Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Sunny Disposition?

Suddenly, solar power is hot.

And no, I don't mean the special oil heated by fields of mirrors in the Mojave desert (although that's hot too).

No, what I mean is that perhaps Malcolm Gladwell's famous "tipping point" may have been reached.

Prodded, no doubt, by the constant pleas on this blog and the mighty influence of the Thin Green Line's 13 regular readers, both the House and Senate this month passed by large margins, legislation that will extend tax breaks for investment in renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.

Of course, this being Washington, the bills are different so the two houses of Congress have to negotiate something they can both agree on, never a sure thing in this day and age when everyone talks the bi-partisanship talk, but almost universally fails to walk the walk.

According to this Sept. 26 article in The New York Times, "the tax credit would increase domestic investment in the solar industry by $232 billion by 2016 and generate 440,000 jobs, many in manufacturing, construction and engineering."

But now that we have Washington on board (we hope) with taking advantage of the most free, most renewable, most dependable energy source in the solar system, we turn around to find our fellow tree huggers raising a fuss.

What am I talking about?

Well according to this Sept. 23 article in the Times, environmentalists in the southern California desert are protesting massive solar projects planned for flat land where the sun shines 364 days a year.

Their problem? The Mojave ground squirrel, the desert tortoise and the burrowing owl. (Why is it always an owl?)

Time for a little hypocrisy.

Yes, this blog supports protecting old-growth forests from logging for the spotted owl. Yes, this blog, with some reservations, believes hydro-power (another green source) needs to take the needs of migrating fish into account.

So do we need to worry about the squirrel, the tortoise and the owl too? Aristotle would argue that we cannot support the preservation of one habitat and support the disturbance of another only because it's hot and dry and only crazy people would want to live there. (Sorry mom).

But Aristotle, hemlock and all, lived in a world of theoretical absolutes and we live in a world where even crazier people live in an even hotter desert half a world away and sometimes you have to choose the lesser evil.

Condemn me if you will green purists, but I'm afraid I have to come down on the side of massive solar power installations on this one. And for justification, I will turn to a justification so often over-used by the administration I love to criticize.

The answer, folks, is national security. This country can simply no longer afford to depend on a fossil fuel technology. When Barack Obama talks about building a new energy infrastructure in ten years, he is talking about a necessity, not a frill.

If you doubt me, ask the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, it's not just in California's deserts that such projects are being proposed.

According to this Sept. 24 article in The Mercury (written by yours truly), one use being championed for the former OxyChem site in Lower Pottsgrove is a solar power park.

The proposal comes within the framework of a joint project of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Dept. of Energy. It is a push to put alternative energy projects on former industrial sites, often called "brownfields," on which it is often difficult to attract redevelopment. Talk about a win-win.

(Click here to learn more about this program.)

Meanwhile in the win-win department, and also to show that not all Californians lean toward lunacy, I point to yet another article in the Times which is cause for hope.

In the far-left bastion of Berkeley, the city council is doing something innovative.

As this Sept. 17 article illustrates, the city is starting a low-interest loan program to encourage the installation of solar power in its homes.

"The loans, which are likely to total up to $22,000 apiece, would be paid off over 20 years as part of the owners’ property-tax bills," according to the Times. This will make solar power more accessible to people who cannot afford the up-front costs and thus cannot benefit from the usual tax-break incentive government favors.

Already cities from San Francisco to Annapolis, Md., and Seattle, to Cambridge, Mass., are calling to get the details.

Here in Pottstown however, we're actually trying to limit solar power installations under the rationale that they could ruin the lines of our historic architecture.

According to this Sept. 13 article in The Mercury (also written by yours truly), the Pottstown Planning Commission has proposed changes to the zoning law that would regulate how solar panels could be installed. Borough Council has agreed to hold a public hearing on the subject, but no date has yet been set.

This may once again be an occasion for hypocrisy as I am not sure, despite my love for old homes (I live in a house built in 1916 after all), whether its wise to deny energy-efficiency to those whose homes are least likely to have it.

We may even have to get the police may have to get involved.

For it seems that solar panels are popular not only with city councils and other law-makers and law-abiding citizens. According to this Sept. 23 article in the Times, solar panels are now in such demand that people are stealing them!

"Police departments in California — the biggest market for solar power, with more than 33,000 installations — are seeing a rash of such burglaries, though nobody compiles overall statistics," according to the Times.

"Investigators do not believe the thieves are acting out of concern for their carbon footprints. Rather, authorities assume that many panels make their way to unwitting homeowners, sometimes via the Internet," the paper reported.

So (wait for it....) when I said solar power is "hot," I meant it in more ways than one!

(Oh come on, don't groan. That one was sweet!)

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Shock to the System

With an automobile market at 15-year lows, hammered by a crumbling economy and gasoline prices only slightly lower than paying for brain surgery, General Motors has finally got religion!

Last week, Chevrolet unveiled its new plug-in electric car, the Volt.

Reuters reported in this article on the unveiling, "In what has been billed as a race with Toyota Motor Corp to be the first to market with a plug-in car, GM has pushed hard to develop the Volt in time for it to hit showrooms in 2010. Fanfare surrounding the Volt comes as the No. 1 U.S. automaker has been struggling with flagging sales of less-efficient sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks amid soaring prices at the pump."

