Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Environment

Cheap coal? Tell that to the dead miners' families

President Obama in Oklahoma
The Obama administration announced new EPA rules Tuesday that sharply limit the output of carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants.

And not surprisingly, the mining industry objected.

"Requiring coal-based power plants to meet an emissions standard based on natural gas technology is a policy overtly calculated to destroy a significant portion of America's electricity supply," said Hal Quinn, chief executive of the National Mining Assn. "This proposal is the latest convoy in EPA's regulatory train wreck that is rolling across America, crushing jobs and arresting our economic recovery at every stop. It is not an 'all of the above' energy strategy." 

Of course, what Quinn doesn't want to talk about is what types of jobs the EPA rules are "crushing."

To get a better idea of that, you need to read another Times story Tuesday, one headlined "Report: Safety agency failed to enforce laws at deadly mine."

That story tells of the regulatory and safety lapses at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where an explosion in 2010 killed 29 coal miners and seriously injured two others.

It's a story of lax regulatory enforcement, of inspectors simply not doing their jobs, and of a mine operator that, as the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration said in a report on the deadly incident, engaged in  "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts ... to avoid compliance with safety and health standards, and to thwart detection of that non-compliance by federal and state regulators."

How bad were conditions at the mine?  Bad enough that "Alpha Natural Resources, the company that acquired Massey Energy Co. after the explosion, reached a settlement late last year with the Department of Justice in which it agreed to pay a record $209 million in compensation and fines and federal prosecutors agreed not to pursue criminal charges against the company," according to The Times' story.

Even so, some former officials at the mine are under criminal indictment. 

Last month, prosecutors charged the then-superintendent of the mine with conspiring with others to block federal regulators from enforcing safety requirements -- a charge that suggests other individuals are likely targets of action as well.

Prosecutors allege that the former superintendent altered the mine’s ventilation system while an inspector was taking an air sample and ordered that a monitor be rewired so that mining could continue despite elevated levels of methane.

What industry spokesman Quinn also didn't talk about is that EPA regulations would apply only to new power plants, and that, as The Times story said, "the proposed regulations further bolster a trend that the power industry began years ago, as more utilities replaced aging coal-fired plants with new natural gas plants. Very few new coal plants are now on the drawing boards."

Coal is a relatively cheap power source, but it's only really cheap if you ignore the costs in lost lives mining it and the health effects from burning it, not to mention the environmental costs from digging it up.

As The Times story concludes:

"[W]hat this essentially says is we will never be building dirty old coal plants ever again," said Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, one of the litigants in the lawsuit that led to the development of the new rules. "The dominant power source of the 19th and 20th centuries won’t be built the same again."

This isn't about "crushing" jobs.

This is about progress. And it's time to move on.

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-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: President Obama speaks about energy on March 22 at a TransCanada pipe yard near Cushing, Okla. Credit: Larry W. Smith / EPA

Save the American West [Blowback]

Coconino County

Matt Kirby takes on Robert H. Nelson's recent Op-Ed, "Free the American West." Kirby works on public lands policy for the Sierra Club and is an avid outdoorsman. If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

The recent opinion article decrying public lands, "Free the American West," by Robert H. Nelson, is out of touch with the current Western economy. Much has changed since Nelson's days at the Department of Interior in the 1970s.  

In the last 40 years, the fastest growth in the West has occurred in areas that are directly adjacent to protected public lands. Safeguarding and highlighting the quality of life offered by these special pieces of America's natural heritage draw new residents, tourists and businesses. Together the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service see an average of 591 million visitors every year -- visitors who stimulate local economies and support jobs. Visitors aren't coming to see mines, oil and gas wells, and clear-cut forests, the activities for which Nelson says these lands should be "freed up." They're traveling to hunt, to fish, to hike, to camp, and for a hundred other sustainable activities that require protected public lands. Outdoor recreation generates $730 billion for the U.S. economy each year and supports almost 6.5 million jobs.

In November, more than 100 eminent economists sent a letter to President Obama asking that he protect more lands, not less. The letter states: "Today, one of the competitive strengths of the West is the unique combination of wide-open spaces, scenic vistas and recreational opportunities alongside vibrant, growing communities that are connected to larger markets via the Internet, highways and commercial air service." This is further supported by an independent analysis conducted last year by Headwaters Economics regarding the economies of communities in 11 Western states adjacent to recently established national monuments. Of the 17 national monuments they studied, the local economies in every single case grew following the creation of the monument. All of these communities either saw a continued or improved growth in employment, real personal income and per capita income. Even during the economic downturn, our protected lands have continued to provide consistent tourism revenue for local communities. Coconino County, for example, home of the Grand Canyon, set a record in tourism revenue in 2010 even as statewide tourism was down.  

