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Monday, June 21, 2010

Contaminated Oysters or Toxic Politics

Or is the DEP Trying to Hide its Abysmal Environmental Enforcement
Record Behind a Small Shellfish?

As the Baykeeper Emeritus, and a NY/NJ Baykeeper Trustee I feel I have an obligation to comment on NJDEP Commissioner Martin’s recent pronouncement that may end more than a decade’s worth of oyster research, restoration, education, and community involvement in most of New Jersey’s northern estuaries. This decision is untenable given the Department’s previous support of Baykeeper’s oyster restoration program. It is also disturbing, but not surprising that New Jersey’s very inexperienced Environmental Commissioner has caved in to a minority of special interests within the Department and issued an unwarranted, misguided, and scientifically indefensible “rule like,” directive to attempt to stymie research, habitat restoration, and oyster gardening specifically targeting Baykeeper. Can you imagine the fuss, the threat of law suits, and the public relations tsunami that would result if the same Commissioner arbitrarily and capriciously revoked a legally issued permit issued to a major developer and political donor?

I understand the Department’s reluctance to allow edible seafood to be grown in marginally polluted waters, however those waters remain polluted in significant part because of lack of action by the NJDEP to bring the targeted bays and tributaries – and the entities polluting those waters, into compliance with the fishable/swimmable standard of the Clean Water Act. Oysters and Baykeeper did not pollute those waters and the program to restore oysters there should not suffer as a result of DEP’s inability or unwillingness to bring legal and regulatory action necessary to stop pollution and restore the water quality and habitats in the State’s northern and urban estuaries.

Particularly troubling to me is the apparent lack of initiative on the part of the Department to address permitting of private docks in shellfish harvest areas, its ineffectiveness in addressing toxic site cleanup in the Raritan River, Raritan Bay, and Arthur Kill, and the permitting of residential projects under CAFRA along the Bayshore of Raritan Bay that would never be permitted anywhere else in the coastal zone. Additionally, allowing polluters like the Middlesex County Utilities Authority to close almost 1/3 of the Bay to shell fishing as a result of its gigantic and loosely regulated discharge pipe is morally unacceptable. The NJDEP must begin to evaluate its priorities and its willingness to serve the public good. Should a reckless discharger get more deference than a popular, scientifically verified, community supported restoration project? Should a developer be issued a CAFRA permit that does not conform to the rules? Should a deep pocket polluter get a pass on paying for clean up and compensation for natural resource damages while the Department spends time obsessing about Baykeeper’s economically and environmentally positive research efforts?

Why is it that at every forum in the NY/NJ Harbor Estuary, the NJDEP is the only federal or state agency that is actively opposed to large scale restoration of oysters in the Estuary? Why is it that Delaware Bay, an equally urban estuary has a subsidized oyster restoration program? Why is it that southern New Jersey shell fishing interests appear to have the support of the Department while northern fishermen rarely if ever, get support? Why is it that at a time when both the Governor and the President are calling for green jobs and green infrastructure projects, the one “shovel-ready” project in the State – Baykeeper’s oyster restoration project is being targeted in such a mean spirited way? Any politically astute and straight thinking person knows the answer – the Department is fearful that its lack of enforcement of clean water standards, its flaccid CAFRA permitting program, its under par toxic site cleanup program, its apparent disinterest in extracting natural resource damages from polluters of the Raritan River like National Lead, its multi-year lack of preparedness to meet FDA’s patrol criteria, and its shell fish program’s bias will be exposed.

I challenge the Commissioner to redirect the efforts of the Department to address urban river and estuary pollution, to be aggressive in addressing permit violations at sewage treatment plants, to reconfigure the Department’s contaminated site clean- up program so that sites actually get cleaned up, to stop issuing permits for development in wetlands and flood plains, and to develop incentives and penalties to address non-point source pollution and combined sewer overflows by mandating, rather than suggesting, that municipalities adopt Low Impact Development plans to manage storm water runoff.

And finally, let’s put the resources of the Department, behind pollution abatement and habitat restoration initiatives like Baykeeper’s oyster research, education, and restoration project that create jobs, and bring money into the State, rather than spending tax payer funded time in a tough budget period, figuring out ways to kill it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Emancipation From Fossil Fuels a New Birth of Freedom

Dealing with the BP catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is not only a technical, environmental, economic and cultural problem, it is a moral problem. Moral problems require us to decide which solutions are “right” and which are “wrong.” The rightness and wrongness of a solution is not based on science but on a sense of justice and ethics and cultural values.

