THE NORDIC COUNTRIES KNOW HOW TO CREATE SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITIES
The Natural Step for Communities
[Rachel's introduction: The Swedish eco-municipality movement, and the
Natural Step, have pointed the way toward sustainable communities.
Though Sweden is not America, we can learn important lessons from our
By Tim Montague
Sweden has a penchant for safety and cleanliness. Swedes invented the
Volvo, one of the safest automobiles. Volvos are built to minimize harm
to passengers during accidents, and they are built without toxic flame
retardants. Swedes invented the safety- match and dynamite too -- much
safer than the alternative it replaced, black powder. Recently, Sweden
has become known for its innovations in sustainable development --
Sweden recently declared
that it will create an energy and transportation economy that runs free
of oil by the year 2020. But the groundwork for this radical
declaration was laid in the 1980s by Sweden's eco-municipality
movement, which successfully incorporated sustainability into municipal
planning and development.
Before former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland became a
household name in international environmental circles, Sweden and
Finland were stimulating local economic growth in ways that were good
for people and the planet. The town of Overtornea
-- Sweden's first eco-municipality -- was an early adopter of what we
now call sustainable development, which "meets the needs of the present
without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their
own needs."[The Brundtland Report, 1987].
Simultaneously, The Natural Step (TNS) was being developed by Swedish scientist Karl-Henrik Robert.
The Natural Step began as a way for individual companies to create more
environmentally and socially responsible practices; see Rachel's News #667, #668, and #676.
And TNS was quickly embraced by Swedish planners, government officials
and residents who wanted to achieve their goals AND minimize harm to
the environment and human health.
The Swedish economist and planner Torbjorn Lahti was one of the visionaries in Overtornea
-- a town of 5,000 that had 25% unemployment and had lost 20% of its
population during the previous 20 years. Lahti and his colleagues
engaged the community -- getting participation from 10% of residents --
to create a shared vision of a local economy based on renewable energy,
public transportation, organic agriculture, and rural land
preservation. In 2001 the town became 100% free of fossil fuels. Public
transportation is free. The region is now the largest organic farming
area in Sweden and more than 200 new businesses have sprung up.
The story of the eco-municipality movement is documented in the new book, The Natural Step for Communities; How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices (2004; ISBN 0865714916) written by American planner Sarah James
and Torbjorn Lahti. Today there are more than 60 eco-municipalities in
Sweden -- representing 20 percent of the population -- and this
movement for social and ecological sanity has spread throughout Norway,
Finland and Denmark as well.
Here in North America, cities like Whistler, British Columbia, Portland, Oregon, and Santa Monica,
California are on the bleeding-green edge with city-wide master plans
in which sustainability is more than just a buzzword. These cities are
making the transition to renewable energy, mass-transit, green
building, zero waste and open-space preservation. As a report card
on Santa Monica's progress shows, they have a long way to go,
especially on the social-justice front, to meet the Brundtland Report
definition of sustainability. But they are trending in the right
direction. They are trying!
What is the Natural Step for Communities and how does it work?
-- which is another lens for sustainability -- the Natural Step (TNS)
says that the decision-making process must be inclusive and
participatory. TNS recognizes that the communities we live in will be
self-sustaining only when resources are justly distributed. You can
have the greenest buildings, the cleanest energy in the world, and the
best public transportation. But without a just social system, the
community will not achieve sustainability.
The Natural Step has four 'system conditions' which, when achieved,
will create sustainable conditions. In a sustainable society, nature is
not subject to systematically increasing
1. concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth's crust;
2. concentrations of substances produced by society;
3. degradation by physical means
4. and, in that society human needs are met.
In other words, we should minimize harm to the earth and human health;
we should use alternatives to fossil fuels, toxic metals, and other
persistent toxic substances. We should achieve zero waste (or darn
near). And we should protect and restore nature and the ecosystem
services it provides. But most importantly, we should meet basic human
needs for food, shelter, education and healthcare. I would add that
basic human needs include a social environment free of social isolation
bred of racism and classism, an environment that nurtures and respects
According to The Natural Step for Communities, social justice is a
prerequisite that will either allow or prevent the other system
conditions from being achieved. And while TNS for Communities is rich
with examples of towns and cities that have improved their physical and
natural environments, the examples of improved social environments are
fewer and less concrete.