Nelson claims that our federal lands policy was created in a different time with different needs. And with that claim I agree. But the truth is that our protected public lands are more important today than they were in 1910. The modern world has made those lands more easily accessible for all Americans than at any point in history. And Americans are clearly taking advantage of all the opportunities they afford.  

Today Americans of all stripes benefit from more than a century of conservation efforts.  If industry had been "free" to do as it wished in the early 1900s, we would not be able to enjoy the Grand Canyon or Grand Teton National Park as they are today. Early efforts to abolish protections for these special places today seem unthinkable.  

A recent Colorado College poll of Western voters showed nearly unanimous agreement that public lands are "an essential" part of their state economies. Even in tough economic times, Western voters overwhelmingly agreed that we should continue making investments in conservation. 

People realize that the benefits of public lands are far-reaching. Outside of the recreation economy, the services that natural areas provide range from air and water filtration to storm protection. These services create real savings with a $1.6 trillion annual impact. Farmers, ranchers and city dwellers all rely on the clean air and clean water that protected places provide, just as they rely on our protected public lands for opportunities to recreate, retreat and recharge.  

America's ability to thrive and safeguard jobs in the conservation and outdoor economy depends on maintaining strong federal protections for our public lands. Now more than ever, we need to strengthen the lands legacy we leave for future generations, not subdivide it.  

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--Matt Kirby

Photo: Cathedral Rock in the Coconino National Forest. It is a landmark of Sedona's skyline and one of the most photographed sights in Arizona. Credit: Charmaine Noronha / Associated Press 

Red meat will kill you? Stick a fork in me, I'm done!

Red meat is linked to premature death
You can have my steak when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

I hate to be politically incorrect, but that's my, well, gut reaction to a study released Monday that says eating any amount of red meat increases one's risk of premature death.

Now mind you, it's not that I don't believe the study. Its lead author is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, and only really smart people get into Harvard. And it's not as though the researchers weren't thorough: They looked at the eating habits and the health of more than 110,000 adults for more than 20 years. Which, on a scale of boring tasks, certainly tops the homework in the geology class that I took in college.

But first I read this -- "adding just one 3-ounce serving of unprocessed red meat ... to one's daily diet was associated with a 13% greater chance of dying during the course of the study" -- and I think, wow, I'm pretty sure that just two bites of that T-bone I had last month were more than 3 ounces.

Then I read this -- "Even worse, adding an extra daily serving of processed red meat, such as a hot dog or two slices of bacon, was linked to a 20% higher risk of death during the study" -- and I think, that probably means the bacon-wrapped hot dogs I had for lunch last week should've killed me by now. (To give me some credit, I skipped the onions and the fries; perhaps that's why I'm still walking around.)

Also, this part moves me not at all: "Eating a serving of nuts instead of beef or pork was associated with a 19% lower risk of dying during the study. The team said choosing poultry or whole grains as a substitute was linked with a 14% reduction in mortality risk; low-fat dairy or legumes, 10%; and fish, 7%."

Well, I had peanuts on Saturday afternoon. It didn't make me glad it wasn't steak; it made me think of being on an airliner. Then I had sushi on Saturday night. It made me think of fishing.

But here's the part of the study that has me really puzzled:

The Harvard researchers hypothesized that eating red meat would also be linked to an overall risk of death from any cause. ... And the results suggest they were right: Among the 37,698 men and 83,644 women who were tracked, as meat consumption increased, so did mortality risk.

Which means what, exactly? If I grill a nice New York strip on Sunday, that increases my chances of being hit by a bus on Monday?

Granted, I didn't go to Harvard, but that seems like a stretch. Or maybe it's just that all the red meat is killing my brain cells, in addition to clogging my arteries (and making me more likely to die in an airplane accident).

Probably a lot of people are going to have fun with this story. They may even ignore the more salient points, among them that at least cutting down on the consumption of red meat is good for your health and good for the planet.

But sorry, Harvard, my bottom line remains: As a red-blooded, red-meat-eating American, I just can't stomach a future that doesn't include a juicy rib-eye.

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Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who saved the world 

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo credit: William Thomas Cain / Getty Images

What Sherwood Rowland taught us about science, and the Earth

Sherwood RowlandGood thing Sherry Rowland was working 40 years ago instead of now.

