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The Green Energy Revolt

Demand for clean energy crosses ideological lines

This story originally appeared in the May 2015 edition of The Progressive.

Debbie Dooley is mad as hell. 

Since 2012, the fifty-six-year-old grandmother and former IT consultant has been waging a fierce grassroots battle against her home state utility, Georgia Power, to make it easier and cheaper for homeowners to install rooftop solar panels. Now, she’s working with allies in Florida to sponsor a ballot initiative that would allow businesses and homeowners there to sell any energy they generate back to the grid. 

photo of Wayne National Forest Solar Panel ConstructionPhoto by Wayne National Forest, on Flickr A quiet revolution in electricity generation is transforming the nation’s energy industry.

But she has run into stiff resistance from the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity. The group has sent out e-mails to its supporters against the idea and organized a Tallahassee press conference at which the organization’s state director Chris Hudson complained that “requiring traditional utility companies to give their grid space to solar energy will impose a massive cost” on Florida ratepayers. Claims like that have Dooley riled up.

“I am battling the Koch brothers and all of their funded groups because they are giving me problems,” Dooley says in a Southern accent as thick as a humid day. “We have been brainwashed for years by the fossil fuel interests and politicians in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry to believe that green energy is bad. And it’s not.”

This is the kind of impassioned talk you might expect from, say, a Greenpeace campaigner. But Dooley is a dyed-in-the-wool political conservative. In 2009, she was one of the original organizers of the nationwide tea party protests. She’s a co-founder of the Atlanta tea party, as well as a board member of the national group Tea Party Patriots. And she’s a staunch believer in the importance of creating a decentralized and renewable energy system. Under the banner of her “Green Tea Coalition,” she’s brought together the Sierra Club and the Christian Coalition to fight for rooftop solar energy, something that she says is right in line with her conservative beliefs. “I believe in the marketplace and I believe in the free market, and we need to allow innovation to take place,” she says. 

That a grassroots conservative activist would become one of the most effective advocates of renewable energy in …more

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Letter from California

Field notes on a state in drought

This story originally appeared in the June 2015 edition of The Progressive.

This was the year without a winter. 

In January, not a single drop of rain fell in the San Francisco Bay Area, the first time such a thing has happened since recordkeeping began during the Gold Rush. Day after day, the skies were clear and the afternoon temperatures were in the seventies. It was awful. Without any rain or the typical cold winter winds, a thick haze developed over the bay and stuck around for weeks. An orange miasma choked the view from the Berkeley Hills to the Golden Gate, making the sun into a tarnished brass coin. 

photo of effect of drought on Uvas ReservoirPhoto by Don DeBold State and federal water systems allocations are based on water we don’t have.

Meteorologists blamed it on something they’ve dubbed the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” a persistent wall of high pressure over the Pacific Ocean that pushed winter storms away from the state and kept temperatures so warm that there was little to no snowfall this year below 8,000 feet of elevation. 

Then there’s “The Blob.” For nearly a year, a mass of warm ocean water as much as two to seven degrees Fahrenheit above normal has clung to the West Coast. The Blob — which stretches 1,000 miles from Mexico to Washington State and goes 300 feet deep into the water column — has contributed to the warm winter, and is likely to be a factor in a predicted hotter-than-average summer.

The weird weather has had many strange effects. My friend Victor complains that at his house he can now see the stars at night. Victor and his family live in San Francisco’s Sunset District, on the far west edge of the city, hard against the ocean. Normally this area — dubbed the “Outside Lands” by the first white settlers — is fog-locked much of the year. Now, however, the summer fogs seem less dense, and the recent winters have been infamously cloud-free. “It’s really frightening,” Victor tells me.

• • •

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, essayist, and conservationist Wallace Stegner once wrote: “Aridity, more than anything else, gives the western landscape its character.” West of roughly the 100th meridian, civilization is impossible — physically impossible — without some sort of system to capture and store water. …more

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Revealed: FBI Violated Its Own Rules While Spying on Keystone XL Opponents

Internal agency documents show that FBI failed to get approval before cultivating informants and opening files on protesters in Texas

This story was produced in partnership with The Guardian.

The FBI breached its own internal rules when it spied on campaigners against the Keystone XL pipeline, failing to get approval before it cultivated informants and opened files on individuals protesting against the construction of the pipeline in Texas, documents reveal.

photo of Tar Sands BlockadePhoto by Tar Sands Blockade, on Flickr The FBI investigation targeted Tar Sands Blockade, a direct action group that was at the time campaigning in southern Texas.

Internal agency documents show for the first time how FBI agents have been closely monitoring anti-Keystone activists, in violation of guidelines designed to prevent the agency from becoming unduly involved in sensitive political issues.

The hugely contentious Keystone XL pipeline, which is awaiting approval from the Obama administration, would transport tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf coast.

