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The Debate Continues

Speaking of gas prices, global warming, off shore drilling and all the other jazz that seems to set so many of you off, courtesy of The New York Times ...

An in-depth business story looks back at the federal government's failure to improve fuel efficiency since the last oil shock.

"Over the last 25 years, opportunities to head off the current crisis were ignored, missed or deliberately blocked, according to analysts, politicians and veterans of the oil and automobile industries. What’s more, for all the surprise at just how high oil prices have climbed, and fears for the future, this is one crisis we were warned about. Ever since the oil shortages of the 1970s, one report after another has cautioned against America’s oil addiction."

The Sunday Magazine interview this week was with Robert Reich, Big Dog's secretary of labor. Says he of 4 foot, 10 inches:

"When you consider that the oil we pump goes into a global oil market, offshore drilling makes no sense. We take the environmental risk, but we’d have to share the negligible price gains with Chinese consumers and every other user around the world."

Have at it, people.

New Under The Sun

Ah, progress.

The mainstream economic development agencies are waking up to the potential of the green
economy. Buffalo Niagara Enterprise has launched a campaign to attract solar manufacturers to the region, piggy-backing on plans by Globe Metals to open a plant in Niagara Falls next year to produce high-grade silicon, the key material for the panels.

Solar_panelGlobe, as a part of its subsidy deal with the state, will set aside 25 percent of the silicon it produces for resale, at a 15 percent discount, to companies operating in New York State. The arrangement gives Western New York an opportunity to create a cluster of solar-power industries.

BNE plans to have a similar effort in place for wind by Labor Day.

Announcement of the Globe deal prompted BNE to start researching the potential to lure solar industry here. It has targeted about 70 companies from the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

"We're hopeful we can generate enough interest to get one or two of those folks to come pay us a visit," said Paul Pfeiffer, BNE's director of investor and public relations.

Just a thought: How about working to develop home-grown solar panel manufacturers? A locally owned anything has obvious advantages.

BNE is working with the Green Gold Development Corp. and the Wind Action Group, which is a really good development. Up to this point, the mainstream economic development agencies had not been working closely with the local green community.

"It seems like a good marriage," Pfieffer said. "There is no need to reinvent the wheel where they have their knowledge base."

Bill Nowak, a leading green working with the BNE, said economic development agencies "seem to be getting it."

He sees a big upside in renewal energy for the regional economy.

"The hydro plant and Globe plant to the north and Steelwinds to the south leaves us incredibly well position to be a renewable energy center in North America," he said.

A PUSH for housing reform

I've been covering housing issues on and off since I joined The News 22 years ago. Throughout it all, there have been two constants: the ineffectiveness, at best, of City Hall and the non-profit housing agencies it funds.

The investigation by Phil Fairbanks published in The News this week shows not much has changed, at least when it comes to abandoned houses. Nearly one in four properties in the city stands vacant. Only Detroit and New Orleans are worse off, and in the case of way down yonder, it involved one of the worst hurricanes in the history of the nation.

Bartley_2 Mayor Brown is taking a lot of heat for what critics say is a one-dimensional approach involving demolitions. Among the critics: Aaron Bartley, executive director of PUSH, or People United for Sustainable Housing, a non-profit agency operating on the West Side. (In the interest of full disclosure, I'll report my college-age daughter interned at PUSH last summer.)

In an interview this week, Bartley, pictured above, said the problem isn't just "a lack of leadership" in City Hall. "The non-profit community is failing, too," he said.

Boy, is it ever.

I did an investigation in 2004 into the city's squandering of anti-poverty funds and found that most of the 13 non-profit housing agencies were unproductive, some to the point of ineptitude. Among my findings:

"Over a three-year period ending June 30, 2003, state records show the 13 agencies combined got approvals annually for an average of about 210 mortgages and 190 home improvement loans, most of them for repairs of $5,000 or less. That's roughly one mortgage or repair loan every other week for each agency.

"Moreover, a handful of agencies were responsible for most of the activity. Few agencies reported other activity that would have helped their neighborhoods, such as public improvements, business assistance and crime prevention programs."

Things are no better now. Bartley said Rochester and Syracuse rehab 80 to 120 houses a year. Buffalo does fewer than 10. This is partly the consequence of City Hall's failure to reform its Community Development Block Grant program.

Bartley isn't against demolitions. But he said they have to be part of a broader strategy, starting with rehabilitation of salvageable houses. Other pieces of the puzzle include weatherization programs, to reduce energy bills; housing deconstruction, as an alternative to demolitions; and a plan on how to use vacant lots once the house comes down. Bartley see a potential for urban farming.

"We're not arguing against demolitions," Bartley said, "we're arguing they need to be put in the context of the other things you need to do to rebuild a community.

Bartley is part of an organization called the "Partnership For The Public Good," which gave the city this critique of its 2008-09 action plan for housing, neighborhood revitalization, use of block grant funds, etc. It's worth a read.

   

Next "Business Gets Green" Session

John Beckinghausen, HSBC Bank's North American Director for Sustainability, will be a keynote speaker at the Thursday, July 17, session of "Business Gets Green." The third installment of the program will run from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Buffalo Museum of Science.

Other speakers:

-- Paul Pfieffer, the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise Director of Investor and Public Relations, who will talk about the organization's initiative to attract solar and wind manufacturing to the region.

-- Nathan Rizzo, Solar Liberty Energy Systems, Inc., the first NYSERDA certified solar energy system installer in Erie County.

-- Cheryl Zanghi, director of Buffalo's Green Hospitality Initiative, an effort to green the local convention and hospitality industry.