Although this makes it seem as if the big three U.S. auto makers were caught unawares by the market, the sad truth is the CEOs of these corporations were criminally delusional in the belief that they could make gas-guzzling SUVs forever and the consequences would never come home to roost.

As anyone who has ever seen the disturbing documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" can tell you, GM already had a lock on the market with a plug-in Saturn that was so popular with those who leased it (including, yes, Ed Begley Jr.) that they staged protests and pickets when GM took the cars back and refused to allow them to be purchased.

But some well-coiffed shmo who has since no doubt pushed the panic button his golden parachute decided it was bad business to be on the cutting edge of new technology. So it's Back to the Future for GM.

The Volt is designed to run for 40 miles on a lithium-ion battery pack that can be recharged at a standard electric outlet. The car also includes a gas tank for trips longer than 40 miles.

In the cost department, GM says the Volt will cost about 2 cents a mile to operate on battery power, compared with 12 cents a mile using gasoline priced at $3.60 a gallon. The car maker said the Volt will cost 80 cents a day for a full charge, or less than the price of a cup of coffee, Reuters reported.

But the savings won't be immediate. The price is expected to be between $30,000 to $50,00, although there is speculation that federal tax credits or rebates may lower the costs for consumers.

In its first 12 months of production, GM expects to manufacture 10,000 Volt cars in a plant in Detroit, ultimately increasing that to 60,000 a year. The first Volts should hit GM showroom floors by November 2010, according to Reuters.

But it turns out that GM is not the only player in this suddenly crowded field, which also includes Nissan.

Today, Chrysler announced that it too will have an electric car model in showrooms by 2010.

As noted in this article in The New York Times, "by promising an electric model in showrooms by 2010, Chrysler is competing head-on with General Motors and Nissan Motors of Japan to be the first to market in the United States. .

"But rather than building a new vehicle platform as G.M. has done with the Volt, Chrysler plans to adapt existing models to electric power. At a press conference, Chrysler unveiled electric versions of its Town and Country minivan and Jeep Wrangler S.U.V."

The Times also reported that "Both models are so-called range-extended vehicles like the Volt, meaning they can travel 40 miles on battery power alone and up to 400 more miles with the assistance of a small gas engine.

"The third model, the Dodge EV, is a rear-wheel-drive sports car with a body built by the European automaker Lotus. The car, which is powered solely by a lithium-ion battery pack, is said to have a driving range of more than 150 miles and can accelerate to 60 miles an hour in less than five seconds."

Zoweee!, that doesn't sound like a car Ed Begley Jr. would drive.

And, since we spare no effort here at The Thin Green Line to bash Congress and the Bush administration for being pig-headed and short-sighted (not necessarily in that order), let us hasten here to pat them on the back for the $25 billion federal loan program that is helping to fund research into the improvements in battery technology.

In the realm of improving battery technology, regular reader Thomas Mounce sent along thins link to this story in The Reading Eagle which indicates that a Berks County company is the latest beneficiary of the new green economy.

Apparently the Lyons-based East Penn Manufacturing Co. Inc., will be making a new "UltraBattery" for North American distribution that was designed and engineered by the Furukawa Battery Co., the paper reported.

East Penn told the Eagle the UltraBattery is ideal for hybrid electric vehicles.

While we're on the subject of batteries, I should also probably issue a fair warning here. Prior to my happy arrival in Pennsylvania, I lived in a quaint little New York town on the Hudson River called Cold Spring.

You wouldn't have known it from looking at it, but in addition to being known for dramatic views of the Hudson Highlands and more antique stores per square mile than paved roads, it was also home to a Superfund site, specifically, a former nickel battery plant that had leached cadmium into a wetland of the river.

So it won't be long after singing the praises of battery technology as a way to combat global warming that I will probably start complaining about all the groundwater pollution from lithium battery plants...

Hey folks, that's why that green line is so thin.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Tours de Force

I write a lot on this blog about things that other people are doing.

But this entry is about things you can do.

Fear not, I will not ask you to do anything so horrid as to install a geo-thermal heating system in your home. But maybe you can spare an afternoon to get better educated about things that could help save you money and help save the planet at the same time.

Needless to say, I get inundated with press releases about events and news that I do no have the time to investigate for proper reporting. However, I do feel safe in at least using this blog to occasionally let you know about upcoming events so long as we have an understanding that I know little more about them than what is pasted here and take no responsibility for how useful they are.

OK, enough disclaimers. First up is a Green Buildings open house Oct. 4 in Lancaster County and the Lehigh Valley.

On that Saturday, the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association will hold open houses . The Green Buildings Open House tours feature homeowners and building managers on-site to describe green building features and answer questions about energy efficiency, design techniques and affordability. To learn more about the free, self-guided tours, visit www.

I learned about the above from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Of course that's the same day as another event a little closer to home and one that, if you must know, I will be joining.

On the same day, Green Valleys Association will host a County Solar Tour during which we will tour five sites in the southern part of the county; including a native plants nursery, veterinary center, a brand new green building featuring a green roof, a sustainable winery and two residences, all of which have to some extent taken advantage of the power of the sun.

Guest speaker Ron Celentano, administrator for the Sustainable Development Fund, will update participants on the solar rebates available from the state in 2009.

The tour, sponsored by the Chester County Community Foundation Miller Fund and hosted by Green Valleys and Chester County Citizens for Climate protection costs $10 to go along and runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m..