The indigenous Sami people
-- a trans-arctic people living in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia
-- are struggling to hold on to their traditional reindeer herding
culture which is being crowded out by logging, development and
environmental degradation. While some groups of Sami -- as suggested by
TNS for Communities -- are transitioning to an economy based on
eco-tourism, the growth of that phenomenon isn't necessarily socially,
economically and environmentally sustainable. If the traditional Sami
culture dies, then this movement has failed.
While there are obvious technological fixes to some of our
environmental woes -- like wind energy and electric vehicles -- solving
the issues of institutional racism are not specifically addressed by
the Natural Step. Still, I believe TNS for Communities does hold
several important pearls of wisdom for all cultures.
** Begin and guide a planning process with a community-defined vision
of a desired future (set goals; involve residents in the process).
** Combine vision, planning, and action from the start and throughout
the planning process (assess alternatives and choose the best one; pick
the low-hanging fruit and dive into real projects that improve lives).
** Include the full range of community interests, values, and
perspectives in a meaningful way (involve those most affected; use
open, democratic decision-making).
** Plan in cycles, not just one linear pass (learn from your mistakes and oversights; correct course accordingly).
** Focus on finding agreement, not on resolving disagreement (consider the positive).
** Lead from the side (involve those most affected: let residents be the experts).
There is mounting evidence
that the Nordic model -- including Sweden and Finland -- of free
education, affordable healthcare, and cradle- to-grave social services
COMBINED with high rates of investment in industrial research and
development produces a high standard of living and a vibrant economy.
As we begin to acknowledge that the social determinants of health are
MORE important than purely environmental factors, those of us who are
building a movement for a sustainable urban environment have much to
learn from the Natural Step and the eco-village movement.
From: Scientific American
October 16, 2006
THE SOCIAL WELFARE STATE, BEYOND IDEOLOGY
Are higher taxes and strong social "safety nets" antagonistic to a
prosperous market economy? The evidence is now in.
[Rachel's introduction: In 1944, economist Friedrich von Hayek argued
that high taxes create the "road to serfdom." But now an abundance of
scientific evidence reveals that Von Hayek was wrong. In strong and
vibrant democracies, a generous social-welfare state is not a road to
serfdom but rather to high levels of satisfaction, fairness, economic
equality, and international competitiveness.]
By Jeffrey D. Sachs
One of the great challenges of sustainable development is to combine
society's desires for economic prosperity and social security. For
decades economists and politicians have debated how to reconcile the
undoubted power of markets with the reassuring protections of social
insurance. America's supply-siders claim that the best way to achieve
well-being for America's poor is by spurring rapid economic growth and
that the higher taxes needed to fund high levels of social insurance
would cripple prosperity. Austrian-born free-market economist Friedrich August von Hayek suggested in the 1940s that high taxation would be a "road to serfdom," a threat to freedom itself.
Most of the debate in the U.S. is clouded by vested interests and by
ideology. Yet there is by now a rich empirical record to judge these
issues scientifically. The evidence may be found by comparing a group
of relatively free-market economies that have low to moderate rates of
taxation and social outlays with a group of social-welfare states that
have high rates of taxation and social outlays.
Not coincidentally, the low-tax, high-income countries are mostly
English-speaking ones that share a direct historical lineage with
19th-century Britain and its theories of economic laissez-faire.
These countries include Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the
U.K. and the U.S. The high-tax, high-income states are the Nordic social democracies,
notably Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, which have been governed
by left-of-center social democratic parties for much or all of the
post-World War II era. They combine a healthy respect for market forces
with a strong commitment to antipoverty programs. Budgetary outlays for
social purposes average around 27 percent of gross domestic product
(GDP) in the Nordic countries and just 17 percent of GDP in the
Friedrich Von Hayek was wrong
On average, the Nordic countries outperform the Anglo-Saxon ones on
most measures of economic performance. Poverty rates are much lower
there, and national income per working-age population is on average
higher. Unemployment rates are roughly the same in both groups, just
slightly higher in the Nordic countries. The budget situation is
stronger in the Nordic group, with larger surpluses as a share of GDP.
The Nordic countries maintain their dynamism despite high taxation in
several ways. Most important, they spend lavishly on research and
development and higher education. All of them, but especially Sweden
and Finland, have taken to the sweeping revolution in information and
communications technology and leveraged it to gain global
competitiveness. Sweden now spends nearly 4 percent of GDP on R&D,
the highest ratio in the world today. On average, the Nordic nations
spend 3 percent of GDP on R&D, compared with around 2 percent in
the English-speaking nations.
