Make New York the solar hub for the East Coast

June 14, 2013

Newsday

by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Albany lawmakers are on the verge of passing solar legislation that promises to allow New Yorkers to lower their energy bills, deliver billions of dollars in economic investment, create thousands of new local job opportunities, modernize New York’s aging power infrastructure, and ensure a reliable clean energy supply in the state for generations to come. There’s strong bipartisan support for this bill, but precious little time remains on the state legislative calendar to enact the New York Solar Bill before lawmakers adjourn for the summer. So they must act fast.

The bill would extend Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s successful NY-Sun Initiative, which began in early 2012, for another 10 years. A public-private partnership, that program is well on its way toward meeting its initial goal of quadrupling the amount of solar installed in New York by 2015 (from the amount installed just four years before). In just its first year, the state saw a 91 percent increase in solar power investments over the previous year, at $257 million. And to date, the state has installed enough solar energy to power 27,000 homes, as well as put 3,300 New Yorkers to work in the state’s growing industry.

The New York Solar Bill provides the last piece of the puzzle by providing industry the long-term certainty to invest, scale up, and make the state a regional hub for solar development and clean energy jobs.

Extending the NY-Sun program for a decade would exponentially build on this progress. Specifically, it is expected to:

* Save New Yorkers billions on their energy bills, by reducing the need to fire up the dirtiest and most expensive power plants.

* Create thousands of new local jobs in solar installation, maintenance and manufacturing.

* Spur millions of dollars of investment in the state’s emerging clean energy economy.

* Provide enough clean, reliable electricity to power 400,000 New York homes.

We have the political will to capture these benefits for our state. So much so, in fact, that the bill has already unanimously passed the State Senate and it has support from a coalition of businesses, trade associations and environmental groups. A similar bill is expected to pass the Assembly shortly. But time is not on our side — between now and the scheduled end of the session, June 20, Cuomo and leadership in both houses must come together and hammer out a three-way agreement if this program is to become law.

Superstorm Sandy exposed major vulnerabilities in the state’s aging power grid, knocking out electricity for some residents for weeks. This disaster made it all too clear that we need to invest in an electricity delivery system that is more resilient, clean and reliable. Solar energy can help get us there. And with storms in the region expected to only get more frequent and intense — predictions for this year’s hurricane season are already ominous — there’s no time to waste.

The clock is also ticking on an opportunity to leverage federal funding that can help advance this program, and make private investments go further. A federal solar tax credit that expires in 2016 would help lower the upfront installation costs of solar projects for customers, thereby ensuring New Yorkers get even more bang for every buck invested under this program. Other states, including California, New Jersey and Massachusetts, have established long-term solar policy goals in order to take advantage of this federal tax credit opportunity and encourage billions in private solar investment. New York would be remiss not to seize the same opportunity as those states by enacting the New York Solar Bill before the legislature leaves town.

We’re counting on our representatives in Albany to show their constituents that they can in fact lead on clean energy, and to not miss their chance to enact such a widely popular policy. To do so would be to let enormous economic, resiliency and clean energy benefits pass us by. And that’s not something New York can afford to do.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Utility deal company has deceitful past

June 6, 2013

Times Union

by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

This month, New York’s Public Service Commission will decide whether to permit a Canadian holding company, Fortis Inc., to acquire Central Hudson, the electric utility serving 375,000 mid-Hudson homes and businesses. PSC commissioners should consider Fortis’ history and the company’s future profitability strategies, which it ties to shale gas extraction.

In 2000, the Natural Resources Defense Council agreed to help the local opposition to Fortis’ proposed Chalillo Dam — a seven-megawatt hydroelectric project on the Macal River in an ecologically sensitive part of the Belizean rainforest. I represented these groups as a senior NRDC attorney. During the litigation that followed, we learned that Fortis had routinely lied about its proposed dam’s safety and its economic, environmental and geological impacts.

Fortis solemnly promised that the dam would not raise electric costs while concealing secret studies proving the opposite. In 2005, two years after the dam went live, Belize’s electric rates climbed 25 percent. Belizeans paid twice as much for electricity as their neighbors in Mexico and Guatemala. In 2008, when Fortis moved to jack rates another 25 percent, Belize’s newly elected government expropriated the company’s assets.

Fortis digitally removed nearby fault lines from the geological map it provided to regulators to deceive them about dire earthquake hazards at the proposed dam site. Only after the dam won approval and construction began did this become public.

Fortis knowingly lied when it claimed its dam would not harm wildlife. The project destroyed Central America’s last large habitats for endangered jaguars, tapirs and scarlet macaws.

Fortis hid its study showing hazardous levels of neurotoxic mercury in the Macal River, caused by another Fortis dam, until a year after its Chalillo Dam was complete. During that period, Belizeans continued to drink river water and swim, wash, bathe and fish — all activities perilous to their health.

These are only a few examples of Fortis’ willingness to deceive the public and government regulators while profiteering from reckless activities. If it gobbles Central Hudson, Fortis won’t build dams in New York. Nevertheless, the company will monopolize electric and gas delivery services that are both essential and dangerous when poorly managed. An already overstretched PSC will have to research, oversee and monitor Fortis to keep the company honest — with no guarantees of success, given Fortis’ history.

The recent news that we passed a frightening milestone — atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide now exceeds 400 parts per million — eclipsed a more heartening local study; New York state could be 100 percent carbon-free by 2030.

New York shouldn’t tie its energy future to a company that bases its future profitability on shale gas extraction. Fortis’ own investor information states that its profitability is linked to “the current environment of low natural gas prices and an abundance of shale gas reserves [that] should help maintain the competitiveness of natural gas versus alternative energy sources in North America.”

It also states that Fortis’ profitability is contingent on “no significant changes in government energy plans and environmental laws that may materially affect … operations and cash flows.”

As the PSC is aware, there is intense public opposition to the proposed deal among Hudson Valley cities, towns, and residents. These New Yorkers want our state to transition to clean energy and do not want Central Hudson sold to a company whose profitability depends on the increasing use of fracked shale gas.

