Thursday, October 20, 2011

Three Lessons from the Third Berkshire

We lost the special election in the Third Berkshire District, albeit narrowly (one percentage point). But within the defeat, to misquote Winston Churchill*, there were several successes. By learning from these successes – and from the overall defeat – we can build stronger Green campaigns that will turn our candidates into legislators and our policies into law. What follows is not a complete post mortem, but a brief overview of three lessons we can learn about electoral communication.

1. Communication is an Exchange
An experienced professor once explained to me, in a nutshell, one of the reasons his service-learning program was so successful: “We meet our students where they are,” he said. Over the years he went on to show me what he meant by that phrase, and his praxis now informs my approach to electoral communication.

So how do we go about meeting voters where they are? Many GRP members care passionately about combating climate change, democracy, eradicating inequality and injustice, and transforming capitalism. Understandably, those are the issues we want to talk about. But those are not the issues most voters want to hear about. Or rather, those are not the issues they want to hear about from people running for State Representative. Even if their understanding of the role of a legislator is somewhat inchoate, regular voters know that State Representatives deal with state-level issues, such as the amount of money the state dedicates to their kids’ schools.

Does that mean we should ignore the big issues like climate change, poverty, and the iniquities and inequities of one-party domination? No. Should we talk down to people? Again, no. It simply means that we have to present our message in such a way that voters can perceive it through their pre-existing lenses. We can only learn about those pre-existing lenses by conversing with voters and really listening to what they have to say; not by commissioning phone polls, but by engaging in authentic one-to-one conversations and then reflecting on them.

From our conversations on the doorsteps and front porches, we learned that our target voters cared deeply about bringing jobs to the district and resented the fact that the last two state reps walked away from the task of representing them and straight into something more lucrative. So that is where our conversation with the voters went next. Here is the front of a postcard we sent to those target voters to let them know we were listening and shared their priorities.

2. Teach Republicans to Vote Tactically
A few days before the special election, we sent a mailing to 1,100 households with registered Republicans who had voted in the November 2010 election. Its message was simple (see the front of the postcard below) and it may have helped sway some Republicans. Nevertheless, on election day the Republican candidate received about 900 votes.  If just one hundred or so of those votes had come our way, we would have won.

It was obvious from the outset that the Republican candidate was not going to win. So, from a rational-choice perspective, it is unfathomable that 900 people would give him their votes. After all, these were individuals who did not want to see a Democrat win, but acted in a way that they should have known would increase the risk of a Democratic victory. For at least some of them, lack of information may have played a role in the decision. They may have perceived our bald assertion that the Republican could not win as self-serving propaganda. Presenting them with independent verification might have made a difference and encouraged them to vote tactically.

In future races where the Green has a better chance of beating the Democrat, we need to persuade Republicans to vote tactically. We need to learn how to deliver the two-horse-race message more effectively.

3. Known Unknowns
But among a few Republican voters, our message may have backfired and so enraged them that it redoubled their resolve to go out and vote Republican (a vote-and-be-damned attitude). How do I know this? I don’t, and I know that I don’t. It is, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, a known unknown. This brings me to my final point: We need well-designed campaign evaluations.

Our party needs to invest in the kind of surveys and focus groups that will enable us to learn from our mistakes in a more rigorous, fact-based manner. Our analysis has to become less anecdotal and more analytical. Analyzing the effect of our campaigns on voting behavior is much more difficult than program evaluation in some other areas. For example, determining whether an advertising campaign aimed at reducing cigarette use among teenagers did, in fact, help reduce teenage smoking is relatively straightforward compared with learning what it was, in particular, that persuaded un-enrolled women voters aged 30-50 to vote for a particular candidate.

Voting certainly sends a message, but the message it sends is blunt, ambiguous, and inarticulate. Teasing out the intent of the voter presents a challenge, but the growing discipline of program evaluation offers us a choice of tools for doing just that. As a party, we need to use those tools so that we can learn what it is that voters are telling us when they engage in the act of voting.

