Tar Sands in Vermont? No Way!

Jan 29, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

photo courtesy of someones.life @ flickr.com

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 .

The Time is Right for Affordable Heat

Jan 17, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Vermont is poised to take a big bite out of the high cost and pollution of heating our homes and businesses. Slashing a full one-quarter of both lies within our reach.

Over the past decade, the cost Vermonters pay for staying warm has more than doubled. This strains our pocketbooks, our environment, our health and our security. Watching our dollars go up in smoke drains our economy.

What can we do? Building on the enormous success of our electric efficiency efforts, we can improve the heating efficiency of our homes and businesses in a similar manner. While some efforts have begun, most of the savings opportunity remains on the table. Throughout Vermont, heating efficiency has saved the average homeowner about $1,000 a year.  (See a recent editorial here).

A new report of Vermont’s Thermal Efficiency Task Force provides a strong roadmap for jumpstarting heating efficiency and renewable heat for our homes and businesses. The Task Force recommendations show how Vermont can stretch its heating dollars farther and provide over $1.4 billion in direct savings. That’s $1.4 billion that is not going up in smoke, literally leaking out of our homes and businesses.

Affordable heat means lowering bills. Every year Vermont struggles to fund low income heating assistance (LIHEAP). With affordable heat, Vermont can reduce the funds needed and can use LIHEAP dollars to help more Vermonters. Cutting fuel use by one-quarter means that for every four homes that are weatherized, help is available for one additional family.

Affordable heat reduces pollution. Every gallon of fossil fuel we don’t burn means less pollution. Whether we are adding solar to our roofs or insulating/weatherizing our homes we leave a lasting positive legacy for our children by taking seriously our responsibility to tackle climate change and reduce pollution.

The long and short of it is that Vermont — and Vermonters — can’t afford to keep wasting energy, wasting money and wasting clean air. Vermont’s commitment to affordable heat is our ticket to more comfortable homes and businesses, and a thriving and affordable clean energy economy.

The Latest on Northern Pass: A Year-End Roundup

Dec 28, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

As CLF begins a third year of advocacy on the Northern Pass project, some updates are in order:

The “New Route” Drama

With 2013 only days away, it is looking more and more likely that Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT) will not have secured 100% of a “new route” for the project’s northernmost portion by year end, as its public statements have been promising for months. As chronicled in a Boston Globe front-page story published earlier this week (the national daily’s first major story on Northern Pass), landowners are rejecting repeated offers from NPT, and our friends at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests have secured agreements to conserve key parcels along what appears to NPT’s preferred new path. (According to report in yesterday’s Union Leader, NPT officials are readying some kind of “update” on the project’s progress, which may raise more questions than it answers.)

If NPT fails to make good on its promised “new route,” it will be a singular embarrassment and signal more wasted months of self-inflicted delay. It also will continue NPT’s troubling pattern of misleading investors and peddling falsehoods about the project.

Whatever the success of NPT’s attempt to buy a transmission corridor through New Hampshire’s North Country, Northern Pass overall will remain the same flawed proposal that affected communities and stakeholders have overwhelmingly rejected over the last two years. Susan Arnold of the Appalachian Mountain Club and I penned an op-ed with this message, and it was widely published in New Hampshire newspapers this month. Please take a moment to read the op-ed here.

NU’s False Statements Get Noticed

Over the last month, the Boston Globe, the Concord Monitor, Connecticut newspapers, and NHPR (complete with audio) published stories on Northeast Utilities CEO Tom May’s blatantly false statements about support for Northern Pass. Instead of correcting the comments, NU’s spokesperson compounded Mr. May’s misstatements by insisting, contrary to any possible interpretation of the comments, that Mr. May was speaking about support for the Cape Wind project – a renewable energy proposal backed by a strong public campaign that is co-sponsored by many of the region’s environmental groups. The contrast with Northern Pass couldn’t be starker.