PSC judges, in their recommended decision, concluded that the proposed merger’s detriments outweigh its benefits.

Only two New York utilities remain in the hands of U.S.-based companies: CH Energy (which owns Central Hudson) and Con Edison. Fortis’ proposal to buy Central Hudson represents the worst of globalization. The PSC should deny its application and keep a company, notable for its reckless corporate culture, from taking control of New York’s energy destiny.

Kennedy is senior attorney at the NRDC.

Solar Panels for Every Home

December 12, 2012

The New York Times

By DAVID CRANE and ROBERT F. KENNEDY Jr.

WE don’t think much about pitch pine poles until storms like Hurricane Sandy litter our landscape with their splintered corpses and arcing power lines. Crews from as far away as California and Quebec have worked feverishly to repair or replace those poles as utility companies rebuild their distribution systems the way they were before.

Residents of New Jersey and New York have lived through three major storms in the past 16 months, suffering through sustained blackouts, closed roads and schools, long gas lines and disrupted lives, all caused by the destruction of our electric system. When our power industry is unable to perform its most basic mission of supplying safe, affordable and reliable power, we need to ask whether it is really sensible to run the 21st century by using an antiquated and vulnerable system of copper wires and wooden poles.

Some of our neighbors have taken matters into their own hands, purchasing portable gas-powered generators in order to give themselves varying degrees of “grid independence.” But these dirty, noisy and expensive devices have no value outside of a power failure. And they’re not much help during a failure if gasoline is impossible to procure.

Having spent our careers in and around the power industry, we believe there is a better way to secure grid independence for our homes and businesses. (Disclosure: Mr. Crane’s company, based in Princeton, N.J., generates power from coal, natural gas, and nuclear, wind and solar energy.) Solar photovoltaic technology can significantly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and our dependence on the grid. Electricity-producing photovoltaic panels installed on houses, on the roofs of warehouses and big box stores and over parking lots can be wired so that they deliver power when the grid fails.

Solar panels have dropped in price by 80 percent in the past five years and can provide electricity at a cost that is at or below the current retail cost of grid power in 20 states, including many of the Northeast states. So why isn’t there more of a push for this clean, affordable, safe and inexhaustible source of electricity?

First, the investor-owned utilities that depend on the existing system for their profits have little economic interest in promoting a technology that empowers customers to generate their own power. Second, state regulatory agencies and local governments impose burdensome permitting and siting requirements that unnecessarily raise installation costs. Today, navigating the regulatory red tape constitutes 25 percent to 30 percent of the total cost of solar installation in the United States, according to data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and, as such, represents a higher percentage of the overall cost than the solar equipment itself.

In Germany, where sensible federal rules have fast-tracked and streamlined the permit process, the costs are considerably lower. It can take as little as eight days to license and install a solar system on a house in Germany. In the United States, depending on your state, the average ranges from 120 to 180 days. More than one million Germans have installed solar panels on their roofs. Australia also has a streamlined permitting process and has solar panels on 10 percent of its homes. Solar photovoltaic power would give America the potential to challenge the utility monopolies, democratize energy generation and transform millions of homes and small businesses into energy generators. Rational, market-based rules could turn every American into an energy entrepreneur. That transition to renewable power could create millions of domestic jobs and power in this country with American resourcefulness, initiative and entrepreneurial energy while taking a substantial bite out of the nation’s emissions of greenhouse gases and other dangerous pollutants.

As we restore crucial infrastructure after the storm, let’s build an electricity delivery system that is more resilient, clean, democratic and reliable than the one that Sandy washed away. We can begin by eliminating the regulatory hurdles impeding solar generation and use incentives like the renewable energy tax credit — which Congress seems poised to eliminate — to balance the subsidies enjoyed by fossil fuel producers.

And as we rebuild the tens of thousands of houses and commercial buildings damaged and destroyed by the storm, let’s incorporate solar power arrays and other clean energy technologies in their designs, and let’s allow them to be wired so they still are generating even when the centralized grid system is down.

We have the technology. The economics makes sense. All we need is the political will.

David Crane is the president of NRG, an energy company. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and president of Waterkeeper Alliance.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 15, 2012

An earlier version of this article misstated details of the use of solar panels in Germany. While more than one million Germans have installed photovoltaic panels on their roofs, those panels are not “enough to provide close to 50 percent of the nation’s power.” (Germany gets about 5 percent of its annual electricity from solar power, though there was a moment earlier this year when the amount of solar power fed into the national grid was enough to provide nearly half of the country’s midday electricity demand.)

Nation should follow Colorado’s lead

March 25, 2010

The Denver Post

by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Colorado is now claiming national leadership in American’s transition to a new energy economy. Gov. Bill Ritter has quietly built a strong coalition including Colorado’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, to support the proposed Colorado Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act.

The proposal would require Colorado utilities to significantly reduce pollutants by retiring, retrofitting, or repowering Front Range coal-fired power plants by the end of 2017, and replace them with facilities fueled by natural gas and other lower- or non-emitting energy sources. While King Coal and its toadies continue to loudly protest, the proposal is moving to the legislature with bipartisan support focused on health, job creation, and environmental sustainability for Colorado.

Whatever the slick campaigns financed by the powerful coal barons might claim, coal is neither cheap nor clean. Ozone and particulates from coal plants kill tens of thousands of Americans each year and cause widespread illnesses and disease. Acid rain has destroyed millions of acres of valuable forests and sterilized one in five Adirondack lakes. Neurotoxic mercury raining from these plants has contaminated fish in every state and poisons more than 1 million American women and children annually. Coal industry strip mines have already destroyed 500 mountains in Appalachia, buried 2,000 miles of rivers and streams, and will soon have flattened an area the size of Delaware.