The Nordic states have also worked to keep social expenditures
compatible with an open, competitive, market-based economic system. Tax
rates on capital are relatively low. Labor market policies pay
low-skilled and otherwise difficult-to-employ individuals to work in
the service sector, in key quality-of-life areas such as child care,
health, and support for the elderly and disabled.
The results for the households at the bottom of the income distribution
are astoundingly good, especially in contrast to the mean-spirited
neglect that now passes for American social policy. The U.S. spends
less than almost all rich countries on social services for the poor and
disabled, and it gets what it pays for: the highest poverty rate among
the rich countries and an exploding prison population. Actually, by
shunning public spending on health, the U.S. gets much less than it
pays for, because its dependence on private health care has led to a
ramshackle system that yields mediocre results at very high costs.
Von Hayek was wrong. In strong and vibrant democracies, a generous
social-welfare state is not a road to serfdom but rather to fairness,
economic equality and international competitiveness.
From: OneWorld US
October 21, 2006
U.S. PUBLIC IS AT RISK FROM RADIATION
[Rachel's introduction: Many of the assumptions underpinning U.S.
radiation safety standards are dangerously false, a new report says.]
By Abid Aslam
WASHINGTON -- The United States, in a twist on social Darwinism,
maintains protection standards so low that they shield only the
strongest people from cancer-causing radiation. So say scientists whose
conclusions are propelling a new campaign to provide greater safety for women, children, and others at greatest risk.
"A central principle of environmental health protection--protecting
those most at risk--is missing from much of the U.S. regulatory
framework for radiation," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Takoma Park, Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) and co-author of a new study, released Thursday, that is driving the campaign.
Many federal radiation protection standards, such as limits on how much
residual radiation is allowed in contaminated soil, are designed to
protect "Reference Man," a hypothetical Caucasian male, says the
report, Science for the Vulnerable: Setting Radiation and Multiple Exposure Environmental Health Standards to Protect Those Most at Risk.
Not just any white man, the notional beneficiary of existing safety
standards is 20-30 years old, weighs 154 pounds, stands five feet and
seven inches tall, and is Western European or North American in habitat
The trouble, according to campaigners for increased protection, is that
women, children, and others often are more sensitive to the harmful
effects of radiation or toxic materials.
"I've never known a woman to give birth to a full-grown, 154-pound
'Reference Man'," said Mary Brune, co-founder of Alameda, California-
based MOMS, Making Our Milk Safe.
The 105-page IEER report sets out to discuss the higher risks to women
and girls of certain kinds of cancer, notably thyroid cancer. It finds
that a female infant drinking contaminated milk is 100 times more at
risk of thyroid cancer than an adult male. For the same dose of
radiation, women have a 52 percent greater chance of getting cancer
than do men.
"A considerable and growing body of evidence indicates that exposure to
radiation and synthetic chemicals is contributing to increasing rates
of breast cancer in the U.S. and other industrialized countries," said
Jeanne Rizzo, a registered nurse and executive director of the San
Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund.
"If we change our safety standards to specifically protect women and
girls, we will spend less time, money and heartache treating diseases
caused by environmental exposures," Rizzo added.
There also is some evidence that the children of fathers exposed to
radiation around the time they conceived their offspring face an
increased risk of leukemia, a type of cancer that starts in blood-
forming tissue such as the bone marrow and causes large numbers of
blood cells to be produced and enter the bloodstream, scientists say.
The report cautions against conclusions about the number of Americans
who might have been affected by this or other radiation risks, however,
and notes that the specialized research needed to arrive at such
conclusions is scant and difficult to conduct.
Cancer is not the only specter causing worry among campaigners. The
report cites research findings that radioactive tritium--already found
in water used for drinking, irrigation, and recreation--crosses the
placenta, affects the developing fetus, and can cause early failed
pregnancies as well as birth defects.
"These health risks are not part of regulatory considerations currently
despite the fact that tritium discharges are occurring from both
nuclear power plants and some nuclear weapons facilities, such as the
Savannah River Site" in South Carolina, Makhijani and his colleagues
said in a statement.
Likewise overlooked in official standards is the interaction of
radioactive and chemical pollution, which combine to multiply people's
risk of disease, the scientists said.
On Thursday, they joined a coalition of local and national health,
environmental, and women's organizations; academics specialized in
terrorism, medicine, and public health; and politicians in demanding
that President George W. Bush order federal agencies to review their
radiation exposure standards. Agencies at issue include the U.S.
Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the
Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration.
Officials there could not be reached for immediate comment.
Existing standards fly in the face of presidential orders issued by
Bill Clinton in 1997 and seconded by Bush, campaigners said in an open
letter to the chief executive.
"The use of Reference Man is not in accord with Presidential Executive
Order 13045 on the Protection of Children From Environmental Health
Risks and Safety Risks, which you endorsed with amendments in 2003,"
they wrote to Bush. The directive instructs federal agencies to address
children's disproportionate vulnerability to environmental hazards,
Solutions appear already to be in hand, according to IEER, which
provides scientific consulting services to official and private
Useful concepts such as the "maximally exposed individual" and the
"critical group" already exist and could help protect the most
sensitive but have not been widely applied, the report says.
Besides abandoning Reference Man and replacing him with the most
vulnerable population subgroup, it recommends ratcheting up workplace
radiation protection and notes that the U.S. standard for allowable
exposure is "five times more lax than that in Germany."
Unlike Europe, it adds, the United States lacks and must adopt extra
protection measures against bodily contamination for women who
breastfeed and who work at radiation-controlled job sites.
Likewise, it urges regulators to restrict the discharge of tritium so
that every liter of surface water in areas surrounding nuclear power
plants and nuclear weapons sites contains no more than 500 picocuries
of tritium. Colorado already has adopted this standard for the environs
of the now-defunct Rocky Flats nuclear plant near Denver and the U.S.
Department of Energy agreed to this limit as a site-specific standard
in the cleanup of Rocky Flats, the report says.
"The present national drinking water maximum contaminant limit for
tritium is 20,000 picocuries per liter," the report says, adding that
drinking water standards have failed to take into account the non-
cancer health risks of exposure to tritium.
From: San Francisco Chronicle
October 26, 2006
CITY SUED OVER BAN ON CHILDREN'S PRODUCTS USING SUSPECT CHEMICALS
Plaintiffs say state law pre-empts the local ordinance
[Rachel's introduction: In June, the City of San Francisco voted to ban
certain toxic chemicals from children's toys. Now a group of
corporations is claiming San Francsico has no right to protect its
residents in this way.]
By Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
A group of chemical manufacturers, toymakers, retailers and the owner
of the children's store Citikids filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging San Francisco's ban on the sale of toddler toys and child-care products that contain certain chemicals suspected of being toxic substances.
The suit argues that state law, including the California Hazardous Substances Act, pre-empts the San Francisco ordinance.
Today, the plaintiffs are expected to ask San Francisco Superior Court
Judge Peter Busch for a hearing, during which they will seek a
preliminary injunction to delay the Dec. 1 effective date of the
ordinance until the matter is resolved in court.
City officials already had promised business groups that they would hold off enforcement until after the holidays.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted the
ordinance in June. It prohibits the sale, distribution or manufacture
of toys and child care products intended for use by children under the
age of 3 if they contain phthalates, which are used to soften polyvinyl
chloride (or PVC) and bisphenol A, which is common in hard, clear
plastic. The ordinance does not include penalties for violations.
The law is based on the city's "
precautionary principle." The supervisors said they wanted to err on the side of caution and protect the youngest children.
A similar ban on phthalates in children's toys and child care products
went into effect in the European Union in July. For years, members had
reviewed a growing number of studies showing that some phthalates
caused cancer and reproductive damage in laboratory animals, raising
questions about what the chemical could do to humans.
San Francisco, however, is the only city in the world to ban bisphenol
A in toys and child care products for youngsters. Bisphenol A is used
to make polycarbonate plastic, the substance used to make hard clear
plastic baby bottles.
Lab studies have shown that bisphenol A can leach out of baby bottles.
In animal experiments, at low doses, it has caused cancer in rats.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and scientific bodies in Europe
and Japan have said that low levels of bisphenol A pose no health risk
to humans, the lawsuit said.
In addition to arguing that state law pre-empts the city's effort, the
suing parties contend that the supervisors failed to comply with
Proposition I, a voter-approved measure that requires an economic
review of legislation that might have a material impact on the city
before it goes to a vote.
"No report was prepared, and the city's determination that no report
was required -- when the ordinance will so egregiously impact toy
retailers, grocers and consumers -- was an abuse of discretion," the
In a press release, Richard Woo, owner of Citikids Baby News on Clement
Street, said, "The volume of our sales will drop and so will the number
of our employees, since we won't be able to keep them."
