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.