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Letter from Detroit: And now for a completely different kind of Canadian pipeline

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Ricardo Bernardo

I was loading boxes of water onto a truck in Detroit yesterday when I heard the news: A convoy from the Council of Canadians was coming over the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor, bearing gifts of water. "Really, Canada?" I thought. "We're practically in each other's backyards. Basically, the only thing separating us from you is water."

That's not the kind of water you can drink, though. And also: Protest is storytelling, just like the rest of politics. I had been interviewing some people downtown about Detroit's water crisis, and they were all going to see the water arrive, because why not? When we were done with the last water delivery, we walked down to the Spirit of Detroit sculpture, where the convoy would be arriving.

Campus Martius Park was packed with people celebrating Detroit's birthday, which I had not even thought of the city as having. I passed a huge banner, unfurled across the modernist facade of one of the tall buildings on Michigan Avenue. Decorated with neon confetti and party hats, it looked like the kind of banner you might buy for a little kid's birthday party, but on a colossal scale.

"Happy 313th birthday, Detroit!" it read. "You don't look a day over 300!"

Read more: Cities, Politics

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Want to support clean energy? Fight for voting rights

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Nikki Burch

As Jelani Cobb wrote recently in The New Yorker: “The past year has offered an odd object lesson in historical redundancy. The 50th anniversaries of major points in the civil-rights movement tick by at the same time that Supreme Court decisions and political maneuvering in state legislatures offer reminders of what, exactly, the movement fought against.”

The most recognizable example of what Cobb is referring to is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, which severely weakened the heralded Voting Rights Act just weeks before we recognized the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington that made the civil rights law possible. Earlier this month, we recognized the 50th of the Civil Rights Act, and next year will mark the half-century mark of the Voting Rights Act itself. And yet equal protection for people of color seems to be moving backwards.

Why should this matter to the average white (green) American? Well, for many reasons. But one of them is this: In our ever-browning America, empowering black and brown voters is absolutely necessary to make the transition to clean energy.

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On climate change, Republicans are even more backward than oil companies

old white guy
Shutterstock

Ask your average liberal or environmentalist to name the primary impediment to action on climate change, and the response will probably be: “Easy. It’s the fossil fuel industry.”

It's not that easy, however. The fossil fuel companies are actually more accepting of climate reality than virtually every Republican in Congress.

That’s the conclusion I came to after watching a presentation by Cho-Oon Khong, chief political analyst at the Shell Oil company at the Aspen Ideas Festival last month. Khong called a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius “the flu,” leading to heat waves, sea-level rise, and 10 to 20 percent less arable land. “But the worst effects are beyond that limit, when you start to see feedback loops,” he warned.

Accepting the 2 degree Celsius target is the same thing as accepting the recommendations of the global scientific community. Khong laid out possible world energy portfolios for keeping warming to 2 degrees. None would thrill environmentalists, as they rely to varying degrees on increases in nuclear energy, natural gas, and the deployment of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). But he nonetheless acknowledged that we needed to change our ways.

“We have to talk about using any fossil fuel more efficiently, and CCS,” he said. Afterwards, he told Grist, “I think it would be foolish to dispute the science [of climate change].”

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American idyll

North Dakota’s ag commissioner race oughta be on Broadway

amazing cowboy man
Tom Kelly

In the struggle over North America's energy boom, some tales are more suitable for Broadway musical treatment than others. But could there be another story more perfect for song and dance than that of the race for North Dakota agricultural commissioner?

The agricultural commissioner does pretty much what you expect -- handle permits for agricultural lands, which, in the case of North Dakota, is mostly ranchland. Since part of permitting grazing territory is making sure that said land remains safe for grazing, the agricultural commissioner also has sway over drilling permits and oversight -- a lot of sway.

Now that North Dakota is producing more oil than some OPEC members, and oil companies are planning to drill 35,000 new wells across North Dakota in the next 15 years, the race for this relatively homespun political office has suddenly become the stuff of political melodrama.

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Knockout

How a town in Maine is blocking an Exxon tar-sands pipeline

tar sands protestors in Maine
350.org

Citizens trying to stop the piping of tar-sands oil through their community wore blue “Clear Skies” shirts at a city council meeting in South Portland, Maine, this week. But they might as well have been wearing boxing gloves. The small city struck a mighty blow against Canadian tar-sands extraction.

“It’s been a long fight,” said resident Andy Jones after a 6-1 city council vote on Monday to approve the Clear Skies Ordinance, which will block the loading of heavy tar-sands bitumen onto tankers at the city’s port.

The measure is intended to stop ExxonMobil and partner companies from bringing Albertan tar-sands oil east through an aging pipeline network to the city’s waterfront. Currently, the pipeline transports conventional oil west from Portland to Canada; the companies want to reverse its flow.