Otherwise, he might not have won the Nobel Prize, and we might all be a lot closer to dead -– as individuals, as a species and as a planet.

If UC Irvine chemist F. Sherwood Rowland, who passed away Saturday, had been starting his work now on how chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, damage the Earth's protective ozone layer, it might be getting the same kind of manipulated skepticism and politically cynical slamming that global climate change now receives.

As it was, Rowland had to battle and scrap for his carefully researched warnings to be believed, but within 15 years of publishing his findings, the nations of the world -- the United States among them -- agreed to phase out CFCs. Believe it or not, manufacturers had stopped using them even before the Montreal Protocol was signed.

The Nobel committee, in honoring Rowland and co-discoverer Mario Molina, said their work may have "saved the world from catastrophe." These guys should have been wearing Spandex superhero suits, for what their work accomplished.

In 1990, with the inspiration of C. Boyden Gray, who worked in both the Reagan and the George H.W. Bush administrations, a cap-and-trade law was up and running to control acid rain. But when it comes to global climate change, the current GOP generation mocks this market-driven solution as "cap and tax." 

I interviewed Rowland a couple of times, most recently half a dozen years ago, when the neo-paleo-anti-science crowd was in full-court press as naysayers on human-generated global climate change. Legitimate scientists with nuanced questions about data and formulas being used were lumped in with random cranks as "proof" that the body of scientific evidence is wrong and that science is no more than just another untrustworthy special-interest group.

Rowland told me he did get his share of attacks in the 1970s. You might say that. Radio Free Europe reported that a trade publication called Aerosol Age suggested he was a Soviet KGB agent, and DuPont took out full-page newspaper ads to question his chops.

Almost 20 years after his Nobel Prize, Rowland told me that "the planet is in for a rough century as we try to put together substitutes for the energy that we need in order to prevent very substantial climate change coming from rapidly rising temperatures."

Yet like global climate change, many of the obstacles to fixing our problems also look to be man-made. As I wrote a few years ago, the public doesn't like it when scientists engage in discussions that politicians recast as political, not scientific, and it doesn't like it when scientists detach themselves from "real world" concerns. Rowland remembered a sci-fi story from the 1950s, about a comet imperiling the Earth. Inside a lab, scientists were clamoring for a peek into a spectroscope; outside the lab window, people were getting fried by radiation right in their wingtips.

Rowland's work on CFCs and ozone was a model, just like the world's political response to it.

And in spite of the dire warnings that banning CFCs would tank the economy, guess what: American know-how and technology came up with an alternative, business embraced it and, whatever the dire warnings, our armpits don't stink, we still have spray paint and we've maybe bought the ozone layer up there a few more centuries.

If we down here don't mess our second second chance.

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Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who saved the world

--Patt Morrison

Photo: Sherwood Rowland is seen in 1989. He died at his Corona Del Mar home on March 10. He was 84. Credit: University of California Irvine / AP Photo

Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who saved the world

F. Sherwood Rowland
It's not often you can say that someone saved the world -- and mean it literally.

But that's the case with F. Sherwood Rowland. The UC Irvine chemist, who died Saturday at 85, was one of three scientists who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry, The Times reported, for their work "explaining how chlorofluorocarbons, ubiquitous substances once used in an array of products from spray deodorant to industrial solvents, could destroy the ozone layer, the protective atmospheric blanket that screens out many of the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays."

In hindsight, it seems straightforward: Bad stuff was eating away a vital part of Earth's environment. So get rid of it.

But it wasn't so simple in 1974, when Rowland and fellow scientist Mario Molina published their concerns in the journal Nature.

As The Times says, the findings "were met with scorn by the chemical industry and even by many scholars. For a decade, Rowland and Molina persevered to prove their hypothesis, publishing numerous scientific papers and speaking to sometimes hostile audiences at scientific conferences. It took almost 15 years for the international scientific community and chemical industry to accept the pair's findings."

Hmmm, starting to remind you of a little something called "climate change," is it?

But here's something of a vital difference between the ozone debate and the current climate change one:

Manufacturers began to phase out chlorofluorocarbons in the late 1980s, prompted by the discovery of an ozone "hole" over Antarctica that formed each winter in response to weather conditions and the falling worldwide levels of ozone. The Montreal Protocol, a landmark international agreement to phase out CFC products, was signed by the United States and other nations in 1987.

The protocol was proof that nations could unite to address common environmental threats, Rowland contended. "People have worked together to solve the problem," he said.