Other plaintiffs are American Chemistry Council, California Retailers
Association, California Grocers Association and Juvenile Products
A spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office declined to comment on the suit.
"We haven't been served with a complaint. It would be premature for us to comment on it," said spokesman Matt Dorsey.
E-mail Jane Kay at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From: Technology News Daily
October 23, 2006
OZONE HOLE, DOUBLE RECORD BREAKER
[Rachel's introduction: The earth's ozone layer is what makes the
surface of the Earth habitable for humans. Without it, we would all
have to live indoors or below ground. A family of chemicals invented by
DuPont almost destroyed it. It was a close call. Now the ozone layer is
slowly -- slowly -- recovering.]
NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
scientists report this year's ozone hole in the polar region of the
Southern Hemisphere has broken records for area and depth.
The ozone layer acts to protect life on Earth by blocking harmful
ultraviolet rays from the sun. The "ozone hole" is a severe depletion
of the ozone layer high above Antarctica. It is primarily caused by
human-produced compounds that release chlorine and bromine gases in the
"From September 21 to 30, the average area of the ozone hole was the
largest ever observed, at 10.6 million square miles," said Paul Newman,
atmospheric scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt,
Md. If the stratospheric weather conditions had been normal, the ozone
hole would be expected to reach a size of about 8.9 to 9.3 million
square miles, about the surface area of North America.
The Ozone Monitoring Instrument on NASA's Aura satellite measures the
total amount of ozone from the ground to the upper atmosphere over the
entire Antarctic continent. This instrument observed a low value of 85
Dobson Units (DU) on Oct. 8, in a region over the East Antarctic ice
sheet. Dobson Units are a measure of ozone amounts above a fixed point
in the atmosphere. The Ozone Monitoring Instrument was developed by the
Netherlands' Agency for Aerospace Programs, Delft, The Netherlands, and
the Finnish Meteorological Institute, Helsinki, Finland.
Scientists from NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder,
Colo., use balloon-borne instruments to measure ozone directly over the
South Pole. By Oct. 9, the total column ozone had plunged to 93 DU from
approximately 300 DU in mid-July. More importantly, nearly all of the
ozone in the layer between eight and 13 miles above the Earth's surface
had been destroyed. In this critical layer, the instrument measured a
record low of only 1.2 DU., having rapidly plunged from an average
non-hole reading of 125 DU in July and August.
"These numbers mean the ozone is virtually gone in this layer of the
atmosphere," said David Hofmann, director of the Global Monitoring
Division at the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory. "The depleted
layer has an unusual vertical extent this year, so it appears that the
2006 ozone hole will go down as a record-setter."
Observations by Aura's Microwave Limb Sounder show extremely high
levels of ozone destroying chlorine chemicals in the lower stratosphere
(approximately 12.4 miles high). These high chlorine values covered the
entire Antarctic region in mid to late September. The high chlorine
levels were accompanied by extremely low values of ozone.
The temperature of the Antarctic stratosphere causes the severity of
the ozone hole to vary from year to year. Colder than average
temperatures result in larger and deeper ozone holes, while warmer
temperatures lead to smaller ones. The NOAA National Centers for
Environmental Prediction (NCEP) provided analyses of satellite and
balloon stratospheric temperature observations. The temperature
readings from NOAA satellites and balloons during late-September 2006
showed the lower stratosphere at the rim of Antarctica was
approximately nine degrees Fahrenheit colder than average, increasing
the size of this year's ozone hole by 1.2 to 1.5 million square miles.
The Antarctic stratosphere warms by the return of sunlight at the end
of the polar winter and by large-scale weather systems (planetary-
scale waves) that form in the troposphere and move upward into the
stratosphere. During the 2006 Antarctic winter and spring, these
planetary-scale wave systems were relatively weak, causing the
stratosphere to be colder than average.
As a result of the Montreal Protocol and its amendments, the
concentrations of ozone-depleting substances in the lower atmosphere
(troposphere) peaked around 1995 and are decreasing in both the
troposphere and stratosphere. It is estimated these gases reached peak
levels in the Antarctica stratosphere in 2001. However, these ozone-
depleting substances typically have very long lifetimes in the
atmosphere (more than 40 years).