*“We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted.” Winston Churchill, 1940, regarding Dunkirk.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Commonwealth's first Green legislator?

Mark Miller and family
Disclosure: I am Mark Miller's campaign manager.

On October 18 voters in Pittsfield, Western Massachusetts, will choose a new State Representative. The candidate who came in a close second in November 2010, Mark Miller, was gearing up to run again even before the news broke that the incumbent was stepping down to take a lifetime position in the court system. Now Mark Miller could be just 88 days away from becoming the state's first Green legislator.

At the last election Mark ran as a Green and won 45% of the votes, a solid foundation for building a successful special-election campaign. He's a Green who knows that enacting Green policies requires winning power and that winning power involves more than vision and passion; it demands dogged determination and effective communication. Mark happens to have been a newspaper editor, so he knows a thing or two about communicating. Add to that the fact that he's lived in Pittsfield his whole life and has great name recognition and we have most of the ingredients that constitute a recipe for electoral success.

Even just one Green legislator would be a game-changer in Massachusetts politics. Although Massachusetts has had independent state representatives in the recent past (e.g. William Lantigua) we have not had legislators from so-called third parties since the 1850s. So when Mark asked me to manage his campaign I jumped at the opportunity.

At least two Democrats are seeking their party's nomination, and after September 20 (primary day) we'll know which one will be running against Mark. There may be a Republican and an unenrolled candidate as well. We'll know for sure in the next few weeks. In the meantime, we're gathering signatures, canvassing door-to-door, and pumping out direct mail. In that sense -- and that sense only -- we're engaged in politics as usual: the retail variety.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Democrats and Greens vote for coal phase-out and beat-back-fracking bills

The Massachusetts Democratic Party has voted in favor of two measures that would move Massachusetts beyond coal toward a clean-energy, green-jobs economy.

At their annual convention in Lowell, on Saturday, June 4, the Democrats agreed to add a commitment to phasing out coal-burning and to regulate hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to the party's official Action Agenda.  The nationwide organization Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) led the effort.

Tim Carpenter, PDA's director, said he was delighted at the result. "Today the Massachusetts Democratic Party showed its determination to combat global warming and to building a post-carbon economy for Massachusetts," said Carpenter. "One step forward on the jobs front and another step forward in the struggle against climate change."

The following day, Sunday, June 5, Greens in Western Massachusetts also voted to endorse the bills. By a unanimous vote, the Pioneer Valley Green Rainbow Party declared its support for the coal phase-out and fracking proposals.

The bill to phase out coal burning in Massachusetts, HB 2612, filed by Representative Lori Ehrlich (D: Marblehead) would set 2020 as the deadline for the state's remaining coal plants to either repower to cleaner energy or retire. If a power company chooses to retire a facility instead of converting it, a Community Repowering Fund would help the affected workers and their communities in the transition.

Peter Vickery, a volunteer with the Massachusetts Sierra Club, which sponsored the bills, said that the proposal would help Massachusetts prepare for the inevitable: "This bill offers a clear, step-by-step approach to transitioning away from coal to clean energy. Coal's days are numbered and coal-plants are closing down across the country." Referring to the leaked news of plans to close the coal-fired power station in Salem he added, "We don't want any more communities blindsided. So let's start planning now."

The second measure that the Massachusetts Democrats added to their Action Agenda was HB 3055, the bill State Representative Sean Garballey (D: Arlington) filed to regulate fracking, the process energy companies use for extracting natural gas from shale formations. It involves pumping chemical-laced water underground at high pressure. Recent news reports disclosed that thousands of internal documents from the EPA, state regulators and drillers showed that the fracking process creates dangers to the environment and health that are greater than previously understood.

"Most of the electricity we generate in Massachusetts comes from natural gas," said Tim Carpenter. "We just want to be able to switch on our lights without poisoning someone's drinking water. Is that asking too much?"

