Pulse of the Peninsula: Earth Day deserves more than talk

Pulse of the Peninsula: Earth Day deserves more than talk

It is telling that Earth Day came and went with nary more than a nod.

We’re so obsessively focused on terrorism in Boston that is even overwhelming the real terrorism – environmental terrorism in West, Texas, where a fertilizer plant (the same materials as bomb making) evaded government regulation and exploded, killing more than 14 and injuring 1000.

Add to that the destruction of Mayflower, Ark., where on March 29, ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline spilled more than 157,000 gallons of tar sands oil into this tiny town.

Even as we just passed the third anniversary of the BP Oil/Deep Horizons environmental disaster, the Gulf Coast is still suffering the effects of oil slicks.

Small towns across America are expected to live with the terror of an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

Earth Day, which began in 1970 and is considered the “birth of the Environmental Movement,”  is supposed to be a celebration of the prior year’s accomplishments in improving the health and vitality of the planet, Our Home. It is supposed to be a birthday party for Mother Earth.

This Earth Day it is hard to find anything to celebrate. 

Instead, we have had no progress – and even a regression – as Republicans have cut the flow of funding for environmental protection, have unleashed sequester which is sure to slash resources into regulatory bodies that is sure to result in more West, Texas, ExxonMobil and BP Oil- style disasters, and persist in making anything at all to do with addressing climate change as vile as gun control, which is to say socialism.

And they don’t care. Not a whit.

It is so much easier to demagogue a terrorist bomb than the constant environmental threats we live under, shielding the corporate status quo and making sure the profits still flow to corporatists like the Koch Brothers who so far have spent $67 million funding climate-change deniers (now they are moving to purchase the Tribune Company newspapers, because buying politicians hasn’t been enough for them). 

“Building such a dangerous facility in the midst of a residential and business area, and allowing homes, nursing homes, hospitals, schools and playgrounds to be built alongside it, is the result of a corrupt process that is commonplace in towns and cities across America, where business leaders routinely have their way with local planning and zoning commissions, safety inspectors and city councils. Businesses small and large also have their way with state and federal safety and health inspectors too,” wrote David Lindorff in “Nation of Change.”

Instead of a birthday party – too whimpy, too wussy – what if we addressed climate change with the same vigor we address terrorism?

Earth Day should be a day of mobilization. A day of action against the terror that the earth’s inhabitants will live with of famine, flood, displacement from storms, competition for limited supplies of potable water, clean air, food, indeed, the very ground to live on.

Earth Day should spark a consciousness and change in behavior, attitude and living, year-round.

Long Island Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy expressed the proper sentiment in her Earth Day statement, though none of it will be reflected in any action the Congress takes:

“We celebrate Earth Day every April 22, but we should take care to protect our planet every single day of the year,” McCarthy said. “Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy reminded us of many things, including that climate change and shore erosion have real and immediate effects on our health, safety and our livelihoods and that we are desperately dependent upon energy sources we take for granted, like electricity and gasoline.

“There are many small steps each of us can take on a daily basis to help conserve resources and slow the effects of climate change. Planting, recycling, reducing waste, reusing containers, driving fewer miles in more efficient vehicles, using natural light and more efficient bulbs and appliances – all of these small measures, done collectively, can help reduce the kind of pollution that’s hurting our planet and making life in a coastal area like Long Island more and more vulnerable.”

As it happens, this year’s Earth Day, April 22, is also the deadline for comments to the State Department on the Keystone pipeline – is there ever a more appropriate symbol for the sad plight?

The Keystone pipeline that Republicans have turned the Keystone Pipeline into one of their cause celebre (like being anti-Obamacare, like anti-gun safety). 

But the pipeline “poses a threat to the environment, our climate, and American families,” the League of Conservation Voters petition to Congress states. 

“Since tar sands oil creates even more global warming pollution than traditional oil production, it would worsen the climate crisis – without lowering gas prices or increasing U.S. energy security,” the petition continues.” Families across America have already endured immense hardship as a result of the climate change-fueled droughts, storms, floods, and wildfires we’ve seen this past year. Now is the time to advance climate solutions, not develop the dirtiest oil on earth that will only make climate change even worse.”

The petition also warns about the threat of potential spills.