Thomas Jefferson said, “A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.”

Robert Kennedy Jr. has posited that fossil fuels are the new slavery: morally and economically corrupt. He has said, “industry and government warnings about ‘economic ruin’ if we wean ourselves from fossil fuel dependence, should not be heeded because abolishing slavery did not cripple the British economy as was predicted. Instead of collapsing, as slavery’s proponents had predicted, Britain’s economy accelerated.” Vanity Fair, A Manifesto for the New President.

"In fact climate change is also the most vexed kind of moral issue, precisely because it is also about economics. It’s a debate that is, or should be, requiring us to make ‘moral’ decisions that are more likely than not to have a price tag attached. 200 years ago Parliament heard identical caveats during the debate over abolition of the slave trade. At the time of its abolition, the Slave Trade and its associated activities were reckoned by those opposing the Bill to account, quite astonishingly, for well over a quarter of this nation’s GDP – which helped drive one of the central arguments deployed by the anti-abolitionists – that over-hasty action could only prove ruinous for the nation’s economy…" Ahimsa Day Celebration October 15th 2008, Portcullis House, House of Commons, London, Keynote Address By Lord Puttnam

The morally abhorent practice of slavery was the cheap energy of the early 19th Century in the US, and it took a flawed but brave President to change entrenched policies. In 1860, our country was at a frightening and wrenching crossroads – to accept the line drawn of no new expansion of its morally corrupt energy source, slavery, and to commit to building America's future on a new economic footing.

So it is up to the engaged and informed people of this country and this American President to do the right and moral thing. Despite the fact that it might not be popular and might cause some campaign contributions to dry up – we are at significant historical moment like the signing of the emancipation proclamation. The proclamation that represented a shift in the war objectives of the North. It represented a major step toward the ultimate abolition of slavery in the United States and a "new birth of freedom.” Emancipation from fossil fuels will be such a “new birth of freedom” for the United States.

A century and a half ago, fossil fuels replaced slaves as the underpriced energy source driving American economic growth. And like slavery, our deep economic dependence makes change difficult, despite the incontrovertible reality that our fossil-fueled system is profoundly immoral.

In a story about a widowed fictional President who falls in love with an environmental lobbyist who is assured by the President that if she gets a fossil fuel bill with enough guaranteed votes he will send it to congress. Unfortunately the environmental bill is competing with the President’s own flaccid gun control bill. In the climax of the film the President and his advisors learning that he can get some congressman to support his bill puts the environmental bill “in the drawer.” In the confrontational scene the “President’s girlfriend,” as a smarmy opposing Presidential candidate calls her, is gathering her things and leaving the White House – the President explains that he needs to pass the crime bill and doesn’t want to lose her.

SHEPHERD: Sydney. Please. I don't want to lose you over this. SYDNEY: Mr. President, you got bigger problems than losing me. You just lost my vote.

President Obama’s supporters, many of whom now, according to a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, don’t think he is handling the BP oil disaster in the Gulf very well continue to be hopeful that the lesson learned about the “unholy alliance of the government and big oil” will result in more stringent regulations, but also a Climate Bill, that will actually make the US the leader in combating global climate change, our dependence on fossil fuels and big oil’s stranglehold on US energy policy.

We can hope that the administration has learned the lesson that there are no half measures with bullies. You either confront them or they continue to dominate the school yard. The President needs to continue lead the efforts in the Gulf to stop the gushing of toxic oil into the water column, and hold to his word that the “buck stops” with him and that the billions of bucks for clean up and compensation will continue to flow from BP to pay for the unprecedented environmental, economic, and cultural disaster in the Gulf will continue to flow unabated, for as long and as it much as it takes to make the environment and the community whole.

And as in the film, the President needs to put the present energy bill, one that will not do anything for climate change, one that will do nothing in the short term to avert disasters like the BP spill, and one that will do nothing to move us to an alternative energy future in the short term “in the drawer.” And be able to say to the American people, as the fictional President said to his girlfriend after doing the right and moral thing.

SHEPHERD: Sydney, I didn't decide to send 455 to the floor to get you back. SYDNEY: I didn't come back 'cause you decided to send 455 to the floor. American President, The (1995) movie script by Aaron Sorkin.

