Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Here are some things I've been meaning to put up for a while. Watch out for the bullets:
  • My analog reading material these days consists of economist Matthew Kahn's new book Green Cities, which seeks to evaluate global cities according to various measures of environmental health. It's got some good insights and with only a few equations it ought to be fairly accessbile to non-economists. Before you go to the library you can sample Kahn's writing and thoughts at his weblog: http://greeneconomics.blogspot.com.

  • This sentence from Kahn's book caught my eye: "[One] hypothesis suggests that a nation is more likely to enact environmental regulation when its economy is growing and income inequality is falling." Which reminded me of themes discussed in the Brookings Institution's Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Places, another bit of reading I've recently finished. The Brookings report makes note of big demographic and economic dichotomies in our state: north and south, working-class and college-educated, the young workforce and older retirees, wealthy newcomers and struggling old-timers. Income inequality is growing here as it is all over America, and politics have become more divisive and less productive. The Brookings report recommends harnessing the productivity and wealth of richer residents to grow the state's economy and extend opportunity to its working classes. If Maine is to protect its civic integrity, it must preserve its egalitarian spirit.

  • Thanks to May Shrink Or Fade and The Adventures of a Geo-Geek for adding me to their prestigious lists of links, and thanks also to their readers who may have found their way here.

  • Finally, The Bollard has published an essay of mine that started as a draft blog post and quickly outgrew this format. If all these whizzing bullets haven't yet shot your attention span to hell, check it out here.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Fractal forestry

This undoctored photograph won the Swedish photographer Jocke Berglund a "Wildlife Photographer of the Year" award from the London Natural History Museum.

Found among the convergences contest winners at McSweeney's.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Oil slick marsh

If you ever find yourself in dire need of some carcinogenic soil or a bunch of dirty styrofoam cups, keep this place in mind. This small wetland is wedged between a new connector road to I-295 and two large parking lots at the edge of the Plank (aka the Libbytown neighborhood). It seems likely that it was once an inlet to the Fore River estuary before development on Thompson's Point isolated it here.

Gasoline rainbows and a baffling chain-link fence in the middle of the water are symptoms of this wetland's biggest problems: it's surrounded by oil-drenched pavement, and it's on the fringes of property lines and anyone's sense of stewardship. Ironically, most of the polluted runoff comes from the parking lot of 50 Sewall Street, Portland's first certified green office building (its "for lease" sign, advertising not to critters in the water but to drivers on the out-of-sight highway, is visible in the upper left corner of the photo). An inch of rain falling on the adjacent 2-acre parking lot produces more than 54,000 gallons of stormwater, which washes a lot of garbage and petrochemicals on the pavement into this wetland.

Because this space is literally marginalized, at the edge of and several feet lower than the streets and parking lots that surround it, few people are aware of the pollution that affects it - which means that even fewer are willing to do anything about it. And just to kick it while its down, someone added a pointless chain link fence. The fence straddles a natural moat in between two steep embankments, but I suppose that someone wanted to be absolutely positive that no one would walk from the easily accessible public parking lot on one side to the easily accessible public road on the other side. Of course, the very occasional vagrant blogger is able to scale the fence without much difficulty, but whatever.

In spite of all the concrete encroachments, the polluted runoff from acres of surrounding parking lots, a worthless fence, and the noise and exhaust from the bus station next door, this is actually a pleasant, quiet place. When I walked down to take a closer look at it, I even surprised a muskrat in the water. I encourage more people to visit, especially the tenants of the "green" building next door. If we can make this place less marginal, we can make it less polluted as well.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Plum Creek v2.1

Most Maine newspapers reported this weekend that Plum Creek will revise its development plans for the Moosehead region once again, and that public hearings on the proposal will be postponed indefinitely as a result.

Plum Creek offered no details on the scope of the plan's revision, but it does hope to submit changes to the Land Use Regulation Commission within a month.

In the meantime, it seems a fair speculation that rising interest rates and concomitant cooling of housing markets may have knocked some wind out of Plum Creek's schemes. Even though this is a "30 year" development plan, immediate development would have maximized the present value of Plum Creek's land: they had hoped to finish the proposed housing developments within the next five to ten years.

Now that interest rates are rising again, that schedule of construction will coincide with a period of comparatively low demand for new homes. Plum Creek will either have to charge lower prices for its real estate, or constrain supply with fewer houselots. Choosing the latter option will be more lucrative for the company while also appeasing the plan's many critics.

My hope and prediction is that the next plan from Plum Creek will have fewer houselots, and those that remain will be clustered closer to Rockwood and Greenville.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Buy renewable energy!

