EPA Hearings Draw Crowds of Fracking Opponents

Last week I attended an Environmental Protection Agency hearing on proposed new air pollution regulation for hydraulic fracturing and was overwhelmed by the number of citizens there to testify not only in support of the EPA ‘s proposed more stringent air pollution regulations for the hydraulic fracturing industry but also against the practice of hydraulic fracturing as a whole.

This hearing was one of three that the Environmental Protection Agency held across the country on the proposed air regulations and people from all across Pennsylvania traveled to Pittsburgh in order to let their views and experiences be known. There were representatives from variety of environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, Penn Environment, the Sierra Student Coalition, and the Pittsburgh Student Environmental Coalition as well as numerous private citizens and members of grassroots environmental groups.

Overall the message from citizens and environmental groups was clear: regulation on the hydraulic fracturing industry is necessary and long overdue and they have already destroyed too much of our air, water, and land in Pennsylvania.

Hydraulic fracturing has long been an issue in Pennsylvania politics, but these hearings indicate that it has become an issue of national concern, and it’s clear that Pennsylvanians and environmental advocates nationwide want some action taken to stop the ecological devastation that hydraulic fracturing is causing in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania.

While Governor Tom Corbett and his administration have largely been in support of limiting regulation and taxation on the hydraulic fracturing industry (no surprise really, given that they bankrolled his campaign), the federal government and the Environmental Protection Agency seem to be more open to hearing the concerns of citizens and environmentalists.

And if the hearing that I attended was any indication, communities are sick and tired of the frackers and want them out of Pennsylvania and are going to pressure the Environmental Protection Agency and President Obama to take a strong stance on the issue.

From the moment the hearings began on the morning of September 27th until they ended at eight pm that evening, there was a steady stream of anti fracking sentiment interspersed with a few industry supporters (mostly employees of the oil and gas companies).  Testifiers ran the gamut from Pittsburgh City Councilman Doug Shields and students from the University of Pittsburgh to residents of the economically and ecologically devastated Marcellus Shale region who have been living with the consequences of hydraulic fracturing every day.

It was a diverse group with a variety of stories about why they are against hydraulic fracturing and in favor of stricter air pollution regulation: about wells destroyed, families breathing in gas fumes, communities who have seen their air quality decline since the arrival of the oil and gas companies, and how the gas companies continue to claim that they are not to blame for all these public health concerns.

While the testimony from citizens was by no means uniform everyone testifying had one thing in common: they care about the future of Pennsylvania’s land and environment and are concerned about how the oil and gas companies is destroying the state’s natural beauty.

So while the EPA ‘s proposed air regulations are a step in the right direction, it’s about time the government listened to citizens and held the hydraulic fracturing industry accountable for their actions and the devastation they have caused communities.

Obama’s High-Speed Rail Plan Necessary for U.S. Progress

President Obama recently unveiled a 53 billion dollar plan to make high-speed rail (trains that go faster than 250 miles an hour) accessible to 80 percent of Americans within the next twenty-five years.

This investment would be in addition to the eight billion dollars of stimulus money that was invested in rail in 2009 and would be the largest federal investment in rail in history.

If this plan is any indication, Obama is serious about “winning the future,” as he said in the State of the Union.

The current plan calls for 8 billion of the funds to come from the federal budget and the remaining 45 billion to come from the transportation reauthorization bill.

Now, I know that you might not think that this bill is important to you, but there are many ways in which 53 billion dollars invested in high-speed rail would be good for both citizens and the American economy.

First, high-speed rail will help America move off of oil.

It’s no secret that oil is an expensive fuel that is polluting our earth and our politics.

At around three dollars a gallon nationwide, gas is one of the most frequently purchased goods in America and can be a significant expense, especially for college students with little income.

And a good portion of America’s daily oil diet (19.54 million barrels per day) comes from politically volatile countries in the Middle East, many of whom openly oppose the United States and/or restrict their citizens’ freedom.

While I don’t think that countries shouldn’t disagree with or oppose the United States government, I do think it would be best if we stopped supporting authoritarian regimes (such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia) that limit peoples’ rights.

And since rail travel can be powered by electricity and is far more efficient than personal automobiles, increased use of high-speed rail would cut our oil consumption drastically.

However, dirty oil politics are not the only thing that increased access to rail would help.  As anyone who has driven the Washington D.C. Beltway at rush hour can tell you, traffic jams and frustration are a daily occurrence due to commuters.

If rail were more accessible and affordable, commuters could ditch the car and take the train instead, reducing both stress and hours wasted sitting in traffic or looking for parking.