I for one want to come back. I believe that President Obama has an opportunity to not only do the right thing on energy and global climate change legislation, not because he politically needs to redeem himself on the handling of the BP disaster, but because he knows it is the moral thing to do.

It takes a look back at the past several decades to appreciate the true costs of burning fossil fuel: air, water, and soil pollution, environmental degradation, wars and military entanglements to protect access to the sources, transfer of American's earnings to foreign economies, political empowerment of those we buy from, and climate change.

Unfortunately, our individual pocketbooks don't feel the true costs of what it takes for Americans to enjoy the energy derived from a ton of coal, or a barrel of oil. And that's why we make so little effort to use it efficiently, conservatively, or wisely.

So it is up to our young, charismatic, troubled, and beleaguered President to speak to the Nation about emancipation from the morally unacceptable continued dependence on fossil fuels, to take a real climate change bill “out of the drawer” and do the right if not politically expedient thing.

Delaying real change is intolerable. The global warming legacy will be forever irreparable and unrecoverable. What we eat, where and how we live, where, what, and when wars will be fought, and whose lives will be changed forever. Again, like during the debate over slavery, we face an undeniable moral imperative.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Spill Baby Spill

Spill Baby Spill!
Fossil Fuels and the Abuse of Power
by Andrew Willner

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill that killed 11 and threatens to annihilate the coastal economy of the southeastern U.S. is a good reason to question authority.

This disaster has and will continue to cause all engaged and informed Americans to abandon our faith in our government’s ability to regulate big oil and lead us to an alternative energy future. Everyone watching the disaster unfold on our TV screens and computers, and waiting on the Gulf shoreline for the oil to hit land, have been disheartened by the web of legislative loopholes and industry deregulation which has opened the door to potentially criminal negligence by the oil industry.

As oil continues to hemorrhage into the Gulf, it is now up to individuals, grassroots organizations and communities to demand that the U.S. government criminally prosecute those responsible for this disaster and amend the policies that have resulted in unregulated, out of control coastal drilling. It’s also time to make this a major pocketbook issue, a moment when all of us should divest ourselves of oil stocks.

Let’s be clear, BP and other companies drilling in the Gulf (and determined to drill on all of our coasts), are not drilling because it will add a few months of fuel to our current supply, but for the bloated profits those companies will earn – a significant amount of which end up in the election coffers of both parties.

Yes, it’s been a great time for the oil companies. BP alone made almost $6 billion in profits in the first quarter of this year. And to protect those profits, BP spent $16 million in 2009 to influence Capitol Hill lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, says Newsweek.

But now the Gulf disaster has ripped the filthy bandage off the festering wound of our oil-based economy, exposing it for what it truly is – bullying by a corrupt industry. This spill was easily preventable had government done its job, and had BP been a responsible company and put reasonable safeguards in place, such as a $500,000 emergency remote-control shutoff switch that two other oil producing nations, Norway and Brazil, require, says The Wall Street Journal. Instead, BP cut corners to save a buck, and is now doing senseless violence to the environment, our economy, and life on the battered Gulf coast.

It is now up to ordinary people to do what government has failed to do – to stand up to the bullies at BP and other fossil fuel companies and demand they be deprived of their privileged place at the bargaining table, and be stripped of the billions in subsidies and tax relief that keeps the playing field tilted precipitously against alternative energy. Instead of subsidizing oil production, we should tax every barrel to recoup the costs of stationing U.S. troops on foreign soil to protect private oil derricks, pipelines and tankers.

It is also time for people to work locally to transition our towns, cities, counties and states away from an oil-based economy to a “restorative economy,” an economy dedicated to core values of human and environmental health and safety, cultural and biological diversity, and care for commonly held natural resources.

A restorative economy embraces alternative locally based energy, is less extractive and less violent. One need only look at the utter lack of danger presented by a wind farm or solar array, compared to the horrific events in the Gulf, to see the difference.

As importantly, we must place blame for this disaster squarely on the shoulders of big oil. It is not enough to parade the BP board of directors through a congressional hearing. As an environmental activist who has gathered the corpses of oiled birds, and seen firsthand ecosystems wrecked by oil company negligence, and as a child played with tar-covered feet on oil-stained shores, I wonder if it's high time we paraded them to court to face criminal charges before the blinding lights of TV news cameras..

We must put our elected and appointed officials on notice that this is the beginning of the end for fossil fuels. It is time we rejected the morally bankrupt arguments of an industry that is destroying not only our environmental and economic future, but the democratic process.