A Broken Permitting Process

The Department of Energy’s permitting process for the Northern Pass project remains tainted by its abdication of responsibility to select an independent and impartial contractor to prepare the crucial environmental impact statement for the project. In a recent letter to Senator Shaheen, DOE repeated its prior position that it sees nothing wrong with the way the current contractor team was selected because NPT’s extraordinary role in the selection process was not unusual. As I explained in October, a precedent of repeating a mistake is no justification. In November, CLF filed a new Freedom of Information Act request to understand the activities of the contractor team, DOE, and NPT during the last year and the extent of NPT’s influence over the direction of the permitting process.

An Underground Alternative Emerges

Meanwhile, we are learning more about a realistic alternative to NPT’s current proposal that could address some community concerns and provide new public revenues. In November, a state legislative commission released an important report highlighting the feasibility of siting underground high-voltage transmission lines in state-owned transportation corridors. The report can be found here (PDF) and followed a lengthy process of collecting testimony and input from dozens of stakeholders, including CLF and a number of other conservation organizations. The report found that underground transmission technologies and corridors are “being used extensively throughout the U.S. and internationally,” “may increase the reliability and security of the electric transmission system,” and “may be technically and financially competitive with other transmission designs and locations.” The commission pointed to other pending transmission projects that incorporate underground technologies sited in state-owned transportation corridors as an indication that this approach “can be technically and financially viable.” (Earlier this week, New York officials recommended approval of one of these projects – the Champlain Hudson Power Express between Québec and New York City, which now includes more than 120 miles of underground high-voltage transmission in active railroad corridors and highways.)

While the state agency officials participating in the commission were reluctant to endorse specific policy proposals in the report (which they saw as outside the commission’s charge), many commission members emphasized the need for a proactive, comprehensive energy plan and a regulatory framework that would help New Hampshire assure that new transmission projects provide meaningful public benefits.

A majority of the commission’s legislator members recommended changes to the state siting process for energy projects, including a requirement that a transmission developer bring forward an underground alternative to any overhead project. It is expected that these recommendations will be among the many legislative proposals to amend the state siting law during the 2013 session of the New Hampshire legislature.

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What will 2013 bring for the Northern Pass project and New Hampshire’s energy future? Stay updated by signing up for our newsletter Northern Pass Wire, and be sure to check in with CLF’s Northern Pass Information Center (http://www.clf.org/northern-pass) and all of our latest Northern Pass posts on CLF Scoop. You can also follow me on Twitter, where I often point to recent news articles on Northern Pass.

Bright Energy Forecast: Saving Electricity, Reducing Pollution, Saving Money

Dec 12, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

For decades Conservation Law Foundation has pushed for more energy efficiency, which continues to be the lowest cost, cleanest and most reliable way to meet power needs. More energy efficiency means fewer dirty coal plants, fewer monstrous transmission lines, and more money in our pockets. We all win.

The operators of the New England Power grid, the ISO-New England, released their energy-efficiency forecast. The news is pretty remarkable.  It shows the real effect of our commitment to energy efficiency. You can read the report here.

In states like Vermont, efficiency will more than offset expected growth and allow older and dirtier supplies to step aside.

 

By comparison New Hampshire, which has not invested as much in efficiency, continues to grow its power use and continues to pay too much for ever more polluting power supplies.

In the words of the ISO New England, the energy efficiency forecast shows the states’ investment in energy efficiency is having a significant impact on electric energy consumption and peak demand. About $260 million in transmission expenses have already been deferred for New England customers. (p.23).

That’s $260 million in our pockets.

What’s also important is that these are very conservative numbers: if states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island meet their goals for helping customers to save energy and money the reductions in energy use will exceed what the ISO is presenting.

This report shows that investments in electricity efficiency are really paying off – we need to apply the lessons from that sector to other areas, like ensuring we use natural gas and oil very efficiently as well, saving customers money while reducing pollution and fuel imports.

More savings are available. Some states are not making as large investments in energy efficiency as others. New Hampshire for example is causing its citizens to experience unnecessarily high costs.

It is good to see the bright payoff from what are only the beginnings of our efficiency investments.

