Author Archives: rgratcliffe

The start of women’s suffrage in Texas

When the Texas Constitutional Convention of 1875 took up a petition from Sarah G.W. Hyatt of Denton County, the debate centered less on a woman’s desire to vote than on a woman’s ability to petition her government.

Hyatt was a 37-year-old transplant from Ohio and the wife of Dr. L.B. Hyatt. The Hyatts had no children of their own, but had taken in an infant orphan. Sarah Hyatt also was a state leader in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an organization that knew if the prohibition of alcohol was to ever pass, it would require the votes of women.

With a goal ultimately of banishing demon rum from the land, “Mrs. S.G.W. Hyatt” petitioned the Constitutional Convention for the right of Texas women to vote. On the morning of Monday, Oct. 4, 1875, the men of convention took up the debate – not about women’s suffrage but about the right of a woman to petition the convention.

Delegate Ebenezer L. Dohoney of Paris, an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage and prohibition, presented Sarah’s petition to the convention at a “legitimate application of Democratic principles.” He described Hyatt as “an industrious authoress (who) has written some poetry.”

Marion Martin of Navarro County objected: “With all due respect to the women of this country, and considering the fact that we are now in the fifth week of the session and going slow…I move to reject the memorial.” Martin added that if “the discussion of the right of a woman to a husband, a new bonnet, a baby, and a cradle was to be injected into the Texas Constitution, there was no knowing when they would finish their work.”

Congressman John H. Reagan told the convention the Hyatt petition should be accepted “respectfully.”

Dohoney added that “the right of petition cannot be questioned.” Backing him up was another advocate of women’s suffrage, William T.G. Weaver of Gainesville. “I am the last man in the house to consumer the time of this body, but, sir, it is a great infringement upon the rights of citizens, as well as an offense against common gallantry to deny the right of petition to an American woman.”

Slightly cowed, Martin withdrew his motion to reject the petition outright. But Grayson County physician William Blassingame renewed it, saying he was “not prepared to drag down the wives, sweethearts and mothers of the country into the slums and ditches of politics. We must always look up to them.”

John W. Whitfield was outraged that the convention was even discussing a woman’s right to vote.

“I doubt about the writer being a genuine Southern woman. They don’t write such stuff. It sounds to me as if it came from a more northern latitude,” Whitfield said. “While I respect women – God bless them all! – in this matter it don’t seem to me to sound right. It appears to me to come from Yankeedom. I am certain it is from Yankeedom.”

An anxious Marion Martin rose again to speak: “We sit here from month to month, the people looking anxiously for grave and important results. What will they think when tomorrow it is flashed all over the state by the wires that we are engaged in discussing women’s rights?”

Dohoney asked the convention to vote down the motion to reject the petition and have it referred to the committee on suffrage. He said the “humblest citizen” has the right to petition the government, and “opposition to the measure advocated in a petition was no justification of a refusal to hear a petition sent up in a respectful manner.”

The motion to reject the petition was lost by a vote of 32 to 41. Sarah G.W. Hyatt’s memorial for women’s suffrage in Texas was sent to the Committee on Suffrage, never to be heard from again during that convention.

This account was pulled together from the Debates of the Convention of 1875 and from reporters in the Weekly Democratic Statesman, Oct. 7, 1875, and The Galveston Daily News, Oct. 8, 1875.

 

LBJ’s backers do more harm than good in criticising “Selma”

To my friends who loyalists to the legacy of President Lyndon Johnson and are upset over the portrayal of the late president in the movie Selma, please relax. You’re not helping the rehabilitation of you idol.

With all the risks inherent in being a white Southern man speaking on behalf of African-Americans, Selma is not a documentary. Like most “historical” dramas, Selma can be described as a fictional story based on true events. Selma is not about Lyndon Johnson.

Selma is a story of African-American empowerment, of men and women controlling their own destiny. And that can be a powerful statement in a time when the promises of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act seem to be slipping away. Even when you look at recent movies involving African-Americans and politics, there is little empowerment there.