News on global warming is becoming increasingly bleak. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists this week set the "Doomsday Clock" two minutes closer to civilization's midnight, in part because of global warming.

You and I can't do much to prevent thermonuclear warfare, but we're not nearly so powerless when it comes to climate change. We're all responsible for carbon pollution, and sooner or later we'll have to reduce our contributions. Sure, a mandatory cap-and-trade system could reduce carbon pollution by the crucial 3%. Alternatively, 3% of American households could reduce their carbon output to zero and achieve the same effect as long as they were distributed evenly across economic demographics. Or roughly 10% of us could cut our output in half. In other words, if the government won't force us to be responsible any time soon, why shouldn't some of us bear this responsibility ourselves?

If you're interested, you can start by buying electricity from renewable sources. Electric deregulation during the 1990s gave consumers choices among energy providers, and most states now have companies that sell only renewable power. By buying power from these organization, you'll reduce demand at fossil fuel power plants and increase investments in wind, solar, and small hydro facilities. Generally, you'll pay a little more - but that will give you incentives to conserve and save in the long run. I should mention that when I was a Green Mountain customer in Texas last year, we were actually paying less for wind power than we would have for conventional electricity (the price of natural gas was rising quickly, but wind is free).

Depending on your state, you can buy from Maine Renewable Energy, Mass Energy in the Bay State, or Green Mountain in Texas, New York, Oregon, New Jersey, and Florida (I couldn't find any providers for New Hampshire; if anyone knows of one, please comment).

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Flood maps

Last year, an article in Science (summarized here) examined sea levels from the last period of global warming, and concluded that we can expect a sea level rise of up to 6 meters (20 feet) by 2100.

A clever person named Alex Tingle has mashed up NASA elevation data with Google Maps to help visualize what various degrees of sea level changes would do to our coasts. Here's the map for Boston under a 7 meter sea-level rise (the scientists' prediction plus an extra meter from a hurricane storm surge, suppose). The airport turns into a salt marsh, the quadrangles of MIT and Harvard become mud flats, and much of the Emerald Necklace turns blue.

Portland fares better, but whole neighborhoods (Knightville, Bayside, and Baxter Boulevard) are still expected to drown.

These maps show that every coastal city in the world can expect Katrina-scale floods in the upcoming century. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Bush's next State of the Union address will outline a global warming policy based on appeasement instead of mandatory emissions caps. And Halliburton is cornering the market for hip waders.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Eastern Prom Wilderness: The Petrochemical Prospect II

About 300 yards beyond the bathrooms at the beach, the Eastern Prom Trail begins to curve to the right (southwest) around the ledges at the base of Fort Allen Park. Here, an unpaved side path diverges left to follow the waterfront to some rocky ledges, the easternmost point of the Portland peninsula.

These ledges offer excellent views in three directions of Casco Bay. To the northeast are Mackworth Island and Cousins Island's Wyman Station. To the east are the Diamond Islands, Fort Gorges on Hog Island Ledge (see photo) and Peaks Island. To the south is Portland Harbor, with the oil tanks of South Portland beyond.

Oil tanker ships are another frequent sight from this vantage, either as they approach through the shipping channel or as they unload crude oil at Portland Pipe Line pier in South Portland. From there, oil feeds into the tanks that dominate the South Portland waterfront, and into a network of pipelines that extend to refineries near Montreal.

In a city renowned for its working waterfront, oil imports constitute an overwhelming bulk of the harbor's freight. About half of it comes from Europe's North Sea oil fields, to which Portland is the closest American port. So unlike the fishing, tourist, and cargo industries, which generate marine traffic from local natural resources, these oil terminals are here because of Portland's geographic position between global oil reserves and the North American petro-addicts who burn them.

Almost no one actually sees oil: from the time it comes out of the ground to the moment it gets burned, it is hidden away in tanks and pipelines. Nevertheless, the unusual grace of a huge supertanker looming over tugboats as it docks at the South Portland pier offers a rare opportunity to contemplate how much oil we use, where it comes from, and the consequences of the global market that brings it here.

Previously: Introduction, Trailhead, , The Beach, and
The Petrochemical Prospect I

Friday, January 12, 2007

Property rights and the Passamaquoddy

Back in October, the Passamaquoddy tribe "acquired" Picture Rock, a ledge near Machias Falls on which the Passamaquoddy have carved over 500 petroglyphs (see photo). Some of them are 5,000 years old.

