Friday, June 21, 2019

The climate bill will further destroy the upstate economy

Our state legislators are obviously not students of their predecessors’ history. They haven’t learned from past mistakes when it comes to public policy’s impact on the economy.  

In the late-1970s and 1980s New York State forced power companies to buy energy at what became costs twice that of the standard market rate from the numerous cogeneration facilities which had become wildly popular due to federal grants and 1978’s Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act.

After seeing some utilities suffer because of that edict, New York rescinded the rule. But, existing contracts with the co-gen plants were grandfathered. So, the bleeding continued.

Facing potential bankruptcy, in 1997, the power company which was Niagara Mohawk at the time used billions in junk bonds to buy-out those government-mandated contracts.

Even putting aside the higher electrical costs from 1980 to 1996, the impact of New York’s folly was measurable. Over a 14 year period beginning in 1997, Niagara Mohawk had to put the cost of its efforts to save itself onto ratepayers. That state-induced salvation charge cost the average homeowner a total of $2,700 on her power bills over those 14 years.

Over that same time period, Confer Plastics paid $4 million towards the surcharge. That’s not a typo. $4 million was thrown away all because the state thought it knew better than the marketplace, issued a feel-good mandate, and left a ruined economy to fix itself. We were just one of thousands of manufacturers that suffered. It’s no wonder so many, especially those with power bills much larger than ours, left the state.

The state is on the path for that to happen again.

This time, it will be worse.

Last week, the legislature passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The Senate’s press release said it will “address and mitigate the effects of climate change by drastically cutting greenhouse gases, diverting the state’s energy reliance to renewable sources, and creating green jobs to promote environmental justice across New York State.”

While everyone wants environmental justice – there isn’t a single person who wants polluted waters and skies – there’s such a thing as taking it too far and imposing an injustice on society. The Act does just that.

It demands an 84 percent reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, including a 34 percent reduction by 2030 and, by doing so, it requires 100 percent clean power by 2040, 70 percent by 2030. That means no gas-fired electricity or nuclear energy despite both being cheap and reliable and the latter being exceptionally clean.

Previous attempts at green energy standards didn’t have teeth, they were goals without enforcement. This time it’s real. The Department of Environmental Conservation is empowered to enforce the emissions rules while the Public Service Commission is given carte blanche to impose the clean energy standards upon the utility companies.

The rules they have to live by won’t be economically feasible.

In the language of the bill, hydroelectric -- which is the best energy sources in terms of cost, efficiencies, and cleanliness -- is mentioned just once, in the definition of renewable energy. It never again appears in the document because the state’s focus is trained upon solar and wind which will require vast solar parks on upstate lands, massive wind farms in that region, and offshore turbines in the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean. Specific minimum targets are 9 gigawatts of off-shore wind by 2035 and 6 gigawatts of solar in the next 6 years.

To make that happen, the legislation demands that green energy developments be funded in part or whole by the utilities (who will pass the costs on to consumers) and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (who get their revenues from a tax on your power bills). The aforementioned energy projects will cost tens of billions of dollars to build, and most of it will be on the backs of ratepayers.    

Even after those investments occur and the projects are connected to the grid, homeowners and businesses will pay more for electricity than what they are accustomed to, even though they today pay among the highest rates in the nation. New York residential rates are already 43 percent higher than national average, while commercial rates are 50 percent higher than the national average.

Those numbers will grow when you consider that solar electricity costs more than twice that of nuclear and hydro; wind is 23 percent more than those two sources; and solar costs exceed those of gas-fired plants by 42 percent. Then, there are the reliability costs – how does a renewable grid keep homes and businesses energized when there’s no sun or wind?  

While New York’s leaders may be banking on a green future, there will be far less green in the banks of residents and entrepreneurs in the future. It’s frightening to think about the economic damage this will inflict.

For the first time, I am truly worried that my company will not make it to the fourth generation in New York. It’s already tough to do business in the Empire State. If our input costs spiral out of control under this act there’s no way we can be competitive against domestic and global threats.

You should be worried, too, about what the economic prospects are for your next generation – jobs and prosperity will be leaving the state, as will your sons, daughters, and grandchildren.

