Monday, October 19, 2009

Greenwash Gremlin's October Surprise

Two surprises have come my way so far this month. First there was the news from the activists at Stop Chewing Carbon that the proposed biomass-burning facility in Greenfield would produce more CO2 per megawatt hour than the coal-burning Mount Tom plant in Holyoke but would still qualify for taxpayer assistance. Then came the news from Associated Press that Saudi Arabia is looking for public assistance too, just in case the world becomes less dependent on oil.

While stories about energy corporations getting tax breaks and other incentives under the guise of "green energy" may raise my ire they fail to raise either of my eyebrows nowadays. The AP story about Saudi Arabia joining the dole queue, on the other hand, sent both eyebrows upward and nearly triggered a coffee-out-the-nose event. As a forty-something I clearly remember the effects of the 1973 oil embargo and, seven years later, the Saudi government's expulsion of Her Majesty's ambassador to Riyadh in protest at a British TV drama called Death of a Princess, so I have no illusions about the regime. But not even in my most cynical of moods had I ever imagined the oil-rich theocratic oligarchy asking for a hand-out.

The outrageousness of the Saudi request has me at a loss for words, other than to ask myself whether, with billionaires posing as victims and tree-burners dressed up as tree-huggers, Halloween came early this year. But I do have a public-policy suggestion for countering greenwashing here in Massachusetts.

What is the appropriate response when companies tout themselves as green in order to qualify for public funding? Part of me wants to march into court armed with Chapter 26, Section 91, of the Massachusetts General Laws and force them to stop, one by one. After all, what is the point of having a law against false advertising if we don't use it?

The other part of me (the saner part, I think) wants to file legislation that would set sensible conditions for providing electricity in Massachusetts and our neighboring states. My proposed interstate compact would create an incentive for power companies to switch to genuinely renewable energy. How? By prohibiting the fossil-based alternatives.

If a corporation wants to sell power to the people of New England it would have to prove that the power came from a non-fossil source. In other words, the only way an energy provider could do business in New England would be for it to get out of fossil fuels completely and into renewables a.s.a.p. The compact would involve the six New England state governments acting together -- with each state punching above its weight -- to take on the power moguls.

I think it's worth a try. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cradle of Democracy


For the video that accompanies this post, click here.

Global warming is having an impact on every aspect of our lives, and it is clear that we have reached a critical point in the history of our species. Quoting Winston Churchill, Al Gore told us in 2007 that “we are entering a period of consequences.” Change is definitely in the air. There is a growing understanding that the way we consume has to change, as does the way we travel, even the way we think about the future.


The way we do politics has to change too. But in Massachusetts we—or our legislators at any rate—seem to be stuck in a period of no consequences. A one-party system is simply not equipped to deal with the threats and opportunities that climate change presents, but a one-party system is what Massachusetts now has.

Right now all ten Massachusetts congressional seats and both U.S. Senate seats are held by Democrats, and Democrats occupy all six of the statewide constitutional offices and control 90% of the State Legislature. Of the handful of Republicans in the Legislature many owe their presence to the Democrats refraining from running candidates against them. A tame, token opposition, dependent on Democratic goodwill and forbearance, is no opposition at all.

The numbers are shocking. When it comes to contested state legislative elections, Massachusetts consistently ranks at or near the bottom among all fifty states. In 2008 we were dead last; there were two or more candidates in only 17% of the 200 state legislative districts. It was a combination of reasons that led me to switch my registration from Democratic to Green earlier this year. But the fundamental reason, the one that would have caused me to go Green even in the absence of the other reasons, is this: I believe that Massachusetts needs to become a functioning multiparty democracy.

Even dedicated Democrats should recognize the need for another party to start nipping at its heels from the left. The platform of the Massachusetts Democratic Party is an admirable document, but there is a large gap between the platform’s promises and what the Democrat-controlled Legislature actually does. Healthcare, taxation, and sustainability are three areas, in particular, where the party’s deeds in office diverge from its platform commitments.

