The un-greening of Wisconsin

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By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any uglier, it gets, well, downright ugly.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose attempts to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights has provoked massive demonstrations by angry teachers, firefighters and state employees, is now also drawing fire from environmental and clean energy advocates.

In addition to his plans to squash collective bargaining rights, Walker wants to dismantle several eco-friendly programs and has already axed one, the high speed rail line that would have been funded by federal stimulus money.

The anti-green crusade began in the fall, when Walker, newly elected, affirmed his election pledge to return $823 million in federal stimulus money that would have funded a high speed passenger rail project connecting Milwaukee and Madison, completing a route from Chicago to Minneapolis.

The federal money would have paid to build the project, but Walker declared that the state could not afford maintenance or ancillary costs, given its budget shortfall.  (Full story.)

Then Walker went after wind power, proposing in January to extend required setbacks for wind turbines from 450 to 1,800 feet from any neighboring property line, a rule that was more extreme than any others the wind industry had seen. It was framed as a way to protect neighboring properties from sound and shadows produced by turbines. But wind industry experts said it would have chased wind developers from the state. That plan failed to gain traction, but efforts to stall clean energy in Wisconsin resurfaced this past week, when the Republican-dominated legislature abruptly abandoned new siting rules for wind turbines.

The rules had been crafted over two years by a bipartisan group of various stakeholders and were set to go into effect March 1.

The suspension of the rules, which the American Wind Energy Association describes as some of the toughest in the nation already, will force Wisconsin’s public utility commission — under a new chief appointed by Walker — to reconsider the issue, make recommendations and then send it back to the legislature, said Jeff Anthony, director of business development for AWEA.

In other words, the development of wind power, which had been set to take off in Wisconsin, will be seriously delayed, if not crippled, depending on what the new rules bring, he said. It means nearby states like Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana will gain a competitive edge, drawing businesses that might now consider Wisconsin to be hostile to wind development.

That may be fine with Walker, whose campaign contributors include real estate and oil and gas interests that may be threatened by new energy projects and land uses. (The contributors are best viewed here at the “Scott Walker Watch” website.) But it doesn’t track with his vow to bring more business and jobs to Wisconsin. The rule delay throws into doubt six announced wind projects that would have brought 675 Megawatts of wind power to the state and employed hundreds of workers, Anthony said.

This move also doesn’t follow with the strain of conservatism that would appreciate wind’s lighter footprint and promise of a less polluted environment as well as the role it can play in a more robust future economy that doesn’t rely on dwindling fossil fuels.

Even more oddly, though, the hijacking of Wisconsin wind power via this sudden rule change doesn’t even carry a surface justification of saving money, as do Walker’s other maneuvers.

Slowing down wind doesn’t save the state “a dime,” Anthony said.

But clean energy isn’t the only thing taking a punch from Walker and the conservative state House and Senate Republicans elected on a wave of voter support last November.

Walker’s proposed cost-cutting budget, which aims to make up a projected $2.5 billion shortfall, also will unravel 20 years of recycling programs in Wisconsin as well.

The budget plan would end requirements that cities maintain recycling programs, and strip them of their subsidies for recycling, likely forcing many communities to stop curbside collection programs.

No doubt Walker sees these subsidies as unnecessary, because theoretically recycling can be self-supporting.

But that’s not how everyone sees it.

“To date, Wisconsin has been recognized as a leader in recycling and a whole generation of children has grown up with a strong recycling ethic,”  Amber Meyer Smith, director of government relations at Clean Wisconsin, told Waste & Recycling News. “Recycling is good for our environment and our economy, and this proposal represents a significant step backward for Wisconsin.”

Smith said recycling is “win-win” for local governments because it reduces waste going to expensive landfill operations.

But to Walker, the cut in recycling subsidies, is another place to trim, in this case $32 million.

While at it, Walker threw in another provision that will roll back environmental progress, loosening the rules on phosphorus emissions that were designed to curb the algal blooms that choke fish in lakes and streams.

Algae growth explodes, soaking up all the oxygen in the water, when it’s by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from fertilizers and commercial operations.

Loosening those rules will make it easier for polluters.

But hey, budget cuts are tough medicine. Except, that last change, the new environmental rules, that won’t save the state a dime either.

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