April 5, 2011 – Volume 13, Issue 12
I N · T H I S · I S S U E


Bernie's Independent Voice

Saturday I drove my hybrid to Brentwood for some inspiration. There, I had the chance to chat one-on-one with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont. I’d met him in the late 1970s when he ran unsuccessfully for office; then at his victory celebration in 1981 as Mayor of Burlington.

How exciting it was then and now. An Independent willing to tell it like it is and unwilling to align and compromise with the party line. An accented New Yorker from Brooklyn, the son of Polish immigrants, representing the farmers and good folk of Vermont. Bernie is intense, an inspiration to many. He’s got the longest track record for an independent in Congress, sixteen years in the House and four more in the Senate. (He was mayor of Burlington 1981 – 1989.) He fired up the small group gathered on Old River Ranch Road, horse-country LA.

I’d put on my UVM – “verts monts” or green mountains – sweatshirt. They are pretty rare in LA. He smiled. I then had a chance to sit down with Bernie for a few minutes to reflect on Vermont’s energy policy. We know Vermonters in common, Beth Sachs and Blair Hamilton. We praised the work of VEIC. He is fully up-to-speed on PACE and the FHFA. And yes, he is willing to help PACE Solutions gain bipartisan and broad support in Congress for reversing the FHFA. He “gets it,” the need to fix PACE, took my card, and lined me up with his LA (legislative assistant).

His remarks to the group assembled were pointed and political. He covered the budget, the wars, education, discretionary spending, the swing to the right – and particularly the Democrats shift to center, and the upcoming election. Who’s been more supportive of maintaining social security, a FDR program that has reduced poverty among seniors from 50% to 10%? The Republicans, he reported to gasps. And with 81% of Americans favoring taxes on the rich, he continued, why has this not been adopted in the budget battles? “I guess 81% of the public is not enough,” he quipped. Bernie ripped on the tax law that often lets the biggest and profitable corporations pay none.

On energy, Bernie took off on nuclear and the Daiichi meltdowns: Vermont Yankee – now in its 38th year – is one of the same reactors, one of the 23 GE Mark 1 boiling water reactors operating in the United States. The 620 MW Yankee reactor in Vernon provides 35% of Vermont’s electricity. Ironically, just two days before the earthquake and tsunami, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a 20-year life extension for the plant through 2032, despite its share of minor releases of radioactive tritium, cracked pipes, etc.

Fortuitously for Vermonters who fear the plant’s operation, a stipulation of the plant’s sale to Entergy Nuclear (a corporation that owns 12 reactors at ten sites) was that the legislature had to approve its operation. Given the Japanese reactor crisis, that’s unlikely. He shifts to renewables and efficiency. He’s proud of Vermont’s efficiency gains, electricity consumption has been held flat now for years. Earmarks, he noted, have been a good thing for Vermont. He cited a number of solar projects.

A woman questioned Bernie on why there isn’t a stronger voice speaking the logic of renewable, clean and green power. It provides so many benefits. “All we hear is that they are expensive.” To this, Sanders retorted, “You are not talking about a sustainable energy issue, you’re talking about a media issue.” There are many voices, he explained, but they are getting little air time. Last night he did face off with Bill Maher.

At times I was listening to Ralph Nader. Bernie spoke bluntly about the power of the media. They don’t invite “socialist” voices to their shows. “It’s Lieberman on the left and McCain on the right.” Last year, after 20 in the Congress, Sanders was invited to NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. His prime time appearances have been far and few between. Now he faces reelection, and the promise of huge corporate dollars trying to unseat his independent voice.

A final question was tactical: Aren’t progressives fighting on too many fronts – health care, energy, education, immigration, social security, etc? “Why can’t we just focus on the real issue which is the power of corporations in America?” Bernie saluted the young man’s logical question. Sanders acknowledged the profound power of corporate America that it is oft abused. With the Supreme Court’s decision last year on campaign financing, corporations now have far greater control over the political process as well. He thinks this is very dangerous.