Transportation will be provided and space is limited to those who pre-register. I already have. How about you?

For more information regarding this event RSVP to 610-469-7543 or

Hold the phone! I've just been handed another for the same time, and this one much closer to home.
On Friday, Oct. 3 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association will hold a Pennsylvania Green Builders Open House at Sunpower Builders, 80 Pechins Mill Road in Collegeville.
Friday's event is called the "Off the Grid Gala" and will showcase larger solar energy installations at work, which completely powers the office there.
Click here for more information about the company. For more information about Northeast Sustainable Energy Association click here or call 413-774-6051.

Now back to the offerings from the DEP:

“Conservation is Survival” is the theme of the Energy Coordinating Agency’s annual Energy Services Conference Oct. 24 in Philadelphia.

Participants will learn how to take advantage of the clean energy and energy efficiency investments Pennsylvania is making through the $650 million Alternative Energy Investment Fund, signed into law by Governor Rendell in July.

The fund includes $100 million for solar projects at Pennsylvania homes and small businesses, $92.5 million so homeowners and small business owners can cover 25 percent of the cost of purchasing and installing energy conservation tools and weatherizing their buildings, and $25 million for homeowners and small businesses to build energy efficient structures or renovate existing buildings to improve energy efficiency.

Highlights include a discussion of the new statewide energy conservation programs for all homeowners, interactive demonstrations of energy audit equipment and a look at how the end of electricity rate caps will affect homeowners, all this according to DEP.

The $30 fee includes breakfast. For more information, visit the Energy Coordinating Agency’s Web site at

For more information on Governor Rendell's Energy Independence Strategy, visit and click on the "Fueling Energy Savings" icon.

Well that's it for my recycled press releases. Consider attending, if only to get a taste of the ways you can get help in trying to develop a more sustainable lifestyle. They help is out there, but only you can decide what's right for you.

Friday, September 19, 2008

It's in the Bag

"Plastics" was the word a character actor so famously advised Dustin Hoffman's character in "The Graduate" to pursue as he began his adult life.

And certainly, few substances have infiltrated our lifestyle and, unfortunately, our bloodstream quite so quickly or so thoroughly as plastic.

But the benefits of plastic -- arterial stints, electronics, and a whole host of things the American Chemistry Council would have you remember -- are outweighed by the thing that makes it so valuable: it lasts forever.

It is this aspect of plastic bags which makes them such a pariah in environmental circles. Used for 10 or 30 minutes, they live in landfills for hundreds if not thousands of years, according to some estimates.

Personally, I hate them, but nonetheless find them everywhere in my life and bring them religiously to the Giant for recycling where I fervently hope they actually get recycled.

They so often break, or spill that I find them useless and was pleased to see that Giant is now offering canvas bags for sale for $1. I bought several.

But there's at least one place in America that has gone a step further.

In Seattle, the city which stopped using bottled water at all its city offices, the city council passed a 20 cent tax on plastic and paper bags in July, trying to convince shoppers to bring their own bags to the store.

According to this article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, ever since the ordinance was passed, to take effect in January, the city has been contacted by the administration of 19 other cities, which all wanted copies of the law.

Even more worrisome to the American Chemistry Council is a similar state-wide tax being considered in California.

This is a fine example of what Robert Kennedy Jr., who spoke last year at The Hill School, calls the invisible subsidy the world provides to industry. They make a product, but make no provision for its disposal, a cost society absorbs. It's true of everything from air pollution to, well, plastic bags.

But the chemical industry folks are not taking this sudden awareness and call to action lying down.

In yet another example of the best community activism money can buy, the ACC used paid signature takers and in 11 days collected enough signatures to put the matter up to Seattle voters.

The slick-sounding Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax, argues, through it's paid spokesman, that the tax is "placing an unfair financial burden on Seattle's working families."

"I thought this was going to be a local waste-reduction effort, and it turns out that we are going head-to-head with these monsters of industry, these guys are crippling our efforts to clean up our environment," Ellie Rose, a member of the unpaid Seattle group Bring Your Own Bag, told the PI.

The plastics spokesman, who works for an Arlington. Va., P.R. firm, wants "voluntary incentives," but as someone who watched the folks at the check-out frequently forget to give credit my bill the 1 cent off I was supposed to receive for bringing my own bags, I think Seattle may be on the right track.

Government intervention on this issue is not as unheard of as the American Chemistry Council would have you believe.

In January 2002, the South African government required manufacturers to make plastic bags more durable and more expensive to discourage their disposal—prompting a 90-percent reduction in use.

Ireland instituted a 15-cent-per-bag tax in March 2002, which led to a 95-percent reduction in use.

Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Philippines, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom also have plans to ban or tax plastic bags.

According to this page at Worldwatch Institute, which is dedicated to "a sustainable world," "plastic bags start as crude oil, natural gas, or other petrochemical derivatives, which are transformed into chains of hydrogen and carbon molecules known as polymers or polymer resin. After being heated, shaped, and cooled, the plastic is ready to be flattened, sealed, punched, or printed on."

North America and Western Europe account for nearly 80 percent of plastic bag use—though the bags are increasingly common in developing countries as well. Factories around the world churned out a whopping four to five trillion of them in 2002

Each year, Americans throw away some 100 billion polyethylene plastic bags. (Only 0.6 percent of plastic bags are recycled.)

