Air Quality Alerts; What You Can Do About Them

May 31, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Mindy McAdams, Flickr

Kids playing in Boston’s Christian Science Plaza Fountain, by Mindy McAdams on Flickr

The heat is here!

Even though it’s technically still spring until late June, it feels as though summer has already come to stay in southern New England. While we New Englanders pride ourselves on being able to handle all kinds of weather, the health risks posed by poor air quality shouldn’t be ignored.

On a hot summer day, I know I make sure to check the weather in the morning before leaving to see how hot it might get and if there’s a chance of rain. Weather reports and weather websites are good at giving us lots of data about the day’s weather in general (hourly temperatures, chance of rain, and radar maps tracking storms), but don’t always give a detailed explanation when there’s an air quality alert (like there is this weekend).

What does an Air Quality Alert really mean?

The Air Quality Index combines measurements of ground level ozone and particulate matter to determine when levels of those pollutants might be harmful to humans.

Ground level ozone forms when pollution from cars, construction equipment, factories, and power plants containing oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic chemicals mix in sunlight. While lots of ground level ozone is formed in urban areas on hot days, it can also be blown over long distances by wind. Particulate matter is just what it sounds like, particles from construction dust and pollen down to heavy metals and toxic pollutants. Both ground level ozone and particulate matter can be inhaled and cause serious respiratory problems. Southern New England and the mid-Atlantic seaboard are at special risk for ground level ozone and particulate pollution due to the combination of big cities and winds blowing east.

Ground level ozone and particulate matter at levels that commonly occur here in the summer can cause some very unpleasant health problems for even healthy adults (coughing and wheezing isn’t a lot of fun), but can be dangerous and even life-threatening for kids with asthma or other breathing problems, adults with chronic conditions, and the elderly. And some studies suggest that ground-level ozone can actually cause asthma and breathing problems in kids. Adults at risk and parents of kids at risk probably know more about all of this than the average person, but hearing that there’s an Air Quality Alert on the weather can still leave anyone with a lot of questions.

As you can see from the AQI scale, a score of 50 would be labeled “good” and 51 would be “moderate,” so more precise data is essential. That information isn’t always available on a weather report, which is where the EnviroFlash website comes in. They plot the hourly Air Quality Index measurements on maps, so you can check out the forecast and close to real-time information about local air quality:

EnviroFlash this morning

What can I do about bad air quality in the summer?

While there are of course steps that people at risk from elevated ground level ozone and particulate levels can take to protect themselves from dangerous breathing events, the good news is that there are simple and very important things we can all do to help prevent elevated air quality:

  • Prevent your car from contributing to vehicle emissions: try to limit driving trips and take public transportation if possible.
  • Reduce the amount of electricity that your household uses, keeping the worst-emitting fossil fuel fired power plants from being pressed into service: Keep your air conditioner a few degrees higher, and make sure to turn lights and electronics off when you’re not using them.



Worth Remembering: Northern Pass Would Mean Big Changes in the White Mountains

May 8, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

(photo credit: flickr/crschmidt)

(photo credit: flickr/crschmidt)

With the Northern Pass “new route” drama entering its third year (Northeast Utilities executives once again failed to announce any progress on last week’s investor conference call), it’s important to remember that all we’ve been talking about is the northernmost forty miles of what is a 180-mile project that stretches from the Canadian border to southeastern New Hampshire.

The “new route” will not change one of the proposed Northern Pass project’s most troubling segments: approximately 10 miles through the White Mountain National Forest, within the towns of Easton, Lincoln, and Woodstock. It goes without saying that the Forest is one of New Hampshire’s most treasured public assets: a vast and magnificent wilderness that is among the most accessible and visited natural wonders in the nation and the cornerstone of the state’s tourist and recreation economy. The Forest is an awe-inspiring place, and its ongoing stewardship is one of those things that make me profoundly proud of this country.

Project affiliate Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH) has a “special use permit” from the United States Forest Service for an existing transmission line, built in 1948, which is largely comprised of H-frame wooden poles standing about 50 feet tall. Northern Pass developer Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT) is now seeking a special use permit to remove the existing line and build two new sets of towers (one carrying the new Northern Pass transmission line and the other carrying the existing line) with a “typical” height of 85 feet.

Proposed Northern Pass tower design (existing towers in background)

Proposed Northern Pass tower design (existing towers in background)

You can read NPT’s permit application here (PDF) and download its attachments here. The project’s construction would impact important wildlife habitat and ecologically sensitive high-altitude wetlands, and the new more prominent towers would cross the Appalachian Trail and impact a number of the Forest’s other signature hiking areas and viewsheds. It’s also worth noting that the project’s failure to provide meaningful greenhouse gas emission reductions falls particularly hard on the Forest, where climate change is already shifting seasons, reducing snowpack levels, and disrupting mountain ecosystems in significant ways.