 

 

 

 

Why We Need to Repair and Maximize the Efficiency of Our Existing Natural Gas System Before Looking to Expand

Dec 7, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

As the exuberance for “cheap, domestic” natural gas has heightened, so has pressure to build new pipelines and power plants.  Often lost in the frenzy, however, is the sobering reality that our existing natural gas infrastructure is in need of some serious care and attention.  A recent study highlighted the fact that the pipelines that deliver gas to our homes and businesses are riddled with thousands of leaks.  A large number of those leaks can be blamed on a system that still includes significant amounts of cast iron–some of which dates back to the 1830s.

Explosions in Philadelphia and Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2011 as well as a 2009 explosion in Gloucester, MA were traced to aging cast iron.  Coupled with the massive San Bruno explosion, the issue spurred the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue a “Call to Action” urging regulators and pipeline operators to accelerate the repair and replacement of high risk pipe.  Given this sense of urgency, the estimated timelines for replacement seem interminably long:

  •  81% of the remaining cast iron is buried in only 10 states:
State
Miles of
Cast/Wrought
Iron Mains (2011)
New Jersey
5,138
New York
4,541
Massachusetts
3,901
Pennsylvania
3,260
Michigan
3,153
Illinois
1,832
Connecticut
1,509
Maryland
1,422
Alabama
1,416
Missouri
1,180
  • Of these states, seven have implemented programs with deadlines for complete replacement:
  • New Jersey – 2035; New York – 2090; Pennsylvania – 2111; Michigan – 2040; Illinois – 2031; Alabama – 2040; Connecticut – 2080; Missouri – 2059.

Really? Decades to get the job done, at best?  And about a century to fully “modernize” pipes in some states? Sad, but true.

Though public safety is the primary driver behind pipe replacement and repair, whether the natural gas industry ultimately delivers on its claims for being less damaging to the climate than oil or coal depends on how well natural gas infrastructure addresses leaks.  In addition, those who are clamoring to blindly forge ahead expanding new natural gas infrastructure before we’ve fully assessed the condition of our current system would do well to remember the lessons that New England has already learned so well about the financial and environmental benefits of looking to efficiency first.  Not only is investment in new pipelines and power plants expensive, but it comes with serious and lasting environmental consequences whose costs are too often discounted or ignored.  Why not maximize opportunities for operating the existing natural gas system more efficiently first, before building (and paying for) more?

Despite the fact that we know natural gas prices are predictably volatile, several states have begun to take action to lock energy customers into long-term commitments to buy natural gas-fired power, thus locking them into paying for the fuel even when the price spikes.  For example, here in Massachusetts, one legislator has championed the idea of providing 10-20 year long term contracts for a new natural gas plant.  The problem with signing a long-term contract for electricity from gas is that while customers benefit when the cost of gas is low, they suffer when the price spikes, as it inevitably does.  That’s notably different from long-term contracts for renewable energy which typically have a guaranteed, fixed price.

Proposals for new massive interstate pipelines are in the works as well.  Spectra, a Houston-based natural gas pipeline company is proposing a $500 million expansion for Massachusetts. And all the lines on the map for proposed expansions of pipeline leading from the Marcellus Shale to the Northeast rival the Griswold Family Christmas lights display.

Before we spend billions on new infrastructure chasing the next gold rush, we must repair and rebuild our existing infrastructure and examine the tried and true tool of efficiency.   A recent study on the potential for natural gas efficiency in Massachusetts showed that efficiency could reduce winter electric demand enough to support the increased use of gas on the system without building new infrastructure:

The Benefits of Energy Efficiency

From Jonathan Peress's presentation at the Restructuring Roundtable on June 15, 2012

 

But there is a risk that regulators will not fully take these very real benefits into account as they review and approve the latest energy efficiency plans.  Indeed, traditional energy efficiency naysayers are using the low price of gas as an excuse to call for reduced investment in efficiency.

The bottom line is that natural gas does have a role in our energy future, but it  is one that must be carefully managed and minimized over time if we are to have any hope of averting climate catastrophe.  In the meantime, before we jump to expand new natural gas infrastructure, we need to look closely at what we already have in the ground and apply the lessons we’ve learned about efficiency.