I've attended the first two session. Highly recommended.

Broadening City Hall's Demolition Strategy

My colleague Phil Fairbanks has done an excellent series on the problem of vacant housing in Buffalo. This is not a problem of Byron Brown's doing, but the list of those critical of his administration's approach is populated by some of the smartest housing people in the city, including Aaron Bartley of PUSH, Mike Clarke of LISC, and Mike Gainer of Buffalo ReUSE.

Clarke summed up the criticism this way:

"Right now, demolitions are scattershot. There’s no systematic, thought-out approach. There’s no effort at making demolitions part of a larger redevelopment strategy.”

Gainer gave a very articulate critique of the city's focus on demolitions in May at a "Business Gets Green" session sponsored by the Green Gold Development Corp. He's worth listening to.

We just don't get it

Do many Americans remain ignorant to global warming? Or are they so self-absorbed that they simply don't care? (There's a poll at the end of this post.)

The Pew Research Center has come out with a poll showing that in the face of higher gas prices, a growing number of Americans want to hang on to their energy way of life, regardless of the consequences. As recently as February, 55 favored an emphasis on energy conservation and the environment vs. 35 percent who favored a push for more energy production. Now, its a dead heat. All over $4 a gallon gas.

Oil_rig Reports the Pew Center:

"Amid record gas prices, public support for greater energy exploration is spiking. Compared with just a few months ago, many more Americans are giving higher priority to more energy exploration, rather than more conservation. An increasing proportion also says that developing new sources of energy – rather than protecting the environment – is the more important national priority."

I don't like $50 a tank fill up any more than the next guy, but the answer isn't a $40 fill up. Something's gotta give.

Ice_berg_2 We as a country account for a quarter of the world's oil consumption. We're emitting twice as many global warming gasses than we did in 1990. Our economy, our lifestyle is the biggest driving force behind global warming. But, according to the Pew poll, nearly half of America wants to stay the course.

The scientific community says the answer is two-fold: conservation and development of clean, renewable energy. (Al Gore's Web site has a good overview.)

The president and Congress have been reluctant to provide the the same kind of incentives to promote clean energy that it has long provided Big Oil and Gas.

And conservation and recycling efforts are far from running on all cylinders. The current issue of Co-op America Quarterly is loaded with practical tips on how the typical homeowner can cut his energy consumption by up to half. How many of us are even trying?

A few more pieces worth reading:

-- New York Times comparison of gas prices worldwide.

"Gasoline in the United States is cheap.

"Not as cheap as American drivers would like, of course. And not as cheap as it is in Venezuela and other major oil-producing countries, where it is heavily subsidized. Compared to prices in most other industrialized nations, however, the American national average of $4 a gallon is a bargain.

"The chief reason for the disparity with the high-priced nations is taxation. Take away the taxes, and the remaining gas price is similar from place to place."

-- Recent Congressional testimony of climate scientist James Hansen.

"A wide gap has developed between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public.

"We have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next president and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation.

"Otherwise it will become impractical to constrain atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse-gas produced in burning fossil fuels, to a level that prevents the climate system from passing tipping points that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity's control.

"Changes needed to preserve creation, the planet on which civilization developed, are clear. But the changes have been blocked by special interests, focused on short-term profits, who hold sway in Washington and other capitals."

So, what do you think?

Board of Adult Employment

A lot of you are probably scratching your heads over the Board of Education's decision to not  bring disciplinary charges against anyone in the Crystal Barton-McKinley High School matter. I'll admit to being a bit surprised - but not really.

I covered Buffalo public schools in the mid- to late '90s, and over time I came to realize that much of what happens in the school district is done to benefit adults, not kids.

School buildings closed after hours because janitors essentially controlled the buildings. Principals using after school programs as a means of billing the district for overtime. Inner-city kids in need of the best teachers often getting much less because of work assignment rules.

A lot of people, particularly classroom teachers, work very hard on behalf of students. But the district's bureaucratic culture is adult-centric.

By the end of my tenure covering the schools, I sometimes found myself muttering about a Board of Education that too often functioned as a Board of Adult Employment.

   

Worth a read

Interesting stuff I've read of late:

The Capital reports Tom Golisano is forming a PAC to invest major money -- up to $1 million per race -- to oust incumbent state senators and/or win open seats. Might jump in on some Assembly races, too. Steve Pigeon is his political guy.

The New York Times reports that 19 former employees in recent years have had to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to receive severance benefits. May explain why Roger Kelley won't talk about his forced resignation from the New York Power Authority.

Crain's reports women are worse off economically in New York State than they were in 1989. So much for coming a long way.

Artvoice has a good piece on the issues and politics involving the Broadway Market. You've gotta keep your Franczyk's and Fronczyk's straight, however.

Ready to sue

Call them what you want: subsidies, incentives, grants. Lee Bordeleau calls them unconstitutional.

The Lockport stockbroker has gotten 40 people in pony up $100 each to launch a lawsuit challenging the legality of grants, discounts, tax breaks and the like made by state and local government in the name of economic development.

"Any kind of welfare, I'm against," he said.

Bordeleau got noticed last year when he paid for a billboard on Route 78 in Lockport calling attention to Niagara County's status at the time as the highest-taxed county in the nation based on a percentage of housing value. In recent months, he's been working the media in an effort to find people willing to invest in the lawsuit. His goal was 40. Mission accomplished.

"We're going to do it, we're going forward," he said. "This is something that needs to be done."

Bordeleau said he expects the suit to be filed by the middle of July. James Ostrowski, the self-described lawyer, writer and anti-politican, is his attorney.

Stay tuned.

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