In 2010, an Enbridge Energy pipeline in Michigan broke and spilled more than 800,000 gallons of toxic tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River – and it still hasn’t been fully cleaned up. That same year, TransCanada, the company that wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline now, built a pipeline that experienced 12 separate spills in a single year. In 2011, one of ExxonMobil’s pipelines in Montana ruptured and contaminated the Yellowstone River. And recently, a train derailed in Minnesota and spilled 30,000 gallons of tar sands crude.

Yet you have commercials constantly playing on television telling us how safe the technology is (ExxonMobil just received the National Safety Council’s Green Cross for Safety medal), how many jobs it creates, how all of us Americans benefit from cheaper energy. 

Not true. But the bigger issue is you can’t allow a technology that is based on never having a problem or a mistake, or be vulnerable to sabotage or terrorism. Instead of a pressure-cooker bomb at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, what damage could have been done if pipelines were blown up (as in the disrupted New Jersey terror plot, where the idea was to blow up fuel lines to the airport).

The same analysis needs to be brought to New York State’s decision on whether to allow hydrofracking to unleash natural gas supplies from shale.

Now, there are those who cite fracking as the reason why U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, after peaking in 2007, have fallen by 12 perecent as of 2012, back to 1995 levels. Natural gas emits only half as much CO2 as coal, and occupies a rapidly increasing share of electricity generation – up 37 percent since 2007, while coal’s share has plummeted by 25 percent, Jeffrey Frankel reports at Nation of Change. Indeed, natural gas has drawn close to coal as the No. 1 source of US power. 

Renewables still constitute only 5 percent of power generation in the US – less than hydroelectric and far less than nuclear, let alone coal or gas. Imagine the progress we could make in carbon emissions if renewables were 20 or 30 percent, the levels being reached in other countries.

At first blush the lower level of carbon dioxide emissions would seem to be a “good news for Earth Day” item.

But these numbers fail to take into account the total fracking process, and the dangerous emissions beyond carbon dioxide – such as radon, the toxic, carcinogenic chemical stew that is pushed in under high pressure to release the natural gas from the shale, the emissions from the diesel engines used to transport, and what happens to the contaminated wastewater.

In fact, that is what is missing from all of these assessments: the true costs of fossil fuels.

Recently, several local residents from Reach Out America joined a Food & Water Watch bus trip to a rural Pennsylvania town to see first-hand how communities have been impacted by supposedly safe hydrofracking.

“It is very easy to see the rape of America,” Patricia Katz wrote after her visit. “Where pristine woods and rolling hills and fresh streams were abundant, now every half mile there are gas pads with pipelines and plastic fences running like ski slopes up and down the country side…..there is nothing normal here. Though nature is trying to maintain its freely running streams, now the waters are murky….’

This country should be shifting the economy away from is dependency on fossil fuel to clean, renewable energy. But that won’t happen because of the control over tax code and the loopholes afforded entrenched industries to the detriment of emerging ones. They should end the taxpayer subsidies and loopholes afforded Big Oil and instead incentivize renewables and institute some kind of carbon tax that more properly reflects the true cost to society of fossil fuels, so that newer renewable energy technologies can compete in the marketplace. But this won’t happen because Congress is in the pocket of Big Oil.

Instead, the oil companies are taking advantage of global warming and the melting of Arctic ice caps, to launch new drilling operations! They say that one-third of the earth’s remaining oil and gas reserves are located beneath the ice caps.

The United States experienced record temperatures in 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported. 

Last year’s average temperature, 55.3 degrees F is a full degree higher than just 1998, the last record year. Weather stations across the country recorded 34,008 new daily highs, versus 6664 new record lows (yet a blizzard in winter is used by climate deniers as proof that global warming does not exist).

Last year was one of the driest ever, capped with a devastating summer drought that crippled much of the West and Midwest, which is resulting in higher food prices. Milder winters impact what insects, organisms and growing cycles are sustained in a habitat. Super-charged storms wreaked havoc, culminating with Hurricane Sandy.

A study by the Environmental Protection Agency showed that 55 percent of the country’s rivers are streams are in poor biological health, unable to support healthy populations of aquatic insects and other creatures, with conditions significantly worse in the East, from the Texas coast to New Jersey coast, where more than 70 percent of streams and rivers  were found in poor shape, the Associated Press reported.