As a result of this slow decline, the ozone hole is estimated to
annually very slowly decrease in area by about 0.1 to 0.2 percent for
the next five to 10 years. This slow decrease is masked by large year-
to-year variations caused by Antarctic stratosphere weather
The recently completed 2006 World Meteorological Organization/United
Nations Environment Programme Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion
concluded the ozone hole recovery would be masked by annual variability
for the near future and the ozone hole would fully recover in
"We now have the largest ozone hole on record for this time of year,"
said Craig Long of NCEP. As the sun rises higher in the sky during
October and November, this unusually large and persistent area may
allow much more ultraviolet light than usual to reach Earth's surface
in the southern latitudes.
August 24, 2006
THE MERCHANT OF MENACE
[Rachel's introduction: Across the U.S., 153 new coal plants are
currently proposed, enough to power some 93 million homes. A recent
report from the National Energy Technology Laboratory anticipates the
construction of up to 309 new 500 megawatt coal plants in the US by
2030. Toasty weather ahead.]
By Carrie La Seur
From his rolling green soybean fields above a slow river in eastern
Iowa, Don Shatzer looks out over the farm where he was raised, across
land he and his neighbors have farmed all their lives. Below him are
the garden beds where his wife Linda grows organic vegetables to
safeguard the family's health, and the farm pond and beach he built for
the grandkids. A few miles to the west lies the city of Waterloo, with
a population of about 66,000. The sky is clear and the southwest wind
sweet on a humid summer day.
Shatzer's land is some of the most fertile in North America, part of
the fecund breadbasket on which a continent relies. And if New Jersey's
LS Power wins the fight it has started, a 750-megawatt pulverized-coal
electrical generation plant will sit right next door by 2011.
The Shatzers, along with a dedicated coalition of local citizens, have
gathered 3,000 signatures on petitions against the proposed plant. They
have lawn signs, car decals, a growing library of informational
handouts for public meetings, and even a blog. The couple's whole lives are invested in this land. They say they have not yet begun to fight.
And they aren't alone. Across the nation, 153 new coal plants are
currently proposed, enough to power some 93 million homes. Of those 153
proposals, only 24 have expressed an intent to use gasification technology, which offers a way to handle the large amounts of carbon dioxide produced by coal combustion. A recent report from the National Energy Technology Laboratory anticipates the construction of up to 309 new 500 MW coal plants in the US by 2030. If NETL's projections are correct, US coal-generation capacity will more than triple by 2010, with corresponding air pollution and greenhouse-gas increases.
Some of the 153 proposed coal plants will add capacity for existing
public utilities. Others, like those by developers LS Power and
Peabody, are speculative "merchant" coal plants, which ultimately
intend to sell the power -- or even the plant itself -- to the highest
bidder. Local need for power is not part of the calculations behind
these merchant plants. The concept isn't new, but the voracious
expansion plans are.
Economic projections indicate that demand for electricity will continue
to rise, so developers are gambling that the need for power and the low
price of western coal will make them very rich. Merchant- coal
developers are also finding ways to minimize the risks posed by
possible carbon regulation on the horizon. A recent Business Week
analysis approvingly cites Peabody's plan to sell ownership stakes in
its new plants to municipal utilities and electric cooperatives, along
with 30-year Peabody coal-supply contracts. If and when federal carbon
regulation pushes up the cost of coal-fired generation, a smart
developer like Peabody will have insulated itself from that expense.
The utilities and cooperatives will pay ever-higher prices to generate
electricity, passing those costs on to the consumer -- but Peabody's
profits will never falter.
The first public statement from LS Power in Iowa in late 2005 indicated
that the power produced at the Waterloo plant would be sold entirely
out of state, probably in Illinois. The Shatzers, neighbor Gail
Mueller, local city council member Kamyar Enshayan, and a growing group
of local volunteers printed up and distributed a few thousand "Why
should Iowa kids breathe toxic emissions to light Chicago?" fliers and
fact sheets around Waterloo, along with petitions. The Waterloo-Cedar
Falls Courier began to give coverage to this vocal opposition, which
held its first rally on Earth Day 2006.
LS Power is not saying why it came to Waterloo, but local demographics
paint a poignant picture of a community desperate for any form of
economic development and already paying the price for industrial
pollution. Iowa census numbers pinpoint some of the state's highest
poverty rates in Waterloo and Council Bluffs (the site of another coal
plant already under construction). East Waterloo, the neighborhood
nearest the plant, has a large African-American population and high
asthma rates. The county has nearly five times the state average of
criteria air-pollutant facilities per square mile.
