Friday, May 29, 2015

Next Step in Human Evolution?

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)
PHOTO: According to a prominent climatologist, there is a hopeful side to climate change – a coming shift in how people make and use energy. Picture by Evan Hansen.
PHOTO: According to a prominent climatologist, there is a hopeful side to climate change – a coming shift in how people make and use energy. Picture by Evan Hansen.

HARRISBURG, Pa. - In a sense, climate change is an opportunity for all of us, according to a prominent climatologist and public science educator.

Geosciences professor Richard Alley of Penn State University, who hosted the PBS miniseries "Earth: The Operators' Manual," said climate change is a serious threat to everyone, but we also now have a chance to change the entire way humans make and use energy. In the past, Alley said, we've burned through a series of energy sources - wood, whale oil and now fossil fuels.

"We're the first generation that knows how to get off the treadmill," he said, "how to build an economical, sustainable energy system without changing the climate and without running out of trees or whales."

One way to help make sure the transition happens, Alley said, is to implement the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan.

Some coal and oil executives say climate change is a hoax, but Alley said that among scientists there's no question that it's real, serious and caused by humans. However, he said, small-scale, decentralized energy production is starting to do for the electricity grid what the Internet did for telecommunications.

"You can make power on your house with your solar cells, make power with wind, you can have some batteries," he said. "You can be a buyer, you can be a seller. A lot of sources, a lot of diversity - and that is robust against fluctuation."

Alley said this transition can be seen as a profound step in human history. He compared it to when people stopped being hunters and gatherers and shifted to agriculture.

"When our ancestors switched to farming food, they learned to make the earth give a whole lot more food," he said. "We can make a while lot more energy that really can do a lot of good for a lot of people in a lot of places."

Engineers looking to make the grid more stable and flexible are considering some creative ideas including using electric cars and water heaters as a kind of giant distributed battery. Alley said these could provide a way to get energy when demand temporarily outstrips supply.

Alley will speak on "Climate Solutions: How to Reduce Energy Consumption and Help Pollinators and Wildlife," at an event to be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Patton Township Municipal Building, 100 Patton Plaza, State College.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

PA Hunters, Anglers Hail New Administration Water Rule

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: A new rule clarifying which waterways receive protection of the Clean Water Act is drawing praise from Pennsylvania hunters, anglers and conservationists. Photo credit: Kelly Donaldson/Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
PHOTO: A new rule clarifying which waterways receive protection of the Clean Water Act is drawing praise from Pennsylvania hunters, anglers and conservationists. Photo credit: Kelly Donaldson/Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – The Obama administration has released a new rule clarifying which waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act. Pennsylvania hunters and anglers call it an excellent revision to the federal regulations that has gotten a bad rap.

Two court decisions have, in a sense, muddied the waters about what protections apply to a number of streams, creeks and wetlands. Jeff Sample, co-director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers' Pennsylvania chapter, says the new Waters of the U.S. rule is simply clarifying the issue. But he says people are being frightened by misinformation about it.

"Basically, they're being fed this by commercial interests," Sample insists. "I understand people have a suspicious eye towards the government, and that's a healthy thing. But there are a number of myths out there, and a lot of them are just that – myths."

Some farm and mining groups and real estate developers say the new rules would cripple their operations by controlling every tiny stream and wetland. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says this isn't true. According to the agency, the new rule would clarify its jurisdiction to three percent of the country's surface area, all of which had been covered by the Clean Water Act before.

Sample stresses that the revised rule goes to great lengths to specify and enhance exemptions for farmers, ranchers and foresters, and says there are no new waters at issue.

"The waters that are protected, have been protected – and it's not a new 'land grab,'" he explains. "It's not new regulations affecting anything that any farmer or landowner was doing legally to begin with."

The Republican-led Congress is considering legislation to throw out the new Waters of the U.S. rule. Sample believes it would be a mistake. He says many of the waterways in question are small headwater streams and pothole wetlands, crucial for fish and wildlife habitat. He adds they are not only important for hunters and anglers, but for folks who get their drinking water downstream.

"It's a clarification of the act and what waters are covered, and this protects them," he says. "This protects their drinking water. It protects their hunters and fishermen."

While finalizing the rule, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held more than 400 public meetings and considered more than a million public comments. Nearly 90 percent of public comments favored the rule. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Amtrak Budget Debate "Puts Safety and Congestion at Stake"

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)
PHOTO: The Senate Appropriations Committee gets back to work on Amtrak's budget, and Senators from the Northeast Corridor say the issue not only impacts train safety, but traffic jams as well. Photo credit - National Transportation Safety Board.
PHOTO: The Senate Appropriations Committee gets back to work on Amtrak's budget, and Senators from the Northeast Corridor say the issue not only impacts train safety, but traffic jams as well. Photo credit - National Transportation Safety Board.

HARRISBURG, Pa. - As folks head back to work after the holiday, Senators along the Northeast corridor say the rails would be a whole lot safer and the roads less clogged if Amtrak were properly funded.

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy says Japan's Bullet train hurtles along at 200 miles per hour but has never had a fatal accident. He says the same is true in France because both nations have made significant investments in railroad infrastructure. But he says Congress has left Amtrak with a $21 billion backlog.

"We've made the opposite decision" says Murphy. "So it should come as no shock that every couple months, we are going to turn on the TV news and see another crash another set of fatalities on the Northeast corridor line."