I put "acquired" in quotes because this story demonstrates just how mutable the ideas of ownership and property rights are. After all, the Passamaquoddy "owned" Picture Rock for 4500 years until European settlement. Even when it was deeded to Europeans, the cultural importance of the rock carvings there made it unlikely that any white owner would do anything to disturb them - which effectively limited the property rights of the rock's colonial and American owners.

Before European contact, most northeastern tribes had little or no concept of private land ownership. Tribes and families used land collectively and moved frequently. In the absence of market economies, staying in one place would have meant starvation: tribes instead used natural resources intensively in certain places, then moved on. William Cronon gives an excellent in-depth description of tribal concepts of property and territory in his book Changes in the Land, an ecological history of colonial New England.

When Europeans arrived, they brought a foreign concept of property that had developed from a very different culture and economy. Unsurprisingly, there were misunderstandings. The famous transaction in which Peter Minuit bought Manhattan for 60 Dutch guilders (which allegely happened in present-day Inwood Hill Park) was probably interpreted by the native Lenape as a sort of long-term lease: the Dutch tribe would use the island for a few years of hunting, oystering, and subsistence farming, and then they would move elsewhere. Similarly, the term "Indian giver" reflects European ignorance of native concepts of property.

There will be a lecture at U Maine Machias next Friday about the history of Passamaquoddy homelands, and how colonial settlement and international boundary conflicts gradually coerced the tribe into the European system of land ownership - thanks to Bo for the tip.

These are important stories to keep in mind as a growing property rights political movement mobilizes. Property rights are not God-given, objective attributes of land and nature. They are cultural inventions, and our culture has the ability to give, take, or change them at our will.

Link: Carved in Stone article from Mainetoday.com (also the source of the above photo).

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Correcting Thoreau.

A new essay from urban naturalist Jenny Price is on Grist:
In Cities is the Preservation of the World.

Price criticizes "the popular American delusion, which nature writers have encouraged, that nature is where cities are not." Millions of Americans have followed Thoreau into the Waldens of the world, and the result has more often been sprawl and pollution than the preservation of anything.

This blog attempts for Portland what Price advocates for all of our cities: to bring nature writing out of the quasi-mystical frontiers where people aren't and into the cities and suburbs where we actually live.

If we accomplish that, we'll literally bring environmentalism closer to millions of people.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Sensible Transportation Policy Act

Did you know that Maine's Department of Transportation and the Turnpike Authority are required by law to "reduce the State's reliance of foreign oil and promote... energy-efficient forms of transportation"? And that they must give "preference to... other transportation modes before increasing highway capacity through road building activities"?

The Sensible Transportation Policy Act, passed in 1991, says all of this and more. It's a brilliantly progressive law. Too bad our transportation planners habitually break it.

After sixteen years of "sensible transportation," Maine has more roads, more freeway lanes, more traffic, and more pollutants from incinerated foreign oil, but state investments in bike/ped facilities and transit are virtually unchanged (i.e., virtually zero). Sure, we've got a train to Boston and a few scattered bike paths. But compare those investments (wildly successful in spite of their small scale) to the expenditures on new roads. We'll spend $50 million on the Gorham Bypass alone, even though it's going to generate more traffic and congestion in Standish and Westbrook, while energy-efficient, foreign-oil-independent sidewalks and bike routes scrape by with $750,000 a year.

The Maine Turnpike Authority is now looking to widen their freeway to six lanes through the Portland area. So far, environmental groups across the state are letting this one go without so much as a whimper (most of their leaders drive the same road, after all). But the Turnpike Authority is fabulously rich with toll revenues. What if we actually enforced the Sensible Transportation Policy Act, and told the Authority that they may only widen I-95 if they provide regional commuter bus service? Or a bike/pedestrian path running parallel to the freeway to connect the Maine Mall area to Portland, Westbrook, and West Falmouth?

Transit and bike/ped amenities like these would barely dent the Turnpike's budget, and they'd also provide fabulous enhancements to regional mobility. Instead of serving suburban commuters and weekend vacationers, the Turnpike could serve more of the people who actually live in greater Portland. There are already rumblings of these demands from local bike and pedestrian advocacy groups in Portland. The bigger environmental organizations may not yet be on our side, but at least the law is.

Photo: the riverfront bike path in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Budget figures from PACTS Destination Tomorrow plan

Monday, January 08, 2007

It's Global Warming Week in the Vigorous North!

The hot topic around Portland these days is the heat - 66 degrees of it this past weekend, and no ice or snow to be found anywhere. The Saturday Press Herald printed this picture of an ice fisherman who's adapting by putting his shack onto a raft in lieu of absent ice.