But, he explained with a smile and look only a seasoned legislature can earn, everyone has an issue of utmost importance. The student that can’t get loans, the uninsured seeking health insurance, anti-war activists, gays and civil rights activists, teachers needing jobs. They won’t let go of “their” issue to come on board with another, despite the merits of the tactic. “Yes, I’m tired,” he said twice, tired from having to fight for the right on so many fronts, even to maintain our most successful programs such as Social Security. But this is the legislative process, and one in which he so clearly thrives and represents us all so well.
"In short, it is anti-science, a know-nothing, do-nothing approach to the most challenging environmental problem of our time,"
Representative Henry Waxman on a House bill to strip the EPA of
its authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

CSA: Farm Fresh to You

I’m a big fan of Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. By subscribing to a farm’s output, or a group of farms’ output, I get fresh and organic produce delivered to my home and I am supporting farmers by paying them retail prices. The first CSAs were a bit clumsy. You know, it’s hard to fulfill consumer expectations these days for food. There’s little seasonality at the grocery store, but there is on an individual farm. Produce comes in pulses, not steady distributions. Nature’s refrigerator is the vine.

My first CSA experience ended pretty badly. It was in Colorado, years ago. One week we got a huge bag of the only thing on the planet that I can’t eat, that makes me ill. (I can handle durians and duck blood soup, but not those lovely colored beets and borsht!) The next week we got a slug of turnips and onions. Hard to plan a week of meals around that.

Farm Fresh to You is a great step forward, a sophisticated CSA approach in my home town. Sure, it has the advantage of being in Southern California where things grow year round. This new CSA system is really cool: Boxes come in four sizes, small, regular,” more” and “monster” with prices of $25, $31.50, $44, and $55 and for 1-2, 2-4, 4-5, and 5-6 people. There are five box types: “Mixed,” “Valley” boxes, “Fruit-Only” boxes, “Mostly Fruit” boxes, “Fast Fruit and Vegetable” boxes, and “Veggie-Only” boxes. You can arrange for every week, or biweekly delivery, or every third week, or fourth week. By going on line, you can see what’s coming and switch out items up to 48 hours prior to delivery. You can update your permanent exclusion on line. Yes, beets! They offer the range of payment options,” vacation holds,” and the re-usable box arrived with a 100% satisfaction guarantee; $5 to refer a friend.

The photo spills the beans of what’s inside! I was struck by the diversity of the contents. There was a big bag inside with the greens – red chard and green leaf lettuce and a big swath of dill, and under that was a nice bunch of asparagus. A newsletter has farm news stories on the “Soggy Spring” and “The Back 40.” Two avocadoes, four apples, three tangerines, two grape fruits, and a bunch of little potatoes. Oh, and I did I forget the three really nice-looking beets?

Urban farming update: Doubled composting operation this past week. Now have two steaming piles bio-stacks thanks boxes of cabbage leaves from Kruegermann’s Pickle and Sauerkraut Company. It’s green cabbage season!

Stripping the EPA?

The battle has been brewing: At stake is the first major regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. The battle is being played out as a theme of the FY 2011 budget battle. Amidst entitlements, crushing debt, wars, disasters, $30 – 60 billion in discretionary spending cuts, is a war over EPA’s impending regulation of greenhouse gasses. Will the federal government overrule scientific consensus that action is required?

In 2007 the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are air pollutants and can be regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In December 2010, EPA presented its timeline for regulating the CO2 releases from the largest emitters, namely power plants and refineries. The timeline called for draft regulations in July and December of 2011 respectively, and then standards in May and November of 2012.

Also in December 2010, it was clear that the GOP was going to attempt to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate, or second best would be to strip its ability to enforce GHG reductions under the Clean Air Act. Now, with Congress fighting to stave off a federal government shutdown caused by the budget battle and its lack of resolution, several approaches are being proposed.

Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is unabashed in seeking a home run and stripping EPA of its new-found authority. Democratic Senator John Rockefeller (D WV) has called for a two-year delay. Meanwhile, E2Wire reports that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson warns that history will not be kind to lawmakers who override scientists’ “endangerment finding” that GHGs do threaten human health and welfare. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the ranking member of the full House committee, warned that such a bill would “codify science denial.” Nevertheless, it appears likely that the House will pass legislation that clips EPA’s wings, and that the battle will be won or lost in the Senate.
The Word on CO2 in 2010

The Environmental Integrity Project presents a timely analysis on 2010 U.S. carbon pollution, which rose by 5.56% in 2010 over 2009, the single largest one-year increase since the EPA began tracking carbon pollution in 1995. Emissions from electricity generation in the U.S. rose from 2.295 million tons of CO2 to 2.423 million tons. (2007 was the highest on record at 2.565.) The increase tracked power production, up 4% on average due to economic recovery and hotter than usual temperatures in parts of the country. In terms of global average temperatures, 2010 matched 2005 as the hottest year on record.