While the party is committed to the principle of single-payer healthcare – according to the platform – the Democrat-authored and Democrat-enacted Chapter 58 takes the commonwealth away from, rather than toward, a healthcare system that is both universal and sustainable in the long term. It is good news that so many more people have healthcare coverage than they did before Chapter 58 became law, but it is the health insurance companies that have reaped the biggest rewards. In contrast to single-payer, Chapter 58 involves massive transfers of wealth from the public to the private sector. I believe that this is wrong, and that the Democratic Party should not be forcing the people of Massachusetts to subsidize the insurance industry.

Taxes tell a similar tale of timidity. The voters’ unequivocal rejection of the November 2008 ballot question seeking the abolition of the income tax presented the Democrats with an unprecedented opportunity. Clearly there has been a sea change since the electorate’s 2000 vote to reduce the income tax to 5%, and Deval Patrick’s 2004 campaign can legitimately take some credit for helping produce that change. Given the clear shift in public mood, the responsible course of action would have been to restore the income tax to a realistic level. The refusal to do so is leading, predictably, to cuts in local aid, rather than the “increased local aid to cities and towns” that the Democratic party platform promises.

Instead of restoring the income tax, Democratic leaders are once again proffering casinos or even slot parlors in the knowledge that casinos have yet to solve any state’s fiscal woes and that the overwhelming majority of casino users are people with low incomes. This is simply unjust, and completely at odds with the Democratic platform commitment to “tax equity and responsible budgeting.”

Nobody should deny the Democratic Party’s real achievements. I am proud to have held office as a progressive Democrat. I respect much of what the party has won for ordinary working families over the years, and I applaud the many grassroots activists and office-holders who work hard on the inside to make the party truer to its ideals.

And, to be fair, Governor Patrick has made a couple of sensible proposals recently, namely pushing for an increase in the gas tax and instituting a carbon fee for parking at Logan Airport. These are steps in the right direction and they deserve support. But look at the response of the Democrat-controlled Legislature. State representatives and senators – self-identifying progressives among them – are tripping over their own feet as they scramble to find reasons why the gas tax has to stay as it is and why people should not have to pay a mere two dollars more to park and fly. This is a party that finds itself with a super majority greater than in any other state in the country, but flounders without an agenda or even a coherent sense of purpose.

It is time for Massachusetts politics to catch up with the demands of the period of consequences that we are in. It is time for Democratic incumbents to face Green challengers at every election, and, down the road, for there to be a clear Green voice in the state Legislature.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

K'Ching!

Last week I received a response to my public records request. You may recall that I had asked the Department of Energy Resources how much of the RGGI auction proceeds ($5. million of public money) the utility companies will get. Here is the breakdown:
Cape Light Compact $357,000.00
Fitchburg/Unitil $107,725.00
NSTAR $1,452,530.00
National Grid $4,000,000.00
Western Mass/NE Utilities pending
Total $5,917,255.00
The biggest winner was National Grid, raking in a cheery $4 million. Where did that money come from? By way of a quick reminder, it came from the December 2008 CO2 auction. In exchange for the right to spew tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, companies that generate electricity give the states money, and the states give the money to companies that distribute electricity.

In the December 2008 auction there were 69 bidders and most of them, approximately 85%, were so-called "compliance entities," companies such as National Grid. Yes, National Grid.

So what does National Grid also have in its hands as a result of the auction? Pollution permits and a cool $4 million.

NSTAR didn't do too badly either. Its share of the public money was over $1.4 million. I can't help wondering why NSTAR needs that public money. After all, what were NSTAR's revenues last year? According to its website, $3.3 billion. In 2008 its net income went up 7.2% and things look rosy for 2009. The annual report boasts:

"We have also increased the dividend we pay to shareholders for the 11th consecutive year -- further indication of our financial strength. NSTAR increased the common dividend rate to $1.50 per share for 2009, up from $1.40 in 2008, a 7.1% increase."
Feeling queasy yet?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

THURSDAY, APRIL 16



















Save the date! On Thursday, April 16, three Massachusetts Greens who were at the Capitol Climate Action will be in Northampton. The venue is the Unitarian Society, 220 Main Street, and the event kicks off at 7:00 p.m.

Jill Stein, Eli Beckerman, and Dave Dionne are coming to Western Massachusetts for a conversation with local activists; to report back on the D.C. action, to listen, and to help plan next steps toward a secure green future.

