'/> Uncommon Hours: 2013
Blogging on culture, politics, and the environment since 2008.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Eco-band Soular takes back the tradition of musical activism in its debut album, ‘Take It Back’

Take It Back: A (mildly desultory) Review-Essay
By Bob Sommer

“… if we’re looking around for someone else to get on the job we might just look over our shoulders and find we’re looking into a mirror at our own sorry selves.”

So it’s a bunch of tree-huggers all squeezed into my then thirteen-year-old Jeep. It’s a year ago and we’re headed west on I-70 for a Sierra Club meeting in Topeka on a cool Saturday morning. Outside Kansas rolls by with the sun behind us, still low on the horizon, throwing splintery shadows across fields of corn stubble. In back one tree-hugger reads the newspaper. Up front sit me and Craig Wolfe, who wanted to sit up front because he’s a big guy and the seats in back are tight and our friend didn’t care who sat up front or in back, so Craig’s up front.

Click the image to visit Soular online
We’re talking. I’m asking about his music. Back in THE DAY—which for both of us is the sixties and seventies, THE DAY, that is, before the music died for a decade while machine-generated pop insanity called disco throbbed and shook most of our brains into all manner of weirdness, like believing “greed is good,” solar panels on the White House are bad, and big hair is beautiful, so forth, so THE DAY was the metonymic day before all that—and, to complete the sentence, back then Wolfe was a rock ’n roller. He played in a band called Amdahl Wolfe, doing gigs four-five nights a week all over Kansas City and beyond. It was THE DAY.

But THE DAY passed and then came life, and Wolfe got into the construction business, building passive solar houses and doing other tree-hugger stuff, including plunging into the Sierra Club in Kansas in a big way. I’ve known him for seven-eight years now. I do tree-hugger stuff too. We’re all about averting mankind from his/her/our collective manic suicidal race into annihilation as we gobble up every square foot of land, spew the black goo that used be dinosaurs and 250-million-year-old trees into the air and water, and basically torture ourselves with rage for more and more and more STUFF.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Kansas Supreme Court denies Holcomb II coal-fired plant

Topeka, Kan. - In a decision that will protect public health and ratepayers, the Kansas Supreme Court today invalidated the air pollution permit granted to Sunflower Electric Power Corp. by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in 2010. The permit must be reconsidered by KDHE and all current air pollution regulations must be applied. With new standards in effect since the project was first proposed, the outlook of the expansion plant legally meeting those standards or finding financial backing for unneeded coal-fired generation is dim.

“The proposed Holcomb coal plant is now a fading mirage on the plains,” said Holly Bender, Deputy Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign. “As states embrace renewable energy and utilities are locking in contracts for clean energy at record low prices, there just isn't a need for the dirty, expensive energy that Sunflower Electric is looking to sell.”

The proposed coal plant, also known as Holcomb II, was the most intensely contested coal plant in Kansas history, as well as one of the most controversial permits ever considered by KDHE. If built, the new plant would release thousands of pounds of toxic pollution in Kansas while the power it generates would belong to Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a Colorado-based utility.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Protect Public Lands from Reckless Fracking

Protect Public Lands from Reckless Fracking? Yes We Can!
Michael Brune

By Michael Brune, Sierra Club Executive Director

One of the worst consequences of President Obama's reckless all of the above" energy policy is the blight of oil and gas rigs that has spread across our public lands -- often right next to national parks and wilderness areas. Based on my own family's camping trip this summer, I can testify that the sight of natural gas flares in the night sky adds nothing to the wilderness experience.
What's more, most of this new drilling is hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which is so dangerous, destructive, and polluting that there's no reason why any additional public lands should be leased to drillers. Air-polluting gas flares are bad enough -- running the risk of contaminating the water table of a national park is unthinkable.

"All of the above" also ignores the fact that, if we want to limit climate disruption from fossil fuels, we need a policy that leaves most of them below the ground.