The so-called Beat Back Fracking Bill would require energy utilities that generate electricity from natural gas in Massachusetts to disclose the chemicals their suppliers used during the natural-gas extraction process.  It would also require them to certify that the process did not contaminate drinking water.

"In 2005, Congress decided to exempt fracking from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act," said Peter Vickery. "Why? Because industry lobbyists persuaded Congress that fracking should be a matter for the states not the federal government. If Congress and the energy companies already agree that the states should step in, what are we waiting for?"

Friday, May 20, 2011

Green jobs? Oh, right...

Mount Tom's owner, GDF Suez, has more good news for renewable-energy workers. So long as those renewable-energy workers are in Europe, of course. The company is investing in three new wind farms in the English Channel in partnership with the nuclear-power company Areva. I don't begrudge Europeans their economic recovery, but I have to ask: How do we bring some of those green jobs to Western Massachusetts?

Part of the answer is public policy. Just as renewable-energy action plans in the member states of the European Union are spurring job creation across the Atlantic, more action on the part of our state government would help. To that end, on Wednesday, May 18, a committee of the Massachusetts Legislature heard testimony about two Sierra Club-sponsored bills that would (1) move Massachusetts beyond coal toward a clean-energy economy and (2) regulate hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Later that day I spoke with Steve Hoeschele on his new TV show, Mass Political Action, about why we need to phase out coal, beat back fracking, and generate jobs. If you follow the link to watch the show, don't let the 10 seconds or so of black screen at the start put you off!

My testimony to the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy explained the link between HB 2612 (the coal phase-out bill) and HB 3055 (the beat-back-fracking bill) which is this: Under 2612, power companies have until the year 2020 to either retire their coal-burning facilities or repower them to renewable energy or to natural gas. If they choose natural gas, perhaps as a step toward generating electricity from hydrogen, they have to meet HB 3055's new public-health standards. Under 3055, the companies would have to publicly disclose the chemicals used in the natural gas extraction process and certify that the process didn't poison people's drinking water.

Right now we get about half of our electricity from natural gas. It emits less CO2 than coal, but the natural-gas extraction process (fracking) has serious public health impacts. So HB 3055 requires power companies to certify that they didn't pollute drinking water while bringing their natural gas to the surface. If you'd like to know more about the dangers of fracking, you can skim this recent congressional report. Be sure you're sitting down, by the way.

Generating green jobs in Massachusetts means leveling the playing field between renewables and fossil fuels. That involves forcing power companies to internalize more of the costs society as a whole has been paying for dirty air and polluted water. When the new EPA regulations come into effect they should do just that -- stimulate green jobs -- as this report from the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, explains. Disclosure: I'm working at PERI but had no part in writing the report.

While the EPA regulations will help, we shouldn't expect much more from Washington, D.C., in the near future (see previous Mass Greens blog posts). But in the absence of federal legislation, there are steps we can take here in Massachusetts to accelerate the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy, e.g. enacting HB 2612 and HB 3055. That's what Steve Hoeschele and I discuss on the show, so please check out the interview on Mass Political Action -- or selected highlights -- and let me know what you think.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Credit where it's due

Readers of a nervous disposition should steel themselves: I am about to pay the Republicans a compliment, and not the back-handed variety. The following compliment in no way absolves the Republicans of responsibility for denying both the patriotism of their opponents and the reality of climate change; for their attempts at disabling the EPA while enabling the deranged, delusional birthers; for denying public funding to public broadcasting; for subpoenaing labor-studies professors for studying labor; for toadying to oil moguls while stripping seniors of medical insurance; and for likening anything that looks even vaguely like universal healthcare to incipient communism, blatant fascism, or both. With that caveat, I now proffer my compliment. Well done, Republicans, for fielding more than 80 candidates for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in last year’s legislative elections.