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said it was stupid for Democrats to suggest that Republican budget cuts might have contributed to the Amtrak derailment that left eight dead near Philadelphia. Last week seven Northeast Senate Democrats called for full funding of Amtrak's request.

According to Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, a fifth of the nation's Gross Domestic Product is housed along the Northeast corridor. And he says many of his constituents likely did some fist shaking while stuck in traffic jams over the long weekend, people who could benefit from better train service.

"I'm hoping that they will direct those curses and those fists at John Boehner and the Republicans in the House that are blocking effective Amtrak transportation," says Blumenthal.

Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania says given the safety and economic issues at stake, senators need to approach the issue with same focus as the first responders he spoke to after the accident like woman who drove an hour home after a full day's work, but went right back when she heard what had happened.

"Turned right around and came back, because she knew she had a job to do," says Casey. "We should be bringing the same sense of urgency and determination that those first responders brought to their job last week."

President Obama's budget includes $500 million in capital improvement for the Northeast Corridor, and Murphy says that's a step in the right direction, but it's not enough to take care of the backlog.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Economist: Under GOP Pension Plan, State Pays More to Get Less

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: A state Senate plan to shift to privatized public employee pensions would be a bad deal for retirees and would ultimately would leave Pennsylvania taxpayers on the hook, analysts say. Picture courtesy of the state of Pennsylvania.
PHOTO: A state Senate plan to shift to privatized public employee pensions would be a bad deal for retirees and would ultimately would leave Pennsylvania taxpayers on the hook, analysts say. Picture courtesy of the state of Pennsylvania.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Privatized pensions - such as those pressed by state Senate leaders - actually have higher fees and lower returns, analysts say.

The Republican lawmakers say they won't approve a state budget until Gov. Tom Wolf accepts their plan for dealing with Pennsylvania's $50 billion pension debt. Their proposal includes benefits cuts for current retirees and privatized 401(k)-style retirement plans for future retirees. But economist Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the Keystone Research Center, said those plans cost more in fees and return less in benefits. He said they would leave former state workers and taxpayers on the hook.

"So when it costs more and you get lower returns, it's not rocket science," he said. "It costs roughly twice as much in contributions to get the same going into the retirement benefits."

Republicans in the Legislature say the state can't afford the current system. Teacher groups and others say the real problem isn't the pensions. For years, they say, the Legislature failed to kick in its full share, shifting the money to corporate tax cuts.

According to studies cited by the research center, traditional pensions historically have better returns than 401(k)-style plans. Herzenberg said traditional pensions can negotiate a better deal than can individuals investing their own money. He said privatizing a traditional plan puts the teachers and state employees at the mercy of Wall Street.

"It's essentially a transfer from Main Street retirees to Wall Street financial firms," he said.

Herzenberg said three states have tried privatizing pensions and it hasn't gone well in any of them.

In contrast, Wolf favors a plan to try to negotiate better fees for the current system, and selling bonds to reduce its debt some. The governor says the bonds could be funded by modernizing the state liquor stores.

Herzenberg said the governor's plan is a good one that would give previous reforms time to work.

"A modest bond that buys down the debt a little bit, especially when interest rates are really low, possibly with saving money in investment fees, makes total sense," he said.

About a half million former public school teachers and other former state employees get on average about $25,000 a year in benefits from the state's two pension systems. The typical public employee pays about 7.5 percent of his or her wages into the system.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Report: Pennsylvania Subsidizes Poverty Wages at Nursing Homes

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: A study of state nursing home workers has found many don’t make enough to live on, and they have to rely on outside income including public assistance. Picture courtesy of the Service Employees International Union.
PHOTO: A study of state nursing home workers has found many don’t make enough to live on, and they have to rely on outside income including public assistance. Picture courtesy of the Service Employees International Union.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - According to a new study, Pennsylvania taxpayers are essentially paying twice for some poverty wages at state nursing homes.

Stephen Herzenberg, executive director with the Keystone Research Center, says their new study found the private nursing home industry pays nurses' aids and kitchen and janitorial workers below what is a living wage for even a small family in almost every part of the state.

He says the wages are so low, that public safety-net programs act as a hidden subsidy for a for-profit industry.

"Nursing homes get over two thirds of their money from the taxpayer," says Herzenberg. "And the taxpayer gets hit a second time because so many nursing home workers have to rely on public assistance."

The report is titled, "Double Trouble: Taxpayer-Subsidized Low-Wage Jobs in Pennsylvania Nursing Homes." It says aids average $13 an hour and support workers get $10 to $11. Herzenberg says more than half the workers surveyed said it wasn't enough to live on and they had to have other work or take public assistance.

He says a minimum starting wage of $15 per hour would improve care by reducing stress and turnover. Plus he says it would actually create jobs, because those workers would generate more consumer demand, while reducing the need for public assistance.

"It would benefit nearly 50,000 Pennsylvania workers," says Herzenberg. "While improving the quality of care and the good news is you get some of that money back."

Herzenberg says an industry that pays CEOs as much as 600 times what the front line caregivers make can afford to raise wages. Plus, he says the raises might actually pay off for the company in the long-run.

"Each time someone quits in a nursing home and they have to find a new worker, it costs an estimated $3,500, so you'd have a lot of savings from reduced turnover," he says.

Nursing home corporations say the low wages help them keep costs down, but Herzenberg says wages represent a small portion of costs.