Nevertheless, all summer long the Bureau of Land Management has been accepting public comments on a proposed update of federal regulations for oil and gas fracking on the public lands it manages. Presumably that's an attempt to honor a pledge President Obama made in his 2012 State of the Union address -- that America would develop resources like natural gas "without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk."

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Michael Brune: Earth "a paper-thin shield between life and the dark void of space"

The Overview Effect
Michael Brune
By Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club 

Few of us will ever venture past the 60-mile boundary that separates Earth and outer space. If you do, though, you're likely to experience something known as "the overview effect" -- a cognitive shift in how you perceive our planet. Political boundaries disappear, and our atmosphere, which seemed like a boundless expanse of blue from the ground, is suddenly revealed to be a paper-thin shield between life and the dark void of space.

Last week, the fragility of that thin blue shield was underscored by the news that we've
reached a daily average of 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. That's the highest level in at least 3 million years. In less than two centuries, we've increased atmospheric CO2 by 42 percent -- by burning fossil fuels, degrading our forests, and disturbing our soils. And it's still going up.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

‘Kodak Elegy’: A Portrait of Everyman for Boomers

Kodak Elegy: A Portrait of Everyman for Boomers
By Bob Sommer
Click the image
for the publisher's website

Full disclosure up front: I’m a native New Yorker and grew up in a Hudson Valley neighborhood quite like the Rochester suburb William Merrill Decker describes in Kodak Elegy: A Cold War Childhood (Syracuse Univ. Press, 2012). Also by way of disclosure, I’ve known Bill for over twenty-five years, so I’m not impartial, but then if I thought less of this marvelous book I’d follow my mother’s advice and not say anything at all.

This memoir undertakes a daunting challenge: turning the potentially numbing story of a baby boomer’s middle-class suburban childhood into a meaningful narrative. Bill Decker grew up in the relative comfort of a white suburb, insulated from urban decay and financial stress, within an Ozzie-and-Harriet-like nuclear family, with mother at home and father a rising executive in a Fortune 500 company (Eastman Kodak). As a child he explored construction sites in his neighborhood and took well-orchestrated family trips downtown to the dentist and to shop for clothes. He is not someone whose name is known to most general readers, so unlike a statesman or sports celebrity, for whom every detail of life must have significance relative to their fame and achievements, Bill has ventured into territory with great potential for drabness. Yet by pealing away the veneer of middle class life in the age of Madmen, Kodak Elegy leaps a considerable hurdle and rewards readers with a compelling narrative and significant literary achievement.

Kodak Elegy is at once a cultural and regional history and the story of a generation. Rochester becomes an emblem for the rise of suburbs all over the country and the correspondent decline of mid-size cities that were once hubs of a region’s economy and social life. The expansion of highways and growth of suburban shopping plazas and bedroom communities decentered American society, revealing stark contrasts of economic and racial disparity beneath the serene appearance of prosperity. Bill traces the intricacies of that life, with its satisfactions and compulsions, though not insensitive to the powerful impetus of its own feedback loop: “And there were we, caught in the demographics of our time and class, swept into patterns of consumption and desire hard to distinguish…from our neighbors.”

Kodak Elegy succeeds because it is tightly focused on the region and culture of Bill’s childhood. He is a fine observer, and his prose has many exquisite moments. Here he describes what was for me a familiar memory of neighborhood exploration: “Like most children of the suburban frontier we conceived a fascination for shadow worlds: hidden meadows containing junked cars, weedy lengths of seldom-used rail line, causeways harboring limestone ruins of Erie Canal masonry.” From my own childhood I might substitute the abandoned farmhouses and stretches of woods just beyond the perimeter of our neighborhood that seemed to belong to no one and perhaps invoked a primal sense of wooded and open commons that is now just a vestige of another life. Such was the innocence of childhood to know nothing of real estate development and platting maps.

Of the contrast between suburbs and city, Bill writes: “In summer, the suburbs gave off a scent of fresh paint and pines, varied by what flowers happened to be in bloom. The city by contrast had a smell of partially rotted things. Rather than repulsive the smell was intriguing; the very history of the place exhaled it.”