Rowland was right then.  Nations did unite to address a common environmental threat.

But have we taken that lesson to heart?  Will we accept the scientific consensus on climate change and work together to save the planet?   

Or will it continue to be a political football, at least in the United States, where too many politicians are opting for short-term partisan gains at the risk of the planet's future?

Donald Blake, a colleague of Rowland’s at UC Irvine, told The Times that Rowland considered the phase-out of CFCs his greatest achievement.

It would be a shame if Rowland won the ozone battle -- but the rest of us lost the war for Earth’s survival.

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--Paul Whitefield

Photo: F. Sherwood Rowland, shown in his UC Irvine lab.  Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Is that a fracking earthquake?

Fracking
Environmentalists: Prepare to be shaken up. It turns out that hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. fracking, a.k.a. the latest fossil fuel industry outrage to be perpetrated on planet Earth, isn't just a menace because it may be contaminating groundwater. It also can cause earthquakes.

Ohio oil and gas regulators said Friday that a preliminary report on the relationship between a fracking waste disposal well near Youngstown and a series of minor earthquakes in northeastern Ohio last year found evidence "strongly indicating the Youngstown-area earthquakes were induced." What the frack does this mean? In addition to giving anti-frackers something else to complain about, it means companies drilling for natural gas will probably face a host of new regulatory restrictions aimed at ensuring they don't do anything earth shattering in the future. In Ohio, regulators announced a series of new rules for disposing of and transporting brine, a waste product from fracking, and they're likely to spread.

That's not a bad thing. But before greens who aim to restrict or ban fracking get too worked up about this new entry to the list of its dangers, they should consider that very similar risks also apply to another energy source considered by many -- including Al Gore and President Obama -- to be among the world's great hopes of fending off climate change and weaning us off fossil fuels: geothermal.

The principles involved in fracking and geothermal power production are similar: In both cases, one drills deep into the earth and injects water (combined with other chemicals, in the case of fracking) into fissures. Geothermal energy is produced when hot rock turns the water to steam, which returns to the surface and is used to turn generators. In fracking, the chemicals are used to force natural gas to the surface. Very little seismic activity has been attributed to the process of fracking itself, but things get more dangerous around disposal wells such as the one in Ohio, in which the waste water or brine from fracking is dispensed with by being reinjected, and far more liquid is involved.

In his book "Our Choice," Al Gore says of geothermal energy, "Like solar energy and wind power, geothermal energy could -- if properly developed -- match all of the energy from coal, gas and oil combined." Obama's stimulus package, meanwhile, contained $350 million for development of geothermal projects. It's easy to see what they're so heated up about. Unlike wind and solar power, whose generation stops when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, the Earth's magma is always hot, and geothermal power production emits only steam. But it turns out that when you inject water into hot fissures, it cracks them, and deep underground shifts can cause considerable surface rumbling. After a major geothermal project in Basel, Switzerland, had to be shut down because it caused quakes that rattled that city in 2009, one of the nation's biggest projects to pursue the technology (located near my hometown of Santa Rosa) was tabled. The company behind it, AltaRock Energy, is now carrying out experiments in a sparsely populated area in central Oregon instead.

Regulators are right to insist on maximum standards to protect the public from such risky practices, and it's a very good idea to hold off on major projects until more is known about the science. But those who seek to ban fracking because of its earthquake risks should consider the more beneficial technologies they may be quashing. Geothermal power has vast potential, but until we get to a cleaner future, we're going to need more natural gas as a transitional fuel. Pursuing both is richly worthwhile, if it can be done safely.

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-- Dan Turner

Photo: Environmentalists rally against fracking in Albany, N.Y., in January. Credit: Mike Groll / Associated Press

Michael Mann's counterstrike in the climate wars

Michael-MannClimate change may have dropped off the national political agenda, but unfortunately that doesn't mean the problem has gone away. As of January, the Earth's atmosphere contained 393 parts per million of carbon dioxide. And rising.

To understand why that's a very sad number, it helps to know that from the dawn of human civilization until the 19th century, the concentration was about 275 parts per million, and that many scientists believe 350 parts per million is a sort of tipping point: Irreversible impacts and feedback loops start to kick in, and the cost of repairing the resulting damage from such things as sea-level rise and droughts not only skyrockets, the cost of adapting to the changes does too. But we've already sailed past that point. And we're heading inexorably toward another one that's far worse: 450 parts per million, the truly scary level at which 3.5 degrees of warming above pre-industrial global average temperatures is locked in. The predicted result: centuries of weather extremes, drought-fueled global famine, mass migration, the vanishing of low-lying islands and territories as sea ice melts away, wide-scale species extinction and other horrors too numerous and depressing to list.