For about ten years I have been complaining about the opposition-shaped gap in Massachusetts politics, pointing to the paucity of Republican legislative candidates as evidence of the party’s pusillanimity. Over the course of a decade I grew fond of telling audiences that in the national league of contested elections, Massachusetts ranked 49th out of 50, just one up from North Carolina or sometimes Alabama. It was one of my favorite lines, suitable for almost any occasion. Whatever solution I was hawking – proportional representation, public campaign financing, voting Green – I could always count on the Massachusetts GOP for the problem. But now the Republicans are back in the active-opposition business, and I shall have to come up with new material.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, the number of districts with more than one name on the ballot dwindled to around 30%. That really was quite anemic, I think you’ll agree. Things picked up a little in 2004, when John Kerry ran for President and then-Governor Mitt Romney – in an effort to keep Massachusetts Democrats busy in their home state and out of swinging (in the electoral sense) New Hampshire – persuaded a host of Republican legislative candidates to offer themselves up in a mass martyrdom mission.

With his money, good looks, and box-office appeal Mitt Romney inspired local Republicans. Or he begged, berated, and bludgeoned them, depending on who you talk to. Either way, in 2004 he helped put more Republican names on the ballot than the electorate had seen for years. Then Romney moved on to a bigger stage, leaving the GOP crowd bereft. The role of square-jawed leading man did not lie vacant for long, however.

Like Dean Cain succeeding George Reeves as Superman, Scott Brown took over from Mitt Romney as the man who could inspire relatively large numbers of Republicans to run for seats in the General Court (a feat no less impressive than seeing through solid objects and bending steel bars). Scott Brown’s special election victory at the beginning of the year reminded them that in a state where 50% of the voters are unenrolled, Republicans actually can win, even though 90% of the state legislators and 100% of their federal counterparts are Democrats. Of course, it helps when 45% of the voters stay home on election day, as they did on January 19, 2010.

Scott Brown has worked wonders for democracy in Massachusetts. Yes, he is a climate-change denialist who voted to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from protecting the environment. And yes, he wailed like a baby when the League of Women Voters pointed this out (judging by his ads you’d think they’d waylaid him in a dark alley, mussed his hair, and given him noogies). But it is Scott Brown we can thank for the novel sight of the letter R on ballots in half the state’s House districts last fall.

Having praised the Republicans, I now have no qualms about congratulating my own party – the Green Rainbow Party (GRP) – for its performance in the 2010 legislative elections. Scott Laugenour in the Fourth Berkshire District, facing a popular and diligent Democratic incumbent, walked away with 18%, a more than respectable basis for his next effort. Meanwhile, in the neighboring Third Berkshire District, the Green-Rainbow Party’s Mark Miller took an astonishing 45% of the votes. This is worth restating for emphasis: The Green candidate won 45% of the votes.

These results from the Berkshires are impressive, but they are not victories, and I am not going to blow them out of proportion. However, “proportion” is a word that comes to mind in this situation, together with the word “representation.” Countries with proportional representation reward political parties with seats in the legislature in return for much less than 18% of the votes, let alone 45%.

When they appear on the ballot, Greens in Massachusetts win a higher proportion of the votes than Greens in most European countries, even countries where Greens are not simply opposition backbenchers but partners in coalition governments. What the GRP results in the Berkshires suggest is that if Massachusetts had a fairer electoral system, the Greens would have no difficulty winning seats in the Legislature.

But, of course, Massachusetts has the same voting system it has had since 1855, namely plurality voting in single-member districts, and Greens have to play by the rules as they are, not as we would like them to be. Yet even within the constraints of the current voting system, Greens can win. For example, in 2002, John Eder of the Maine Green Party won a seat in the state legislature and held on to it for two terms. Yes, the voters of Portland, Maine, using the same voting system we use in Massachusetts, elected a Green. It happened, and it can happen again.