 

 

 

Risky Business: Leaking Natural Gas Infrastructure and How to Fix It

Nov 28, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

On the day after Thanksgiving, an explosion shook the City of Springfield. A natural gas pipeline leak led to the explosion that injured eighteen people and brought down two buildings.  The details behind the cause of this explosion are still being pieced together, but  once again, public confidence has been shaken in the pipeline system that is supposed to transport natural gas safely and reliably to homes, businesses and institutions in communities throughout the nation. Today, CLF is releasing a report on the importance of addressing problems with our aging, leaky natural gas  infrastructure. (You can download a free copy of that report here, and find the press release here.)

In Massachusetts, local distribution companies operate almost 21,000 miles of pipeline—that’s almost enough pipe to encircle the earth. But people seldom give much thought to those pipes that are running beneath their homes, beneath their businesses and beneath their feet.

That has been changing since the explosions that rocked San Bruno, California in 2010 and Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2011. Shortly afterwards, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation issued a national “Call to Action” to address pipeline safety, but there are still many hurdles to be overcome. One of the toughest obstacles to tackle is the replacement of aging, leak-prone pipelines and the swift repair of leaks on the system. Public safety is the primary driver behind the repair and replacement of aging pipes, but it is also important to recognize the added benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, conserving a valuable resource, and reducing ratepayer costs.

The need for action is particularly acute in Massachusetts where over one-third of the system is considered “leak-prone”—made up of cast iron or unprotected steel pipe. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, 50% of the cast iron left on the United States distribution system is centered in only four states: Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Though Massachusetts regulators have been working to find solutions to this problem, there is more to be done.

This infographic underscores the need for additional work in Massachusetts. So significant are the leaks that the gains from efficiency programs put in place by Massachusetts regulators have been overwhelmed by the amount of gas lost through leaky pipes. The costs of those leaks are being borne not by the utilities, or by the regulators, but by consumers. Utilities pass the cost of lost gas onto ratepayers to the tune of $38.8 million a year.

“Fugitive emissions from aging gas pipelines across Massachusetts are polluting our environment – releasing more greenhouse gases than we are saving through all of our energy efficiency efforts,” said D. Michael Langford, national president of the Utility Workers Union of America. “This is problematic for the environment and the economy, but fixing this problem provides an important opportunity. Putting people to work fixing leak-prone pipelines will save Massachusetts ratepayers money by simultaneously modernizing our pipe infrastructure, improving efficiency and helping to protect the environment.”

Fortunately, there are some clear policy options that could be implemented relatively quickly to prevent this valuable resource from endangering the public and vanishing into thin air.  “The good news is that not only would these policies increase public safety and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but they also provide an opportunity to create good, local jobs,” according to Cindy Luppi, New England Director of Clean Water Action.  As she points out, “local neighborhoods, as well as first responders, will bear the brunt of impacts if this aging system experiences an explosion.   We hope all public officials will embrace real solutions that value health and safety, ratepayer equity and climate leadership.”

As outlined in our report, Into Thin Air, CLF is advocating for five specific policies to accelerate the replacement of aging pipe and ensure that existing pipeline is properly examined and repaired:

1)    Establishing Leak Classification and Repair Timelines that provide a uniform system for classifying leaks according to level of hazard and require repair within a specified time;

2)    Limiting or Ending Cost Recovery for Lost and Unaccounted for Gas so that companies have an incentive to identify the causes of lost gas and prevent them;

3)    Expanding existing replacement programs and adding performance benchmarks;

4)    Changing Service Quality Standards to include requirements for reducing leaks on the system;

5)    Enhancing monitoring and reporting requirements to give the public and regulators more information.

Over the coming months, we’ll be working with our allies at Clean Water Action and the BlueGreen Alliance to raise public awareness about the need to tackle this issue. We’ll also work with communities to make sure they know how to identify and report gas leaks and talk with them about the benefits of policies that make for a safer, cleaner natural gas system. If you’re interested in joining us, please contact me at scleveland@clf.org.