To global warming denialists, the above paragraph constitutes the "alarmist" perspective on climate change. Never mind that it is backed by a wealth of research, the world's most state-of-the-art climate models (whose accuracy in predicting the recent effects of climate change has been repeatedly demonstrated), the national science academies  of the world's developed nations (including the U.S. National Academies), the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other prominent academic and scientific organizations. To the denial set, these groups and individual scientists are part of a global liberal cabal that is scheming to impose its radical environmentalist agenda on the entire planet via government programs to cut carbon emissions; as proof, denialists point to their own research and studies -- typically funded by fossil fuel interests, performed by non-climatologists and published in non-peer-reviewed journals -- that pick away at the scientific consensus. You wouldn't think such an anti-intellectual and grossly irresponsible movement would have much success in the court of public opinion. You would be horrifyingly wrong....

Continue reading »

How about Santorum vs. Obama, winner take all?

The liberal-conservative divide
America, it's time for a little presidential poker. Republicans and Democrats need to go "all in" on Rick Santorum vs. President Obama.

Yep, it's "put up or shut up" time for all you political Texas hold 'em folks out there.

Now, the Obama bet you probably understand. After all, he's the incumbent, and he's running unopposed in the Democratic Party.

But why Santorum? After all, he's not only anathema to Democrats, it's not clear whether most Republicans favor him over Mitt Romney (not to mention Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul).

For the good of the country, though, the GOP needs to run Santorum.

Wait, wait, hold the comments, angry or otherwise. I didn't say "Santorum would be good for the country."  If you're asking me personally, well, it's a secret ballot, but no, I wouldn't put my ink spot next to "Rick Santorum."

But I'm also sick and tired of the partisan divide. It's time to call everyone's bluff.

Conservatives maintain that Obama and the Democrats are destroying the country; that we need to return to Christian values, to exceptionalism, to less government, less regulation, less spending and less taxation.

Sure, Romney touts all that too.  But he just wants the Republican nomination. With that secured, he'll pivot to the center, and pretty soon you'll never know he said half the stuff he did to get the GOP nod. With an Obama-Romney clash, should Romney lose, plenty of Republicans would complain that he wasn't a true-enough conservative.

Santorum, on the other hand, is nothing if not a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. He might pivot to the center too, but he's so far right that he can't even see the center at this point. With an Obama-Santorum battle, we'd be able to settle the liberal vs. conservative debate that's stifling government. 

And here's where the "all in" part happens.

If Santorum wins, liberals should acknowledge that the country is on the wrong path. America doesn't want gay marriage, or legal abortion, or government healthcare, or environmental protections. It wants to slash the size of government and reduce or eliminate entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. It wants religion back in public life; it wants the government out of schools. It wants to spend big on defense; it wants to back Israel no matter what. 

However, if Obama wins, all those conservative Republicans would have to acknowledge that they were wrong. That they're not America's voice. That America is OK with gay marriage and a woman's right to choose; it wants affordable healthcare for all, and a safety net that includes Medicare and Social Security.  It agrees with the separation of church and state and believes that while generating good-paying jobs is important, so is protecting the environment. It doesn't want a 1% and a 99% but a 100% that favors social and economic justice for all.

So after election day, that's it. Someone rakes in all the chips. 

If it's Santorum, then Republicans in Congress, the tea partyers and the Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck/Sean Hannity crowd can crow all the way to the inauguration and beyond.

But if it's Obama, those same folks need to face reality. They need to stop the scorched-earth warfare and let him lead.

And we can go back to the old days, when elections mattered.

Did someone say "deal"?

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The green jobs debate: A boon or a bust for the economy?

Green Jobs

Jonah Goldberg took President Obama to task in an August column about green jobs. “[T]he windfall in green jobs,” he wrote,  “has always been a con job.”

The record in America has been no better, Obama's campaign stump speeches notwithstanding. The New York Times, which has been touting the green agenda in its news pages for years, admitted last week that "federal and state efforts to stimulate creation of green jobs have largely failed, government records show." Even Obama's former green jobs czar concedes the point, as do other leading Democrats, including Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles.

But Next 10’s Many Shades of Green report tells a different story. The new report documents California’s green economy, finding that  green jobs haven’t been as vulnerable to recession. Tiffany Hsu explains on Money & Co.