Now the Republicans are running and winning, it may only be a couple of cycles until they erode the Democratic supermajority, leaving the two major parties with a roughly equal number of seats in the House. In that situation, just one or two seats would put the GRP in a pivotal position, holding the balance of power. In other words, an ongoing Republican resurgence in Massachusetts could be good news for Greens.  Hence the compliment.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Write your Senator

Earlier this week Senator Scott Brown voted to block the EPA from combating climate change. The EPA wants to move ahead and cut the amount of carbon dioxide that power companies pump into the atmosphere, but Senator Brown voted for two amendments that would have stopped the EPA in its tracks. While Massachusetts citizens are demanding action for clean energy and green jobs, their senator is aligning himself with the faction of his party that wants to just stand idly by. We need to change the way Senator Brown votes in future.
So let's each and every one of us write him a letter. Yes, I'm suggesting that you write him an authentic, personal letter. I'm not talking about a mass-produced form letter. I mean an old-fashioned, pen-and-ink, this-is-what-I-think letter.
Why? Because one of the dirty little secrets of mobilization and advocacy campaigns is that the generic letters and emails have relatively little impact on politicians. All they prove to elected officials and their aides is that the sponsoring organization has a big mailing list and staff that are adept at writing persuasive emails; persuasive enough to prompt members to spend a minute or two online filling in the name and address fields and clicking "send."
But a genuine, individual piece of correspondence containing the original, unique thoughts and feelings of a committed and passionate human being -- a human being who votes -- explaining why the senator should support the EPA? That would be different.
I'll be writing my letter shortly. And on Thursday, May 5, 7:00 p.m., I'll be sitting down with a group of Sierra Club volunteers at the Media Education Foundation, 60 Masonic Street, Northampton to write another one. If you would like to join us, please bring the following: a pen, paper, envelope, postage stamp, and your passion for clean air.
In the meantime, here's the address of the man who voted to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases:
Senator Scott Brown, 2400 JFK Federal Building, 15 New Sudbury Street, Boston MA 02203
Please write him and let him know why his votes were just plain wrong, and why you expect him to vote the right way in future.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Greens poised to lead state government

Young Greens celebrate in Stuttgart
After an election campaign that tackled the nuclear issue head-on, Winfried Kretschmann looks set to become the first Green premier in the European Union.

With almost a quarter of the votes, the Greens in the German state of Baden-Wuerttember not only out-polled their Social Democrat allies but also helped defeat the conservative Christian Democrats.

To check out the party's YouTube channel, which includes some of its election ads, click here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

GDF Suez: Green in Europe

GDF Suez, the energy giant that owns the coal-burning power station at Mount Tom, Holyoke, is getting greener.

In addition to winning the Gigaton Award last year from the Carbon War Room, GDF Suez has picked up the World Carbon Finance Market award in the category for renewable energy project developers. Gerard Mestrallet (pictured) and his team deserve credit for taking strides in the right direction by building up the proportion of electricity they generate from renewables.

The steady greening of GDF Suez means more than plaudits in the press. It spells good news for workers in the clean-energy sector.

But only if they happen to live in Europe.

For example, GDF Suez has just entered into a deal for photovoltaic modules. The winner of the multi-million dollar contract? Bisol, a Slovenian company.

The agreement complements the pholovoltaics research GDF Suez has been undertaking through a subsidiary. The subsidiary is called Photovoltech and you'll find it in the town of Tienen, which is in Belgium.

In addition to solar energy, GDF Suez invests heavily in wind. The company is spending approximately 10 billion (yes, billion) Euros to build an offshore windfarm. Where? Near Saint-Nazaire, in northern France.

Later this year GDF Suez will unveil another wind farm. In the words of the GDF Suez website, this one will be big enough to "spare 145,000 tons of CO2 per year from being spewed into the atmosphere!" The location? Haute-Pays, France.

One of the GDF Suez's sources of renewable energy on this side of the Atlantic is its cluster of windfarms in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, Canada, which together generate over 700 megawatts of electricity. As a result of ordinary wear and tear, the turbines need an upgrade.