Finally, coal, which supplies 46 percent of our electric power, is the most important source of America’s greenhouse gases. Colorado’s forward-looking proposal would reduce nitrogen oxide emissions at coal plants by more than 80 percent over the next eight years, if not sooner.

Colorado is boldly showing America that our nation’s cornucopia of renewables and the recent maturation of solar, geothermal and wind technologies will allow us to meet most of our energy needs with clean, cheap, green power. In the short term, natural gas, abundant in the Rocky Mountain state, is an obvious bridge fuel to the “new” energy economy. Indeed, many large-scale wind, solar and distributed energy projects rely on natural gas to provide stable “base loads.”

By following the simple example set by Colorado, Americans could eliminate three-quarters of her coal-burning generators and save a fortune in energy costs. The benefits to other states would be even greater. Around 920 U.S. coal plants — 78 percent of the total — are small (generating less than half a gigawatt), antiquated and horrendously inefficient. Their average age is 45 years, with many over 75. They tend to be located amid dense populations and in poor neighborhoods, to lethal effect.

These ancient plants burn 20 percent more coal per megawatt hour than modern large coal units and are 60 to 75 percent less fuel-efficient than combined cycle gas plants. They account for only 21 percent of America’s electric power but almost half the sector’s emissions. Properly assessed, the costs of operation, maintenance, capital improvements and repair of these antiquated facilities make them far more expensive to run than natural gas plants.

To quickly gain further economic and environmental advantages, the larger, newer coal plants that remain in operation should be required to co-fire with natural gas. Many of these plants are already connected to gas pipelines and can easily be adapted to burn gas as 15 to 20 percent of their fuel. Such co-firing dramatically reduces forced outages and maintenance costs and can be the most cost effective way to reduce CO2 emissions.

Natural gas comes with its own set of environmental caveats. It is a carbon-based fuel and its extraction from shale, the most significant new source, if not managed carefully, can have serious water, land use and wildlife impacts, especially in the hands of irresponsible producers and lax regulators. But those impacts can be mitigated by careful regulation and are dwarfed by the disaster of coal.

Kudos to Xcel, Gov. Ritter, Colorado’s natural gas producers and environmental leaders for pioneering the road to a clean, robust and independent energy economy. All of American should follow its lead.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is president of the environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance.

Poverty and tyranny central to immoral practice of mountain destruction, water and air poisoning

March 10, 2010

The Hill

by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

The Appalachian forest is the oldest and richest ecosystem north of the equator, having survived the Pleistocene ice era and provided the seed stock that reforested the continent. Appalachia has 80 species of trees and more biodiversity per cubic meter than anywhere on the continent.

Now the Massey Energy coal company, the largest practitioner of mountaintop removal, and a few corporate cronies are accomplishing what the Pleistocene could not: flattening Appalachia’s mountains, obliterating those ancient forests and the historic landscapes where Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone roamed and which birthed country music, NASCAR races and rough-hewn heroes for every American war.  Using mammoth machines designed to replace human workers, and explosives with the power of a Hiroshima bomb each week, coal companies have already flattened 1.4 million acres, buried nearly 2,000 miles of streams and blown up 500 of America’s oldest mountains.

Industry’s claim that mountaintop removal brings prosperity to the region is a demonstrable lie. To the contrary, the out-of-state companies and Wall Street banks that control Appalachian coal are liquidating the resources of the region while impoverishing its residents. West Virginia, ground zero for the plundering of Appalachia, is blessed with some of the country’s richest resources yet is America’s 49th poorest state. In fact, coalfield counties throughout the region have some of the highest poverty levels in the nation.

Mountaintop removal is incompatible with either economic development or human habitation. Once-thriving communities like Whitesville, Marsh Fork, Shumate and Lindytown are now ghost towns dotting the coalfields. They stand emptied by residents fleeing the blasting, the choking dust, dried-up and poisoned wells, disappeared and contaminated streams, slurry spills, floods, landslides, mudslides and the murderously overloaded coal trucks that speed down narrow mountain roads. In fact, coal companies engage in a deliberate policy of buying and closing coal towns and paying the residents to leave. Then, after a few short years of production, the companies leave too, abandoning depopulated hollows and barren moonscapes that are useless for economic development or functioning ecosystems.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts has observed that, through Massey’s brand of mountaintop removal, CEO Don Blankenship has “caused more suffering to more people in Appalachia than any other human being.” Both the Catholic and Presbyterian churches have condemned mountaintop removal as “sinful” because of its impact on God’s creation and Appalachia’s communities. Morality aside, mountaintop removal is undeniably a criminal enterprise. Mr. Blankenship acknowledged, in a recent debate with me, that mountaintop removal cannot be accomplished without violating the law.  His company paid a record $20 million penalty for 60,534 Clean Water Act violations it admitted committing between 2000 and 2006, including spills of deadly chemicals like arsenic and selenium illegally dumped into Appalachia’s waterways. Thanks to the coal industry, every waterway in central Appalachia is now contaminated with dangerous levels of heavy metals like mercury. But the fines are merely a business expense, which explains why Massey has since admitted to 12,500 more Clean Water Act violations.

Coal companies avoid serious legal consequences for their crimes by subverting democracy, corrupting elected officials, buying judgeships, capturing the regulatory agencies, muzzling public participation and obscuring government transparencies. Ironically, mountaintop removal is only profitable due to huge public subsidies. A recent study on the impact of coal on Kentucky’s state budget concluded that the industry generated roughly $528 million in tax revenues in 2006.

However, placating King Coal cost the Bluegrass State $642 million to maintain thousands of miles of coal roads and other public subsidies – a net loss of $115 million annually.

The Kentucky study did not even consider the public health consequences of mining or its many other externalized costs. The Appalachian Regional Commission recently concluded that Appalachians suffer the worst health in nation and the coal mining areas suffer from higher morbidity and mortality than anywhere else in the region. The closer you are to a coal mine the sicker you’re likely to be. The ARC study confirmed the finding of another 2009 study by West Virginia University showing that health costs in coal mining areas exceed the economic contributions of the entire coal industry by up to $50 million annually.