It’s almost as if the “Community Protection” part of the act’s name was added with sarcasm. Communities will be ruined.

From the 24 June 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Monday, June 17, 2019

Small town schools and world class educations

Last week, my friends at Buffalo Business First released their annual rankings of the school districts across Western New York. School administrators and parents always wait with bated breath for the report, hoping to see that their district is highly-rated and, if it’s not, that it’s quickly climbing the charts.

Almost always, the suburban schools dominate the study while rural and small town districts languish in the shadows.

Here is how some of the rural districts from this paper’s readership ranked: Barker, 29; Newfane, 37; Warsaw, 54; Lyndonville, 85; Holley, 87. 

My school district, Niagara County’s Royalton-Hartland, came in at 55 out of 96 districts. Roy-Hart is up three places from last year’s study and its 10-year range saw it as high as 50th and as low as 79th.

I am a product of Roy-Hart. Does its ranking have me wishing I was educated elsewhere? Does it have me second-guessing sending my kids there?

The answer to both is, unequivocally, “no”. 

Back in 2016, I had the privilege and honor of delivering the commencement speech at Roy-Hart. The focus was on the super powers the graduates gained by being raised in a small town and educated in a small school. I prefaced the speech with this statement: “There’s a reason Clark Kent was raised on a farm. If he was raised in Metropolis he never would have become Superman.”

Those who send their children to or are themselves alumni of a rural district know where I’m coming from.   

Out here in the country we may not have some of the resources that the high-ranking suburban schools like East Aurora, Williamsville, Clarence, and Orchard Park might possess, but we offer our students so much more.

It comes down to being a name and not a number.

It all starts with having access to people.

In our district, there are less than 1,200 students in grades kindergarten through 12, an average of 92 per grade level.

Let’s compare that to Williamsville. They have approximately 10,000 students.

In larger districts like that the teachers can’t know all the students, the parents and pupils can’t know all the teachers and administrators, and the students can’t know all their peers. Having the very easy chance to get lost in the shuffle has to be overwhelming to middling students or young men and women lacking in confidence or support at home.

Contrast that to smaller schools like mine. We know one another. We look out for one another. We work together to make sure no one is left behind. In a small school, students and their families have access to the educators, staff and coaches that can’t be held in larger districts. Those educators know the kids and have watched and will watch their development every step of the way. A school becomes a family and a legacy.    

Coming with those smaller numbers and that veritable one-on-one attention is a similar and equally remarkable benefit to students: Having access to experience.

The larger schools’ sports teams, choruses, and bands could be considered havens for only the elite. Due to there being only so many available roster spots not everyone has a chance to glean the experiences of teamwork, self-discipline, self-betterment and sense of urgency that extracurricular activities provide.

That’s not the story at smaller schools. Everyone has a very real chance to acquire and strive for a place on the team or band. This gives every student the chance to become elite or put their very best effort into it – and that’s what education is all about. Similarly, smaller clubs -- be it robotics or Future Farmers of America -- give each participant a heightened chance to shine, lead and change the world.

Likewise, smaller peer groups lead to better access to labs, experiments, public speaking exercises and more in the classroom, all of which lead to more experience – and that’s what adds capability and productivity to the intended results of tests and standards that all schools have to master.     
I often say that the larger an organization gets – be it a business, church or government – the farther away it gets from the people within it, the people it is supposed to serve, and the core values that defined its foundation. There’s a reason why people don’t like Big Government or Big Business. The smaller the better.

That holds true for schools, too. So many people champion the “it takes a village to raise a child” mantra because there’s something to be had in that interpersonal, intercommunity connectedness -- the direct and universal ownership of individual outcomes -- that the village mentality entails.

So, I say to the parents who wonder if they are doing right by their kids for sending them to a small school, “fret not”. The rankings may not show it, but your kids are getting a world class education. They are receiving the access, attention and experience they deserve…all of which they will put to great use as tomorrow’s workers, volunteers, leaders and parents.