A quick glance at a map reveals that Prince Edward Island is not all that far from Massachusetts. But workers in Massachusetts, home to the pioneers of wind-energy, didn't stand a chance. Instead, GDF Suez awarded the retrofit contract to Moventas, a Finnish company.

If any clean-energy workers in Belgium, France, Finland, and Slovenia happen to be reading this, please accept my sincere congratulations. I'm glad that your elected officials, unions, and entrepreneurs had the foresight to work together so effectively, investing in green-skills education and training over many years. We in Massachusetts don't want to take your jobs and livelihoods away from you.

But surely there's something in the realm of renewable-energy that GDF Suez can do in Holyoke, Massachusetts. As we ponder a post-coal future for Mount Tom, let's look at leveraging both Holyoke's and GDF Suez's green credentials in ways that bring in new jobs and tax dollars.

For example, wouldn't Mount Tom be the perfect place to build a wind-hydrogen village like the one in Prince Edward Island, perhaps in partnership with municipally-owned Holyoke Gas & Electric?

After all, why should all the good green jobs go to Europe?

Click here for YouTube version.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How new EPA regulations will affect Mount Tom

After reading a claim in the Republican newspaper that Mount Tom can already meet all current and future regulations I submitted this letter to the editor:

A recent letter about Mount Tom power station (Tuesday, March 1) makes some valid points that nobody would dispute. For example, the plant provides good jobs and significant tax revenue for Holyoke. And repowering the plant to natural gas may not be practical, not least because it sits on a flood plain.

But the assertion that there are no future regulations the plant cannot meet is way off the mark.

The Environmental Protection Agency is issuing new regulations that amend something called the Air Transport Rule. Under the new rule, in 2014 Mount Tom will be allowed to emit no more than 245 tons of sulfur dioxide, a chemical that damages people's lungs and exacerbates respiratory illnesses. Last year -- even with the Turbosorp system in operation and the plant running at 60% capacity -- Mount Tom emitted 2,129 tons of sulfur dioxide. So three years from now the plant will have to reduce its sulfur dioxide emissions by 1,884 tons. Similarly, the plant will have to bring its nitrogen-oxide emissions down from 287 tons to 185 tons, a drop of more than 100 tons a year. Right now, Mount Tom is simply not equipped to do that.

We all want to safeguard existing jobs and generate new ones, and we all want to boost Holyoke's tax base. So we (the community, plant employees, plant-owner GDF Suez, and elected officials) need to plan a post-coal future for Mount Tom, one that creates clean energy and green jobs. And the time to start planning is now, before the new regulations come into effect.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What connects Holyoke, Massachusetts, with floods in Australia, and explosions in La Preciosa, Colombia? The answer is coal.

As the January flood waters subsided in Australia the governor of the state of Victoria, medical researcher Professor David de Kretser, pointed the finger directly at climate change. Referring to the spate of record-breaking climate events de Kretser commented “everyone says this week [is a] one in 100, one in 200 years [event] but they are happening pretty much more frequently now.”

Australia’s Greens went further, connecting a few more dots between coal-burning, ocean temperatures, and flooding. In the months preceding the floods record heat had warmed the seas off northern Australia leading to increased evaporation and rainfall, explained the Greens. Then, pointing out that coal is a major contributor to climate change, party leader Senator Bob Brown called on the coal-mining companies to pick up the tab for the flood recovery and other climate-related disasters via a 40% surtax on their profits.

“We know that climate change is due to the burning of fossil fuels, primarily coal,” said Brown. “I’ve called on the Australian Government to ensure that the tax on super profits on the coal industry [should] be levied in full to help the country pay for future flood, bushfire and drought disasters caused by climate change.”

There is no sign that the Australian government will adopt Senator Brown’s proposal, which is hardly surprising in view of the fact that last year when the Prime Minister, Labor’s Kevin Rudd, tried to impose the same tax the mining companies spent $20 million to defeat him. Mr. Rudd is now the former Prime Minister, by the way.