Third, federal investment in rail transportation is positive because it will create jobs and provide affordable transportation, helping us to “win the future.”

Railroads don’t build themselves and if we are going to expand our railways, this means we will need to hire a host of engineers, geologists, planners, and construction workers.

Even after the railroads are completed, conductors, rail maintenance workers, and engineers will be needed to ensure that the trains run safely and efficiently.

But the benefits don’t end with job creation.

If 80 percent of Americans have access to affordable high-speed rail, this would mean that people without cars could get to work easily, business travel would be more efficient, and people could avoid airport security and traffic jams.

They could even get work done, read, or sleep on the train while they’re commuting or going to visit family.

Now who doesn’t want to be able to travel efficiently and safely across the country instead of sitting in traffic and wasting money on gas?

So while Obama’s 53 billion dollar high-speed rail plan may seem like extraneous government spending, it is in fact a much-needed investment in infrastructure and the clean energy economy that will help us to “win the future” and reduce our carbon footprints.


Climate Change, The International Issue

While those of us here at St. Mary’s are busy writing papers, working projects, and studying for exams, our world leaders are busy at the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP16) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

I would love to report that our world leaders are being super productive and that these negotiations are leading us towards a fair, ambitious, and binding international climate treaty that adequately addresses the needs of the citizens of the world, not just of the Global North.

However, that is not the case and the United States is largely to blame for this, because although China may have overtaken us as the largest carbon emitter in the world we still boast the highest per capita carbon footprint worldwide.

Furthermore, our elected officials and negotiators are actively blocking progress on both an international climate treaty and a domestic carbon bill. As a member of the Millennial Generation (the generation that is going to be responsible for cleaning up this mess) I find this unacceptable and encourage our leaders to step up, stop pandering to corporate fossil fuel interests and start protecting the future of our planet and its residents.

As anyone who has taken an environmental studies course can tell you, climate change is real, it’s already happening, and it does not respect national borders. The Maldives, a small island nation located in Asia, is purchasing land to which the nation’s 300,000 citizens can relocate because if nothing is done about climate change and sea levels continue to rise the entire country will be underwater.

Clearly the threat of climate change is not distant any longer. Yet Congressmen such as Senator James Inhofe continue to deny the validity of climate change science. As a youth leader who is working towards a clean, just energy future for the planet, I find this appalling and have a question to ask of all my Senators and Representatives.

If youth from around the world can believe in and work for a future free of fossil fuels, why can’t you at least stop taking orders from corporate polluters and acknowledge that climate change is a human issue that requires strong international action?

A Plea for Reusable To-Go Boxes

As anyone who has seen the trash cans on the Campus Center patio on a nice day knows, to-go boxes from the Great Room are used frequently at St. Mary’s. In fact, our food services company Bon Appétit estimates that between 800 and 1000 boxes are handed out on any given day during the academic year.

Given that the current boxes are made of Styrofoam, a material that is not recyclable or biodegradable, these boxes account for a significant amount of waste. If we throw out an average of 900 boxes a day, and there are 220 days in the academic year, this suggests that we as a college throw away roughly 198,000 boxes per academic year.

With each unit costing 11 cents, these 198,000 boxes also end up costing us a total of $20,899 a year. As any college student can tell you, this is a very large amount of both money and trash.

Fortunately there is a more environmentally friendly and long term cost efficient alternative: reusable to-go boxes. A group of students from a Math for Social Justice course found that Eco Clamshells may be our best alternative.

Each unit costs $3.14, but if we were to purchase 2,000 (enough for the whole student body) for $6,280 instead of constantly purchasing more Styrofoam, we would save $14,619 in up-front costs. Although reusable to go boxes would require more water and labor for washing, it is unlikely that these costs would amount to more than the amount saved.

In recent months, the level of support for a reusable to-go box program has grown significantly. On October 19, the Student Government Association passed a resolution that supports the implementation of a reusable to-go box program in the Great Room to begin by Spring 2011.

The Student Environmental Action Coalition has collected 380 petition signatures from students and faculty supporting reusable containers and has been working with the Sustainability Committee on research for the program.

In addition, we have a food service company that has been very supportive of past green initiatives in the Great Room. Bon Appetit’s company tag line is “Food services for a sustainable future,” and they have won multiple awards for their socially and environmentally sustainable food. The company has also implemented the use of reusable to-go boxes on other college campuses.

With all of this support going for us, it is clear we must work together to come up with a system that will allow the use of reusable to-go boxes to be just as convenient as the current disposable containers. Do you have any ideas on how we can best implement a reusable to-go box program in the Great Room?