The coal barons who have shed 90 percent of their workforce over the last 40 years in a ruthless campaign of mechanization now shed crocodile tears for the 6,000 strip miners who they claim will lose their jobs when mountaintop mining is abolished. But this is another canard.  They know that underground mining that will replace it employs many more miners per ton than strip mining. Another industry myth is that ending mountaintop removal would cause higher energy prices.

But only about 5 percent of the nation’s electric power comes from mountaintop removal. A 2009 study by Synapse Energy Economics found that the cost impacts would be insignificant.

It’s not a good thing for Appalachia, America, or democracy when corporations own the landscape and drive people off the land. West Virginians, Virginians, Kentuckians and Tennesseans are proud of their mountain heritage and they dearly love the hills and hollows. A robust majority want to see mountaintop removal ended. Even West Virginia’s senior senator, Robert Byrd, acknowledges the growing consensus against this extreme strip mining. They know that Appalachia at long last must move toward a diversified economy that will provide sustainable jobs and relieve the state of boom-bust cycles that spiral always toward poverty and tyranny.

Kennedy is senior counsel for the Natural Resources Defense Council and president of Waterkeeper Alliance.

Hope in the Mountains

March 25, 2009

The Washington Post

Op-Ed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Yesterday was a great day for the people of Appalachia and for all of America. In a bold departure from Bush-era energy policy, the Obama administration suspended a coal company’s permit to dump debris from its proposed mountaintop mining operation into a West Virginia valley and stream. In addition, the administration promised to carefully review upward of 200 such permits awaiting approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

With yesterday’s action, President Obama has signaled his intention to save this region. His moratorium on these permits will allow the administration to develop a sensible long-term approach to dealing with this catastrophic method of coal extraction.

I join hundreds of Appalachia’s embattled communities in applauding this news. Having flown over the coalfields of Appalachia and walked her ridges, valleys and hollows, I know that this land cannot withstand more abuse. Mountaintop-removal coal mining is the greatest environmental tragedy ever to befall our nation. This radical form of strip mining has already flattened the tops of 500 mountains, buried 2,000 miles of streams, devastated our country’s oldest and most diverse temperate forests, and blighted landscapes famous for their history and beauty. Using giant earthmovers and millions of tons of explosives, coal moguls have eviscerated communities, destroyed homes, and uprooted and sickened families with coal and rock dust, and with blasting, flooding and poisoned water, all while providing far fewer jobs than does traditional underground mining.

The backlog of permit applications has been building since Appalachian groups won a federal injunction against the worst forms of mountaintop removal in March 2007. But the floodgates opened on Feb. 13 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond overturned that injunction. Since then, the Corps has been working overtime to oblige impatient coal barons by quickly issuing the pending permits. Each such permit amounts to a death sentence for streams, mountains and communities. Taken together, these pending permits threatened to lay waste to nearly 60,000 acres of mountain landscape, destroy 400 valleys and bury more than 200 miles of streams.

The Corps already had issued a dozen permits before the White House stepped in, and coal companies have begun destroying some of these sites. The bulldozers are poised for action on the rest. Typical of these is Ison Rock Ridge, a proposed 1,230-acre mine in southwest Virginia that would blow up several peaks and threaten a half-dozen communities, including the small town of Appalachia.

In a valiant effort to hold back destruction, the Appalachia Town Council, citing its responsibility for the “health, safety, welfare, and properties” of its residents, recently passed an ordinance prohibiting coal mining within the town limits without approval from the council. But that ordinance lacks the power to override the Army Corps of Engineers’ permit. And while the Obama administration order will reverse the Bush-era policies and stop the pillaging elsewhere, the town of Appalachia remains imperiled.

The White House should now enlarge its moratorium to commute Appalachia’s death sentence by suspending the dozen permits already issued. The Environmental Protection Agency should then embark on a rulemaking effort to restore a critical part of the Clean Water Act that was weakened by industry henchmen recruited to powerful positions in the Bush administration. Former industry lobbyists working as agency heads and department deputies issued the so-called “fill rule” to remove 30-year-old laws barring coal companies from dumping mining waste into streams. This step cleared the way for mountaintop removal, which within a few years could flatten an area of the Appalachians the size of Delaware. This change must be reversed to restore the original intent of the Clean Water Act and prevent mining companies from using our streams and rivers as dumps.

The Obama administration’s decision to suspend these permits and take a fresh look at mountaintop removal is consistent with Obama’s commitment to science, justice and transparency in government and his respect for America’s history and values. The people of Appalachia, Va., and the other towns across the coalfields have been praying that Barack Obama’s promise of change will be kept. Thanks to yesterday’s decision, hope, not mining waste, is filling the valleys and hollows of Appalachia.

The writer is chairman of the Waterkeeper Alliance and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Block the Vote

October 30, 2008

Rollingstone

Will the GOP’s campaign to deter new voters and discard Democratic ballots determine the next president?

By ROBERT F. KENNEDY JR. & GREG PALAST

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Video: Behind the Story With Kennedy Jr. and Palast ›
These days, the old west rail hub of Las Vegas, New Mexico, is little more than a dusty economic dead zone amid a boneyard of bare mesas. In national elections, the town overwhelmingly votes Democratic: More than 80 percent of all residents are Hispanic, and one in four lives below the poverty line. On February 5th, the day of the Super Tuesday caucus, a school-bus driver named Paul Maez arrived at his local polling station to cast his ballot. To his surprise, Maez found that his name had vanished from the list of registered voters, thanks to a statewide effort to deter fraudulent voting. For Maez, the shock was especially acute: He is the supervisor of elections in Las Vegas.

Maez was not alone in being denied his right to vote. On Super Tuesday, one in nine Democrats who tried to cast ballots in New Mexico found their names missing from the registration lists. The numbers were even higher in precincts like Las Vegas, where nearly 20 percent of the county’s voters were absent from the rolls. With their status in limbo, the voters were forced to cast “provisional” ballots, which can be reviewed and discarded by election officials without explanation. On Super Tuesday, more than half of all provisional ballots cast were thrown out statewide.