Kodak Elegy is a story in which many share. Nostalgic without becoming sentimental, descriptive without becoming tiresome, well-designed and finely written, it is the story of a generation whose impact on history and culture has yet to be fully measured.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

'Forward on Climate' rally: More than 35,000 strong march on Washington for climate action

Washington, D.C., Feb. 17, 2013 – Today, during President’s Day weekend, more than 35,000 people are marching to the President's doorstep to support immediate action to contain climate change. People from more than 30 states across the country whose land, homes and health are being threatened by the climate crisis, as well as students, scientists, indigenous community members and many others are participating in this largest climate rally in U.S. history.

"For 25 years our government has basically ignored the climate crisis: now people in large numbers are finally demanding they get to work. We shouldn't have to be here -- science should have decided our course long ago. But it takes a movement to stand up to all that money," said 350.org founder Bill McKibben.

Rally participants are calling on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and put limits on dangerous carbon pollution from the nation's dirtiest power plants. Much of President Obama's legacy will rest squarely on his response, resolve, and leadership in fighting the climate crisis. Rally participants are looking for him move forward on his recent State of the Union address declaration when he said, "For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change."

"Twenty years from now on President’s Day, people will want to know what the president did in the face of rising sea levels, record droughts and furious storms brought on by climate disruption," said Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. "President Obama holds in his hand a pen and the power to deliver on his promise of hope for our children. Today, we are asking him to use that pen to to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and ensure that this dirty, dangerous, export pipeline will never be built."

Saturday, February 16, 2013

New tar sands pipeline will be longer and even more dangerous than Keystone XL

The struggle for a stable climate comes home

Guest post by John Kurmann

While TransCanada's Keystone XL project has rightly attracted a great deal of activist and media attention, the Enbridge corporation has quietly been pursuing its own, even more dangerous project to bring diluted bitumen - “dilbit” - from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Enbridge's executives seem to have learned from the firestorm TransCanada has been engulfed by. They've proposed to expand two of their existing pipelines in order to bring dilbit from Alberta into the US rather than proposing to build a new pipeline across the Canada-US border as TransCanada did, which forced TransCanada to apply for a Presidential permit. Those existing pipelines would only get the dilbit as far as Flanagan, Illinois, however, so Enbridge still has to get it from Flanagan to the Gulf Coast - and that's where Missouri and Kansas come into the picture.

If built, Enbridge's proposed Flanagan South pipeline would run southwest from Flanagan to Cushing, Oklahoma, crossing the Mississippi River into Missouri at Quincy, Illinois. It would also cross the Missouri River and would span 11 Missouri counties, including Cass County, which is in the southern part of greater metro-Kansas City. It would enter Kansas in Linn County and pass through 5 more Kansas counties before crossing the border into Oklahoma on its way to Cushing, where it would connect to Enbridge's existing “Seaway” pipeline, which runs to Houston, Texas.

So, why is this Enbridge project more dangerous than the Keystone XL? We'll get to the details of the pipeline itself below, but perhaps the biggest reason Enbridge's proposal is more dangerous than TransCanada's is that it hasn't attracted much attention, and it also has fewer regulatory hurdles to clear. Because most of the pipelines that would make up the entire project already exist, Enbridge only needs to get approval from regulators to expand those sections. It doesn't need to acquire new rights-of-way across private and/or public land, and it's also proceeding as if it doesn't need a presidential permit for the expansion of the “Alberta Clipper” segment that crosses the national border on its way to Superior, Wisconsin. The National Wildlife Federation argues it does need to apply for such a permit, but it's unclear how that will play out in the regulatory arena or the courts.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Environmental activists engage in civil disobedience at the White House

Photo by flickr user tarsandsaction
Julian Bond, Bill McKibben, Michael Brune, and others arrested in front of White House in call for action on climate

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- This morning, 48 environmental, civil rights, and community leaders from across the country joined together for a historic display of civil disobedience at the White House where they demanded that President Obama deny the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and address the climate crisis.
Among the notable leaders involved in the civil disobedience were Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club; Bill McKibben, Founder of 350.org; Julian Bond, former president of the NAACP; Danny Kennedy, CEO of Sungevity, and Daryl Hannah, American actress.