Getting Desperate: Northeast Utilities CEO Falsely Claims Wide Support for Northern Pass

Nov 15, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

This week, the developer of the Northern Pass transmission project, Northeast Utilities (NU), sunk to a new low. In a presentation at a utility industry conference, NU CEO Tom May stated that:

  • “[T]his project has the support of every environmental group in New England basically.”

This is unequivocally untrue. In fact, CLF is not aware of a single New England environmental group that supports the Northern Pass project as proposed. You don’t have to take our word for it: literally dozens of New England’s environmental organizations – regional, state, and local – have registered significant concerns with, or outright opposition to, the proposed project in public comments to the U.S. Department of Energy. May’s statement is all the more puzzling given the energy that NU has devoted to attacking the efforts of groups like CLF (e.g., here and here), the Appalachian Mountain Club (e.g., here), and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (e.g., here).

  • The regional electric grid operator, ISO-NE, has been a “big proponent of this project.

This is also inaccurate. Northern Pass is an “elective” transmission project that is not intended to address any electric grid needs identified by ISO-NE. As a result, ISO-NE is obligated to consider the project objectively alongside competing elective projects (of which there are several), and Northern Pass is not specifically endorsed in any of ISO-NE’s planning documents, such as ISO-NE’s recently released 10-year Regional System Plan for the New England electric grid. Because it is an elective project that ISO-NE didn’t ask for and doesn’t plan to rely on, ISO-NE’s primary role in reviewing Northern Pass will be to assure that it won’t have an adverse impact on the reliability of the grid, not to advocate for the project.

  • New Hampshire’s new governor-elect, Maggie Hassan, is “supportive of the project.”

Governor-elect Hassan’s website contains this statement to the contrary:

Maggie opposes the first Northern Pass proposal.  As a state senator, Maggie worked to pass a constitutional amendment to prohibit the use of eminent domain for private gain, and she opposes the use of eminent domain for this project.

Maggie believes that we must protect the scenic views of the North Country, which are vital to our tourism industry.  As Governor, she will ensure that, in accordance with the law, New Hampshire undertakes a rigorous review process of any proposal and provide significant opportunities for public voices to be heard.

Maggie hopes that the next proposal will address the concerns of the communities involved.  She believes that burying the lines would be a more appropriate approach, and also supports looking into home-grown energy sources, such as the new biomass plant under construction in Berlin.

Governor-elect Hassan has also expressed her support for Governor Lynch’s approach to the project: namely, that the directly affected communities must support the project before it moves forward. With almost all the communities on the record opposing the project (and no willingness on the part of Northern Pass’s developer to consider burial as an alternative to overhead lines), it’s impossible to characterize Governor-elect Hassan’s position as support for the project.

(May’s remarks on Northern Pass are at 21:00 – 25:30 in the webcast linked here.)

Since the Northern Pass project was announced more than two years ago, CLF has identified significant problems with the proposal, including the developer’s egregiously misleading marketing of the project’s environmental attributes and other supposed benefits. CLF has repeatedly emphasized, in the words of our President John Kassel, that “long-term supplies of hydro, wind and other sources of power – that respect and significantly benefit the landscape through which they are transmitted, support rather than undermine the development of New England’s own renewable energy resources, replace coal and other dirty fuels, keep the lights on at reasonable cost, and accurately account for their impacts – are what New England needs.” Thus far, the Northern Pass project, as proposed, meets none of these criteria, and therefore is not a project CLF can support.

Beyond our specific concerns, we’ve been fighting for some basic principles that should not be controversial, such as transparency, fairness, and especially honesty. Again and again, NU has unfortunately refused to abide by these principles, repeating discredited claims about the project’s emissions reductions and outdated accounts of other benefits, marginalizing the many stakeholders raising legitimate questions about the project, and employing bullying tactics against project opponents (for the most recent example, see here).

As we explained more than two months ago, Northern Pass still has no clear path forward. In concocting a story of broad-based political and stakeholder support, NU is – deliberately or recklessly – misleading its investors with plainly false information: an unacceptable breach of NU’s legal obligations as a public company and of investors’ trust. It is incumbent upon NU to correct the record immediately and to jettison its aggressively deceptive approach to securing approval of the Northern Pass project. The public deserves far, far better.