But the floods have certainly had an impact on the availability – and, therefore, the price – of coal. Because flooding inundated so many coal mines and railroads in Australia, the price of coal rose 4.5% in the first week of January. Rising coal prices were good news for mining companies like the one that owns La Preciosa mine in northeastern Colombia, where management has long been cutting corners on safety measures. An explosion (the second in four years) tore through the mine at La Preciosa on Wednesday, January 26, killing 21 mineworkers. Today (Tuesday, February 1) another blast killed five more miners, this time at La Escondida coal mine, north of Bogota, Colombia.

Last year, more than 100 Colombian coal-miners died at work. Just five weeks into 2011, the death toll already stands at 26. Other than the ties that bind us all together as humans, what do these deaths in Colombia have to do with us in Massachusetts? The connector is coal: The coal we burn at Mount Tom, Holyoke, comes from Colombia.

How does the coal get from Colombia to Massachusetts? Helpfully, the Wall Street Journal provides the names of the major companies that own coal mines in Colombia. One of them is BHP Billiton, an Australian company that dedicated $4 million to crushing Kevin Rudd’s surtax proposal. BHP Billiton’s shares were up 0.8% today. Others include Xstrata (up 1.26%) and Anglo American (also up by more than 1%).

As connect-the-dots puzzles go, this one is not very elaborate. GDF Suez imports Colombian coal from companies like BHP Billiton. It burns the coal in power stations like Mount Tom, Holyoke. A lackadaisical approach to workplace safety in Colombia leads to the deaths of miners, and a cavalier attitude to climate safety leads to floods in Australia. What are the common factors joining the Australian and Colombian tragedies? We are. And we are doing something about it.

Let’s ponder the dots connecting our Massachusetts campaign for climate justice to the floods in Australia and the struggle for workers’ rights in Colombia. When we join the dots together and look at the picture, we see that ours is a just cause.

If you want to take action right now and do something to stop GDF Suez burning coal at Mount Tom, sign this petition in support of the Act to Phase Out Coal-Burning in Massachusetts. The proposed law would force power companies to move beyond coal, either by retiring their coal-burning plants or repowering them to run on cleaner energy.

Will signing an online petition fix the problem? No. But it's one step. And if you would like to do more, let me know: email

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Colombian mine explosion

“Ana Luz Acosta, a relative of miner Jorge Lara, sheds tears outside La Preciosa mine in Sardinata, northeastern Colombia, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011. Lara is among 20 miners feared dead after an explosion believed to have been caused by a methane gas buildup rocked the underground coal mine early Wednesday. Methane gas was also believed to be the cause of an explosion at the mine in 2007 that killed 32 miners.” Image and caption, Associated Press.

Most of the coal we burn in Massachusetts – including the coal burned at the Mount Tom power station in Holyoke – comes from Colombia. So we have a very real connection to the miners at La Preciosa coal mine in Sardinata, Colombia, where an explosion has claimed twenty-one lives.

I am trying to identify workers' organizations that we in Massachusetts can work with to support the injured miners and bereaved families. So far I've contacted the United Mineworkers of America, Justice for Colombia, and the Colombian branch of the International Labor Organization. As soon as I have any news I'll post it.

In the meantime, if you know of any other organizations likely to have on-the-ground links to the community near La Preciosa, please tell me ( and I'll help spread the word.

The struggle of the coal-miners of Colombia is intimately bound up with our campaign for climate justice. Let's show some real solidarity.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Op-ed in Daily Hampshire Gazette

Plea to coal plant: Burn gas, not coal
by Peter Vickery & Dick Stein
Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wednesday, January 5, page c1

News of the planned closing of the Salem Harbor coal-fired power station has leaked out. Could something similar happen to the coal-burning power station at Mount Tom in Holyoke, on the upper Valley’s doorstep?

Tighter regulations and rising prices are pushing power companies away from coal, so almost every week somewhere in America a coal-plant is shutting down. If the company that owns Mount Tom (GDF Suez) follows the national trend, the plant’s days may be numbered. Because of the damage coal does to children’s lungs and the impact it has on the climate, some people might rejoice.