If so, please contact the Sustainability Committee (sustainability@smcm.edu) to help design and implement the best possible program.

Students Lead Way in Sustainability

While the United States Congress has yet to pass comprehensive climate change legislation and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change seems to like negotiating more than creating legally binding treaties, students have been very successful at tackling climate change on campus.

Two weeks ago in Kansas City, Missouri, I gave a presentation at the National Collegiate Honors Conference with fellow SMCM students Rachel Waldron and Jimmy Ferioli titled “Cross Currents of Environmentalism: Academics and Activism” that reminded me that colleges and universities really are being forces for change, cutting carbon, and helping to build the clean energy economy.

The American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which commits institutions to becoming carbon neutral, has 675 signatories to date (including St. Mary’s College of Maryland). This agreement must be signed by the chancellor or president and is a very clear sign that climate change is no longer a fringe issue that only a fraction of students care about.

It’s an issue that is of enough concern to warrant institutional recognition and action. Even if colleges aren’t signatories to the PCC, chances are that they are trying to get favorable scores on the Princeton Review’s Green Rating System, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS), or the College Sustainability Report Card.

These ranking systems give positive recognition for schools that have organic farms on campus, purchase renewable energy, composting, and promote eco friendly habits such as walking, biking, and using public transit.

While this might not see substantial, according to a survey done by Princeton Review, 68 percent of prospective students prefer colleges or universities that have a commitment to sustainability. All in all, it’s clear that change is coming to the American university.

So as we watch the election results come in and we get overwhelmed with all that we are responsible for as young people (writing SMPs, finding jobs, paying student loans and getting Congress to pass a climate change bill to name just a few), it is well worth remembering that we have changed things on campus.

It was students who got the college to commit to purchasing 100 percent renewable electricity and created the Green St. Mary’s Revolving Loan Fund. Students were also responsible for bringing fair trade, organic Equal Exchange coffee to campus and starting the Campus Community Farm.

And it’s students who are taking environmental studies courses and continually thinking of ways to lower their carbon footprint, whether that means driving less frequently, eating less meat, or turning down the heat a few degrees and putting on a sweater.

Congress can get away with being ineffective because it’s not their future on the line, it’s ours and we’re stepping up to the challenge of transition off of dirty fossil fuels and toward a just, clean energy economic future.

Should Urgo Sign the Amethyst Initiative?

It’s no secret that drinking is prevalent on campus. Just wander around Lewis Quad, the Crescents, or the Greens on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night and you will be overwhelmed by the number of students currently drinking, drunk, or otherwise intoxicated headed to parties, or perhaps on their way to the hospital for treatment of alcohol poisoning.

This phenomenon is not unique to St. Mary’s, however, as the same (or worse) is true at campuses around the country, whether the parties are on campus, off campus, or sponsored by fraternities. Binge drinking, defined by the Mayo Clinic as “downing more than five drinks in a row”, is rampant on college campuses and shows no signs of slowing down, despite efforts to educate students on drinking problems.

Under current United States law it is not legal in any state to consume alcohol before the age of 21, although we are considered independent adults capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries, and enlisting in the military at 18. This is in my opinion a very big contradiction.

Apparently I am not the only one who thinks that the current drinking age is in need of examination, as the Amethyst Initiative, launched in 2008, “calls upon elected officials to support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year old drinking age”.

The initiative, founded by liberal arts colleges, has 135 members including University of Massachusetts, Goucher College, University of Wisconsin, Towson University, University of Maryland College Park, Virginia Tech, and the University System of Maryland, and can be signed by any college or university president or chancellor.

Former President Maggie O’Brien refused to sign the initiative, but times have changed and now it is up to President Urgo to decide whether or not the college should sign on to the initiative. Given that President Urgo has already proposed opening a pub on campus, it seems that he would be amenable to the idea of signing the initiative.

However, as signing indicates that the college as an institution is acknowledging that the current drinking age is not working and is in need of reevaluation, which is quite a powerful statement as states who refuse to adhere to the minimum drinking age of 21 get 10 percent of their federal highway funding cut under the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act.

Personally, I am in support of President Urgo signing the Amethyst Initiative, as I believe the current drinking age to be outdated and ineffective. Fake IDs are everywhere, just ask a student or any of the off campus bars or liquor stores.

Underage students drink frequently on campus even if they had a legal student buy the alcohol for them. Not that I am condemning drinking underage, I’ve done it responsibly and lived in Germany where the legal drinking age is 18 and noticed that students were less inclined to binge drinking. Simply, the current drinking age is not working on college campuses and institutions should work on its reform.