What the Election Means for New England’s, America’s Environmental Agenda

Nov 13, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

On Tuesday, Americans across New England joined their countrymen in casting their votes. As the results have become clear, one thing has become clear with it: It was a good night for science and for clean energy.

Maine, for instance, elected former wind developer Angus King as its new Senator, who ran with an ad dedicated to the need to address climate change and support sustainable energy. (Watch that ad here.) Meanwhile changes in both houses of Maine’s legislature are likely to dampen Governor LePage’s unpredictable but largely obstructionist posture. The same is true in Massachusetts, which elected Elizabeth Warren, a strong supporter for renewable energy and climate change mitigation. New Hampshire and Vermont also saw the pendulum swung strongly in a way that is likely to advance much needed efforts to protect the health of their environment and communities. Rhode Island seems to be the only state that has kept its status quo. (For full perspectives on each state, click here.)

In the end, New Englanders voted for a strong environmental agenda, and for candidates who shared that support. These local trends also broadly echo national voting trends. Obama, for instance, was strongly supported by Latino voters. A landmark 2012 study showed that 92% of Latino voters believe we have a responsibility to take care of the earth. The pro-environment agenda endorsed by Obama no doubt contributed to his support.

In reelecting Barack Obama, Americans also voted for an administration that has made science-friendly appointments to science positions, that has a high degree of scientific accomplishment, and that has been very supportive of science education and research.  And while the President was disappointingly silent about climate change and clean energy policy during the campaign, his administration’s pro-health and pro-environment actions to reduce toxic air pollution and to improve automobile  fuel economy standards no doubt resonated with voters nationally.

While there were many issues on the ballot, here in New England and across the country, there are also some very simple lessons from this election. The voters said a few things:

Yes, we believe in science.

Yes, we believe climate change is happening.

Yes, we need more sources of sustainable energy.

Yes, we want candidates who move us away from the dirty energy of the past to a more prosperous future.

And no, dirty energy, you cannot buy my vote.

Despite historic spending, the money spent by the dirty energy industry to try to buy this election didn’t seem to have much effect. In the end, clean energy and science were big winners.

New England cemented its reputation on Tuesday as a bastion of progressive environmental politics. Voters across our region want action on climate change, they want to advance clean energy, and they want to strengthen their communities.

It is my sincere hope that the elected officials in each state listen to their voters and make progress on these issues. It is also my sincere belief that we will be stronger as a movement if we work together across our New England: while some of our issues are local and some cry out for national leadership, many are regional in nature and can most effectively be addressed at the regional scale.

And then there’s the pragmatic reality that visionary leadership from Washington is very unlikely at this politically fractious time. But with New England’s leaders – of all political stripes – largely sharing a common vision for an economically, socially and environmentally thriving region, we can and must chart our own course right here. To succeed, we need to work together. When New England works together, we have shown that we can.

Sandy in New England: We Can and Must Change The Pattern of Loss

Nov 1, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

At times like these, when tragedy falls indiscriminately among us, it’s wonderful to realize that the sense of community and generosity are rongly in evidence in New England. Credit: Block Island Times.

Each of us personally experienced in some way Superstorm Sandy slamming into our communities all along the East Coast. For many of us, the destruction has been widespread and severe and will be long-lasting. In New England, our neighbors in Rhode Island and Connecticut have been dealt a particularly devastating blow.

It has been encouraging to see communities coming together to help those in need, neighbors helping neighbors. Resources are being devoted efficiently to alleviate human suffering and to mitigate economic and ecological harm. At times like these, when tragedy falls indiscriminately among us, it’s wonderful to realize that the sense of community and generosity, and can-do attitude, that are noble and exhilarating elements of  American society are still robust, and strongly in evidence in New England.