In the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, the hero Solomon Northup is a victim of slavery at its worst. He faces his life with bravery, but, ultimately, he is saved by liberal-minded white people. The protagonist in Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a passive observer to history even as his son – who is as fictional as Selma’s LBJ – becomes an activist for African-American rights.

The movie Lincoln has a brief portrayal of African-American troops fighting at the beginning, and in a completely fictitious moment members of the U.S. Colored Troops recited for him the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln did pass through regiments of the USCT during an 1864 visit to Petersburg, but the soldiers either stood at attention or else reached out to touch his horse as he rode by without ever dismounting. One of the soldiers described Lincoln as “our Moses.” And that was how the movie portrayed him: the benevolent white leader who delivered emancipation and ended slavery in America.

Then look at the film Glory, a very positive portrayal of African-American soldiers in a Massachusetts regiment fighting for the freedom of southern slaves. The movie showed a young, white abolitionist – Robert Gould Shaw – molding a regiment of mostly runaway slaves into a bold fighting unit that proved at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, that colored troops could fight bravely.

The truth is the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment were free blacks and many were literate African-Americans from Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In fact, their heroics at the time were dismissed by many whites who claimed the 54th was a “hand-picked” unit of above-average African-Americans. 

Sgt. William H. Carney, who was loosely portrayed in Glory by Morgan Freeman, was not a runaway slave grave-digger turned soldier as shown in the movie. Carney had been born a slave in Virginia, but his owner had set all his slaves free in his will when he died. By 1856, Carney and his father were running a coastal shipping business in Massachusetts. Carney was an educated man. “Previous to the formation of colored troops, I had a strong inclination to prepare myself for the ministry; but when the country called for all persons, I could best serve my God serving my country and my oppressed brothers. The sequel in short—I enlisted for the war,” Carney wrote in a letter to an abolitionist newspaper in 1863. Unlike Morgan Freeman’s character, Carney did not die on the parapets of Fort Wagner waving the U.S. flag. He planted the flag and protected it for almost half an hour before a retreat was ordered. Although severely wounded, after the repulse by rebels, Carney brought the flag back to the federal lines. Thirty-seven years later, he received the Medal of Honor for his actions.

However, for the purposes of Hollywood, the story of Robert Gould Shaw was better told with Shaw as the leader of “contraband” than as the leader of educated black men who might have led themselves into battle if the federal government had not barred African-Americans from serving as officers.

That brings us back to Selma as a portrayal of African-Americans making their own destiny and why that is important today.

While Johnson’s presidential library last year celebrated the 50th Anniversary of passage of the Civil Rights Act, statistics show a de facto segregation continues to hold down African-Americans in our society. In general, African-American families earn less than white families; they were economically hit harder by the 2008 recession than whites; because they found it more difficult to obtain conventional home loans, they were more likely to become targets of subprime lending; their children are more likely to attend poor and segregated public schools; and they are more likely to receive long prison sentences when they commit the same crimes as whites. 

Middle class African-Americans have complained to me for years about what they call the offense of “driving while black,” meaning police routinely stop them merely because they are African-American. There is a frustration that police and the criminal justice system treats them differently from everyone else. Hence the anger over the cases involving Trayvon Matin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Perhaps Brown and Garner deserved to be arrested, but did they deserve to die? When LeBron James wears a T-shirt that says, “I can’t breath,” he’s talking about more than Garner’s dying words – he’s talking about a substantial portion of our population who feel like they are suffocating.

The election of President Obama in 2008 held a promise of American change to greater equality and a more level playing field. But racism has grown more open if not more prevalent. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is under a full assault with white-led lawsuits and voter identification laws. I’m not ancient history yet, but I still remember segregated bathrooms and water fountains, blacks in the back of the bus and my parents talking about paying their poll taxes. Argue all you want about voter identification being about securing the integrity of elections, but for an African-American or a Hispanic born in the 1950s or before these laws look like a return to legalized disenfranchisement.

Our arts reflect our times. The movie Selma really isn’t about 1965. It’s about today and a need to feel empowered. When Johnson loyalist Joseph A. Califano Jr. argued that the march on Selma was Johnson’s idea, he played once again into the idea that African-American freedom and rights were a gift from whites, not something blacks played any role in earning for themselves.