Plastic bags are so light and so compactable, if not compostable, that the amount of landfill space they take up and the amount of tonnage they take up is insignificant in the grander scheme of things.

But one of their primary downsides is that, as we all know, many of them don't end up in landfills at all but end up blowing through the air and into storm drains and our yards. (My hedge is an excellent collector).

According to this June article in The New York Times Magazine, "on the shores of Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic, the survey found on average a plastic item every five meters. "

Worse, "in 2002, Nature magazine reported that during the 1990s, debris in the waters near Britain doubled; in the Southern Ocean encircling Antarctica the increase was a hundredfold. And depending on where they sample, oceanographers have found that between 60 and 95 percent of today’s marine debris is made of plastic.

Plastic gets into the ocean when people throw it from ships or leave it in the path of an incoming tide, but also when rivers carry it there, or when sewage systems and storm drains overflow.

Several months ago, I was home late on night after deadline and happened upon a National Geographic documentary titled "Strange Days on Planet Earth."
Narrated by Edward Norton, the film highlighted a patch of floating trash the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean whose currents bring and keep there, outside common shipping lanes, but smack in the middle of the feeding grounds of Albatross who end of dying of hunger, their stomachs filled with plastic they mistook for jellyfish.

Seeing a skeleton of a bird, it's entire rib cage stuffed with bits of plastic knowing it starved because there was no room in its stomach for actual food, should make anyone think twice about the cost of that 10 minutes of convenience.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Taken for a Ride

So this is a quickie.

I'm told I don't do enough of these, I won't say by who.

But it sure seems like it might be interesting.

Something called the Brita Climate Ride will be in St. Peter's Village in Warwick Township, Chester County, on Monday, Sept. 22.

Participating in something called the Brita Climate Ride, more than 120 bicyclists will pedal from New York to Washington, D.C. for five days to inspire the American public and raise awareness for meaningful climate change and renewable energy legislation, according to information we received at The Mercury.

They will be visiting the Inn at St. Peter’s Village on 3471 St. Peter’s Road. Riders will stop at the Brita Water Bar to re-hydrate and share their stories before the next leg of the trip.

This visit is for early risers, as they will be there between 8:30 and 10 a.m. according to their press release.

The Climate Ride co-founders, Caeli Quinn and Geraldine Carter, are two 30-something women from Montana on a mission to raise awareness for climate change.

Among the diverse group is a new mother, college student, grandfather and ER doctor. Josh Dorfman, radio personality and author of “The Lazy Environmentalist,” will join the Climate Riders on their trek and has hundreds of tips for going green with style and on a budget.

Stop by. What else could you have to do on a Monday morning?

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Friday, September 12, 2008

The Historical Park Paradox

I'm torn.

Perhaps my two greatest interests, outside of Star Trek and politics, are history and the environment.

But there is a controversy simmering right here just a few miles away that puts those two interests at odds.

I'm talking about Valley Forge National Park and the proposal to build a hotel, conference center
and two-story, 130,000 square-foot museum of the American Revolution on a 78-acre parcel in parcel in Lower Providence which is bordered on 96 percent of its property line by federal park land.

My problem is this: I love museums, particularly history museums and particularly history museums that deal with our nation's founding, a period of time I find truly remarkable in regards to the thought and accomplishments of mankind. I view that period, the end of the Enlightenment, as what might be called a "paradigm shift" in how we view ourselves and our rights and responsibilities to ourselves.

So being a regional partisan, I would absolutely argue that a national museum dedicated to the American Revolution belongs here, outside Philadelphia (instead of say, Boston) where so many of those vital issues we still debate today, were first debated as a nation.

Locating it at Valley Forge is not only appropriate because it is the place where George Washington gave up on his losing strategy of trying to win a war against the largest army in the world, and adopted the more practical strategy, ultimately successful, of not losing the war.

Further it would make the region more of a tourist draw and some of those tourists might be drawn to Pottstown to spend money.

But there's a problem.

The museum is not being built on public park land or by the National Park Service, as I might prefer, but by a private developer.

Understand, I do not believe that everything is best done by government. My visit last year to Mount Vernon was splendid and made more so when I discovered the improvements to that site accomplished in the last 10 years, were done largely through grants to a non-profit foundation that owns and runs the landmark home of our first and best national hero.

But the folks who want to build this museum (and hotel) are trying to make money. Again, all very American but something which thus infuses a degree of skepticism to the entire enterprise, seeing as they will be trading on a public resource to make private profit.

They will argue, no doubt, that their facility will enhance that resource and that may well be true. But private companies are not accountable to the American people and thus we have only their word.

After all, I have been to some bad museums in my lifetime.

But the true conflict is epitomized by the testimony of a park official at a recent zoning hearing board meeting as reported in this article by Carl Rotenberg from our sister newspaper, The Times-Herald in Norristown and posted on The Green Pages of The Mercury's Web site.

Deirdre Gibson, the chief of planning and resource management at the park, told the zoning board that the development "will hurt the adjacent Valley Forge National Historical Park's wildlife habitat, viewsheds, drainage and archaeological artifacts," Rotenberg reported.

Those are hard impacts to accept to benefit a for-profit project.

Certainly, the Valley Creek which runs through the park can absorb any more polluted run-off into its already stressed waters.

