Superstorm Sandy anniversary

This week, there are a lot of reports on the one year anniversary of superstorm Sandy, much of it revolving around how slow and difficult re-building has been and how much is left to do. While these reports are true and I understand the frustrations, the situation should not have been a surprise. Recovery from major disasters is usually slow. Compare today’s New Orleans to pre-Katrina. I live in a town that was affected by the flooding of the Susquehanna with tropical storm Lee in September, 2011. Some of the FEMA buyouts in my county are just going through now, and probably wouldn’t have happened at all if Sandy hadn’t been so devastating that it mustered additional federal disaster recovery funding for New York State.

The sad truth is that many homes and businesses that were destroyed should not be re-built in the same location, even if they are elevated. For decades, we have been building on barrier islands, river banks, shorelines, flood plains, hillsides that are at high risk for landslides, former marshes and wetlands, and all manner of unstable topography. We built various flood walls and levees and drainage systems and sea walls and planted wind breaks and tried to convince ourselves that we could control nature, but it is becoming increasingly evident how foolish we were. Barrier islands are meant to be temporary landforms, breaking and reforming when they are battered by winds and waves. The sand on the shores is meant to migrate. Floods are meant to deposit new soil on their floodplains and to change the path of the river bed. It’s why mature rivers develop bends and meanders. Marshes and other wetlands absorb some of the excess precipitation to blunt the effects of large storms and floods.

We got away with building where we shouldn’t have and interfering with the natural topography for a while, dealing with extreme weather events when they happened rarely, and might have gotten away with it for even longer, had we not been burning fossil fuels with abandon. Given the realities of climate change and the fact that, even if we finally muster the will to stop using fossil fuels quickly, the planet will continue to heat with increased severe weather events for decades to come,  we need to stop doing the things that got us into this mess in the first place.  It means not building at all in some especially vulnerable areas and building to strict codes regarding elevation and positioning of infrastructure in others.  Restoring wetlands and salt marshes. Increasing permeable areas so there is less run-off to deal with.  The list of changes we need to make is long.

Most important of all, we must stop all incentives, subsidies, tax breaks, regulatory loopholes, etc. for fossil fuels. It’s (well past) time that we transitioned to 100% renewable fuel sources. We have the technology to do so. There are scientific studies outlining plans to do so, including one specific to New York State.  http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/NewYorkWWSEnPolicy.pdf  Bonus:  Offshore wind turbines can help blunt some of the force of hurricane winds.

We will have to weather more horrible storms and more instances of sustained bad weather, such as the stationary front that caused nine inches of rain and then-record flooding in my area in 2006 and the recent stalled storm system that recently devastated the Boulder CO area. And we will have to re-build, but we have to do it with an eye to what will be more secure in the future. And we have to keep the vast majority of the fossil fuels in the ground. No more excuses. It’s much, much too late for that.

Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All”

Yesterday, I took the opportunity to see the documentary Inequality for All with Robert Reich. (Information and trailer at inequalityforall.com.)

During the film, he is shown a number of times teaching a course on income inequality in the United States at University of California – Berkeley. Reich appears to be a great teacher. I was especially impressed with his ability to make the complexities of the topic understandable not only to his students in the filled-beyond-capacity lecture hall but also to a general movie-going audience who may be lacking in knowledge of economic theory. The documentary also includes the stories of individuals from across the income spectrum, making it easy to relate to your own situation and the conditions in your neighborhood, region, and around the country.

My husband and I graduated from college during the Reagan recession, which features in the income inequality graph as the start of the huge rise of inequality. Our daughters graduated from college in the aftermath of the 2007 meltdown, which was also a peak of income inequality, equalling that of 1928 before the 1929 market collapse. Reich’s graphs and explanations made sense not only as data and analysis but also in our lived experience of the economy and the concerns we have for our extended family’s future.

Like Robert Reich, I am shorter than average. The implications of being short appear throughout the film and are handled with humor and grace – the practicalities of driving a Mini and of carrying his own box to stand on at the lectern so he won’t disappear behind the microphone, his own gentle joking about his height, the visuals of Robert Reich and (the very tall) Alan Simpson hosting a television show together, what it is like to be picked on as a short child by taller classmates, and finding protectors. The most poignant moment in the film for me was Reich telling the story of one of these older friends who helped protect him, who was subsequently tortured and killed while engaging in civil rights activism in the South in the 1960s. Reich’s passion for social justice and for fighting against all forms of inequality are so evident in his decades of work and in his writings; I appreciated hearing him tell the story of the roots of that passion.