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Detroit will stop shutting off people’s water — for now

water-protest
Light Brigading

Monday morning, the Detroit Water and Sewerage District (DWSD) announced that it would stop shutting off people's water, at least for now. What was it, in this infrastructural showdown I wrote about last week, that caused the change of heart? Was it the condemnation from the U.N.? The protestors blocking utility shut-off trucks? The giant march on Friday, featuring Mark Ruffalo and a megaphone? The children holding signs that read "We need water to brush our teeth”?

The DWSD isn't saying. Here's what it is saying: "We are pausing for 15 days to refocus our efforts on trying to identify people who we have missed in the process who may qualify for the Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program." That's according to DWSD spokesperson Bill Johnson in a phone interview this morning.

The Water Assistance Program is a long-defunct but recently revived program that allows Detroit residents who are below the federal poverty line to keep their water running as long as they agree to pay a fraction of the overall bill each month. The program was suspended in 2012 when all of the people who managed it at the Detroit Department of Human Services were laid off. The program continued to accumulate money, Johnson says, but there was no one around to help pass it out. This June, DWSD signed a contract with THAW -- a nonprofit that helps Michigan residents with their heating bills -- to restart the Water Assistance Program.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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It’s time for Obama to stop selling off our land and water to fossil fuel companies

protest sign: "Obama: This is your crude awakening"
350.org

In its ongoing effort to make life difficult for environment reporters, the Obama administration once again announced major environmental news on a Friday. This time, however, it was not a measure to protect the environment, but to destroy it. The Department of Interior decided to allow seismic testing off the southern Atlantic coast from Delaware to Florida. This is a precursor to possible oil and gas drilling, to determine what fossil fuel resources are there.

It is an illustration of one of Obama’s biggest failures on climate change. And it points to the direction that environmentalists need to go next: call for a moratorium on all federal leasing for fossil fuel development.

Green groups and green leaders in Congress attacked Interior's move. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a top climate hawk, issued a statement saying, “it just doesn’t seem worth putting our oceans and coasts at risk.” The NRDC called the decision “a major assault on our ocean.”

There are four big reasons to oppose this seismic testing:

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Fracking fight headed for the ballot in Colorado

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Shutterstock

Colorado voters will likely get a chance to weigh in on fracking in November -- and that puts Democrats on the ballot in a tight spot.

The fracking boom has bolstered Colorado's economy, and twisted its politics. Even many Democrats advocate for oil and gas interests, including Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall, both of whom are up for reelection this year. But many people living near the wells complain of contaminated air and water, noise, health problems, and other adverse effects.

As Colorado cities have begun trying to ban fracking, the state government has sued them, arguing that only the state has that authority. Rep. Jared Polis (D), whose congressional district includes many of those communities north of Denver, is spending his own money to promote a ballot initiative to outlaw fracking less than 2,000 feet from a residence, up from the currently allowed 500 feet. The gas industry says that would amount to a fracking ban in many areas. Polis is also supporting an initiative that would make more stringent local environmental regulations override conflicting weaker state rules, which could allow communities to outlaw fracking.

Hickenlooper and other state lawmakers were trying to broker a legislative compromise that would keep the initiatives off the ballot. The governor's proposal would have placed some additional restrictions on fracking but made it clear that localities couldn’t ban it altogether. But last week, the negotiations fell apart and Hickenlooper announced that there would be no special summer legislative session to pass a fracking bill. Polis then declared that he will move forward with collecting the signatures needed to place his proposals on the ballot.

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Listen up, EPA!

Feds move to restrict neonic pesticides — well, one fed at least

Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge
Byron Chin

So far the EPA has refused to ban use of neonicotinoid insecticides -- despite mounting evidence that they kill bees and other wildlife, despite a ban in the European Union, despite a lawsuit filed by activists and beekeepers.

But if the EPA is somehow still unclear on the dangers posed by neonics, it need only talk to the official who oversees federal wildlife refuges in the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Ocean.

Kevin Foerster, a regional boss with the National Wildlife Refuge System, directed his staff this month to investigate where neonics are being used in the refuges they manage -- and to put an end to their use. Foerster’s office is worried that farming contractors that grow grasses and other forage crops for wildlife and corn and other grains for human consumption on refuge lands are using neonic pesticides and neonic-treated seeds. There are also fears that agency staff are inadvertently using plants treated with the poisons in restoration projects.

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Washington state just lopped up to $2,500 off the cost of solar panels. Here’s how.

solar panel rainbow
Steve Jurvetson

All new technology, no matter how innovative, arrives in a world of pre-existing laws and regulations. But not all technology catches the same breaks. A company like Lyft or Uber can do its thing right out there in the open for a surprisingly long time, despite being -- essentially -- appified versions of such already-illegal innovations as dollar vans and jitneys.

By comparison, solar energy, despite having made leaps and bounds both technologically and finance-wise, can't show up at the block party without bringing down a lawsuit, a law, or some kind of extra fee.

Yet those impediments, intentional and unintentional, are beginning to remove themselves. A decision this week by the Building Code Council in Washington state is a prime example.