a public statement regarding global warming as a man-made phenomenon, was long on news and short on analysis. Schenkel barely nods at the positive contribution this announcement could have on the public debate about climate change. Even his comment at the end of his post that this type of climate team “will serve as a useful tool for educating the public about the facts and the opposition’s misinformation campaign,” was made in the context of statements that forming these teams “after midterm elections pummeled environmental causes and a year after the devastating Climategate scandal” is likely “too little, too late.” Schenkel is not getting his hopes up, and he doesn't want you to get your hopes up either.

His post directs his readers to recent stories regarding a Minnesota college professor’s public refutation of a global warming denier, last year’s “Climategate” scandal, which, he argues, has caused a significant number of Americans to believe that climate change is a government conspiracy, and the election of a number of “anti-climate change” Republicans to office in this month’s midterm election. It’s certainly grim for anyone who believes that the appropriate and urgent question is, “Quick! What are we going to do about this?!” to see that we are stuck back at, “Wait. How can they prove that it’s our fault?”

Schenkel’s pessimism is totally understandable, and maybe people who will constantly say, “This isn’t enough,” are a requisite for all progressive movements. I wonder, though, if he wasn’t at least a little bit excited about the news before he came back to reality and settled on the somber tone of his post. A look back at the socially progressive movements of America’s past reminds us that progress is made at an agonizingly slow pace, sometimes allowing devastating consequences to occur in the meantime (remember when scientists sang the praises of shock therapy, or when “separate, but equal” was seen as progress?). Public opinion can change, though, and often does so person-by-person, over many years, after numerous setbacks, as a result of one small step forward at a time.

I appreciate Schenkel’s cynicism (and his first few comments are less than encouraging), but, no, it is not too late. When better than today’s “difficult times” to fight back?