But we would certainly not be among them, much as we want to see a speedy transition from coal to cleaner energy. Why not? Because in addition to electricity, Mount Tom generates some real and much-needed benefits for Holyoke, benefits like jobs and taxes. Last year, the City of Holyoke took in almost $2 million from the plant, which provides employment for more than 50 local people. If the jobs and taxes disappeared, Holyoke would suffer, and neighboring communities would feel the knock-on effects.

We need to keep Mount Tom open, minus the coal. Moving from coal to renewable energy is an urgent priority. Climate change is starting to bite – the outgoing year, 2010, was the second hottest since records began – and coal makes up about one-third of our country’s output of the main cause of human-made climate change, CO2. So we can get serious about tackling climate change, or we can carry on burning coal; but we can’t do both.

Can we move Mount Tom away from coal while protecting existing jobs, creating new ones, and keeping those tax dollars flowing for Holyoke? Fortunately, the answer is yes we can. One option is to repower Mount Tom from coal to natural gas. Although natural gas is a fossil fuel, it emits much less carbon dioxide than coal, which is why some states (like Minnesota and Colorado) are requiring utilities to switch from coal to natural gas.

At this point, unfortunately, wind and solar energy are not by themselves feasible substitutes for coal at Mount Tom. It would take many more wind turbines than the landscape has room for – or about 300 football-fields worth of solar panels – to generate 146 MW of electricity. But with natural gas, Mount Tom could produce three times as much electricity as it produces now and at a fraction of the carbon cost. With higher profits from increased sales, GDF Suez could afford to absorb the upfront expense of repowering the plant. By the way, this is a company that is investing $2 billion (yes, billion) in a coastal wind park off northern France.

Natural gas could be an interim stage in the process of moving Mount Tom away from coal, a stepping stone on the path to 100% renewable energy. There are downsides, certainly. Getting natural gas out from underground through the process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” for short, can contaminate drinking water. Crazily, in 2005 Congress exempted fracking from key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. But instead of waiting for Congress to come to its senses and reverse itself, Colorado has also moved to close the loophole and written its own regulations to keep drinking water safe from the side-effects of fracking.

Natural gas is by no means a perfect solution. But as a stop-gap measure, it has merit so long as we follow Colorado’s example and ensure that the gas companies extract it responsibly and safely. This step-by-step approach, using natural gas as a bridge from coal to renewable energy, could create hundreds of jobs, both in the construction and green-tech sectors. Just expanding the gas pipeline (currently operating at full capacity) would involve new jobs. Refitting and reconfiguring the site, replacing the coal boilers with high-efficiency gas turbines, would involve hundreds more.

Is it practical to repower a coal-fired plant to natural gas? Yes, it’s happening not just in Colorado and Minnesota but much closer to home. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, repowered from coal to natural gas and now boasts a system that doesn’t waste energy the way a coal boiler does. When a power station burns coal, only some of the energy goes toward making electricity. The rest gets wasted. In contrast, UMass now uses that energy to heat offices, classrooms, and dorms across the campus.

Unemployment is high and the climate crisis is deepening, but we can do something very practical to meet those challenges right here in the Pioneer Valley by taking the UMass example and scaling it. Repowering Mount Tom from coal to cleaner energy would protect existing jobs, create new ones, maintain Holyoke’s tax revenue, and help get the climate back in balance. Good news for Holyoke and the surrounding communities; good news for GDF Suez; and good news for our climate. That’s not just a win-win solution. It’s a win-win-win.
To make it happen, our elected officials need to engage GDF Suez in dialog, and it is up to active citizens to nudge them.

In the coming months, we look forward to a grassroots coalition of community organizations joining together to get our political leaders and GDF Suez talking to each other about a clean-energy, green-jobs future for Mount Tom. Let’s not wait for any nasty surprises.