Beyond the damage and impacts to the natural features, no small matter, no true lover of history can condone the destruction of archaeological artifacts with the potential to increase our understanding of the very history such a museum would seek to interpret.

Thus, my dilemma.

I would like nothing more than to be able to pop down Route 422, or, preferably, ride my bike down on the Schuylkill River Trail, to visit the American Revolutionary Museum several times a year.

But how can a die-hard environmentalist condemn the destruction of open space and watersheds to make room for the construction of office parks or subdivisions, but suddenly endorse the same when what is being built appeals to his or her sensibilities?

For as Joni Mitchell once so insightfully sang (yes, I'm showing my age here), "don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till its gone?"

I am a fan of history, but not of the hypocrisy so often found within its pages. And now I must turn that spotlight on myself and ask what I truly believe.

One thing I do believe is that if this project is fought off, the chances of another, more acceptable proposal to build an American Revolution museum at Valley Forge will dwindle to nearly nothing.

As I wrestle with this personal dilemma, this might be the place to note that this conflict of interests is not unique to Valley Forge Park.

As this article in The Christian Science Monitor indicates, up to 1.8 million acres of privately held lands adjacent to National Parks all over the country are under development pressure, developments that may well ruin or degrade the very asset on which they are meant to capitalize.

That figure comes from a recent study by the National Parks Conservation Association, a non-profit advocacy group which is also, not coincidentally, suing to over-turn as "spot zoning" the Lower Providence overlay zoning that would allow the construction of the complex at Valley Forge.

Currently, there is a back-log of parcels the park service had intended to buy but can now no longer afford due to budget cuts.

"Park Service land-acquisition budgets were cut from $147 million in 1999 to just $44 million this year, a 70 percent drop. Most parks have had little funding for land acquisition for years. Yet there’s a limit to how long even public-spirited land-owners are willing to wait," the Monitor reported.

“Time is a real factor here,” says Greg Caffey, chief ranger at Petrified Forest National Park, gesturing over the park fence to a large excavator that has been digging up petrified wood on private land next to the park, the Monitor reported.

The years of delay have now left important parks at acute risk, NPCA officials say. Inside Gettysburg National Military park, for instance, one-in-five acres is privately owned and could be commercialized.

Just two years ago, developers proposed building a slots parlor less than two miles from the battlefield where, as Lincoln so poetically described, thousands of Americans "gave their last full measure of devotion."

In March, the NPCA gave the leader of the grassroots organization, No Casino Gettysburg, its
annual Marjory Stoneman Douglass Award in recognition of the successful effort to stop it.

In the Monitor article, Ron Tipton, senior vice president for programs at NPCA used the Valley Forge fight as an example of the larger problem.

“You’re leaving America’s heritage at risk,” said Tipton. “Private owners have a legal right to get value for their property. If the Park Service can’t do that in a timely way … we’re going to have situations like Valley Forge and Petrified Forest. When you only give the Park Service $30 [million] to $40 million, you can’t do it.”

In 1965, Congress created the Land Water and Conservation Fund to purchase land for federal agencies, partly with the goal of eliminating potential development conflict with natural park surroundings.

"But under the Bush administration, budget requests for land acquisition funds for national parks fell from $172 million in 2000 to $21.8 million for this next fiscal year.

A Republican-led Congress had been cutting Park Service land acquisition budgets even faster than the administration – until Democrats took control in 2006 and restored some funding. This year, Congress appropriated $44 million, double the administration request," the Monitor reported.

And of course, not all that money goes into land purchases. This year's budget was $22 million, but more than $8 million went to pay the costs of administering that fund.

Further, the Bush administration spends much of the fund on programs that don't purchase land at all, according to a 2006 study by the Congressional Research Service.

Rather two thirds of a fund that had shrunk from $969 million to $346 million in five years went not to purchase land but to "other programs."

These include the push by the administration for cooperative programs that pay private land owners to maintain resources on their land to support rare or endangered species living there, also a laudable goal and quite probably, at least in concept, a cost-effective one.

“The administration’s position is strong that we have to take care of the land we have now,” Jeffrey Olason, a spokesman for the park service, told the Monitor. “Budgets are tight and a war is going on.”

Certainly, this is not to be denied.

And right now, there's a war raging in my heart as well. As yet, no clear victor has emerged.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Turn of the Eww

The word of the day is "compost."

Here in the Pottstown area, the subject has arisen as the result of an attempt by the Township of Lower Pottsgrove to try and (gasp!) work together with surrounding townships and create one facility everyone can use instead of five or ten.

But the price tag is a little high -- $1.2 million to be exact.

And as anyone who has spent more than six minutes watching government knows, the first estimate is always low.

But that shouldn't be enough to scare people off right away.

Before dismissing this out of hand, we should ask, what is the cost of NOT putting this into place?

For Pottstown, the cost is currently $50,000 a year, and could rise. That's because the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is withholding grant money the borough earned through its recycling efforts.

The money, which would be used to help reduce the cost of trash pick-up, an ever-volatile subject in Pottstown's council chambers, is being withheld because the borough does not have a "drop-off" area for people to compost their leaves and yard waste.

Despite the borough's extensive leaf pick-up program in the fall, the state also requires a drop-off area, presumably of other towns as well.

So, in classic "regional" thinking style, Lower Pottsgrove is proposing one that serves for several towns, theorizing, correctly in my view, that state grant programs will look more favorably on cooperative efforts among several towns.