Vote with your wallet and purse. Sell mutual funds that include fossil fuel securities. Tell charitable foundations, your churches, and higher education institutions to divest portfolios of oil stocks. Invest in alternative energy companies instead. This amounts to an investment in yourself, your community, the environment, and your children’s future. for more information about what Waterkeeper in the Gulf and the Waterkeeper Alliance are doing to respond to the spill go to

Friday, April 30, 2010

A Third Blog Post on an Agenda for a New America

A Tax Shift, Social Capital, and Sustainability

In economic terms, a tax shift would take taxes off labor and capital and put them on the third factor of production--resources, the gifts of nature.
Labor refers to people working. Capital means physical objects created by people, such as buildings, tools, and machinery. The gifts of nature are resources not made by people, such as air, forests, fossil fuels, land, metals, water, a stable climate, and rivers and other habitats. Taxing labor and capital tells businesses and households to scrimp on workers and tools--in other words, to practice underemployment and under-investment. Taxing the gifts of nature (or, more precisely, taxing actions that degrade the gifts of nature) tells people to conserve these gifts.

Taxes on resources correct one of the most glaring flaws of market economies: blindness to environmental costs. Failure to charge for the use of the atmosphere as a receptacle for poisonous gases, for example, results in too much air pollution. Failure to charge for the disruption of watersheds results in too many floods. Yet for individual firms, there is no place in the ledger for the environmental costs of production that fall on others—externalities or costs such as damage of a worker's DNA that causes disease decades later, the draining of a wetland that offers wildlife habitat, or the release of toxic substances so mobile they eventually permeate the breast milk of women. Environmental taxes put these costs--or at least crude monetary approximations of them--on the books. The prospect of aiding both economy and environment has sparked modest tax shifts in the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, and three Scandinavian countries since 1991.

Compared with the rest of the world, European countries have very well-developed "green" fiscal policies. While most of the these are applied to transportation (motor vehicles, gas and diesel), "green taxes" are used to address various other issues such as waste management, packaging, air emissions, fertilizer use, and extend to other market-based incentives such as trading "credits," take-back programs for manufactured goods, deposit-refund schemes, rebates, the removal of perverse subsidies (and introduction of others) and various other programs. While many of these measures were originally used to target certain environmental issues, there has been a trend towards more comprehensive tax reform to shape environmentally responsible practices across the board.

Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Western European countries and Japan have set up commissions to explore the opportunities for and issues surrounding introducing broader green tax shifts. In the three decades up to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, there was growing awareness in Sweden of carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, and the signing of the Rio Declaration pushed them towards more clear commitments. The government had been trying to find the best way to reduce all types of emissions, but the economy had slowed down. Their dilemma was how to do this and still raise employment and also survive in a transforming global system that put increasing pressure on national industries to become more "efficient" by externalizing costs.

Knowing that environmental regulation was unpopular, especially among industry, the government decided to introduce several taxes in 1991. One of these was the carbon tax, levied on a two-tiered basis for two classes of users, household and industrial. They were able to introduce them to households (who depended on this mainly for home heating and transport) because there was broad popular support. Introducing these taxes began to have an effect on heating infrastructure, where the use of biomass increased in local heating districts. It also created new demand for biomass and led to innovations in the field, as well as improvements in other technologies in home heating efficiency.

For industry, which was opposed to the taxes, there were initial exemptions and incremental expansion of taxes. Sweden was among the first countries to initiate the "feebate" system, which was a way to get support from business. The revenue collected from these various taxes was returned to any businesses who increased efficiency of their plants, proportionate to the increase; in other words, the bigger the improvement, the bigger the refund. This would help businesses offset the costs of investing in improved efficiency. Under this feebate system, NOx emissions fell by 35% in the first year alone, and investment in abatement technologies went up accordingly. (This is a situation where heavier polluters are transferring resources to, or subsidizing, lighter polluters--instead of the case where government and public typically subsidize heavy polluters with elevated health care costs and reduced quality of life).

The taxes have influenced emissions even more dramatically on carbon and sulfur than on nitrogen. The tax on sulfur led to a reduction in sulfur content on fuels 50% below the legal requirement and halved SO2 emissions in the last eight years. The total decrease in emissions since 1970 has been over 70%, and Sweden has led the 30% club, in a pledge to reduce SO2 emissions by 1993-95, and other countries such as France, Canada, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and West Germany followed suit, pledging reductions of 40-50% by the mid-nineties.