This November, what happened to Maez will happen to hundreds of thousands of voters across the country. In state after state, Republican operatives — the party’s elite commandos of bare-knuckle politics — are wielding new federal legislation to systematically disenfranchise Democrats. If this year’s race is as close as the past two elections, the GOP’s nationwide campaign could be large enough to determine the presidency in November. “I don’t think the Democrats get it,” says John Boyd, a voting-rights attorney in Albuquerque who has taken on the Republican Party for impeding access to the ballot. “All these new rules and games are turning voting into an obstacle course that could flip the vote to the GOP in half a dozen states.”

Suppressing the vote has long been a cornerstone of the GOP’s electoral strategy. Shortly before the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Paul Weyrich — a principal architect of today’s Republican Party — scolded evangelicals who believed in democracy. “Many of our Christians have what I call the ‘goo goo’ syndrome — good government,” said Weyrich, who co-founded Moral Majority with Jerry Falwell. “They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. . . . As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

Today, Weyrich’s vision has become a national reality. Since 2003, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, at least 2.7 million new voters have had their applications to register rejected. In addition, at least 1.6 million votes were never counted in the 2004 election — and the commission’s own data suggests that the real number could be twice as high. To purge registration rolls and discard ballots, partisan election officials used a wide range of pretexts, from “unreadability” to changes in a voter’s signature. And this year, thanks to new provisions of the Help America Vote Act, the number of discounted votes could surge even higher.

Passed in 2002, HAVA was hailed by leaders in both parties as a reform designed to avoid a repeat of the 2000 debacle in Florida that threw the presidential election to the U.S. Supreme Court. The measure set standards for voting systems, created an independent commission to oversee elections, and ordered states to provide provisional ballots to voters whose eligibility is challenged at the polls.

But from the start, HAVA was corrupted by the involvement of Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, who worked to cram the bill with favors for his clients. (Both Abramoff and a primary author of HAVA, former Rep. Bob Ney, were imprisoned for their role in the conspiracy.) In practice, many of the “reforms” created by HAVA have actually made it harder for citizens to cast a ballot and have their vote counted. In case after case, Republican election officials at the local and state level have used the rules to give GOP candidates an edge on Election Day by creating new barriers to registration, purging legitimate names from voter rolls, challenging voters at the polls and discarding valid ballots.

To justify this battery of new voting impediments, Republicans cite an alleged upsurge in voting fraud. Indeed, the U.S.-attorney scandal that resulted in the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales began when the White House fired federal prosecutors who resisted political pressure to drum up nonexistent cases of voting fraud against Democrats. “They wanted some splashy pre-election indictments that would scare these alleged hordes of illegal voters away,” says David Iglesias, a U.S. attorney for New Mexico who was fired in December 2006. “We took over 100 complaints and investigated for almost two years — but I didn’t find one prosecutable case of voter fraud in the entire state of New Mexico.”

There’s a reason Iglesias couldn’t find any evidence of fraud: Individual voters almost never try to cast illegal ballots. The Bush administration’s main point person on “ballot protection” has been Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department attorney who has advised states on how to use HAVA to erect more barriers to voting. Appointed to the Federal Election Commission by Bush, von Spakovsky has suggested that voter rolls may be stuffed with 5 million illegal aliens. In fact, studies have repeatedly shown that voter fraud is extremely rare. According to a recent analysis by Lorraine Minnite, an expert on voting crime at Barnard College, federal courts found only 24 voters guilty of fraud from 2002 to 2005, out of hundreds of millions of votes cast. “The claim of widespread voter fraud,” Minnite says, “is itself a fraud.”

Allegations of voter fraud are only the latest rationale the GOP has used to disenfranchise voters — especially blacks, Hispanics and others who traditionally support Democrats. “The Republicans have a long history of erecting barriers to discourage Americans from voting,” says Donna Brazile, chair of the Voting Rights Institute for the Democratic National Committee. “Now they’re trying to spook Americans with the ghost of voter fraud. It’s very effective — but it’s ironic that the only way they maintain power is by using fear to deprive Americans of their constitutional right to vote.” The recently enacted barriers thrown up to deter voters include:
1. Obstructing Voter-Registration Drives

Since 2004, the Bush administration and more than a dozen states have taken steps to impede voter registration. Among the worst offenders is Florida, where the Republican-dominated legislature created hefty fines — up to $5,000 per violation — for groups that fail to meet deadlines for turning in voter-application forms. Facing potentially huge penalties for trivial administrative errors, the League of Women Voters abandoned its voter-registration drives in Florida. A court order eventually forced the legislature to reduce the maximum penalty to $1,000. But even so, said former League president Dianne Wheatley-Giliotti, the reduced fines “create an unfair tax on democracy.” The state has also failed to uphold a federal law requiring that low-income voters be offered an opportunity to register when they apply for food stamps or other public assistance. As a result, the annual number of such registrations has plummeted from more than 120,000 in the Clinton years to barely 10,000 today.
2. Demanding “Perfect Matches”

Under the Help America Vote Act, some states now reject first-time registrants whose data does not correspond to information in other government databases. Spurred by HAVA, almost every state must now attempt to make some kind of match — and four states, including the swing states of Iowa and Florida, require what is known as a “perfect match.” Under this rigid framework, new registrants can lose the right to vote if the information on their voter-registration forms — Social Security number, street address and precisely spelled name, right down to a hyphen — fails to exactly match data listed in other government records.