What the state is obviously trying to do is to prolong the life of Pennsylvania's many landfills by keeping out of them things that can be reused or dealt with in some other way than burying them and leaving them for future generations to manage.

Encouraging recycling is obviously one way to do this, and composting is another.

Remember that anytime you keep things off the trash truck and out of the landfill, you're helping to keep your tipping costs down.

And whether you pay for that through a quarterly municipal bill, as happens in Pottstown, or hire your own hauler, as happens in Upper Pottsgrove, the savings are real and long-term.

As it is conceived, anyone who lives in a town that participates would be able to use the Lower Pottsgrove facility for free. Those from outside any of those towns would pay a fee. Further, the compost the facility generated could be sold to offset some costs, although it would be free to residents of the participating towns.

When discussing the issue with my editor, whose blog is called The Daily Overload, she said she got hold of some compost from Birdsboro this year and "I've never had plants that I planted myself in pots grow so well."

(While we're in the process of shamelessly cross-promoting each other's blog, I would be remiss if I did not mention here that The Mercury's Blog Central also has its own gardening blogger, "Garden Gal," written by the indomitable Kim Toth. Perhaps she will regale us one day about the benefits of compost.)

As for me, any doubt I might have had about the need for such a nearby composting facility (I didn't have any really), evaporated over the last two days when I began to tackle a long-overdue task in my back yard.

We have a nice thick hedge between my yard and my neighbors to the east, a hedge of which I am quite fond. For as fond as I am of my neighbors to the east, I tend to agree with Robert Frost on the subject of neighbors. Yards are close on each other in Pottstown and even the illusion of privacy is not something to lightly disregard.

Besides, we've cut a little door through it for my son and the kids next door to use, so it adds a kind of "secret garden" quality to the yard, a yard that all too often one must struggle to use the word "garden" to describe.

Anyhow, when I trimmed said hedge this spring, I nearly killed myself, standing on top of my eight-foot ladder, leaning way out to trim the top as it is rather thick.

Since then, it has grown rather wild and I have been reluctant to risk my life again. It only took me two months to realize that the best way to keep the hedge trimmer's teeth from embedding themselves in my arm, is to cut the hedge down to the same height as the top of the ladder. Who says old dogs can't learn new tricks? (Please not for the record that I resisted the temptation to make a pun here about "heding my bets.)

I've finished my side and will do the neighbors' side Friday and let me tell you, I have roughly ten huge black yard bags piled up already.

It seems a shame to send them off to Pioneer Crossing Landfill when they could be turned into good dirt if only I had a place to drop them off. The former owners of my house did their own composting but my wife and I are too concerned about what we might attract with such an operation to follow their example.

Which is the point of course. Not everyone has the room, time or energy to continually turn the clippings and leaves as is necessary to make decent compost.

My mother lives out in New Mexico where good dirt is hard to find and although she is a die-hard composter, she does not have the strength to turn it in the winter, when it freezes solid. (Mom only just figured out how to find my blog and, like a trooper, she read them all so of course I have to give her a shout-out.)

But what is that convenience worth? Or, more importantly, how do you pay for it.
Which brings us to the point Borough Councilman Stephen Toroney made about how each municipality's share will be determined. Currently, Lower Pottsgrove has proposed charging based on population, which would have Pottstown paying nearly twice as much as everyone else.

Toroney argues a legitimate point, that the shares should be based on tonnage. My hedge clippings aside, It's hard to argue that a 30-foot-wide yard in Pottstown, a yard whose grass I can cut in 12 minutes with my manual mower, will produce the same volume of clippings, leaves and trimmings as your average suburban subdivision home in North Coventry or New Hanover where you need a John Deere just to get from one side to the other.

I understand the Catch-22 however.

How do you determine tonnage when you do not yet have a facility at which that tonnage can be accepted and weighed?

Nevertheless, I am encouraged by the borough's decision to continue the talks and hope something can be worked out.

In the past, my attempts to do the right thing and have my clippings recycled has required me to drive to Hetrick Gardens Landscapers, which has a giant pile behinds its Swamp Pike business and will take accept your clippings for composting.

A place a little closer to home, and one whose performance helps to lower my trash bill, would definitely be a step in the right direction.

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Monday, September 8, 2008

The Car You Want But Ford Won't Let You Have

So are you tired of me writing about cars and gas mileage yet?

Too bad, this is my blog, not yours.

Anyway, I'll try to make this one as brief as it is remarkable.

You've heard of Ford Motor Company? You know, the maker of the lumbering Expedition SUV that set the standard in gas guzzling?

Well, in case you hadn't noticed, they're getting their butt handed to them on a regular basis by people buying more fuel efficient cars so they don't have to take out a second mortgage to fill the tank.

More on them in a minute.

Many of those sales are going to hybrids like the one I write about ad nauseum. (BTW, right now its "around town" mileage is barely cracking 35 mpg. I'm about to write my Congressman!).

Anyway, since everything old is new, there's this old technology out there that is really the newest thing and it is the darling of one of my most loyal readers (and they are few!).

It's called diesel.

Now I have always looked askance at diesel because while it is more fuel-efficient, the amount of particulate matter it spewed into the air was enough to give asthma to a fish.