There’s no doubt that Johnson deserves credit for his role in passing the two major pieces of civil rights legislation, and despite our current shortcomings on race, America today is better than that of the 1950s. The documentary Eyes on the Prize captures this when juxtaposing the presidents “We Shall Overcome” speech with the reaction of Selma’s segregationist mayor, Joseph Smitherman: “It was just like you’d stuck a dagger in your heart or something like that…it just destroyed everything you’d been allegedly fighting for.” Ironically, in that documentary, Smitherman noted the power of Selma as a symbol, located in a county that was half black but less than one percent were registered to vote and the city’s segregationist leadership was determined to maintain a white Dixie. “They picked Selma just like a movie producer would pick a set. You had the right ingredients.” 

So Johnson loyalist need to understand that by complaining about their leader’s portrayal in Selma, they are doing more to drive a wedge between him and the nation’s African-American community than they are to preserve his memory. That can be done in documentaries or biographies or histories. This is a Hollywood movie that’s trying to say individuals have the power to make change.

On a New York panel this week, Selma director Ava DuVernay lamented the controversy this way, according to The Hollywood Reporter:

The 42-year-old, who could become the first black woman ever to earn a best director Oscar nomination, and who had previously responded to the criticisms via Twitter, offered an impassioned response. “I think everyone sees history through their own lens, and I don’t begrudge anyone from wanting to see what they want to see. This is what I see. This is what we see. And that should be valid. I’m not gonna argue history; I could, but I won’t.”

DuVernay continued, “I’m just gonna say that, you know, my voice, David’s voice, the voices of all of the artists that gathered to do this, of Paramount Pictures, which allowed us to amplify this story to the world, is really focused on issues of justice and dignity. And for this to be reduced — reduced is really what all of this is — to one talking point of a small contingent of people who don’t like one thing, is unfortunate, because this film is a celebration of people, a celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices — black, white, otherwise, all classes, nationalities, faiths — to do something amazing.”

“If there is anything that we should be talking about in terms of legacy,” DuVernay added, “it is really the destruction of the legacy of the Voting Rights Act and the fact that that very act is no more in the way that it should be, protecting all voices to be able to heard and participate in the electoral process. That is at risk right now. There’s been violence done to that act. We chronicle its creation in our film. And so I would just invite people to keep their eyes on the prize and really focus on the beautiful positives of the film.”

 

 

Erik Wemple’s cheap shot

Right up front I’m going to say Austin American-Statesman columnist Ken Herman and I have been friends for years. That doesn’t mean I always agree with his political views. It means I can have friends who don’t think exactly the same way I do.

So it ticked me off when I saw Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple’s article: Texas columnist commits egregious Alex Jones-oriented false equivalence. And, of course, that columnist was Ken Herman.

Ken’s column was easy fodder for Wemple because it was focused on a city council candidate who favors the global conspiracy theories of radio personality Alex Jones. The InfoWars and Prison Planet personality is so out there that he is hard to resist, and one of my own stories is proudly displayed on his web site, even though it clearly is written tongue in cheek:

AUSTIN — Black helicopters, the Illuminati, Gov. Rick Perry and the Trans-Texas Corridor are all now part of the vernacular of the global domination conspiracy theorists.

Perry’s push for the Trans-Texas Corridor super highway is part of a secret plan, the conspiracy theorists say, to create the North American Union — a single nation consisting of Canada, Mexico and the United States with a currency called the Amero.

But back to Wemple and Herman. The WaPo writer clearly takes portions of Herman’s column out of context to make it sound like he is giving an endorsement to some of the far-out ideas of Jones and City Council runoff candidate Laura Pressley as she revealed during an appearance on Jones’ radio program.