From the 17 June 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, June 7, 2019

New York’s cats will sink their claws into wildlife

Last week’s passage of a bill to make illegal the declawing of cats proved to be incredibly divisive. New Yorkers fell into one, if not a few, of numerous camps.

Many cat lovers praised the move, claiming declawing is akin to ripping off your fingers at the knuckles.

Other cat lovers believed that unintended consequences will come about from the law, from people not adopting cats to owners giving up on them completely due to, respectively, the potential and reality of extensive damage to their homes.

Disgruntled taxpayers wondered why this had been elevated to an issue of importance given the socioeconomic malaise of upstate.

And, then, there was the group of people with whom I identify with the most on this issue – my fellow naturalists and ornithologists who fret about the impact that this will have on local wildlife. Clawed cats are killers.

The reasoning behind the bill’s introduction and passage begs the question: Where does and should “animal advocacy” begin and end? We ask that questions because we wonder why, if they are so concerned about animal welfare, the advocates seem not to care about the wildlife of the region, which is arguably far more important than this invasive species.

Yes, felis catus is an invasive species.

Whether feral, living in a barn or garage, or fully domesticated and sharing time indoors and outdoors, cats are a scourge on the natural world that demolish the integrity of our environment, no different than other threats currently bearing down on Western New York that were also introduced to the area by Man – the emerald ash borer (the beetle that is destroying every ash tree in the area) and the Asian carp (the monstrous fish that will upset the Great Lakes ecosystem).

Those two creatures will have measurable and considerable impact on our economy so they are perceived as major dangers by the populace at large. Cats, on the other hand, are not popularly reviled because their economic impact is nil and they’re “cute.”  

Alas, no dollar value can be placed on the dangers cats pose to local wildlife. Yet, there’s nothing “cute” about what they do.

According to a 2010 study by the University of Nebraska Extension, there are 60 million stray and feral cats in the United States and another 88 million domestic cats which may spend time outside, all of which kill 1 billion of our feathered friends every year.

The American Bird Conservancy is less conservative in their numbers. They say predation by domestic cats is the number-one direct, human-caused threat to birds in the United States and Canada. They estimate that in the United States alone, cats kill approximately 2.4 billion birds every year. The Conservancy says cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles in the wild.

Other well-respected organizations such as the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have been outspoken on the environmental dangers posed by cats.

We naturalists despise free-roaming cats because the unnatural predators make easy meals out of low-nesting and ground-nesting birds. Familiar woodland and lawn birds like thrushes, cardinals and ovenbirds are easy prey for the cats. For example, every year I get multiple pairs of catbirds attempting to raise broods in my yard and every year the catbird’s babies are eaten by, ironically, the mammals they get their name from.  

Also consider the plight of rare and endangered sandpipers, plovers and nighthawks that call stony shorelines home. The local populations of these ground nesters have taken a massive beating along the Niagara River corridor and Great Lakes because so many people have championed and protected feral cat populations on Tonawanda Island and Goat Island and places like the lakeside hamlet of Olcott. The decimation of these birds was magnified by the well-intentioned Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs that never insisted on declawing the feral cats.

All of this assault on Mother Nature will be magnified as house cats, barn cats, and the like join their feral friends in retaining their claws. They will become more efficient hunters and the loss of precious birds will continue, unabated.

It will be interesting or, rather, depressing to see the impact.

In 2020, I will join hundreds of volunteers in conducting studies for the latest update of the Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State. I guarantee when we work on the next edition 20 years later we will find most ground dwelling birds threatened if not endangered -- they’re already on that path.

Is this really what animal lovers want? 

You can’t love one species of animal so much that it is detrimental to all others.

If you really love all animals, and not just your cats, put protections in place. Cats with claws are efficient killing machines so you have to save those creatures they would prey on. Keep all of your cats indoors, always. Actively participate in or donate to TNR programs to control feral cat populations. Don’t get a cat if you can’t control it.  

I like cats – specifically true house cats – as I grew up with and enjoyed the company of felines. But I value the lives of our local wildlife well above the comfort of an invasive species. Getting rid of declawing is a portal to getting rid of so many beautiful birds…maybe even permanently.  

From the 10 June 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News