Because this is a documentary, it may be more difficult to find a screening, but I would urge people of every economic level to see this film and enter into the discussion of how the current situation intersects with our civic and moral values and our history and what our path forward as a nation and a society should be. Thank you, Robert Reich, for sharing your knowledge, passion, and vision with us!

Global Frackdown

I attended the Binghamton event for Global Frackdown yesterday. It was a great local event, one of 22 in New York State, which was the most of any state and more than any other country. We had a few gas supporters there, but I chose not to strike up a conversation with them. One disadvantage of our local paper using Facebook as a comment platform is that my name and face could be recognized by some of the people who are nasty to me online; I had my daughter with me and was not in the mood to have her exposed to someone trashtalking her mother. I was particularly upset that the pro-frackers chose to start using a bullhorn/siren to disrupt the first young, female college student who spoke, rather than the three men who spoke before her.

As part of the run-up to Global Frackdown day, I had written a brief comment to this piece on the Huffington Post:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-ruffalo/global-frackdown_b_4121582.html. I have been having an exchange with another commenter. Below is his comment and an extended version of my reply. (I had to break it in two and edit it to fit HuffPo’s word count.)

Feynmanscat:  They had a about 100 people. They also had supporters in that group. How does Oil & Gas affect people in Binghamton?

Me:  There were a handful of drilling supporters there, who tried to disrupt the speakers with a bullhorn, which wasn’t too swift of them, given that the mayor of Binghamton was there, so police arrived quickly. Permits were granted for the Global Frackdown event, and, while all were welcome to attend with their signs, none are allowed to disrupt a permitted event.

The effects in the Binghamton area are more from gas development than oil; given our geography, there is little oil or even natural gas liquids in our rock strata. There are some conventional gas wells in our area and significant gas infrastructure, including the Millennium pipeline, which, even though it is new, has had problems with faulty welds and leaks. Our county borders PA, where high volume horizontal hydrofracking is underway. The current impacts include increased truck traffic; transport and disposal of drill cuttings in NY landfills, some of which exceed the allowed amount of radioactivity for conventional landfill disposal; transport and treatment of wastewater, which also needs special handling; increased air pollution; and tensions within the community between those who favor opening NY to HVHF and those who do not.

Potential areas of concern include the hash that the NYSDEC has made of the environmental impact statement process for HVHF, including the current problems with the secretive health review that was belatedly thrown at DOH Commissioner Shah; the compulsory integration statute that would force unwilling landowners to allow drilling under their land if only 60% of a 640-acre spacing unit is leased; the status of local bans, moratoria, and zoning regulations; pipeline and compressor stations build-out, including the extensive use of eminent domain for the profit of private companies rather than for public works; the possible permitting of LNG facilities; the possibility that the current moratorium on HVHF would be lifted and expose our communities to negative environmental, health, and social impacts; and the risks of global climate change, particularly the increase in flooding danger, as we have suffered two historic floods in our area in 2006 and 2011, from which we are still recovering.

IBM

My relief over the last minute legislation from Congress last night is being tempered by two things. First is fear that the Republicans still have not learned their lesson that their job is to cooperate in governing, not obstruct it. I’m trying to develop hope that the budget conference committee will finally arrive at a more just and equitable budget by December, so that sequestration ends and other badly needed legislation can be debated and enacted, but I keep thinking about the Supercommittee that was supposed to have solved this because sequestration was too horrible a threat and didn’t.

The second is that, on a day when I expected the stock market would be trending up in relief at last night’s deal, IBM is tanking, down twelve points at the moment, after earnings fell short of expectations. IBM is very important in my area, which is its original birthplace. Virtually everyone who lives here has a connection to IBM, personally or through family, friends, and/or neighbors. For decades, employees here were loyal to the company and the company was loyal to them. That all changed when Gerstner became CEO. Instead of being valued assets to the company, employees became expenses, to be gotten rid of to cut costs or replaced by lower-wage workers overseas. In our area, workers retained their traditional loyalty to IBM longer than in other parts of the country, despite sale of divisions, offshoring, “resource actions” AKA terminations, buy-outs, the dissolution of the pension program, cuts in benefits, continual monkeying around with the salary plan, sale of IBM properties, and other indignities. Now, the last vestiges of that loyalty have crumbled, even here in IBM’s birthplace. Wall Street didn’t help, cheering every time more lay-offs were announced or more stock bought back. Instead of the traditional long view that IBM took, everything became about the next quarter and projecting a year ahead became long-range planning.