To download the flier (right) just right click on the image, scroll down to "save image as..." and save it in a file of your choosing.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Reggie, but not Reggie Perrin

(Reggie Perrin was the salaryman turned entrepreneur turned commune-founder in the satirical BBC show The Fall and Rise of Reginal Perrin)

Let's think about the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, which the cool kids pronounce Reggie, I gather) the first-in-the-nation CO2 cap-and-trade program that Massachusetts co-founded. By the way, like many people who grew up in Britain in the 1970s, I can't hear the name Reggie without thinking of Reggie Perrin. Hence the picture.

But first a word about Gaia.

In Greek mythology, Gaia was a deity, a goddess representing the Earth. The Gaia theory claims that Earth is a single, complex superorganism that regulates its environment the way an animal regulates its body temperature and chemical balance.

Gaia the theory (the theory about the very real natural world) owes its name to Gaia the goddess, an imaginary inhabitant of an imaginary supernatural world.

I was reading The Guardian earlier this week and I noticed that James Lovelock, the environmental scientist who came up with the Gaia theory, has compared market systems that resemble cap-and-trade programs to slavery. Lovelock was at a debate on biodiversity sponsored by the journal Nature, and he was responding to the idea of putting a price on the “ecosystem services” that oceans and rivers provide. That seems to be a growing line of business, by the way.

This is what Lovelock said, according to The Guardian: “To talk of these ecosystems as something we can own and draw benefits from, and buy and sell, is just like the attitude not so long ago to slavery, and just as reprehensible.”

Lovelock also mentioned the ease with which cap-and-trade systems degenerate into “scams” (his word) that benefit industry but don’t benefit life on Earth.

Massachusetts participates in Reggie and for a while now I’ve been curious about its effectiveness. I grew more curious and, to be honest, a tad suspicious, when I read Governor Deval Patrick’s press release about how Massachusetts was going to spend its Reggie winnings.

What do I mean by “winnings”?

You already know how Reggie works, I suppose, but here is a brief refresher. Under Reggie, the participating states sell a finite number of pollution permits. A company needs a permit for every ton of carbon dioxide it emits. Over time, the states reduce the number of pollution permits. The number of permits drops and, hey presto, the amount of CO2 drops as well.

Energy companies pay for the permits at auctions, and each participating state gets a share of the auction proceeds, which I crassly refer to as “winnings.” What happens to the winnings after the state governments get their hands on the cash? That’s what I was (and still am) curious about.

After the December 2008 Reggie auction, Governor Patrick announced that the Department of Public Utilities would be dedicating $5.9 million “for the state’s electric and natural gas utilities to aggressively expand their energy efficiency programs this year to help consumers reduce their winter heating bills.”

What struck me was the possibility that what the utilities giveth in the auction, the utilities taketh away soon after.

So on January 19, 2009, I wrote the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) with the following simple request:

On reading the Governor’s press release regarding the December RGGI auction, I notice that the Department will be dedicating $5.9 million “for the state’s electric and natural gas utilities to aggressively expand their energy efficiency programs this year to help consumers reduce their winter heating bills.” Please let me know whether this means that the utility companies will receive the $5.9 million.


A few weeks went by, with no reply from DPU. So on February 8, I asked again, this time by way of a public records request under Mass General Laws Chapter 66 Section 10, and I received a prompt response from the Legal Division.

You can read the letter if you like, but this is the gist: look online.

I did. I went to the site as directed, looked through the wealth of documents, and could not find out how much the private utilities are raking in from the public's auction winnings. Given my regular inability to locate the ketchup in the refrigerator, this may be another case of me not looking long enough or in the right place.

Alternatively, it really is hard to find, or simply not there.

By the way, I called the attorney who signed the Department of Public Utilities letter and she told me that she’d gotten the information from another attorney, but it’s probably not the Department of Public Utilities that has those records anyway. The Department of Energy Resources (DOER) is the department that actually spends the Reggie winnings.

I have sent my public records request to DOER and I’ll let you know what they say.

In the meantime, it’s worth double-checking the Public Utilities site, and I would appreciate it if you would help me to follow the money.