Coal-fired generators now provide 45% of the nation’s electricity, and are responsible for 81% of the CO2 emissions. Fifty coal-fired power plants accounted for 750 million tons of carbon pollution in 2010, nearly one-third of all carbon pollution in the country. Two power plants, the Scherer and Bowen generating stations in Georgia, are the biggest polluters. Together they released 48 million tons in 2010, more than the combined release from all California power plants in the same year (37.1), more than all New York’s power plants combined (40), and all the power plants in the six-state New England region.

The 10 worst states for carbon pollution in 2010 were Texas, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri. Texas, led the pack with 257 million tons of CO2 releases from its power plants, six times that of California’s plants. Texas also opened three new coal-fired generators in 2010 with a combined capacity of 2,156 MW.

Meanwhile, a Harvard study finds that coal-fired generation costs the economy about $345 billion a year in hidden expenses not borne by miners or utilities. The estimate takes into account the cost of treating elevated rates of cancer and other illnesses in coal-mining areas, environmental damage and lost tourism opportunities in coal regions where mountaintop removal is practiced, and climate change resulting from elevated emissions of carbon dioxide from burning the coal.

According to the researcher there, accounting for all the ancillary costs associated with burning coal would add about 18 cents per kilowatt hour to the cost of electricity from coal-fired plants, shifting it from one of the cheapest sources of electricity to one of the most expensive. (As a comparison, the cost of solar today is about 16 cents per kilowatt hour, and wind is about 12 cents per kilowatt hour.)

High Speed Rail Update

“What’s up with high speed rail?” a slow-speed train buddy asked me. There are refrains among advocates: If the Chinese can do it, then we can and must too. Right? China plans to spend $451 billion on high speed rail by 2015.

In April 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued its High-Speed Rail Strategic Plan. Its introduction tells a powerful story: After 60 years and a $1.3 trillion investment, it claims that the U.S. has the world’s most advanced highway and aviation systems. But there is “mounting congestion” and these systems consume 70% of the nation’s oil, much from overseas sources, and produce 28% of greenhouse gases. The graphic at the end of this article shows the ridership from 1929 through 2004, by transportation form, with rail (green) falling off while auto (blue) and plane (yellow) travel increase steadily.

Citing multiple benefits of high-speed rail, in January of 2010, the White House announced its plan for a $53 billion injection in high-speed rail over the next six years. President Obama’s goal is for 80% of Americans to have access to high speed rail in the next 25 years. Regional trains will run at 90—125 miles per hour, with high speed backbones running at 125 – 250 mph.

According to the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, “A single high speed rail line can carry the equivalent of a 10-lane freeway, can be built for far less cost, is cheaper to operate, uses a tiny fraction of the energy (electricity versus oil), and operates without congestion or delays during rush hours and peak travel days.” And from a travelers’ relaxation perspective, trains are a hands-down favorite over planes, buses, and cars.

Thanks to the $8 billion in ARRA stimulus funding, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a call for proposals; state and local governments and regional authorities responded with $55 billion in applications. Thirteen major, intercity rail corridor projects were funded in what officials called, “a historic investment in the country’s transportation infrastructure.” Joe Biden, who has commuted between Delaware and DC on the rail lines 7,900+ times, said it would create jobs and transform travel in America.

The busiest rail corridor in America is in the northeast with 11.5 million rail travelers in 2008. It was awarded $1.2 billion for its proposal to link DC and Boston, with an “Empire Spur” to Buffalo, another to Montreal, and others into Vermont and Maine. Creating the system will require 84 miles of new track, and upgrading 1,542 miles. It will link with the Raleigh-Durham system too.

California was awarded $2.3 billion. Its high speed rail system will connect Los Angeles with San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes. At 220 mph, that’s less than half the six-hour drive. The 520-mile Phase One of the project will link Anaheim and San Francisco with stops in the Central Valley by 2020. Phase Two will extend the line south to San Diego and north to Sacramento by 2026. The system will require 800 miles of new track and upgrading 880 miles of existing track.

U.S. Intercity Travel Trends by Modal Share, 1929 - 2004