After blocking a main thoroughfare in front of the White House, and refusing to move when asked by police, the activists were arrested and transported to Anacostia for processing by the US Park Police Department.

“The threat to our planet's climate is both grave and urgent,” said civil rights activist Julian Bond. “Although President Obama has declared his own determination to act, much that is within his power to accomplish remains undone, and the decision to allow the construction of a pipeline to carry millions of barrels of the most-polluting oil on Earth from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf Coast of the U.S. is in his hands. I am proud today to stand before my fellow citizens and declare, ‘I am willing to go to jail to stop this wrong.’ The environmental crisis we face today demands nothing less.”

“We really shouldn't have to be put on handcuffs to stop KXL--our nation's leading climate scientists have told us it's dangerous folly, and all the recent Nobel Peace laureates have urged us to set a different kind of example for the world, so the choice should be obvious,” said 350.org founder Bill McKibben. “But given the amount of money on the other side, we've had to spend our bodies, and we'll probably have to spend them again.”

“For the first time in the Sierra Club’s 120-year history, we have joined the ranks of visionaries of the past and present to engage in civil disobedience, knowing that the issue at hand is so critical, it compels the strongest defensible action,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “We cannot afford to allow the production, transport, export and burning of the dirtiest oil on Earth via the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama must deny the pipeline and take decisive steps to address climate disruption, the most significant issue of our time.”

If approved, the Keystone XL pipeline would boost carbon pollution tomorrow by triggering a boom of growth in the tar sands industry in Canada, and greatly increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that this tar sands pipeline will boost annual U.S. carbon pollution emissions by up to 27.6 million metric tons – the impact of adding nearly 6 million cars on the road.

However, new research by Oil Change International (OCI) shows that the government’s estimates of the carbon emissions associated with Keystone XL underestimates the full impact of tar sands because a barrel of tar sands produces significantly more petroleum coke than conventional crude, which is more carbon-intensive than coal. The research can be found at: http://priceofoil.org/2013/01/17/petroleum-coke-the-coal-hiding-in-the-tar-sands.

OCI’s research shows that Keystone XL will produce enough petcoke to fuel five U.S. coal plants. The emissions from this petcoke have not yet been included in climate-impact analysis of the pipeline or the tar sands industry and OCI shows that it will raise total emissions by at least 13 percent.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sierra Club: Revoke Shell's drilling permits, Arctic off-limits!

(Image: Jonathan Klingenberg/US Coast Guard)
Kodiak Island, Ala. – On Monday, Royal Dutch Shell Oil drilling ship Kulluk ran aground near Kodiak Island, Alaska – the latest in a long list of failures by Shell in the company’s much-hyped but continuously failed attempt to drill in the Arctic.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune responds

“In just one year, Shell has proven over and over again that they are completely incapable of safely drilling in the Arctic. Their ships have caught fire and lost control, they’ve damaged their own spill containment equipment, and they’ve been caught entirely unprepared for the challenges of the Arctic. Now, they’ve actually run a ship carrying tens of thousands of gallons of oil aground in Alaska.

"This is the last straw. We should judge Shell not by their assurances or their PR tactics, but by their record – and Shell’s record clearly demonstrates that letting them operate in the Arctic is an invitation for disaster.

"America’s Arctic – whether offshore or in the Arctic Refuge – is the last place we should be drilling for oil and gas. If we are serious about fighting climate disruption and protecting our wild places, the President should immediately cancel Shell’s drilling permits before it is too late, and ensure the Arctic is off-limits for new oil and gas leasing and drilling this year and every year.”