The most widespread problem is the high levels of nutrient pollution, caused by phosphorus and nitrogen washing into rivers and streams from farms, cities and sewers. High levels of phosphorus – a common ingredient in detergents and fertilizers – were found in 40 percent of rivers and streams. Another major problem was development – land clearing and building along waterways increases erosion and flooding and allows more pollutants to enter waters. (This brings us back to the largely unregulated fertilizer factory in West, Texas.)

In 9 percent of rivers and streams, bacteria exceeded thresholds protective of human health. And mercury, which is toxic, was found in fish tissue along 13,000 miles of streams at levels exceeding health-based standards. Mercury occurs naturally but also can enter the environment from coal-burning power plants and from burning hazardous wastes, according to reporting by the Associated Press.

Republicans dismiss and ignore the environmental threats.

North Carolina GOP legislators actually adopted a law to prevent coastal counties from using actual observations and the best science-based projections in planning for future sea level rise (the rest of us taxpayers actually wind up paying for the destruction, and yet Republicans in southern states voted against funding for Sandy restoration in New York and New Jersey, go figure).

The absurd argument that Republicans push against taking any action to address the human causes of global warming and climate change is that it will somehow hurt the economy and destroy jobs. Somehow, government giving tax incentives to promote innovations in clean, renewable energy is Marxist socialism, but tax breaks to Big Oil are the epitome of capitalism and democracy.

Kansas, Texas, Ohio, Missouri and North Carolina are cutting  back on government support for clean energy jobs using model legislation from ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), funded by the Koch Brothers.

But a new report produced for the National Partnership for Climate Solutions says that when, in the name of protecting jobs, members of Congress and other elected officials oppose policies that cut greenhouse gas emissions or fail to directly engage in Americans in emissions reductions, they destroy as many jobs as they save. 

“The economics of climate disruption is actually a choice between jobs vs. jobs, not jobs vs. the environment,” said Bob Doppelt, executive director of The Resource Innovation Group, a co-author of the report, “Jobs vs. Jobs: The Refusal to Rapidly Cut Greenhouse Gas Emission Is Destroying Jobs, The Economy, and The Climate.” “Elected officials can choose to protect jobs that are undermining the economy and the climate, or they can expand jobs that enhance the economy and reduce climate change.”  

These jobs include increasing energy efficiency, developing renewable energy, re-engineering processes, products, and services; rehabilitating and building climate resilience in buildings and other infrastructure; and restoring natural landscapes.

“Action that delays reductions in greenhouse gas emissions accelerate the economic harm caused by climate disruption and will destroy more jobs than it protects,” said Ernie Niemi, lead author of the report and an economist with Natural Resource Economics Inc. “Elected officials don’t face a choice between protecting jobs and preventing climate disasters — the best thing they can do is act quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide more jobs for American workers.” 

On this Earth Day, there are a few – too few – things to cheer about:

The Obama administration finalized regulations to control mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants for the first time in late 2011.

The EPA has just announced historic new standards to reduce soot, smog and other dangerous pollution that spews from the tailpipes of our cars and trucks. Cars and trucks emit more than half of all carbon monoxide pollution as well as dangerous levels of particulate matter in our air. These standards will dramatically reduce these emissions and the cleaner fuel will slash smog-forming pollution at a level comparable to taking 33 million of today’s new cars off the roads.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who actually made the correlation between global warming and Hurricane Sandy, issued a statement:  “Today is Earth Day – a day we stop to appreciate the great natural wonders around us and consider the world we will leave behind for future generations. At this time of year, we are often reminded of nature’s beauty in this great state, but this week we are also reminded of the fury and devastation Mother Nature can bring at a moment’s notice. 

“Six months ago Hurricane Sandy made landfall, killing 60 New Yorkers, destroying over 10,000 homes and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage. While rebuilding efforts are well underway, we must not lose sight that extreme weather is now the new normal with two ‘once in a century’ storms occurring in the last two years alone. 

“Climate change is very real and has had destructive and deadly consequences in New York. My administration has worked to implement policies that protect our environment and preserve the natural beauty of our state. That work continues today, and I encourage all New Yorkers, at this moment in our history, to join us in pursuing new ways each of us can help reverse the impacts of climate change and add to the narrative of Earth Day. Celebrating Earth Day and working to combat climate change should go hand in hand – it is the only way we can ensure that New York’s natural resources and beauty will be protected and enjoyed for generations to come.”

Cuomo pointed to his administration’s significant environmental accomplishments but they will be for naught if Cuomo authorizes hydrofracking.

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