Here’s my request. Go online to the Commonwealth’s website, www.mass.gov, click on Utility Regulatory Energy Efficiency, then choose “electric energy efficiency dockets,” and check out the 2008 energy-efficiency plans.

If you can find details of the Reggie funds, please let me know. And if you cannot, please let me know.

By the way, Reggie is not an ecosystem-services program, the kind of thing that James Lovelock was having a go at. It’s a cap-and-trade program. But there are similarities. Most importantly both are rooted in faith, faith in markets and the ability of markets to solve problems.

I can see the appeal. After all, it was humans acting through markets that created the problem, so why shouldn’t humans acting through markets be able to solve it?

Well, sometimes markets work and sometimes they don’t, not that you need reminding of that during the current recession.

How can we tell whether a market-based program – like Reggie – is working toward the common good or (as the market skeptics among us might suspect) working to the disproportionate advantage of the private industries it’s supposed to be helping control?

Evidence.

I’m a lawyer and, when it comes to proving things, lawyers prefer evidence to faith.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Taxing Gas

Leo Maley, executive director of Progressive Massachusetts PAC, explains why Greens and Progressives should support the 19-cent increase in the gas tax.
video

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Mount Tom Demo

Holyoke, MA, Sunday, March 1: I am happy to say that more than 60 activists gathered at Mount Tom power station today. An earlier version of this post said 30, but Tina Clarke did a head-count and I trust her arithmetic more than I trust my own.

Kudos to David Starr of GREEN Northampton for helping turn us all out. At the same time demonstrations were happening at coal-burning stations in the eastern part of the state, sponsored (like ours) by the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities.

Our mission was to call on the station owners in particular, GDF Suez, and policymakers in general to stop burning coal. Tina Clarke (on the left of the picture) and Rev. Margaret Bullitt Jonas (right) addressed the crowd. A lone officer from the Holyoke Police Department watched us from his cruiser, parked at the entrance to the station. When I went up to introduce myself I noticed he was idling; I let it go, which was wimpy of me, I admit.

But at least the officer was there doing his duty, and that is more than I can say for the mainstream media. ABC News 40 had said they would show up to cover the event but didn't. Nor did any reporters from the two local newspapers, the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Springfield Repubican, make an appearance. Fortunately Francesca Rheannon from WMUA and a team from Valley Free Radio's Enviro Show were there to do what newspaper reporters used to do back in the day, i.e. find out what's going on and why.

Tina recalled the long struggle to force the station's former owners to reduce SOx and NOx emissions, and noted the current owner's tendency to take credit for simply complying with the law. Margaret, whose ministry centers on the struggle against global warming, described the abuse of the climate as a sin. Then, reminding us that all great movements sing, she led us in song.

Both Margaret and Tina talked about the impact of global warming on people we don't usually think of as our neighbors but who are on the front lines, paying an immediate and unjustifiable price for our consumption of fossil fuels.

For my part, I mentioned the significance of the number 350 and the fact that in the Christian calendar today, March 1, is Saint David's Day.*

Veteran peace and justice activist Frances Crowe announced a one-item wish list for her upcoming 90th birthday: everybody stay home and don't burn gas. On the subject of boosting public transportation, Leo Maley urged us to support the proposal to increase the state gas tax by 19 cents a gallon. Joan Grenier mentioned that Bill McKibben will be in South Hadley soon (details to follow) and Tom Neilson sang us a wonderful song that he wrote for the occasion.

We left Mount Tom at about 2:00 p.m., with snowflakes in the air and joy in our hearts. Several people driving by had honked in solidarity, and we had borne witness to one another (and the officer from Holyoke PD).

But what's next? If that was it -- if today's demo was the beginning and end of our struggle to put an end to coal-burning at Mount Tom -- we won't have achieved anything more than an hour in the outdoors, a sing-along, and a chat with old friends.

So what do you think? What will you commit to doing to stop the burning of coal? While you ponder that, please bear in mind that April 1 is coming up. It's exactly one month away and nowadays, at least as far as some of us are concerned, April 1 is Fossil Fools Day.