There are many legitimate reasons, of course, why a voter’s information might vary. Indeed, a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that as many as 20 percent of discrepancies between voter records and driver’s licenses in New York City are simply typing mistakes made by government clerks when they transcribe data. But under the new rules, those mistakes are costing citizens the right to vote. In California, a Republican secretary of state blocked 43 percent of all new voters in Los Angeles from registering in early 2006 — many because of the state’s failure to produce a tight match. In Florida, GOP officials created “match” rules that rejected more than 15,000 new registrants in 2006 and 2007 — nearly three-fourths of them Hispanic and black voters. Given the big registration drives this year, the number could be five times higher by November.

3. Purging Legitimate Voters From the Rolls

The Help America Vote Act doesn’t just disenfranchise new registrants; it also targets veteran voters. In the past, bipartisan county election boards maintained voter records. But HAVA requires that records be centralized, computerized and maintained by secretaries of state — partisan officials — who are empowered to purge the rolls of any voter they deem ineligible. Ironically, the new rules imitate the centralized system in Florida — the same corrupt operation that inspired passage of HAVA in the first place. Prior to the 2000 election, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and her predecessor, both Republicans, tried to purge 57,000 voters, most of them African-Americans, because their names resembled those of persons convicted of a crime. The state eventually acknowledged that the purges were improper — two years after the election.

Rather than end Florida-style purges, however, HAVA has nationalized them. Maez, the elections supervisor in New Mexico, says he was the victim of faulty list management by a private contractor hired by the state. Hector Balderas, the state auditor, was also purged from the voter list. The nation’s youngest elected Hispanic official, Balderas hails from Mora County, one of the poorest in the state, which had the highest rate of voters forced to cast provisional ballots. “As a strategic consideration,” he notes, “there are those that benefit from chaos” at the ballot box.

All told, states reported scrubbing at least 10 million voters from their rolls on questionable grounds between 2004 and 2006. Colorado holds the record: Donetta Davidson, the Republican secretary of state, and her GOP successor oversaw the elimination of nearly one of every six of their state’s voters. Bush has since appointed Davidson to the Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency created by HAVA, which provides guidance to the states on “list maintenance” methods.
4. Requiring Unnecessary Voter ID’s

Even if voters run the gauntlet of the new registration laws, they can still be blocked at the polling station. In an incident last May, an election official in Indiana denied ballots to 10 nuns seeking to vote in the Democratic primary because their driver’s licenses or passports had expired. Even though Indiana has never recorded a single case of voter-ID fraud, it is one of two dozen states that have enacted stringent new voter-ID statutes.

On its face, the requirement to show a government-issued ID doesn’t seem unreasonable. “I want to cash a check to pay for my groceries, I’ve got to show a little bit of ID,” Karl Rove told the Republican National Lawyers Association in 2006. But many Americans lack easy access to official identification. According to a recent study for the Election Law Journal, young people, senior citizens and minorities — groups that traditionally vote Democratic — often have no driver’s licenses or state ID cards. According to the study, one in 10 likely white voters do not possess the necessary identification. For African-Americans, the number lacking such ID is twice as high.


5. Rejecting “Spoiled” Ballots

Even intrepid voters who manage to cast a ballot may still find their vote discounted. In 2004, election officials discarded at least 1 million votes nationwide after classifying them as “spoiled” because blank spaces, stray marks or tears made them indecipherable to voting machines. The losses hit hardest among minorities in low-income precincts, who are often forced to vote on antiquated machines. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, in its investigation of the 2000 returns from Florida, found that African-Americans were nearly 10 times more likely than whites to have their ballots rejected, a ratio that holds nationwide.

 

Proponents of HAVA claimed the law would correct the spoilage problem by promoting computerized balloting. Yet touch-screen systems have proved highly unreliable — especially in minority and low-income precincts. A statistical analysis of New Mexico ballots by a voting-rights group called VotersUnite found that Hispanics who voted by computer in 2004 were nearly five times more likely to have their votes unrecorded than those who used paper ballots. In a close election, such small discrepancies can make a big difference: In 2004, the number of spoiled ballots in New Mexico — 19,000 — was three times George Bush’s margin of victory.
6. Challenging “Provisional” Ballots

In 2004, an estimated 3 million voters who showed up at the polls were refused regular ballots because their registration was challenged on a technicality. Instead, these voters were handed “provisional” ballots, a fail-safe measure mandated by HAVA to enable officials to review disputed votes. But for many officials, resolving disputes means tossing ballots in the trash. In 2004, a third of all provisional ballots — as many as 1 million votes — were simply thrown away at the discretion of election officials.

Many voters are given provisional ballots under an insidious tactic known as “vote caging,” which uses targeted mailings to disenfranchise black voters whose addresses have changed. In 2004, despite a federal consent order forbidding Republicans from engaging in the practice, the GOP sent out tens of thousands of letters to “confirm” the addresses of voters in minority precincts. If a letter was returned for any reason — because the voter was away at school or serving in the military — the GOP challenged the voter for giving a false address. One caging operation was exposed when an RNC official mistakenly sent the list to a parody site called GeorgeWBush.org — instead of to the official campaign site GeorgeWBush.com.

In the century following the Civil War, millions of black Americans in the Deep South lost their constitutional right to vote, thanks to literacy tests, poll taxes and other Jim Crow restrictions imposed by white officials. Add up all the modern-day barriers to voting erected since the 2004 election — the new registrations thrown out, the existing registrations scrubbed, the spoiled ballots, the provisional ballots that were never counted — and what you have is millions of voters, more than enough to swing the presidential election, quietly being detached from the electorate by subterfuge.

“Jim Crow was laid to rest, but his cousins were not,” says Donna Brazile. “We got rid of poll taxes and literacy tests but now have a second generation of schemes to deny our citizens their franchise.” Come November, the most crucial demographic may prove to be Americans who have been denied the right to vote. If Democrats are to win the 2008 election, they must not simply beat John McCain at the polls — they must beat him by a margin that exceeds the level of GOP vote tampering.

Contributing editor Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is one of the nation’s leading voting-rights advocates. His article “Was the 2004 Election Stolen?” [RS 1002] sparked widespread scrutiny of vote tampering. Greg Palast, who broke the story on Florida’s illegal voter purges in the 2000 election, is the author of “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.” For more information, visit No Voter Left Behind and Steal Back Your Vote.