But did you notice how I used the past tense there? Clever right? That's because with fuel economy all the rage, those folks in the white coats are working over time to make diesel a cleaner fuel.

No, it's not a solar car, but it's something.

But according to this article in Business Week, "diesel vehicles now hitting the market with pollution-fighting technology are as clean or cleaner than gasoline and at least 30% more fuel-efficient."

The other argument against diesel is it's more expensive, but that is the fault of the tree-hugger types like me lobbying Congress to impose higher taxes on diesel because the fumes spewed by trucks using dirty diesel impose health costs on the country, primarily in the form of respiratory diseases, that society as a whole must absorb.

But it seems to me that if we can distinguish between the old, nasty diesel and "clean diesel" (which is by all reports and a quick glance at the family tree, is no relation to "clean coal") that tax should be lifted in the interests of fuel economy, particularly if it is no longer more polluting.

Over in Europe, where they like to think they do everything better and are often right, half the cars sold last year were diesel.

While brings us back to our friends at Ford.

The car they're introducing in Europe is called the Fiesta EcoNETIC and gets a whopping 65 miles to the gallon folks. Three cheers for American technical ingenuity!

But don't get too excited, American technical ingenuity is about to fall victim to American marketing stupidity.

Ford says it won't sell the car here (even though it looks wicked cool!) because they don't think we'd buy enough of them to make them money.
While Ford balks at selling it here in the U.S. market, the Japanese and Germans already have plans well underway to introduce diesels here.

Is it just me, or is there a whiff of deja vu in the air?

Isn't this how American car makers got their asses kicked last time there was a new trend in automobiles?

Now before anyone starts pounding their chest about buying American cars, you should know that Ford is manufacturing this little beauty in England. It would cost too much to import because the dollar smells like week-old fish and the English Pound is much stronger, they say.
And they can't build it here in the good old U.S.A. because it costs $350 million to build a new plant and Ford is too busy hemorrhaging like $1 billion a week from its reserves to cover its losses to think about investing in its own company in its own country.
For those wondering why this would happen, consider that a few years ago when Henry Ford's great,great,great, grandsire (or something like that) tried to turn the company green, those far-sighted execs at Ford forced him out of the driver's seat so they could make great decisions like this one.
Since I learned about this idiocy from my friends at Grist Magazine, (worth reading for the headlines alone) let me promote a few of their links on the subject. Click and be enlightened:
There's this one, about the cleaning of the diesel fuel supply;
Then there's this one, about who will be introducing new diesel models;
And there's this one, from just two months ago, about a report predicting the dominance of diesels by 2012.
And for the zealots among you (raise your hand, I know you're out there, quietly reading and spreading sprouts on your homemade peanut butter) there is Grist's all-knowing columnist Umbra Fisk's how-to on converting your diesel to run on vegetable oil.

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Why the Wind Blows

As Hurricane Gustav putters out of steam over the Great Plains and Hurricane Hanna sets her sights on raking of the eastern seaboard, thoughts turn once again to the connection between fiercer hurricanes and global warming.

Although, despite what Alaska Gov . Sarah Palin thinks, the (scientific) jury is NOT still out on whether centuries of pumping carbon into the atmosphere is helping to drive climate change, scientific opinion on whether or not that change is driving worse hurricanes is much less unanimous.

While it seems intuitive that a natural phenomena whose engine is heat might become stronger if we're generating more heat, science isn't based on intuition, but on provable facts.

And up until now (and perhaps beyond), those provable facts as they relate to the connection between hurricanes and global warming have been debated.

New fuel for that debate was issued with the Thursday release of a scientific paper which analyzes satellite data on hurricane wind speeds and ocean temperatures over the past twenty years.

According to the scientists who wrote it, they see a correlation between higher ocean temperatures and a corresponding increase in the winds of the strongest storms.

If you were looking for evidence that the atmosphere is a complicated place and using science to figure it out can give you a mother of a headache, however, consider that the study found that weaker, more typical storms, were not getting any stronger, only the super storms, like Katrina.

More complications arise in the form of "wind shear," fast winds moving at different directions at different altitudes, which can shred a storm before it can begin to coalesce into the deadly turbine we see so frequently on The Weather Channel.

Wind shear also can be affected by climate change.

So, it seems, the variables are many and the complications more variable still.

Still, the study's authors conclude that the coming years will see more category 4 and 5 hurricanes, the most powerful, as outlined in this article in The New York Times.

Unlike previous studies, this one is not being attacked on the basis of its methodology, which Christopher Landsea, science and operations manager at the National Hurricane Center, praised.

Landsea (can you believe that is the name of a hurricane scientist!?) is a skeptic of the connection, but praised the study's method, basing his skepticism primarily on the fact that the period of time the ocean temperatures were studied coincided with a particularly active storm period.

I'm no scientist, but I must point out that an increase in storm activity level seems like no basis to dismiss a study that says there is going to be an increase in storm activity level. But I must be missing the nuances of the data or something.

Another skeptic, Thomas R. Knutson of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton, said the period of time studied is too short to be definitive.

He told the Times, “One is left with a very suggestive result and a very interesting result, but it’s not a definitive smoking gun for a greenhouse warming signal on hurricanes.”

While that may be true, I hope we can exercise the precautionary principle on this and nevertheless site this study as more evidence in favor of reversing global warming.