*Welsh people will know this already but, for blog readers who were careless enough to have been born outside Wales, I should mention that Saint David's claim to fame was a little out of the ordinary for religious leaders. He didn't slay dragons like St. George or expel snakes like St. Patrick. He just grew leeks. Wales may be the only country whose patron saint was an organic farmer.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sustainable Social Democracy

For any social democrats interested in our ideology's intellectual history, Sheri Berman's article in the current edition of Dissent ("Unheralded Battle: Capitalism, the Left, Social Democracy, and Democratic Socialism") is worth reading.

When she is discussing the post-WWII social-democratic consensus that settled on Western Europe, including Britain, Professor Berman is giving Dissent's readers a helpful description. But her prescription (economic growth) is less helpful. The world has turned many times, and its climate has changed, since the days when economic growth was an essential part of the answer to the question that social democrats posed, i.e. how do we create a more just, equal, and democratic society?.

Personally, I enjoyed the quick trip down memory lane. Since my teens, social democracy has been the place I call home, politically speaking, and I became quite nostalgic seeing the name Tony Crosland (pictured), one of the heroes of my adolescence.

I wasn't even born when Crosland wrote The Future of Socialism and by the time I started paying attention to these things he was already dead, but he was a hero to the politicians I admired at the time, so I inherited him. When I was 14, and should have been engaged in the pursuit of manliness -- by idolizing Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennet, and other giants of Welsh rugby, for example -- I was, instead, obsessing on the split in the Labour Party. Not all Croslandites were quitting the Labour Party, but it seemed that everyone quitting the Labour Party was a Croslandite.

When the pro-Europe, pro-NATO social democrats broke away from Labour to form the SDP, I followed their every move in The Guardian. The next year Labour and the SDP had to share my attentions with the war in the Falklands, which I considered just as gripping as the civil war going on in the Labour Party, possibly more so because it involved aircraft carriers. Somewhere along the way, probably in a book by one of the SDP's co-founders, David Owen, I learned about Crosland's The Future of Socialism, ordered myself a copy, and read it several times. Pathetic creature that I was, I rather adopted Tony Crosland as my political imaginary friend. Even Adrian Mole (the voice of my generation) would have been embarrassed.

But enough Adrian Mole-esque soul-baring and back to Sheri Berman's article. Surveying the 1960s and 70s, Professor Berman describes the split between the European-style social democrats and those who still yearned for the collapse of capitalism, and she takes a swing at Michael Harrington in the process. But then, at the end of the article, addressing today's U.S. left, she turns all prescriptive on us. Her recommendation? "[T]ry to do what the Scandinavians have done: develop a program that promotes growth and social solidarity together, rather than forcing a choice between them."

A false choice it may be, but it is equally false to suppose that we can still walk into the market place of ideas, reach up, pick off the shelf a can of Scandinavian-style social democracy, and take it home to consume. A glance at the sell-by date would reveal that it was best before the period of consequences. And the period of consequences -- to quote Al Gore quoting Winston Churchill -- is what we are in. So to my eyes there is something missing from the growth-versus-solidarity frame, namely sustainability.

Growth and sustainability are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but in 2009 it is hard to justify a public conversation about the former that is not also a conversation about the latter. When Crosland wrote The Future of Socialism we hadn't heard of global warming, and in those days the vision of "grow the pie to share it" did not look like quite so myopic. But now we realize that it is myopic. We are in a consumption-created crisis and we have to reject the assumption that more consumption will get us out.

As I said, Berman's article made me nostalgic. Right now I am inclined to climb up into the loft, open some boxes, and track down my copy of The Future of Socialism. I might even read it for the umpteenth time, unless I stumble across The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole first and get side-tracked. What heightened my sense of nostalgia was the sense that Berman's article could just as easily have been published thirty years earlier, in 1979, when all we had to worry about was inflation, unemployment, and nuclear war. It has the aroma of a pre-consequences world of comparative bliss, when to be young was very heaven. The answer (expand the pie) was simpler because the question (one slice or two?) was easier.

But the new question for social democrats to ask and answer is a harder one: How do we create a more just, equal, democratic and sustainable society? To put the same question another way, in 2009 what does it mean to be a green social democrat? I welcome your comments.