The Waterloo economic development agency, which courted LS Power from
the outset, began to push back against local activists by securing
union endorsement for the plant. LS Power, its finger in the wind,
stated for the first time at a public meeting in May that it planned to
sell most of the power in Iowa, although Iowa utilities have publicly
stated that they see no immediate need for this new capacity. No
details of power purchase contracts or clean air technologies have been
released regarding the Waterloo plant at this time. Utility executives
unaffiliated with the LS Power proposal speculate that the plan is to
develop the proposal to the point where it can be sold at a hefty
profit to an Iowa utility. Locals are left wondering what their
economic development agency has gotten them into, and why it backs this
proposal so fiercely.
Another LS Power proposal, for an 800 MW plant in Riesel, Texas, has
also drawn fire. Although the plant recently received permits from the
state, appeals have been filed and a fight rages on in the media.
Seventeen additional coal-fired power plants have been proposed for
Texas over the next five years, many of them near areas that already
exceed safe levels for airborne pollutants. Criticism of the LS Power
project has centered around the developer's status as a merchant-coal
speculator, the fact that it has never operated a coal-fired generation
plant, and the failure to embrace gasification technology. Even the
conservative Waco Tribune-Herald recently printed an editorial urging
state regulators to embrace gasification as the technological standard
for new coal plants.
A look behind the scenes of LS Power may be instructive as to the kind
of coal-plant operator the company will be. In the most recent annual
report on file with the Securities and Exchange Commission for LS Power
Funding Corporation, the corporation's listed executive officers were
all also executive officers of North Carolina-based Cogentrix, a
longtime player in the coal power game. Cogentrix has a checkered
history in coal-plant management, including failure to pay taxes in
Mississippi, corruption scandals in India, a bankrupt subsidiary, and
selling off plants it has built in a number of locations.
Those who follow the twists and turns of corporate PR might also wonder what role Goldman Sachs plays
in the Cogentrix/LS Power coal- development boom. According to its own
website, in 2003 Goldman Sachs bought 100 percent of Cogentrix. In
2005, Goldman Sachs became the first global investment bank to adopt a
comprehensive environmental policy. The firm has made a commitment to
reduce its indirect greenhouse-gas emissions by 7 percent from its
leased and owned offices by 2012, and to "report the annual
greenhouse-gas emissions from [Cogentrix] plants, and... continue to
work to reduce direct carbon emissions from them whenever practical."
Critics say Goldman Sachs' public stance regarding climate change seems
inconsistent with the position LS Power has taken in Texas, rejecting
gasification as an unreliable and ruinously expensive technology not
ready for prime time.
There is also an irony in the new proposals popping up in Texas and
Iowa: the two states were leaders in renewable-energy development long
before energy independence became a national buzzphrase. Texas has one
of the most successful renewable-energy credit trading programs in the
country and a booming wind-power industry. Iowa has the highest per
capita amount of installed wind capacity of any state in the country.
Both states have made significant strides toward integrating biofuels
into their fuel markets, far beyond what many states considered to be
more progressive have accomplished.
Their leaders talk the talk on renewable energy and energy
independence; the merchant coal boom will be the test as to whether
Iowa and Texas can really walk the walk of a carbon-neutral,
sustainable energy future. Or, like so many other states, will they be
taken in by the promise of quick cash and cheap kilowatts, to be paid
for by generations to come?
Back at the Shatzer farm, there is work to do, as always. LS Power has
insisted on negotiating one-on-one with elderly local landowners for
land purchase options. On some farms, company representatives have
allegedly persuaded family members to talk an elder into signing, or,
when an option has nearly expired, threatened to buy the land and evict
the farmers if they don't extend the option. Many landowners are afraid
to express any public sympathy with the project opposition for fear of
losing their land.
These are old-style coal-industry tactics, Waterloo's amateur advocates
are learning. It will be an uphill battle -- but unlike the developers,
the Shatzers and their friends can't just move to the next town if
things go wrong here. Their equity is in land, community, and family,
things that don't move easily. On Wall Street, Goldman Sachs is making
self-congratulatory pronouncements about its climate-change policies,
but in Iowa the reality is clear. There is nothing to do but fight.
Carrie La Seur is a lawyer and law professor in Iowa who has provided pro bono counsel to the Waterloo citizens' coalition.
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Environmental Research Foundation, Oct 26, 2006
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