From January 2009 through January 2010, the overall state economy lost 7% of its jobs, according to nonprofit research group Next 10’s Many Shades of Green report. During the same period, the core green economy -- composed of businesses involved in renewable energy, clean-fuel cars, water conservation, emissions trading and more -- suffered a 3% job loss.

That left 169,800 green jobs in the state at the start of 2010. Regions such as San Diego, the Bay Area and Sacramento remained resilient with less than a 2% green employment decline. Los Angeles, which has more than 20% of all green jobs in the state, saw its positions slip 4% to 26,600.

Stephen Lacey at ThinkProgress cheers the good news.

The big story was job creation in the clean energy/materials manufacturing sector, which increased by 53% from 1995 to 2010 while jobs in the rest of the manufacturing sector dropped by 18%. […]

These figures echo those in a recent report from the Brookings Institution showing that clean energy jobs nationwide expanded by 8.3% per year from 2003 to 2010, with the rest of the “clean economy” (a broader definition including public transit, recycling and next-generation materials) growing 8.3% during the height of the recession between 2008 and 2009.

But is the green economy destroying other industries, leaving those workers unemployed and hurting the broader economic landscape? This issue played a role in Goldberg’s argument.

For instance, Barack Obama came into office insisting that Spain was beating the U.S. in the rush for green jobs. Never mind that in Spain — where unemployment is now at 21% — the green jobs boom has been a bust. One major 2009 study by researchers at King Juan Carlos University found that the country destroyed 2.2 jobs in other industries for every green job it created, and the Spanish government has spent more than half a million euros for each green job created since 2000. Wind industry jobs cost a cool $1 million euros apiece.

Then again, as Many Shades of Green points out, green companies have created new revenue streams for traditional occupations. Here’s Hsu's article again:  

Long-standing occupations such as electricians and machinery mechanics will have a new outlet through green jobs, according to the report. And new roles such as solar energy installation manager, chief sustainability officer and biofuels production manager could earn workers annual incomes well into the six figures.

All of which would seem to undermine Goldberg’s theory that green jobs are a con job. If only this latest report would get as much play as September's Solyndra drama.   

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Photo: James Cahill of SolarCity, which installs thin film technology solar panels. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Going native at L.A. City Hall [Update]

City Hall lawn
It's been 2 1/2 months since the police rousted hundreds of stalwart  Occupy L.A. protesters from their City Hall encampment, and for all those weeks, the  beat-up grounds surrounding the seat of L.A. government have  been cordoned off, ringed by concrete barriers topped with chain link, awaiting The Decision: Which way will  the City Hall lawn go -- native or not?

In mid-November, before the eviction but after the grass was long gone, Emily Green, former Times staff writer and former Times Dry Garden columnist, weighed in with an Op-Ed. She called for a "test garden" that would "give City Hall a chance to walk its talk" about water conservation.

If felling the non-native figs around City Hall is a non-starter for sentimental reasons, we should at least be irrigating the magnificent old trees with drip instead of lawn sprinklers -- a move that would reduce trimming needs by slowing the trees' growth.
Even strategic use of turf could be preserved, though it should be the hardiest variety irrigated in the smartest ways requiring the least frequent grooming. Rather than lawn on the northeast side of City Hall (which has been wet enough in past years to grow mushrooms) and sweeping down the berm on the other flank, there should be hardy and fragrant natives that can survive with little water and no mowing or blowing.

Green got a lot of what she hoped for.  This week the City Council voted 14 to 0 for a Goldilocks design -- not too much grass, not too little grass, but something it thought was just right: a 51% reduction of turf, and plants such as succulents, salvias and California holly added. 

The Times news story, however, included a surprising fact: It will cost more to maintain this predominately native (and presumably low-water) landscape, not less -- $50,000 a year more. Green, who attended public discussions about what the new garden should look like, said in an interview: "The city and Rec and Parks have done an admirable thing, though it's not clear why it will cost more to maintain. In any event, that's not a message home gardeners should heed. Native plants are cheaper than turf."

To see for yourself, Green suggests checking out the online documentation of a sustainable versus  traditional experiment in Santa Monica: Garden/Garden.  On the website you can see demonstration landscapes for two side-by-side houses, peruse the plant lists, the water use and the amount of time and effort each requires.

Guess what? Sustainable wins hands down.

By May, we're promised, the experiment begins at City Hall.

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--Susan Brenneman

Photo: The north lawn at Los Angeles City Hall is seen after crews cleared the tents of Occupy L.A. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.



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