NPR had a good interview Sunday morning with Robert Henson of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (listen here). He explained that the heat wave - which extends to a Europe and the Rockies (warmer-than-usual air over Colorado has been responsible for the blizzards there, since warmer air can carry more moisture in the typically dry West) - is due to a convergence of El Nino in the Pacific, southerly jet streams over the Atlantic, and melting sea ice in the Arctic. The first two factors are cyclical, and it's uncertain to what extent climate change affects them. The ice caps, on the other hand, are getting smaller every year, and global warming is clearly responsible. We'll still have a few cold winters when ocean and air currents cooperate, but they'll become rarer and rarer as sea ice disappears: Henson described the trend as "two steps forward, one step back."

At least the warm weekend extends the season for practical bicycling and walking, forms of transportation that emit no climate-changing pollutants. On Saturday, Portland's streets were almost as lively as they are in the months of cruise ships and whale watches. We rode bikes to Yarmouth in order to visit the giant globe at Delorme. It took 45 minutes to get there at a no-sweat pace on our road bikes, and the same 28-mile round trip in a hybrid car would have spewed 16 pounds of carbon pollution into the capsizing atmosphere.

Plus, it was a lot more fun than a car ride. Suburb-dwellers, take note: if you're not enjoying the problem of climate change on your bike or as a pedestrian, you're not a part of the solution, either.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Eastern Prom Wilderness: The Petrochemical Prospect

It's a principle of ecology that every wild place supports an inconceivably complex "web of life:" a single cubic foot of soil supports millions of microbes, insects, and worms that collectively act to heat, aerate, and fertilize the ground, and a single sowbug relies on the soil moisture and nutrients that entire forests of trees and fauna sustain.

Then are elements of a landscape that have outsized influence on habitats and on a global scale: large river deltas, volcanoes, and glaciers, for example. To reflect on these incomprehensibly complicated natural relationships is part of the spectacle of any wild place.

We in Portland have a large-scale agent in the global environment right here in Casco Bay, visible from the Eastern Prom Wilderness. At numerous places along the trail, beginning just past the sewage treatment plant, but especially in the 200 yard stretch between the beach and the ledges where the trail curves to the right (southwest) around Fort Allen Park, the trail offers excellent views of the Wyman Station, an oil-fired power plant on Cousins Island.

Built in 1958, this power plant can produce over 850 MW of electricity for households and businesses throughout New England. It's Maine's largest single source of electricity, and also the largest single source of air pollutants like nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, a cause of acid rain. Because the plant is older than the federal Clean Air Act, it was allowed to avoid pollution-control upgrades for decades. In 2001, the plant's owners agreed to a cap-and-trade regulatory scheme: continued air pollution there is now offset by pollution reductions elsewhere.

Air pollution is only one aspect of Wyman's ecological complexity, though. Because it burns oil (a lot of it), this power plant is connected with incomprehensible complexity to the far corners of the world: from Houston to the tar sands in the Canadian tundra, from the presidential palace in Caracas to the Siberian wilderness, and millions of places in between. And by way of Wyman, all of those places are linked to every light switch and appliance in Maine.

For a really mind-bending perspective of the Wyman, though, consider the almost 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide that the plant generates each year (for context, it's important to mention that even that staggering amount of CO2 isn't nearly as much as Maine's motor vehicles produce). The connections and consequences of that fact are harder to perceive, but the hiker can try to imagine Casco Bay one meter higher than it is today: a circumstance likely within this century.

Next stop on the trail: the Petrochemical Prospect continues in Portland Harbor.

Previously: Introduction, Trailhead, and The Beach

Link: FPL Energy: Wyman 4 fact sheet

Friday, January 05, 2007

Good news from the Midwest

Perhaps you remember the brouhaha back in 2005 over new mercury pollution rules. Atmospheric mercury is a byproduct of coal-fired power plants. It's also a neurotoxin that causes brain damage (as well as madness among hatters) and accumulates in songbirds, fish, and unborn fetuses.

You can imagine the problems this caused for the current administration: would it protect its important unborn babies constituency, or help out its buddies in the mine-and-burn industries? As it turned out, the unborn babies lost out (they don't pay admission at fundraising dinners, after all) and the EPA weakened previous rules so that mercury pollution wouldn't be regulated until 2010. Until then, they probably expect us to practice our abstinence.

We here in the northeast probably aren't as important a constituency as the unborn babies, but there are more of us, and due to prevailing wind and weather patterns, a lot of the nation's mercury ends up here. This map from the NRDC web site shows the main sources of atmospheric mercury in the USA (click the link for an interactive map that identifies sources by state. Maine has six, most of them paper mills). The national map shows a clear cluster of coal and chemical plants in the Midwest, especially in the Ohio River Valley, right upwind from the nation's most populous region. There's another cluster around the city of Chicago, which gets most of its electicity from coal-fired plants run by Midwest Generation.