It will be up to the United States Forest Service – and specifically the supervisor of the White Mountain National Forest  – to decide whether to approve NPT’s permit application. In particular, the Forest Service must determine whether granting the proposed use is “in the public interest” and consistent with the current management plan for the Forest, which includes special protections for the Forest’s most important natural and scenic resources. This decision will follow the United States Department of Energy’s environmental review of the Northern Pass project as a whole, which CLF has been fighting to improve since the project was first announced in 2010.

Earlier this year, a diverse coalition of conservation organizations, including CLF, along with a grassroots group, several Forest communities, and the regional land use planning commission wrote to the Forest Service, urging the agency to take all available steps at its disposal to ensure comprehensive and rigorous scrutiny of the Northern Pass project and a full analysis of all reasonable alternatives, especially those alternatives that avoid or minimize impacts within the Forest.

Our letter (PDF) highlighted the Forest Service’s stewardship obligations and the special and stringent standards for granting a special use permit. We explained that the Northern Pass project, as proposed, is very different from an ordinary utility transmission line constructed to extend service or improve system reliability; the project is much more like a private commercial development, with no specific policy or law encouraging or requiring its development. We suggested that it was critical for the Forest Service to take these features into account as it weighs whether the project would be consistent with the “public interest” and the Forest’s management plan. Finally, we recommended that the Forest Service avoid relying on data collected by the first contractor hired to conduct the federal environmental review of the project, which was withdrawn by NPT after a public uproar, and that the Forest Service exercise its prerogative to order Forest-specific studies and to scrutinize and question all data and analysis presented by the current contractor team, the objectivity of which is in serious doubt.

Oddly, the federal environmental review of Northern Pass seems to be moving forward even as the project is stalled and the northernmost route has not been disclosed. As field work, studies, and analysis proceed, the Forest Service is hearing from many voices registering strong opposition to Northern Pass’s special use permit application, through efforts like and this recent citizen-generated petition. If you are concerned about the impacts of the Northern Pass project on the White Mountains, you can add your voice through those resources or by filing a comment with the United States Department of Energy.

A Message to the Energy Industry: The Demise of Northern Pass 1.0

Apr 26, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Earlier this week, I brought a message from New Hampshire to a gathering of major players in the Northeast’s energy industry in lower Manhattan, the Platt’s Northeast Energy Markets Conference.

wall street

(photo credit: flickr/Mathew Knott)

Remember Northern Pass, that novel Northeast Utilities transmission project that would import 1,200 megawatts of large-scale hydropower from Hydro-Québec?

The project, as it was conceived and pitched to the region and the industry, Northern Pass version 1.0 if you will, is dead.

I ran through the key financial elements of the original proposal, what I called the Northern Pass gambit:

  • $1.1 billion to build a new transmission line, funded wholly by Hydro-Québec.
  • A generous “return on equity,” or guaranteed profit on project costs, of 12.56% for project developer Northeast Utilities, paid by Hydro-Québec.
  • Easy and inexpensive siting approvals for the line, which would be located solely in New Hampshire, mostly in corridors controlled by Northeast Utilities subsidiary Public Service of New Hampshire, the state’s largest and most powerful electric utility.
  • Ample profits that would cover all Northern Pass costs and much more for Hydro-Québec, which would sell its hydropower in New England’s lucrative wholesale electric market, where energy prices were, in 2008 and 2009 when Northern Pass was conceived, orders of magnitude higher than Hydro-Quebec’s costs of generating power.
  • Unlike New England-based renewable projects, no public or ratepayer subsidies.

These elements looked good to investors on paper. But they have, one by one, fallen apart, and they no longer add up. I took the audience through the Northern Pass reality:

  • Years of a stalled siting process, as Northeast Utilities tries to purchase a new route for the northernmost 40 miles of the project, where PSNH has no transmission corridor, with repeated missed deadlines for announcing the new route and restarting the federal permitting process.
  • Increasing costs – an estimated additional $100 million in project costs already, even without accounting for any new route, mitigation commitments, or any underground component.
  • Growing doubt (even more pronounced than a year ago) that Hydro-Québec can recover Northern Pass development costs and its hydropower costs (which will only increase as costly new dam projects continue in northern Québec) through energy exports, given that wholesale energy prices in New England are now much lower.
  • Opposition by the vast majority of communities affected by the project, 33 at last count, local chambers of commerce, political leaders, and a diverse, well-organized grassroots movement of residents.
  • No support from any New England environmental group.
  • Mounting risk to NU’s lucrative return on equity, with the underlying deal expiring in 2014, and any renewal subject to federal regulators’ recently more skeptical view of such incentives.