Because while science may want a "smoking gun" before it is willing to declare a conclusion, there are people in places like Florida and the gulf coast who have that gun pointed at them, and I suspect they would just as soon not wait until its smoking.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Energizing the Race to the White House

Like that ubiquitous Energizer bunny, talk of oil prices and energy production is threatening to overtake talk of the economy on the campaign trail this year.

One of the less-discussed aspects of John McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate is her street cred in standing up to the oil companies that essentially own the state.

Of course, she was demanding that they do more drilling, but anyone who can be said to have a reputation for staring down big oil brings something to the table in this strange and historic election year.

What is increasingly lacking at the table, however, is common sense.

I know you all hate it when I constantly quote The New York Times, but they haven't been the "newspaper of record" for 100 years by being wrong all the time.

An Aug. 9 editorial concluded with this irrefutable truth -- "Here is the underlying reality: A nation that uses one-quarter of the world’s oil while possessing less than 3 percent of its reserves cannot drill its way to happiness at the pump, much less self-sufficiency. The only plausible strategy is to cut consumption while embarking on a serious program of alternative fuels and energy sources. This is a point the honest candidate should be making at every turn. "
(Click here to read the full editorial.)

I find it hard to argue with this statement, although I have learned that anybody can argue with anything at any time.

Nevertheless, if we are to bring this country back from the brink, it is time to recognize a few realities and stop arguing for argument's sake.

Some of my regular correspondents like to argue that "the market" will solve this problem in a more effective way than government interference ever could.

Not one to blindly trust government at any level, I nevertheless continue to believe that good or ill, government can be a democracy's clearest manifestation of the public will and it's time we started exercising that will over the corporate interests that have hi-jacked it.

On the same day The Times published the above-cited editorial, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman made some interesting observations about a place where government saw the writing on the wall and changed the course of a nation for the better.

(Hint: It wasn't here.)

Like the U.S., Denmark was hit hard by the Arab oil embargo of 1973. Unlike the U.S., which breathed a sigh of relief when it was over and started building SUVs, Denmark decided it would never again allow itself and its economy to held over a barrel (pun intended) by sheiks in Saudi Arabia (the country where our attackers actually came from).

Instead, the Danes "responded to that crisis in such a sustained, focused and systematic way that today it is energy independent," Friedman wrote.

"Danes imposed on themselves a set of gasoline taxes, CO2 taxes and building-and-appliance efficiency standards that allowed them to grow their economy — while barely growing their energy consumption — and gave birth to a Danish clean-power industry that is one of the most competitive in the world today. Denmark today gets nearly 20 percent of its electricity from wind. America? About 1 percent."

They pay $10 a gallon for gas, but it has not crippled their economy because they undertook a green revolution, the kind Barack Obama has outlined. If you want to know what that might look like eight years from now, just look across the Atlantic.

"In the last 10 years, Denmark’s exports of energy efficiency products have tripled. Energy technology exports rose 8 percent in 2007 to more than $10.5 billion in 2006, compared with a 2 percent rise in 2007 for Danish exports as a whole.

"It is one reason that unemployment in Denmark today is 1.6 percent," Friedman wrote. In 1973, Denmark obtained 99 percent of its energy from the Middle East. Today it is zero.

"Because it was smart taxes and incentives that spurred Danish energy companies to innovate, Ditlev Engel, the president of Vestas — Denmark’s and the world’s biggest wind turbine company — told me that he simply can’t understand how the U.S. Congress could have just failed to extend the production tax credits for wind development in America," Friedman wrote.
Why should we care about Denmark? Friedman asks.

“We’ve had 35 new competitors coming out of China in the last 18 months,” said Engel, “and not one out of the U.S."

But instead of continuing those incentives to innovate and make us energy independent and thus break the chain that lashes us to the global madness that is the Middle East, we give subsidies to oil companies enjoying record profits and consider giving them leases to drill in our struggling oceans when they aren't even drilling in the places on dry land which we gave them for a song.

And in case you were wondering, those subsidies may be killing us.

This article in Reuters notes that a recent U.N. study has concluded that fuel subsidies envisioned as a way to bring energy to poor countries not only benefit the rich instead (SURPRISE!) but are hastening global warming.

As Alister Doyle writes, "Abolishing subsidies on fossil fuels could cut world greenhouse gas emissions by up to 6 percent and also nudge up world economic growth," the report showed.

"Some countries spend more on subsidies than on health and education combined ... they stand in the way of more environmentally friendly technologies," Kaveh Zahedi, climate change coordinator at UNEP, told a news conference.

"Smarter subsidies such as tax breaks, financial incentives or other market mechanisms could generate benefits for the economy and environment if properly targeted, it said. It pointed to subsidies to promote wind energy in Germany and Spain aimed at helping to shift from fossil fuels," the report said.

Hello! Are we tired of being the dumbest people in the world yet? Why are we hesitating to do something that countries all over Europe are already demonstrating can be done, with a little focus, a little backbone and a little faith in ourselves?

If hundreds of thousands of small personal donations can overcome the grip large donors have on politics, why can't the same strategy overcome the grip fossil fuels have on our economy?

Surely, it can't because it is beyond our reach. We've reached the moon. The only explanation is that we're too lazy to try, and that does not seem terribly American to me.

As Barack Obama said, we're a better country than that.

That seems like the sort of drumbeat that bunny should be setting.

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