Today, the pigeons came home to roost.

Analysts are finally realizing how much of IBM’s gains have been from “financial engineering” rather than from the traditional strength of the company, its superior products, backed by the exceptional training, intelligence, and dedication of its committed workforce. The question is has IBM gone so far away from its traditional core values that it will not be able to regain its footing and continue as a driving technology force in the coming years. IBM workers here will continue to work hard for their customers, despite being overburdened with work as more and more workers are laid off with no reduction in the amount of work that needs to be accomplished. Will upper management finally notice?

gospel about the healing of the ten lepers

This past Sunday’s gospel reading was Luke 17:11-19, the story of Jesus healing ten lepers. The homily was quite good, focusing on communication and gratitude, but, most often, preaching on this reading centers around only the Samaritan being grateful, while the other nine were not because they did not return immediately to thank Jesus. I have long thought that this was being overly judgmental, as we do not know what happened to the other nine. I prefer not to use the silence of the gospel to assume the worst.

Year ago, I wrote a letter to a columnist from the (Syracuse) Catholic Sun about this gospel reading. I wrote about how the other nine (presumably) Jewish men who continued on to show themselves to the priests were doing as Jesus told them to do, acting in accordance with Jewish law, which had previously forced them, as lepers, to keep a distance from the community and even from their own families. Only by showing themselves to the priests could they rejoin their family and community and go the the temple or synagogue again. They may very well have given thanks to God and lived lives overflowing with gratitude. They may have found Jesus at a later time to thank him. They may have become his disciples. We simply do not know.

Maybe this healing story shares an underlying theme with some of the parables, such as the the Good Samaritan. Observance of the letter of the law prevents the priest and Levite from helping the man who was robbed and beaten. For them, the Law takes precedence over love of neighbor and showing compassion.

The columnist did not appreciate my insights, but perhaps you will…

Congressional dysfunction

I have been trying to stave off ever-growing discouragement/dread about the government shutdown and debt ceiling situation. I am trying to be hopeful that the government will be re-opened, the debt ceiling raised, and an actual non-sequester budget produced out of conference committee, as though Congress actually functioned as it is designed.

I’m trying, but it is a huge challenge.

The last several years have been filled with discouragement as the Republicans have demonstrated over and over that they are incapable of meaningfully participating in governing. How else to explain the hundreds of filibusters that have prevented legislation from moving forward, even when the majority of Senators support it, the string of do-or-die moments with the budget and debt ceiling, the failure to conference on the budget, the failure of the supercommittee to avoid sequestration, the failure to accept the Affordable Care Act as law, the seeming misunderstanding of basic economics, and on and on?

We voters elect our Congress to pass legislation on our behalf. They are to “promote the general welfare” as our Constitution requires. Any Representative or Senator who is not capable of fulfilling this mission should resign to make way for the election of someone who is.

Letter to President Obama

As predicted, things got hectic, but I have been wanting to share the following letter that I sent to President Obama after his visit to Binghamton University to talk about higher education. Of course, we fracktivists took the opportunity to talk about the perils of unconventional fossil fuel development. We rallied on campus, had speakers, and held signs and chanted as the presidential motorcade passed. Because we did not have a forum to meet the president directly, I wrote a letter after the event. I realize the president won’t see it, but hope it will get be another addition to the growing file of opposition to fossil fuels, especially unconventional ones.

August 26, 2013

Dear President Obama,

I am very pleased that you came to visit my hometown, Vestal, New York, home to Binghamton University, on Friday to discuss the affordability and quality of higher education. You and I are the same age and we each have two wonderful daughters.  Another thing you, Michelle, and I have in common is that we all were lifted up and set on a service-oriented path for our adult lives by outstanding opportunities at institutions of higher learning. Obviously, the particulars of our journeys are very different; I went from the tiny town of Monroe Bridge, Massachusetts to Smith College. However, for us and countless others, the critical and creative thinking that is fostered by college/university education has been the basis for many important decisions in both private and public life.

One of the things I most appreciated about attending a liberal arts institution was the encouragement to study many subjects outside one’s major. One of my favorite departments at Smith was the geology department, in which I studied basic geology, environmental science, and meteorology and climatology. I studied those subjects because of personal interest, but, in recent years, that background has been important in my role as an engaged citizen and social justice advocate.