And finally, I gave the eulogy for the key financial element of Northern Pass 1.0 – the one that attracted so much interest in regional energy circles, was the project’s key distinguishing feature from New England renewable energy projects, and continues to reside within the project’s discredited and misleading media campaign: the promise that the project would not require any subsidies.

In the last several months, as CLF predicted, Northeast Utilities, Hydro-Québec, and their allies have launched a major initiative to secure out-of-market subsidies of one form or the other for Canadian hydropower.  These efforts are now raging in the legislatures of Connecticut and Rhode Island and are simmering in other New England states. CLF is deeply engaged in protecting our state Renewable Portfolio Standard laws from this incursion and in turning back any long-term deals that will supply Canadian hydropower to these states at above-market prices or in a way that threatens renewable deployment in New England.

To us and to others, the false urgency associated with these proposals seems transparently calculated to advance a “Northern Pass 2.0,” just as Northern Pass 1.0 falls apart.

What would Northern Pass 2.0 look like? On the ground, whatever the “new route” New Hampshire continues to wait for, it will almost certainly look the same as Northern Pass 1.0, suffering from many of the same failings. But there will be some key differences, as the project’s underpinnings shift to accommodate a new economic reality. It will rely on public and/or ratepayer subsidies that will mean that New England will pay an above-market premium for the power or will provide an out-of-market gift of long-term energy price certainty to Hydro-Québec, in part to finance the associated transmission. In addition, many in New Hampshire’s North Country believe that the project will need to be sited on public land that is legally off-limits to circumvent the strong, ongoing efforts of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to secure blocking conservation easements – in effect, another public subsidy for the project that will face overwhelming pushback in New Hampshire. (Clearly, Northern Pass’s dogged legislative fight to secure an ability to use eminent domain for the project, which it lost in resounding fashion in 2012, was only a preview of coming tactics.)  

As CLF has consistently said, there may be appropriate alternatives to Northern Pass that strengthen New England’s access to Canadian hydropower resources, but only if those alternatives are pursued through well-informed, fair, and transparent public processes, provide meaningful community and ratepayer benefits, displace our dirtiest energy resources, and verifiably result in carbon and other emissions reductions. It does not appear that the emerging Northern Pass 2.0 – buoyed by a set of special deals and no discernible improvements – would do anything to advance these basic common sense principles, which should guide the region’s transition to a resource mix that will power New England’s clean energy future.

With few signs that Northern Pass’s sponsors have learned lessons from their missteps so far, Northern Pass 2.0 looks to have an even tougher path in New Hampshire than the dead end road that Northern Pass 1.0 has traveled. This was a message from the Granite State that the world of energy industry insiders and analysts needed to hear.

Energy: Out with the Dirty, In with the Clean

Apr 23, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Come join Conservation Law Foundation and our allies THIS SATURDAY in Burlington, Vermont for a discussion on Vermont’s Energy Choices.

Vermont’s Energy Choices: Old Dirty Problems and Clean Energy Solutions
Saturday, April 27th, 1:30 PM at the Billings Auditorium at UVM in Burlington

The time is NOW to move away from dirty sources of energy such as tar sands, nuclear, oil and coal. Solutions are available now to move us away from expensive, dangerous and polluting energy.

Come hear national and international experts on the problems of dirty energy – from fracking to tar sands – and  the real-world successes of renewable power – including community based renewable power in Europe.

Throwing up our hands is not an option. Come find out how to make a clean energy future our reality.

You can sign up and more information here:  See you Saturday!

Public Hearing: Gas Pipeline Expansion

Mar 19, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

The Vermont Public Service Board will be holding a public hearing on the proposed expansion of Vermont Gas facilities.

Vermont Gas Systems Expansion

Thursday evening, March 21, 2013

7:00 p.m 

Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Vermont

At a time when climate change is upon us we must think carefully about putting in place new fossil fuel systems that will be around for a very long time. Keeping us hooked on fossil fuels for many years is a bad idea.

The Board will be considering the proposed route, which runs through valuable wetlands and farmland. This is the beginning of a bigger project to supply gas across Lake Champlain to New York. It also moves Vermont closer to being able to access gas supplies from fracking, which is ongoing in New York and Pennsylvania.