We are also a prudent nation, and New Englanders – conditioned by harsh winters and stony soils – have long been among the most pragmatic of Americans. We watch the weather carefully (remember the Farmer’s Almanac?) and we adapt as necessary. As Robert Frost noted, we mend stone walls, both for the sake of better functioning walls and for stronger communities. We try hard to see things clearly. And we respond with a town meeting-inspired desire to promote the general public good, with as much wisdom as we can muster.

With that perspective in mind, let’s be clear: Our climate has changed, and will change further, in ways that only encourage extreme storm activity. (Insurance companies believe this because they look at the evidence objectively – we should be just as prudent.) Furthermore, we have built more and more infrastructure in increasingly perilous places, and we have less and less money to repair and replace it. It is imperative that we start re-planning our coastal and other vulnerable zones and re-building infrastructure in them for greater resiliency, expecting more extreme weather in the future. Doing otherwise would be reckless.

Over the last four decades, the number of tropical storms that are big enough to be named has tripled. Hurricane Sandy is the 19th such storm this year alone. With a month to go before the end of the so-called hurricane season, a season which itself now starts earlier and ends later than it did four decades ago, it’s possible we will run out of letters of the alphabet before we run out the season.

Higher sea levels, warmer ocean temperatures, and ice melt off Greenland – all were factors that made this storm a “Frankenstorm.” The literary reference is not accidental, either: in significant part we made this storm ourselves, by failing to dramatically reduce climate emissions. (For more on this, see this roundup of CLF stories on climate change and Sandy, on the implications for our economy and insurance, as well as here, here and here for information on hurricanes and climate science.)

While it is true that climate change and increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are not the sole cause of this specific hurricane, they are certainly the root cause. To borrow a line from Dave Roberts at Grist, the direct cause of the pain in my knees after I run on any specific afternoon may not be the fact that I am over 50, but my advancing age certainly has the most to do with that pain. That you cannot rationally deny.

So as we help our neighbors to clean out a flooded basement or garage, as we help to clear away debris or rebuild a wall, we must also think about what we can do to change the conditions that have made these 100-year storms an almost annual event. To simplify the problem, ask yourself:

  • What is it that you can do individually to reduce our collective contribution to the root cause?
  • Can you reduce the amount of energy you use at home?
  • Can you take public transit or car pool to avoid driving alone to work?
  • Can you contact your state representative or senator, your Governor, your Congresswoman or Senator and urge them to take some action to reduce our dependence on expensive and unfriendly fuel sources or develop an actual energy plan for our country?

In addition to all of this, we must to adapt to the changes that clearly are already underway. This is an economic imperative:  there isn’t enough money in our entire economy to keep rebuilding roads, bridges, tunnels, sewage treatment plants, airports, energy systems, buildings and homes where and as they currently exist.

We must improve the resiliency of our coastal zones, for starters. We’ve all seen the images: homes in Rhode Island reclaimed by the sea, seawalls in Massachusetts moved by the waves, and once dry neighborhoods turned into wetlands overnight. That’s only the destruction we can see: imagine what the seabed looks like following all of the sewage overflows, all of the debris from homes and industrial yards, and all of the traps and equipment lost by fishermen, lobstermen and boaters.

Too little attention has been paid to the state of our coastal zones, and how likely they are to ride out major storms – and storm surges – in a way that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.  We’re throwing money at maintaining public infrastructure out of habit, and in some cases we might just as well dump cash into the ocean. And risks to private property – if it’s insured we’re all sharing the costs one way or another. How long can we sustain that?  In the tradition of a New England town meeting – where a community really decides how to spend its resources, for the benefit (and cost) of current and future generations – we need to start a serious conversation about what we’re going to invest in and why.

And let’s recall that a year ago – in the wake of Irene – it was flooding in Vermont, and western Massachusetts and Connecticut that presented these questions. All of the parts of New England that are sensitive to our changing climate need our attention: we need to make decisions now that will reduce costs and enhance the quality of our lives and our environment, for generations to come.

Now is the time. Now, more than ever before, our region needs to plan and act to reduce the impacts of these storms, as well as their frequency. CLF has been working on these issues for decades. Now, we will redouble our efforts. I hope you’ll join us in doing just that.