Palin’s Big Oil infatuation

September 24, 2008

Los Angeles Times

By ROBERT F. KENNEDY Jr.

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I was water-skiing with my children in a light drizzle off Hyannis, Mass., last month when a sudden, fierce storm plunged us into a melee of towering waves, raking rain, painful hail and midday darkness broken by blinding flashes of lightning. As I hurried to get my children out of the water and back to the dock, I shouted over the roaring wind, “This is some kind of tornado.”

The fog consolidated and a waterspout hundreds of feet high rose from the white ocean and darted across its surface, landing for a moment on a moored outboard to spin it like a top, moving toward a distant shore where it briefly became a sand funnel, and then diffusing into the atmosphere as it rained down bits of beach on the harbor. For 24 hours, a light show of violent storms illuminated the coastline, accompanied by booming thunder. My dog was so undone by the display that she kept us all awake with her terrified whining. That same day, two waterspouts appeared on Long Island Sound.

Those odd climatological phenomena led me to reflect on the rapidly changing weather patterns that are altering the way we live. Lightning storms and strikes have tripled just since the beginning of the decade on Cape Cod. In the 1960s, we rarely saw lightning or heard thunder on the Massachusetts coast. I associate electrical storms with McLean, Va., where I spent the school year when I was growing up.

In Virginia, the weather also has changed dramatically. Recently arrived residents in the northern suburbs, accustomed to today’s anemic winters, might find it astonishing to learn that there were once ski runs on Ballantrae Hill in McLean, with a rope tow and local ski club. Snow is so scarce today that most Virginia children probably don’t own a sled. But neighbors came to our home at Hickory Hill nearly every winter weekend to ride saucers and Flexible Flyers.

In those days, I recall my uncle, President Kennedy, standing erect as he rode a toboggan in his top coat, never faltering until he slid into the boxwood at the bottom of the hill. Once, my father, Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy, brought a delegation of visiting Eskimos home from the Justice Department for lunch at our house. They spent the afternoon building a great igloo in the deep snow in our backyard. My brothers and sisters played in the structure for several weeks before it began to melt. On weekend afternoons, we commonly joined hundreds of Georgetown residents for ice skating on Washington’s C&O Canal, which these days rarely freezes enough to safely skate.

Meanwhile, Exxon Mobil and its carbon cronies continue to pour money into think tanks whose purpose is to deceive the American public into believing that global warming is a fantasy. In 1998, these companies plotted to deceive American citizens about climate science. Their goal, according to a meeting memo, was to orchestrate information so that “recognition of uncertainties become part of the conventional wisdom” and that “those promoting the Kyoto treaty … appear to be out of touch with reality.”

Since that meeting, Exxon has funneled $23 million into the climate-denial industry, according to Greenpeace, which combs the company’s annual report each year. Since 2006, Exxon has cut off some of the worst offenders, but 28 climate-denial groups will still get funding this year.

Corporate America’s media toadies continue to amplify Exxon’s deceptive message. The company can count on its hand puppets — Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, John Stossel and Glenn Beck — to shamelessly mouth skepticism about man-made climate change and give political cover to the oil industry’s indentured servants on Capitol Hill. Oklahoma’s Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe calls global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American public.”

Now John McCain has chosen as his running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a diligent student of Big Oil’s crib sheets. She’s something of a flat-earther who shares the current administration’s contempt for science. Palin has expressed skepticism about evolution (which is like not believing in gravity), putting it on par with “creationism,” which posits that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago.

She used to insist that human activities have nothing to do with climate change. “I’m not one … who would attribute it to being man-made,” she said in August. After she joined the GOP ticket, she magically reversed herself, to a point. “Man’s activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming,” she told Charles Gibson two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, Alaska is melting before our eyes; entire villages erode as sea ice vanishes, glaciers are disappearing at a frightening clip, and “dancing forests” caused by disappearing permafrost astonish residents and tourists. Palin had to keep her head buried particularly deep in an oil well to ever have denied that humans are causing climate change. But, as Upton Sinclair pointed out, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Palin’s enthusiastic embrace of Big Oil’s agenda (if not always Big Oil itself) has been the platform of her hasty rise in Alaskan politics. In that sense she is as much a product of the oil industry as the current president and his vice president. Palin, whose husband is a production operator for BP on Alaska’s North Slope, has sued the federal government over its listing of the polar bear as an endangered species threatened by global warming, and she has fought to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Alaska’s coast to oil drilling.

When oil profits are at stake, her fantasy world appears to have no boundaries. About American’s deadly oil dependence, she mused recently, “I beg to disagree with any candidate who would say we can’t drill our way out of our problem.”

I guess the only difference between Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney is … lipstick.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is an environmental lawyer and a professor at Pace University Law School.

Commentary: Obama’s energy plan would create green gold rush

August 25, 2008

CNN.com

  • Story Highlights
  • Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Burning carbon has hurt economy, national security
  • Kennedy says Obama would wean U.S. off reliance on carbon for energy
  • Kennedy: America’s economy would grow, and jobs would be created
  • “Everyone will profit from the green gold rush,” Kennedy says

By Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

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Editor’s note: Sen. Ted Kennedy will be honored tonight at the Democratic Convention in Denver, Colorado. His nephew, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, was named one of Time magazine’s “Heroes for the Planet” for helping lead the fight against Hudson River pollution. Robert Kennedy describes his uncle Ted as “the most reliable leader in the Senate on energy and environmental issues. He’s a guy I always go to for advice and support when we’re working on federal legislation.” This is one in a series of commentary pieces on CNN.com from both McCain and Obama supporters attending party conventions.

(CNN) — Barack Obama is a transformational figure in American history who’s been able to excite the same intensity of feeling among Americans as I saw during my father’s 1968 campaign and my uncle John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign.