Come let the Board know what concerns you have. Tell the Board you want to make sure energy is used wisely and that Vermont takes steps now to reduce our addiction to fossil fuels. It is important for the Public Service Board to hear from you.

Gina McCarthy: Right Choice for EPA, Bridge Builder, Wicked Big Sox Fan

Mar 4, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

We are delighted by the news that Gina McCarthy has been nominated as Administrator the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Over the course of the last two decades the staff of Conservation Law Foundation has worked productively with Gina in her various roles in Massachusetts state government, during her tenure as the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and, most recently, as Deputy EPA Administrator for Air and Radiation.

Gina is a fierce advocate for the health and welfare of our children and families. She was instrumental in the creation of the landmark nation and world-leading efforts to rein in mercury and toxics use and pollution in Massachusetts and across New England.

Gina is both a hard-nosed negotiator and a sympathetic ear always willing to listen to criticism and learn from just about anyone. Indeed, the “McCarthy Principle” of crafting regulations can best be summarized in her own words: “In nearly all cases the more people are involved in making a decision, the better the decision will be.”

Her engagement, over the years, on nearly every conceivable environmental issue, ranging from the transportation system of Greater Boston, holding her own state transportation agencies to account for their obligation to help clean up our air, to the clean-up of contaminated groundwater at the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod to her powerful leadership in crafting the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, has prepared her well for the breathtaking scope of issues that land on the EPA Administrator’s desk.

Her sincerity, humor, willingness to admit error, flashes of caustic (and often self-deprecating) wit are all qualities that disarm those who approach her, and help explain the deep loyalty of those who have worked with her directly.

At the end of the day, Gina is at heart still the same person who once served as a municipal public health agent, worrying about the families of one town in Massachusetts. But that person now has deep and essential knowledge about the complex worlds of energy, environmental and climate policy and a broad set of tools essential to meeting the powerful challenges that EPA faces in the 21st Century.”

. . . And she is wicked smart and a wicked big Red Sox fan.

Financing a Growing Appetite for Sustainable Food

Feb 27, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

CLF and CLF Ventures couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities for innovation in financing that build our regional food system. We’re working to foster greater investment in the innovations that will transform our communities, make us more self-sufficient and resilient to climate change, and build a sector that will sustain us over the long term. That’s why we recently partnered with Federal Street Advisors, a wealth management advisory firm for families and foundations, to co-sponsor a regional summit, Financing a Sustainable Food System for New England. Together with Federal Street Advisors, we gathered a select audience of interested investors and invited both seasoned and emerging entrepreneurs and experts from around New England to tell their stories, focusing on the critical issues in growing and financing sustainable food businesses. The room was full of excitement, stories, and passion for food, and several important themes emerged:


    (L-R) Mass. Agricultural Commissioner Greg Watson and Ed Maltby of Adams Farm Slaughterhouse

    Greg Watson, Massachusetts Agricultural Commissioner, explained that supply currently can’t match demand. He proclaimed that this is not a trend, “this is the future of agriculture!”

    Several entrepreneurs, including Ed Maltby of Adams Farm Slaughterhouse and Bill Eldridge of Maine’s Own Organic Milk, spoke of the need for alternative financing that allows the organic growth of their business and matches the timing and return expectations of their business models. While some models do create high value, others are challenging to do profitably, because the value of the sustainable dimension is not yet captured in the economics. For example, farming organically creates the need to certify, but for smaller growers, the “local” advantage can’t compete with large national businesses.

    Dorothy Suput, The Carrot Project

    Many panelists discussed the role of sustainable agriculture in addressing resiliency to climate change, including Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea Foods, who mentioned fish ranching as a strategy to address the declining coastal fish populations resulting from warming waters, and Henry Lovejoy of EcoFish, who explained, “We don’t need to raise any food that’s bad for the planet.”

  • NEED FOR AGGREGATION: Aggregation was a theme — farmers and investors alike can benefit from pooling resources to make innovations, and investments in them, sustainable.

There were many key ideas conveyed, but I have to commend Chuck Lacy of Hardwick Beef for delivering two memorable take-aways:

  • “You can’t just show up and get my tenderloins!” (Relationships are critical)
  • “If you’re lucky, you will plant a seed that will help change an industry” (to potential investors)

Raw bar, courtesy of Island Creek Oysters

Of course, no sustainable food summit would be complete without good eats, and the Financing Sustainable Food System summit showcased an abundance of local and regional treats, including grass-fed beef stew with panelist Chuck Lacy’s Hardwick Beef, fish and seafood from panelist Jared Auerbach’s Red’s Best, and many donated items, including an Island Creek Oysters raw bar, desserts from Henrietta’s Table of Cambridge, an assortment of prepared foods produced at Boston culinary incubator CropCircle Kitchen, and dozens of other tempting New England products.