It has been strongly opposed for years by a coalition of environmental groups, including some involved in nonviolent civil disobedience who have been monitored by federal law enforcement agencies.

The documents reveal that one FBI investigation, run from its Houston field office, amounted to “substantial non-compliance” of Department of Justice rules that govern how the agency should handle sensitive matters.

One FBI memo, which set out the rationale for investigating campaigners in the Houston area, touted the economic advantages of the pipeline while labeling its opponents “environmental extremists.”

photo of FBI documentsPhoto by Earth Island Journal Documents show for the first time how FBI agents have been closely monitoring anti-Keystone activists in violation of FBI guidelines.

photo of Tar Sands BlockadePhoto by Earth Island Journal An FBI memo labels opponents of the controversial pipeline as ‘environmental extremists.’

“Many of these extremists believe the debates over pollution, protection of wildlife, safety, and property rights have been overshadowed by the promise of jobs and cheaper oil prices,” the FBI document states. “The Keystone pipeline, as part of the oil and natural gas industry, is vital to the security and economy of the United States.”

The documents are among more than 80 pages of previously confidential FBI files obtained by the Guardian and Earth Island Journal after a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

Between November 2012 and June …more

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Huge Romanian Rewilding Project Aims to Create ‘European Yellowstone’

Vast national park may ultimately protect 500,000 acres in the Carpathian Mountains

In an ambitious new rewilding project, conservationists hope to create a ‘European Yellowstone’ amid the beech woods, spruce plantations and alpine pastures of Romania’s Făgăraș Mountains. Backed by wealthy donors, the nonprofit Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) is buying land for what it hopes will ultimately become a vast national park.

photo of Lake Capra, Carpathian MountainsPhoto by Daniela Constantinescu Foundation Conservation Carpathia’s rewilding project is one of the most ambitious in Europe.

So far FCC has spent €45 million buying 40,000 acres of land, but the group’s ultimate goal is to protect 500,000 acres, which it then plans to donate back to the people of Romania. Although FCC is buying some of this land, the group also hopes to convince some stakeholders — such as the state and other local landowners  — to put their land into the park. FCC’s largest backer is the Wyss Foundation, a philanthropic group founded by the Swiss medical devices billionaire Hansorg Wyss, which has already contributed $175 million to protect 14 million acres of wild land in the American West.

The Făgăraș Mountains lie at the southern end of the 1,000-mile long Carpathian range, which stretches across east and central Europe. The Carpathians are a stronghold for Europe’s three big predators — the grey wolf, brown bear, and Eurasian lynx — as well as the continent’s most extensive old growth forests.

Europe, a continent with little wilderness left, has seen a recent surge in rewilding projects. In Germany, the Brandenburg Wilderness Foundation is returning vast old military bases to the wilderness; in Ireland, the state forestry company Coillte is planning to rewild pine and spruce plantations in County Mayo, while in Scotland, the group Trees for Life is restoring Caledonian pine forest to the Highlands. The nonprofit Rewilding Europe is also working to restore large-scale wild ecosystems at eight different sites across the continent.

But national parks in Europe tend to be small, and due to its sheer size, FCC’s project is one of the most ambitious. The Făgăraș Mountains rise 8,346 feet to Vârful Moldoveanu, Romania’s tallest peak. Beech woods cover the lower slopes of these mountains, while there are mixed forests further up and alpine pastures above the tree line. But in many places, natural forests have been replaced by spruce plantations.

FCC plan’s to rewild these monocultures. In some places, this will just mean …more

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New Documentary ‘Commerce or Corruption?’ Exposes Ulterior Motives Behind Borneo Dam Proposals

Baram Dam would benefit politicians at the expense of local communities

Yesterday, The Borneo Project released Commerce or Corruption?: The economics of mega-dams. Commerce or Corruption? is the second film in a series of short documentaries exposing the dark realities of proposed mega-dam construction in the state of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo. If built, these dams will force tens of thousands of people from their land, drive untold numbers of species to extinction, pollute rivers – the lifelines of the jungle – and produce more greenhouse gas emissions per megawatt of energy than a coal-fired power plant.

Commerce or Corruption? from The Borneo Project on Vimeo.

The government of Sarawak has already built two mega-dams, and has proposed construction of 12 more, but local resistance has stalled progress on the Baram Dam, the next dam scheduled to flood the forest. Indigenous communities have been blockading the Baram Dam site since October 2013, and Commerce or Corruption?’s May 7, 2015 release date marked the 555th day of the blockades.

If completed, the Baram Dam will inundate 26 villages and displace 6,000 to 20,000 people. The blockades are maintained by indigenous Kenyah, Kayan, and Penan people and demonstrate the tremendous local opposition to dam development.

