Over AAA's 107-year history, it has earned the goodwill of millions of drivers but also the acrimony of growing numbers of environmentalists. In recent years, prominent environmental groups have taken the club to task opposing funding for bike lanes and public transit, bashing the Clean Air Act, and pushing for ever more and bigger highways. So when the Oregon and Idaho chapter of AAA debuted a new bicycle roadside assistance program last week, many people were puzzled. Could the group formerly known as the American Automobile Association finally be going green?
"People wrongly assume that AAA only cares about cars," says Marie Dodds, the chapter's director of government and public affairs. "But for example, this year in the 2009 state legislature, we supported the transportation package, which had elements of mass transit, peds, and bicycles. We realized that whether it's because of the economy, the environment, or wanting to improve your fitness, bicycles are becoming a more popular option to get around. So basically we're just staying with the times."
Or with the competition. The chapter's home city, Portland, Oregon, is also HQ for the rival upstart, Better World Club, which launched in 2002 as "the nation's only environmentally-friendly auto club." Better World offers a carbon offset service (now also an option at the Oregon AAA), eco-travel services, discounts on hybrid car rental, and what was, until last week, the nation's only bicycle roadside assistance program. "We are nothing like AAA or other auto clubs," says the BWC's website, which links to a raft of stories on the AAA's lobbying record. "We have the same reliable roadside assistance, but we have a unique policy agenda."
Dodds of AAA says the club's environmental record has improved since the early '90s, when it opposed a law that allowed cities to use highway funds for public transit and bike paths. "That's something that happened 16 years ago," she says. Still, she has no qualms about the club's membership in the American Highway Users Alliance, a group that BWC opposes. "The reality is that the US is, for the most part, a car-based nation," she says. The Alliance's 2008 year-end report brags that it opposed "Smart Growth" development, the use of the Clean Air Act to regulate global warming, and an amendment to a global warming bill by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) that would have "included unprecedented anti-mobility provisions, increased fuel costs, and diverted funds from highways."
Are those efforts at odds with AAA's work in Oregon? Consider this: if you're on your bike alongside a busy freeway and you get sideswiped by a car, who's going to pick up the mangled two-wheeler while you're in the hospital? As the club's website says, "Wherever you drive, in the U.S. or Canada, 24 hours a day, AAA will help."
UPDATE: Talk about identity crisis. . .Treehugger reports that AAA is also planning to launch an "eco icon" in its tour book that will denote "green" hotels.
Who says the arcane job of rewriting the laws that govern hard-rock mining isn't of interest to Joe Sixpack? Certainly not Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who in testifying before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources today, deftly linked the reform of the nation's mining laws to the production of better beer. "Relative to the water that was used for Coors beer," the former Colorado Senator said, "we know that Clear Creek comes off the headwaters. . .where we have thousands of abandoned mines."
Salazar was testifying in support of two senate bills that would end the giveaway of minerals on federal land--a federal law from 1872 still allows companies to extract gold and other minerals royalty-free--and use the money to finance the cleanup of mining sites. An estimated 500,000 abandoned mines have contaminated the headwaters of 40 percent of the West's streams. Cleaning them up will cost at least $32 billion.
For Salazar, citing Coors' iconic Clear Creek was a tip of the cowboy hat to Republican brewery scion Pete Coors, whom Salazar narrowly defeated in a 2004 Senate race. For decades, the Coors family has been a major donor to conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and John Birch Society and target of environmentalists. On several occasions, the Coors brewery in Golden, Colorado, dumped thousands of gallons of beer into Clear Creek, at one point killing up to 50,000 fish (perhaps they at least died happy). But starting in the early 1990s, Coors also began paying more attention to preserving its watershed. It joined forces with state agencies to clean up an abandoned mine along the creek and cap, grade, and replant the site.
The mining reform bill would bankroll those cleanups by requiring new mines to pay into a fund. But Salazar would like to see it go further by creating new incentives for companies such as Coors to clean up mines on their own. In 2006, he sponsored a "Good Samaritan" bill that would have allowed private interests to mop up contaminated sites without fear of being held liable for the pollutants found there. For example, in the 1990s, the State of Colorado and Coors had planned to stanch the flow from a mine tunnel that was leaching ten pounds of heavy metals into Clear Creek each day, but the state killed the project for fear of lawsuits.
Salazar's plea for better beer through mining reform was a big hit with freshman Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who has replaced him on the committee. "Your comments about Coors are particularly relevant to me, since Colorado is the number one producer of beer on a state-to-state basis," he said. "It's an important industry in Colorado and it's important to all of us."
Then the microphone was passed to Senator James Risch (R-ID), who was none too impressed. "Colorado may brew it," he said, "but Idaho grows the barley and the hops."
From the San Francisco Chronicle today comes a great story about how major produce buyers are imposing secret scorched-earth measures on hundreds of thousands of acres where spinach and leafy greens are grown. Trees are being bulldozed, frogs and rodents are being killed, and farmers are creating wide crop buffers of bare dirt, all in a misguided attempt to prevent another outbreak of E. Coli. The changes are taking a heavy toll on the Salinas Valley, the nation's "salad bowl," which is incredibly biodiverse and traditionally a hotbed of sustainable agriculture. By eliminating the natural checks and balances on the agricultural ecosystem, the measures might be doing more harm than good. There has never been an E. Coli outbreak on small-scale farms---farms that are integrated with the local ecosystem and sell to the region's farmers markets.
As my mamma in Texas might say, T. Boone Pickens is trying to throw a wide loop with a short rope. The man who funded the swift-boating of Sen. John Kerry is blogging on the liberal Huffington Post, where he's gone into full folksy mode to urge us "to pull the trigger" on "an energy plan this country needs and deserves" (one that would also line his pockets). The NAT GAS Act, sponsored by Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), would provide massive federal subsidies to natural gas vehicles, which Pickens is heavily invested in. Nevermind that those vehicles emit only 10 to 20 percent less greenhouse gas than diesel ones, or that Pickens and company spent more than $3.7 million promoting the same idea in California only to see it mocked and voted down. If only Pickens was as commited to building his vaunted wind farm on the Texas panhandle, which was supposed to be the largest in the world before he abandoned the idea last week. As they also say in Texas, the man is as full of wind as a corn-eating horse.
Charlotte, North Carolina, has found a silver lining in the housing crisis:
Charlotte's Habitat is among the first in the nation to start buying up houses in troubled neighborhoods where up to a third of the homes are vacant due to foreclosure. Average cost: $38,000 to $55,000, less than half the original price.
"We're getting them as low as $30,000, knowing we'll put in $10,000 of repairs," said Meg Robertson, an associate director with Habitat. "To build a new one is over $60,000 … we're $20,000 to $30,000 cheaper per home."
So what about Habitat's commitment to sweat equity? To having energetic volunteers "build houses together in partnership with families in need?" Robertson told the Charlotte Observer that she thought it was more important to house as many people as possible.
Besides, subdivisions built in the boom are already falling apart on their own or at the hands of vandals, so there should be plenty of sweat required to restore and maintain them.