CLF has a long history of work on sustainable agriculture issues in New England, including efforts to improve the sustainability of our fisheries.

  • CLF Ventures is working to regionalize a fish permit investment fund in the Gulf of Maine, aiming at the triple bottom line of social, environmental, and economic benefits.
  • And through our partnerships with Federal Street Advisors and others, we are evaluating the sustainability claims and working to bring structure and discipline to the innovation and excitement of social entrepreneurship.

CLF and CLF Ventures have a vision for reinventing our food supply that

  • builds on our region’s history and tradition of self-reliance and our roots in fishing and farming;
  • leverages our culture of innovation as a firm foundation for our regional economy;
  • creates healthier ways to feed ourselves;
  • combats climate change; and
  • rebuilds the health of our environment.

CLF Ventures co-organized the Sustainable Food System summit to discuss the benefits of investing in this growing economic sector, including greater food security and higher quality food, job creation, and improved quality of life for our urban and rural communities. The need to build capacity and sustainability in our food supply creates an opportunity to invest in sustainable economic growth for our region. Key to this growth is an understanding of the barriers — such as the need to aggregate production and distribution to scale, the need for effective financing models, for policy changes, for new public and private partnerships, for market development — and understanding the extent to which the emerging alternatives unlock the potential.

By design, there was a lot of expertise and activity in the room — from seasoned entrepreneurs and investors as well as from the next generation of innovators. We were fortunate to have generous co-sponsors: Goodwin Procter, Pinnacle Associates, Trillium Asset Management, and Eastern Bank. We are not the inventors of the idea, but we are the ones to carry it forward.

Stay tuned for updates on our urban farming work, triple-bottom-line funds, links between climate change, resilience, and sustainable farming practices, as well as entrepreneur stories, expert advising and more.

Improving Travel – Post Circ Highway

Feb 1, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Vermont keeps working on better ways for people and goods to get where they need to go. The threats from climate change and the high cost of maintaining our travel ways mean we need to be smarter and greener.

In 2011 Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin announced that the Circ Highway – an expensive, polluting and ill-conceived highway project outside Burlington — would not be built as planned. In its place a Task Force would work on solutions that won’t bust the budget or foul our air and water.

Over the past year a good part of that work looked at targeted improvements in the immediate Circ area. The result is a study of the network . With this are recommendations that were just adopted by the Task Force to move forward with making improvements to some existing roadways in and around Williston.

A public meeting will be held on Tuesday, February 5, 2013 from 7:30 – 9:00 PM at Williston Town Hall, with a presentation of the findings of the study and the recommendations. The meeting is hosted by the Williston Planning Commission. Refreshments will be served.

CLF has been mostly pleased with this work and encouraged that new and more effective solutions are moving forward. As we noted in comments to the group, a bigger role for transit and roundabouts could cut costs and pollution further.

Come learn about new projects and let the transportation officials working on these projects know what you think.

Tar Sands in Vermont? No Way!

Jan 29, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

photo courtesy of @

I joined with residents of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom today and fellow environmental colleagues to protect Vermont from the devastation of tar sands oil.

We filed a legal action to ensure Vermonters have a say over any proposal to move tar sands through Vermont. See press release here.

The request asks that the increasingly imminent proposal to move tar sands through an existing Northeast Kingdom pipeline be subject to state land use (Act 250) review. See request here.

Tar sands oil poses unique risks to the many natural treasures of the Northeast Kingdom and also imposes extreme climate change risks.

Tar sands oil is a gritty tar-like substance that produces far more emissions than conventional oil. The vastness of the tar sands reserves in Western Canada means that using tar sands oil delays efforts to move towards cleaner energy supplies, and sends us backwards on climate change.

As James Hansen, a leading climate scientist has said, the exploitation of tar sands on mass will be, “game over” for the climate.

Already there are requests to move tar sands east from Alberta to Montreal. The only realistic way to move it beyond Montreal to the deep ports it needs for transportation is through the Portland Montreal Pipeline which passes through Vermont.

There has already been one spill in this old pipeline in Vermont. A spill of tar sands oil – which is much harder to clean up – would be devastating.

Our filing requests that any plans to use the pipeline for tar sands oil be reviewed though Vermont’s land use development law – Act 250 – to protect our land, water and air resources threatened by this dirty fuel .