As a six-year-old, I attended the Democratic Convention in 1960 and traveled across the country in the Caroline K [the Kennedy campaign plane].

The excitement I saw then is echoed today as Barack Obama outlines his plans to get the nation moving in the right direction, to restore America’s role as an exemplary nation.

America’s dependence on carbon to produce energy has eroded our economic power, destroyed our moral authority, diminished our international influence and prestige, endangered our national security, and marred our health and landscapes. It is subverting everything we value.

A sophisticated, well-crafted energy policy designed to de-carbonize America is the centerpiece of Sen. Barack Obama’s domestic economic package.

It will sharpen our competitiveness by reducing our energy costs, dramatically reduce our national debt, stimulate our economy far more effectively than tax cuts by putting conservation savings in the hands of every American, and be the engine for creating millions of green-collar jobs that cannot be outsourced.
Obama understands, as John McCain does not, that an intelligent energy policy is also the natural fulcrum for U.S. foreign policy and national security. As Obama has warned, “One of the most dangerous weapons in the world today is the price of oil. We ship nearly $700 million a day to unstable or hostile nations for their oil. It pays for terrorist bombs going off from Baghdad to Beirut.” See McCain and Obama energy plans

Obama’s policy, which anticipates eliminating imports by 2012 or earlier, is feasible and desirable. Respected economists and energy industry entrepreneurs, high-level business representatives from Fortune 500 companies and large investors are already enlisting to invest in the infrastructure to facilitate the transition.

Every nation that has taken serious steps to de-carbonize its energy portfolio has reaped immediate economic growth. Sweden announced in 2006 the phase-out of all fossil fuels (and nuclear energy) by 2020. In 1991, the Swedes enacted a carbon tax — now up to $150 a ton — closed two nuclear reactors, and still dropped greenhouse emissions to 5 tons per person, compared with the U.S. per-capita rate of 20 tons.

Thousands of entrepreneurs rushed to develop new ways of generating energy from wind, the sun and the tides, and from wood chips, agricultural waste and garbage. Growth rates climbed and the heavily taxed Swedish economy is now the world’s eighth richest by gross domestic product.
Iceland was 80 percent dependent on imported coal and oil in the 1970s and was among the poorest economies in Europe. Today, Iceland is 100 percent energy independent, and according to the International Monetary Fund is now the fourth most affluent nation on Earth.

There are many other examples: Brazil’s efforts to de-carbonize its transportation system has resulted in the largest and most robust economic expansion in its history.

The United States has far greater domestic energy resources than Iceland or Sweden. We sit atop the second-largest geothermal resources in the world. The American Midwest is the Saudi Arabia of wind. Solar installations across just 19 percent of the most barren desert land in the Southwest could supply nearly all of our nation’s electricity needs even if every American owned an electric car.

Obama’s vision of de-carbonizing our economy begins with a market-based carbon cap-and-trade system designed to put downward pressure on carbon emissions. He will invest billions to revamp the nation’s antiquated high-voltage power transmission system and press for cost-saving building and appliance standards that would cut our energy demand by half.

For a tiny fraction of the projected cost of the Iraq war, we could completely wean the country from carbon. Homes and businesses will become power plants as people cash in by installing solar panels and wind turbines on their buildings, and selling the stored energy in their plug-in hybrids back to the grid at peak hours. By kicking its carbon addiction, America will increase its national wealth. Everyone will profit from the green gold rush.

We will create a decentralized and highly distributable grid that is far more resilient and safe for our country; a terrorist might knock out a power plant, but never a million homes. And for the first time in half a century, we will live free from Middle Eastern wars and entanglements with petty tyrants who despise democracy and are hated by their own people.

A Wilderness, Lost in the City

May 29, 2008

New York Times

By WILLIAM C. THOMPSON Jr. and ROBERT F. KENNEDY Jr.

MANY people are astounded to learn that there is a teeming wildlife preserve in New York City. Ridgewood Reservoir on the Brooklyn-Queens border is an oasis where an amazing range of plant and animal species thrive in a verdant landscape of steep hills and narrow valleys amid the city’s paved sidewalks.

But what’s more astounding, the city’s Parks Department could wind up destroying it.

Ridgewood is an accidental wilderness, tucked alongside the Jackie Robinson Parkway. Built in 1858 to
provide drinking water to Brooklyn, the reservoir was abandoned in 1989.

As the 50 acres reverted to wetlands, meadows and forests, tens of thousands of plants and trees took root and flourished. Turtles, fish, frogs and millions of insects moved in. Songbirds nested in the glades,
transforming the area into a migratory rest stop. According to the National Audubon Society, 137 species of birds use the reservoir, including eight rare species. It is a place as close to unspoiled nature as you’re likely to find anywhere within city limits.

Yet, the New York City Parks Department is considering a $50 million “renovation” project that would
cover more than 20 acres of the reservoir with athletic fields and facilities.

This plan flies in the face of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s widely hailed environmental blueprint, which
bemoans the loss of the city’s natural areas. The Parks Department’s own scientific consultants have warned against disturbing the reservoir, an area they call “highly significant for the biodiversity of New York City and the region.”

The parks commissioner has said the city needs the athletic fields to combat childhood obesity. This is an important objective, but the money that would be used to destroy this extraordinary natural habitat could be better spent improving Highland Park, next to Ridgewood Reservoir. Highland Park has plenty of ball fields to serve its neighborhood, but they are in such deplorable condition that few people use them.

Ridgewood’s natural preserve is a great place for people of all ages to walk and hike. Its trails should be
upgraded with benches and rest areas as well as markers pointing out unique flora and fauna. The Parks
Department should also open areas of the reservoir for guided nature walks, a great educational tool.
Ridgewood Reservoir offers visitors a rare chance to lose themselves in a forest, to hear bird song, to touch wilderness and to sense the divine. The city shouldn’t let that slip away.

William C. Thompson Jr. is the comptroller of the City of New York. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a lawyer for
Riverkeeper, an environmental group.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr