Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Picket Lines and Prairies

Above: An unmown pedestrian bridge in Windsor, Ontario.
Photo courtesy of

In Windsor, Ontario (the city directly across the river from Detroit), 1,800 municipal workers have been on strike for several months now. Among other things, this means that no one is mowing the lawns in the city's parks, which are transforming from riverfront esplanades and soccer fields into wild prairies as the summer wears on.

The re-wilding of Windsor's parks has inspired some nice nature writing from Anne Jarvis, a columnist from the Windsor Star, and her readers:

At first, the flood of comments and letters on the strike by 1,800 city workers, including those who cut the grass in the usually manicured parks, expressed anger about the unsightly overgrowth.

Then the grass matured, the wildflowers began blooming and wildlife returned. And the letters began to change.

This one is almost poetic in its description:

"The long grass is now home to so many singing birds and insects and there is such a wide variety of colourful native plants in bloom. The wind can be heard as it blows through the grass ... Such a difference from the plain, flat and empty space it was before."

The park? The soccer pitches at the Ford Test Track [which is exactly what it sounds like: a former proving ground for Detroit's dying manufacturers] in the heart of the city.

"Today was the first time that I have ever considered that park to be beautiful," wrote the woman.

A colony of bobolinks and some eastern meadowlarks, declining species known and loved for their beautiful song, were discovered there last month. They surprised and delighted birdwatchers. A grassland species, they're rarely seen in the city because there isn't much grassland.

I found out about Windsor's strike and unintentional re-wilding project via the Broken City Lab, whose latest project has been to unofficially recognize the city's overgrown meadows with these signs, which they designed and installed themselves:

Above: Strike commentary from Windsor's Broken City Lab.

I love how these signs tweak peoples' perceptions of these places: suddenly, it's not an overgrown lawn or a symbol of municipal neglect: it's a wildlife refuge!

As the Summer Without Lawnmowers wears on, people in Windsor are growing fond of the new wildflower meadows and flocks of bobolinks. In the same Windsor Star column, Jarvis reports that the City has resolved to leave a couple hundred acres of parkland unmown, even after the strike eventually ends.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Oil Companies Get Weird

Climate change is doing strange things in Texas.

In the panhandle town of Sunray, Valero Energy Corporation operates an oil refinery that dates to the 1930s and is capable of processing up to 170,000 barrels of oil a day into gasoline, asphalt, and other petroleum products. The refinery is a large industrial operation that uses a lot of electricity: a typical monthly bill runs to about $1.4 million.

Strange neighbors: photo by Michael Schumacher of the Amarillo Globe News.

So Valero recently decided to upgrade the refinery with a $115 million investment that will cut its energy costs dramatically. This month, Valero began operating six wind turbines on the site, which is now also the company's first wind farm. Unlike other wind farms that sell their power into the regional power grid, this one will be primarily devoted to powering the large refinery right next door. By the end of next year, Valero plans to add another 27 turbines, which would make the wind farm capable of powering the entire refinery whenever the wind is strong (the company expects this to be the case 40-45 percent of the time).

Unlike prior efforts from Big Oil (remember the "green" gas station?), this one seems to be a legitimate business effort, not a greenwashing public relations stunt. The company's publicity for the project amounts to a no-frills corporate press release buried in the depths of Valero's web site, and little else. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, the refinery's manager dismisses warm and fuzzy motives for the project: "We didn't build the wind farm so we could get into the wind-energy business. We built the wind farm so we could support the refinery and run it more economically."

Of course, the wind farm is still being used to produce gasoline, and the combustion of refined oil for transportation accounts for nearly a third of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions. But the wind farm replaces energy that Valero had previously bought from Wyoming coal-fired power plants and had delivered over hundreds of miles of transmission lines (along with significant energy loss along the way). So, even though Valero is still manufacturing atmospheric poisons, at least they'll be burning a lot fewer atmospheric poisons in the process.

And here's another story of weird behavior from an oil company: ExxonMobil, the fossil fuel giant that's historically been the most outspoken denier of global warming (the company continues to fund global-warming-is-a-hoax conspiracy theorists at places like the Heritage Foundation) last month announced a partnership with an electric car company to make a fleet of rent-by-the-hour battery-powered cars available to the public in Baltimore.

ExxonMobil has invested $500,000 in the project, which is roughly how much money the company takes in every 45 seconds. Still, it's strange to see them investing in technology and a business model (carsharing) that are designed to reduce demand in their primary product. ExxonMobil is making a very small hedge against the risk that they'll turn into the next Chrysler or Kodak.

It's probably too soon to say for certain, but all of this seems to me to be another indicator of an unsteady climate: when even corporate oilmen from Texas start taking renewable energy technology seriously, could it mean that Hell is freezing over?