The effects of these changes are apparent on ordinary lifestyles. Emissions controls are used on cars, appliances are energy efficient, homes are energy conserving, and household and industrial materials are recycled. One of the cleanest garbage-to-fuel plants in Karlstad separates and recycles most of its input and burns the rest for energy. Co-generated steam from the plant provides hot water and heating for 60,000 of the area's residents, and an adjoining landfill feeds a biogas system for additional energy. There is a "solar" village above 58 degrees latitude where households have managed to meet their heat and hot water needs by solar alone for five months of the year, which shows the potential for northern regions to take advantage of the longer days of summer. Taxes on nuclear energy have also been part of a plan to phase out nuclear power by 2010, while retaining limits on hydroelectric power. Over the years these programs have evolved and extended to nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, scrapping cars, gravel extraction and others.
In 2000, a broad tax "shift" created revenue and raised employment levels through job skill training. The word "shift" is important because while the goal may be have been aimed at raising revenue, it has also redirected the flow of money through the Swedish economy where the tax burden is heaviest on those who exact the greater costs on society. For example, some of the taxes on home heating and electricity have been combined with offsetting tax cuts, which include lower income taxes and social security contributions.

Social capital:

Social capital is a concept in business, economics, organizational behavior, political science, public health, sociology and natural resources management that refers to connections within and between social networks. Though there are a variety of related definitions, which have been described as "something of a cure-all" for the problems of modern society, they tend to share the core idea "that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups"

Triple bottom line or People, Planet, Profit:

The process by which we meet our national needs is called “economic development. “There are significant differences between economic growth and economic development. The term "economic growth" refers to the increase (or growth) of a specific measure such as real national income, gross domestic product, or per capita income. National income or product is commonly expressed in terms of a measure of the aggregate value-added output of the domestic economy called gross domestic product (GDP). When the GDP of a nation rises economists refer to it as economic growth. The term economic development on the other hand, implies much more. It typically refers to improvements in a variety of indicators such as literacy rates, life expectancy, and poverty rates. GDP is a specific measure of economic welfare that does not take into account important aspects such as leisure time, environmental quality, freedom, or social justice. Economic growth of any specific measure is not a sufficient definition of economic development.” A critical examination must include not just economic processes and institutions, but also the theology of “growth,” and ecological, cultural, social, and political processes.

"Society must cease to look upon "progress" as something desirable. `Eternal Progress’ is a nonsensical myth. What must be implemented is not a `steadily expanding economy,’ but a zero growth economy, a stable economy. Economic growth is not only unnecessary but ruinous. Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn


Sustainability provides a framework for the integration of environmental, economic policies, and development strategies. It recognizes that economic development is essential to satisfy human needs and improve the quality of human life. But economic development must be based on the efficient and environmentally responsible use of all of society’s scarce resources – our natural, human, and economic resources.

“Sustained growth” is a cruel falsehood if it just means increasing production and consumption: on a finite planet, ultimately such growth is a physical impossibility. Talking about growth with no context is meaningless: growth can be good or bad or irrelevant; it must be judged in terms of its effects on people and nature, not in terms of the cash value of goods and services. Increased spending on nuclear weapons and increased spending on preventive health care services both contribute to the Gross National Product (GPN), but only one is of any value in a society concerned with human welfare.”

In the new American Agenda – government, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, and consumers must cooperate to find ways to finance the inevitable transition from sunset industries (an industry in decline or one that has passed its peak) to the sectors of a “conservation economy” that promotes economic relationships which maintain ecological integrity while advancing social equity. In a conservation economy, economic arrangements of all kinds are gradually redesigned so that they restore, rather than deplete, natural capital and social capital. The fundamental needs of people - and the ecosystem services that sustain them - are the starting point for a different kind of economic prosperity that can endure.

A conservation economy can be imagined as a healthy mosaic of bioregional economies forged within coherent units. Even in a globalizing economy, diverse bioregional economies that are more self-sufficient in meeting their own needs will be more competitive and less vulnerable.

Sunset industries are those most tied to carbon while the conservation economy is one that embodies the nurturing of diversity and productivity in natural systems; that uses renewable resources and eliminates waste in built systems; that fulfills social and environmental goals to create market opportunities in economic systems; and helps citizens to understand the whole in order to improve social systems.