Despite the massive damage that these dams would inflict on local communities and the environment, the potential benefits of construction remain unclear. The 12 proposed mega-dams assume an outrageous energy demand growth rate. Sarawak already produces significantly more energy than it can use, and proponents have no concrete plans for how to use or sell additional hydropower energy. Construction would also be very expensive, and research shows that mega-projects like these tend not to benefit the economy.

Given that there is no sound reason to build these dams, the question becomes, why are these dams being built, and why now? Commerce or Corruption? exposes the  true motivation behind the dams: personal profit. Private companies involved in construction and energy transmission in Borneo stand to make a lot of money if the dams are built. Many of these same companies are controlled by relatives and friends of Taib Mahmud, the governor of Sarawak. Doling out the contracts for the remaining dams would add even more gold to the already over-flowing coffers of Mahmud and his well-connected family members, all at the expense of local communities.

In July The Borneo Project, a project of Earth Island Institute, will release Broken …more

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Media Bias for Biomass Energy?

The majority of biomass energy reporting ignores the health and environmental impacts of this alternative fuel source

The media is finally starting to pay attention to the growing trend of cutting down forests for biomass energy. Unfortunately, according to a recent survey conducted by The Biomass Monitor, this attention seems to be biased.

In fact, 76 percent of U.S. daily newspaper articles covering forest biomass energy over a six-month period from October 15, 2014 through April 15, 2015 entirely ignore the health and environmental impacts of this controversial energy source, including air emissions, climate impacts, and ecosystem degradation.

photo of biomass power facilityPhoto by Josh Schlossberg The McNeil Generating Station, a 50-megawatt biomass power facility in Burlington, Vermont, and the subject of a PBS NewsHour segment that left out the air emissions and forest impacts of biomass energy.

Seven of the articles mention negative economic impacts of forest biomass, and four cover nuisances, specifically concerns with truck traffic and noise from chipping trees. These figures are specific to forest biomass reporting, and do not include coverage of corn-based ethanol or other types of biofuels.

In the US, bioenergy — the burning of trees, plants, manure, and other living “biomass” for electricity, heating, and transportation — provides more energy than any other alternative energy source. Despite the prominence and rapid expansion of bioenergy, largely due to federal and state grants, loans, and tax incentives, a 2014 Harris poll shows that 61 percent of Americans are unaware of its pros and cons. How much of this lack of understanding is a result of the media’s typically one-sided reporting on the issue?

Turning a Blind Eye

While only 19 of the 80 articles — 24 percent — mentioned the dark side of forest biomass energy, the negative health and environmental impacts of this alternative energy source are widely documented by recent science.

US Environmental Protection Agency emissions inventories and peer-reviewed scientific studies demonstrate that biomass energy facilities emit high levels of carbon dioxide and nearly all of the same air pollutants as a coal-fired plant, such as asthma-inducing particulate matter and carcinogenic Volatile Organic Compounds. Biomass energy also consumes a constant supply of trees, the logging of which can degrade and compact forest soils and also cause erosion, silting fisheries and drinking watersheds.

While most of the daily news articles turn a blind eye to these negative environmental impacts, others …more

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Galapagos Tortoises Thrive on Invasive Plants

In unusual management twist, researchers learn that non-native plants aren’t always bad

The invasive species narrative is always the same: non-native species are bad, native species are good, native species must be protected from invasive ones or they’ll inevitably suffer and decline. But reality is often more complicated, and a recently-published study from the Galapagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme provides a surprising new take on the relationship between one famous endangered species and the invasive plants that have become established in its ecosystem.

photo of Galapagos TortoisePhoto by Amaury Laporte The new study found that the giant Galapagos tortoise may actually benefit from certain invasive plants.

Few animal species are more universally known and loved than the giant Galapagos tortoise. Though threatened by a long history of exploitation by humans for food and by habitat loss to agriculture, today the iconic tortoises are doing better than at any time in the last 200 years thanks to conservation efforts by Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation. Among the management challenges faced by conservationists in the region has been the more than 750 non-native plant species that have become established on the islands. But this new study shows that for the tortoises, many introduced plants, including some that are considered invasive, aren’t a problem at all — in fact, they might even help.

Dr. Stephen Blake, lead author of the study, and other researchers from the Galapagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme knew from casual observations and conversations with locals that non-native plants were likely an important part of the tortoises’ diet on Santa Cruz Island. During a previous study conducted in 2009-2010, Blake and his colleagues found that every year, tortoises on the island migrate between arid lowland areas and lusher upland areas. The upland regions are dominated by introduced plants, and the researchers realized the tortoises would only make this annual trek if they were finding plenty to eat there. To test their ideas, the scientists followed tortoises through the bush and recorded every bite they took during ten-minute bouts, noting what species they were eating.

“It’s more challenging than it might sound,” says Dr. Blake of working in the Galapagos. “Standing and watching giant tortoises, it’s not like tracking down polar bears on foot, I suppose, but because we want to collect data through all seasons in all locations, the field work can be pretty arduous…. The Galapagos …more

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