Midwest Generation produces the most mercury pollution in the state, but here's the good news: after negotiations with Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, the utility has agreed to cut emissions more quickly and more deeply than required by the federal law. Instead of cutting emissions by 70% by the year 2018, Illinois power plants will have to cut emissions by 90% by the year 2015. The utility has also agreed to cut other pollutants, and speculates that some older coal plants may shut down entirely rather than install new equipment.

Mercury pollution will still persist for a long time in the bodies of the animals and people that absorb it, and globally, the problem will get worse with additional coal generation in China. But it's nice to know that utilities in Illinois will soon be sending fewer neurotoxins down the jet stream.

From the Chicago Tribune: Utility to cut coal emissions

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Natura Obscura

According to an article in the latest Orion magazine, the City of Angels sits on top of one of the nation's richest reserves of crude oil. You'll have to buy a copy or walk to the library to read it, since it's not published on the Orion web page.

It seems only fitting that the American city most associated with freeways and suburban sprawl is so rich in the nonrenewable resource that enables those things. But it's also surprising: few people think of oil derricks when they think of LA. That's the most interesting aspect of the Orion article, and of oil production in the nation's second-largest city: as it turns out, the oil wells of Los Angeles are all over the place- hidden in plain sight.

This is a satellite image of a building at Pico Blvd. and Genesee Avenue. Most people don't see the building from this angle; from the street, it looks like a typical modernist office (you can see the rows of "windows" on the northern, shaded side). From above, we see that it's actually an empty, roofless shell with an industrial-looking tangle of pipes nearby. It's not an office building: it's an oil rig in disguise, smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood (for a broader, zoomed-out view, click here).

Below is a photo of the running track at Beverly Hills High School. That colorful thing in the foreground isn't for air traffic control, nor is it a place where school bodyguards can keep a watchful eye on their celebrity students. It's an oil well that pumps up to 500 barrels of black gold a day and pays BHHS $300,000 a year in royalties.

An oil well also hides within a fake lighthouse in Venice Beach (I would love to have a photo, if any readers can find one). And there are many pumping away undisguised in places no one cares to look: under freeway ramps and at the edges of parking lots, for example.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, whole forests of oil rigs went up in neighborhoods of LA like Venice Beach (see the photo above of the old "Grand Canal," which was filled in and paved mid-century in order to make way for autos). Some wells are still in use; others are reopening as oil prices rise; still others are undocumented and periodically gush petrochemicals into Angelino homes and businesses built on top.

Why does the city hide its geological wealth behind elaborate disguises? The neighbors on Genesee Avenue are probably not fooled by the office building facade. But for thousands of passing motorists and all of those owners of two-car garages, a fake office building is a lot less confrontational to the conscience than a dirty, stinking oil rig. Los Angeles may rely on cheap oil, but it's also trying hard to hide it.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Eastern Prom Wilderness: The Beach

A quarter of a mile beyond the sewage treatment plant is East End Beach. In August, Portlanders feeling lonely for the winter can bring themselves to the brink of hypothermia by dunking themselves into the ocean here. The rest of the year (Labor Day through Memorial Day, officially) it is an off-leash playground for dogs.

There aren't many cities of any size that have a bathing beach within walking distance of downtown, since industrial activities and street runoff typically generate too much water pollution. Before the city finished building the Portland Sewage Treatment Plant twenty-five years ago, swimming at the East End Beach would have been a very risky activity. The beach is also located next to a nineteenth-century industrial site. The photo above shows the sinking landfill where a shipyard used to be.

Today, though, the beach is relatively clean, and safe for swimming. You can learn how clean the water is at this web page, which has a database of water pollution records for the East End Beach and others. Still, as I wrote last week, Portland's sewers occasionally overflow in heavy rainstorms, and when that happens, the beach is either put under an advisory or closed altogether. The beach hasn't been closed in the past four years, but there were a smattering of advisories during the wet summer of 2004.

Hikers venturing off of the paved path in any season should watch their step. This is a popular place for pets, and all too often, dog sewage ends up on the ground or in the water, instead of in garbage cans per city regulations. Now that industries have generally cleaned up their acts and human sewage gets treated, dog shit washing directly into Casco Bay is one of the more significant - and preventable - sources of remaining water pollution.

Next stop on the trail: a spectacular view of the Wyman Power Station.

Trailhead: Portland Sewage Treatment Plant