I was one of hundreds of New Yorkers who greeted your motorcade on the Binghamton University campus with signs asking you to ban high volume hydraulic fracturing for fossil fuels, “fracking” for short. One side of my sign pictured a traffic light with the caption, “Stop fracking. Go green energy.” I know you have called for the elimination of tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuel companies for a long time and share your disappointment that they have not yet been enacted. I also know that you consider fracked methane to be a less damaging bridge fuel to the renewable energy future. I disagree on a number of grounds, but will only address climate change here.  

As you may know, if more than 3.2% of methane produced escapes into the atmosphere, methane becomes worse for the climate than coal when burned to produce electricity. Recent scientific studies show high rates of leakage from gas drilling basins. For example, this study by NOAA/CIREShttp://cires.colorado.edu/news/press/2013/methaneleaks.html shows leakage just from the drilling and immediate production in the Uintah basin in Utah at 6+%. Recent and ongoing studies have detected thousands of methane leaks from the distribution systems under the streets of Boston, Manhattan, and Washington DC. A recent report completed for Sen. Markey shows that consumers are being charged for the methane lost to leakage: http://www.markey.senate.gov/documents/markey_lost_gas_report.pdf  Methane is lost through venting and flaring, the most egregious current example being the massive venting and flaring in conjunction with Bakken shale oil drilling in North Dakota and Montana. There are also leaks in transmission lines and from gas processing and transmission activities such as compressor stations. Three examples from my own area:  1) The Millennium Pipeline was cited for methane leakage and faulty welds in 2011 even though it had only been in operation since 2009.  2) An explosion occurred at a Windsor NY compressor station on July 23, 2012 when lightning hit a vent stack and ignited methane being vented. This venting of methane was described as part of normal operations.  3) We smelled gas in the street near our Vestal home and had a patch of grass near the curb die. NYSEG confirmed a methane leak but said the wait to fix it would be months. It became an emergency situation one night during a heavy rainstorm when the methane leaking underground began to follow the lines into the basements of two of our neighbors’ homes.  Over a year, and several other emergency repairs later, the lines in the street and into our homes were finally replaced, along with some of our meters. Months later, we had an energy audit performed, which detected a leak in the fitting of our new outdoor meter. I realize these personal stories are anecdotal, but they illustrate that methane leakage is common in the distribution system and that the industry does not deem these leaks particularly important to quickly repair or to prevent from occurring in the first place.

Current evidence makes it impossible to believe the industry’s contention that only 1% leakage is occurring. Rather, it seems that the current increase in unconventional fossil fuel production, particularly of methane, is causing damaging amount of methane emissions, especially given the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas in the critical twenty year timeframe, during which we are attempting to keep atmospheric carbon below 450 ppm and total global warming below two degrees Celsius.

To achieve this goal, international climate scientists agree that the world can burn less than a third of the known conventional reserves of fossil fuel. Given that, it makes the most sense to leave unconventional fossil fuel carbon safely sequestered underground. That would mean no further development of mountain top removal coal, shale oil/gas, tar sands, coal bed methane, off-shore Arctic drilling, etc. and using a third of the remaining conventional reserves as a transitional fuel source as we move quickly to a renewable energy world.

The flip side of my sign dealt with our local role in that transition. It read,  “Binghamton U:  Proud Home to Solar Lab and SmartEnergy. Not Fracking!”  The existing Solar Lab has developed a thin-film solar cell that does not use any rare earth elements. The SmartEnergy Center is currently being built as part of the SUNY 2020 initiative and will conduct research in green energy production, efficiency, and storage technologies. Meanwhile, in the City of Binghamton, a High Tech Incubator project is underway. We hope that some of the research from the University will be used to start new companies to produce renewable energy products for New York, the United States, and the world. Broome County, the birthplace of Link Flight Simulation and IBM, has a long history of innovation and we hope to carry that legacy forward into the 21st century green economy. I also hope that we can convince Governor Cuomo to make New York a leader in renewable energy by adopting a plan such as this: http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/NewYorkWWSEnPolicy.pdf.

I truly appreciate how much you have already done to move our country toward greater energy efficiency and renewable energy production through the many green initiatives that grew out of the stimulus plan, the new CAFE mileage standards, the incoming regulations on power plant carbon emissions, the White House solar array installation, and others. I also appreciate you using the power of the presidency to bring the issue of climate change to the fore in national attention. I do, however, feel that the fossil fuel indsutry and the scientists they fund have misled you on the place of unconventional fossil fuels in the transition to the clean energy economy. I hope that you and your administration will consult with independent scientists to reassess the role of fracking and other unconventional fossil fuel extraction and, instead of “all of the above,” choose “go all in” for renewables.

Very truly yours,

Joanne Corey