Aug 162010
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Late last week, Presidents Obama’s panel to review the use of “clean coal” technology called for an active U.S. government role in promoting carbon capture and storage, or CCS. The panel, comprised of fourteen federal agencies/departments and other stakeholders, recommended that the federal government provide both financial and technical support to forward the use of CCS. Their report did identify issues with the technology, but advised to move forward with federal assistance, including the potential “transfer of liability to the federal government after site closure.”

But news for the coal industry isn’t all good. Oddly enough, while Washington seems to be convinced that the nation can effectively establish a “clean coal” infrastructure, Wall Street is working to curb the use of coal, or at least a large component of its mining.  According to Huffington Post, Wells Fargo recently became the “sixth major bank to curb its financial relationship with coal operators that practice mountaintop removal (MTR) mining.”

So, while the Obama administration is pushing for 10 “clean coal” projects to be built, Wall Street is effectively limiting the spread of environmentally damaging coal mining operations. It’s an odd mix to say the least. It’s certainly important to stop mountain top removal, but the issues surrounding the use of coal go far beyond just its mining. Coal is by far the dirtiest source of energy we have. EPA estimates put average carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for coal at 2,249 lbs/MWh, which is nearly twice that of natural gas and even a third more than oil.

But, of course, coal also happens to be the least expensive fossil fuel, which is why it accounts for 56% of US electricity generation. So, in its “dirty” form, coal is a cost competitive source of energy, but when harm to the environment is considered, the scale starts tipping in the other direction.

The “solution” advertised for the dichotomy between the two faces of coal, the dirtiest and the cheapest source of energy, is purported to be “clean coal.” This oxymoronic nirvana is supposed to be reached through carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). It’s a great idea: we’ll just pump all that nasty C02 that’s emitted back under ground where it can’t do any harm . . . unless it leaks into the atmosphere, or contaminates the water supply, or causes geological instability. But at least it would be a way to effectively use our cheapest source of energy, right?

No, not really. The problem is that CCS technology is very expensive. In fact, coal power generation using CCS is, quite likely, the MOST EXPENSIVE alternative we have. The CCS technology actually makes the coal-based generation of electricity nearly half-again as expensive as solar. So, a nonrenewable energy source that’s very expensive and carries with it long term storage liabilities so serious that the private sector is unwilling to accept them — why would we even contemplate such an illusory solution?

Because that’s the way we do it in the good old U.S. of A, where protecting vested interests is job #1. In 21st Century America, corporate profits are what drive the engines of government. And the 48-company, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) is not about to give up its profits. The $57 billion they pocketed in 2007 may not be enough to fund CCS research, but it sure pays for a heap of advertising and lobbying.

Our nation does need to take into account the thousands of jobs provided by the coal industry across the 27 coal-mining states, but investment in CCS is not the path to take. The U.S. is at an energy crossroads, and investment in alternative sources is needed. That investment can either be directed toward extending the use of environmentally harmful sources or into the creation of renewable green technologies. Existing corporate profits aside, the choice is clear. It’s time to retrain America’s energy job force, redirect our energy investment and spending, and forge a path to energy independence and a clean energy economy.

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Aug 132010
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Like her or not, there is one good thing about Meg Whitman – she always has a plan, and she’s not afraid to share it. Of course, having a plan is only one element of sound leadership. There is also the persnickety little issue of plan quality. And though the Whitman plan for jobs and spending cuts is largely based on failed assumptions, her plan to fix education is at best rooted in complete ignorance.

This is not to say that the Whitman plan is completely without substance, because it’s not. She does support efforts to simplify the ridiculously complex structure of categorical funding, which currently includes more than 50 separate buckets, that collectively place a significant accounting burden on educational agencies. Whitman doesn’t offer much detail on what the new structure would look like, but streamlining the model would without doubt reduce administrative overhead.

Whitman also advocates for meritorious compensation for teachers, a commendable reform embraced by many, including President Obama. But even as she advances the benefit of such a program, she shows her naïveté regarding education by concurrently criticizing the overhead expenditures that would include the systems required to administer merit pay and the personnel needed to make it effective.

As so many others outside of education are so prone to do, Meg Whitman fails to understand what it takes to provide high quality education. If she wants merit pay for teachers, then she damn well better ensure adequate staffing of competent administrators to evaluate performance and oversee operations. If she wants to see test scores climb, then she better figure out that it takes much more than teachers to make a school system shine.

Meg Whitman is a classic business type who thinks that a production mentality will increase the efficiency of schools, and while this is true in certain support areas, when it comes to the delivery of instruction, less production and more individual customization is the answer. Whitman ridicules California public schools for having only 60% of spending reach the classroom, but as with most of the Red Queen’s critiques, she only tells part of the story. In fact, the most recent numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show the national average to be less than 1% higher at 60.9%.

It is this type of half-truth that weaves throughout all of Whitman’s press that should beg for questioning of not only her proposals but here motivations as well. As evidenced by the lies that pollute her campaign ads maligning the political record of Jerry Brown, Ms. Whitman really seems to have difficulty dealing with truthfulness.

Whitman champions charter schools as part of her plan to “fix education.” She does this as if they were some magic key to improved learning, yet the most definitive study yet on the matter, completed in 2009 by Stanford University, showed otherwise. Charters are often less expensive than their normal public school counterparts, which I’m sure pleases Whitman, but when it comes to learning results, the study identified only 17% of  charters in the 15 states studied showed improved results. Compare that with the 37% where results were, “significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”

Is this the type of “fix” education in California needs?

The Whitman plan also advances a system of school grading to be used so that, “parents can easily understand how well their children’s school is performing.” Her argument for the need is based on better test scores in the State of Florida, who pioneered the system. Of course California’s scores have improved recently at an even faster rate, and then there’s that little matter of Florida spending nearly $900 more per pupil in regionally adjusted dollars.

Queen Meg has solutions for underperforming schools too, like “school closures and staff replacement.” Oh yes, Whitman has lots of ideas, but what she really needs is a clue! And she might start with looking at the impact of location on school performance, or the demographics of the parents and community. She might want to consider that most of the best teachers don’t want to work where they’re needed most, and then she could work toward some real solutions, on devising real plans to address real issues.

The final installment on Meg Whitman to follow shortly.

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Aug 112010
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To the displeasure of House Republicans, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the House back into session yesterday. Interrupting their August Recess, Pelosi brought them back to vote on the Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistance Act, which was passed earlier by the House and by the Senate last Thursday. The legislation designed to provide relief to cash-strapped states was approved by a vote of 247-161, almost entirely along party lines.

Voting with Democrats were two Republicans, Rep. Anh Cao (R-LA) and Rep. Michael Castle (R-DE), and joining the Republican opposition were the Blue Dog Southern Democrat coalition, Rep. Bobby Bright (D-AL), Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) and Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS). There were 25 representatives who didn’t return from recess, amongst them were 7 Democrats, including Bay Area Congresswoman, Jackie Speier.

The legislation will send $26.1 billion in relief to the states, of which California is expected to receive $3.1 billion. The bill includes $10 billion in education funding, that according to Department of Education estimates, will save 161,000 teacher jobs nationwide and 16,500 in the Golden State. Also included in the bill is $16.1 billion to go to Medicaid. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the funding “will save 158,000 jobs, including police officers, firefighters, and health care workers.” The Institute also stresses that over half of these jobs will be in the private sector.

This is without doubt a positive development, right? Well, it should be unless your objective is something other than strengthening the recovery. The jobs that will be saved all belong to people who are likely to spend the money, causing a stimulating effect as the funds are returned into the economy. And saving the jobs prevents additional people from further burdening the economy through unemployment or demand for other social services. So, why are Republicans so set against the bill?

Beyond the annoyance expressed by California Republican, David Dreier, “This special emergency session…is in fact Washington, DC, at its absolute worst,” there are two “substantive” issues raised by Republicans. One, brought to the podium by House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) is the characterization of the bill as a “bailout.” Of course to put this in perspective, you have to understand that he’s not referring to Wall Street banks, or oil companies or auto makers — John Boehner is talking about the 50 states that form our nation.

Voicing his concern over the expenditure, Boehner asks, “Are we going to bail out states next year and the year after that too?” This deep distress from the same man who supports permanently extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich, at a cost of $678 billion, and then moves around like he’s on Dancing with Stars when asked how the cuts would be offset. It’s not about the deficit for Boehner and the Republicans — it never has been. It’s all about who foots the bill.

The Republicans have fought against this Jobs Bill, even though it’s completely paid for and was actually found, by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), to save $1.4 billion over 10 years. So, if the issue isn’t really deficits, what is it?

As sad as the commentary may be, the reason lies in the other “substantive” objective voiced by Republicans. They have some serious issues with how the bill is financed. Where Democrats see the $9.8 billion offset from closing loopholes that encourage corporations to ship jobs overseas as a positive, Republicans, like John Boehner, call it a “job-killing tax hike.” Of course, to Boehner, anything that reduces corporate profits is a negative, and anything that goes to what he calls “special interests” — teachers, police, firefighters — is just not affordable.

Also caught in the efforts to pay for the bill is an $11.9 billion cut to food stamps, which fortunately won’t go into effect until 2014. The plan is to just allow the increases provided under the ARRA to expire on schedule. It may be a lot to ask for, but with a little Republican help in place of obstruction, the funding could be restored by the time it’s needed or perhaps a real recovery could occur thereby obviating the need. At any rate, it seems a fair political trade-off in order to get the support to pass the bill.

The only real negative surrounding this bill is the fact that the help it provides is unsustainable. This legislation will not create many new jobs, nor will it address any inefficiency inherent in state and local government or their education systems. But these issues are structural and beyond the scope of stop-gap aid legislation. The bill does, however, provide temporary relief to help ease the burden on states and provide additional time to establish more long term solutions.

If there’s actually any real interest amongst Republicans to create good paying jobs for Americans, then they will drop their single-minded focus on preventing economic recovery — even if it weakens their chance in the November election. Should that be the case, they can start when they return in September, by dropping their two-month long filibuster against the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act and allowing it to provide money and incentives to those businesses they claim to support.

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