Austin American-Statesman columnist Ken Herman breaks down that appearance, which covered issues such as how the smart meters of Austin Energy made Pressley’s legs twitch every 25 seconds. Pressley’s activism on this problem, reports Herman, prompted Austin Energy to enable its customers to refuse the meters — something that Jones declared “a major victory against the globalists …”

OK, after 35 years in the business, I know the old journalist’s joke: Take it out of context and blow it out of proportion. I could live with that, because I know what Wemple is selling to his audience is Alex Jones, not Ken Herman. But Wemple is a media critic, so it has to be about a member of the mainstream media.

What ticked me off was Wemple’s closing paragraphs:

Herman shows skepticism toward Jones, though not nearly enough. Here’s the false-equivalence-loaded paragraph that he uses to sum up the shock jock’s place in the world:

To some, Jones is the only person telling the truth about government gone wild. To others, he’s a supercaffeinated paranoid nutball. Our planet is large enough for both schools of thought. I’m more aligned with the one that thinks he ought to occasionally consider the decaf option.

Jones ought to be very pleased with that assessment.

First, take an actual look at Ken’s column. He notes that Pressley appeared on Jone’s show to promote her idea that smart electric meters were making her legs twitch. Herman wrote:

Jones, referring to another Pressley cause, said, “Isn’t this just like fluoride? They knew the Soviets and Nazis used it to control people. … And now they’re doing this to us. This is population reduction.”

Agreeing to appear on Jones’ show tells you something about a candidate.

An intelligent person can miss the implications of Ken’s statement only if they intentionally want to do so.

And Ken in the column was fairly gracious in noting the Alex Jones controversy surrounding Pressley was brought out by some of the local alternative media, not by the Statesman.

(Kudos to the Austin Chronicle and Austin Monitor for bringing this to their readers’ attention in October. And it was not my newspaper’s finest moment when its initial endorsement of Pressley was rescinded in the wake of other news outlets’ reporting about her comments.)

So back to Wemple’s criticism of Herman for a “false equivalence,” a term the WaPo’s media critic clearly does not understand, which dramatically undermines his credibility as a media critic.

A false equivalence in its most basic form is a logical fallacy, such as sharks and octopi live in the  ocean so they are the same creature. The logic is based on a single point of similarity. The term often is used in politics to excuse a sin by claiming the other side does it as well. An example might be one unmarried Democrat emails out pictures of himself naked to women while a married Republican uses prostitutes and claiming both men are the same. They are not. They both might be sleazy, but one violated both the law and his marriage vows.

What Wemple would have come closer to is “false balance,” which frankly a lot of the news media is blameworthy of doing. A minority of the House Republican caucus wants to shut down government unless the Obama Administration agrees to kill its signature piece of legislation, an act that would defy political logic, but then the media treats the shutdown as equally blameworthy of both parties. That is a false balance, often mistaken as a false equivalence by knee-jerk partisans.

Closer to home, some years ago a liberal friend of mine complained that a newspaper had covered a U.S. Fish and Wildlife hearing in the Hill Country about protecting an endangered species. Something like 200 ranchers showed up to testify, as did five environmentalists. This friend was upset that the environmentalists did not have equal space in the story to the ranchers. I explained that the story was about the hearing and that to give the environmentalists equal coverage would have been unfair, though I noted that when the paper wrote about the debate as an issue, the environmentalists usually got the bulk of the story. He was not satisfied.

But look at what Wemple considers to be Herman’s key sin:  “To some, Jones is the only person telling the truth about government gone wild. To others, he’s a supercaffeinated paranoid nutball. Our planet is large enough for both schools of thought.

Herman does indeed throw a nugget to the Alex Jones crowd — they are, after all, zealots. But Herman in no way is saying Jones’ ideas are equal to the mainstream. The totality of his column clearly shows Jones and Pressley as out of the mainstream. Herman clearly in this article demonstrates he does not agree with Jones, but that freedom of speech clearly gives Jones the right to have his screwy ideas.

Before Erik Wemple tramples the First Amendment, perhaps he should remember one of the world’s most famous quotes about freedom of speech:  “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” 

 

 

 

The folly of the modern political poll

During three decades of covering Texas and national politics, I got a lot of front-page play writing horse-race political polls. They were interesting to understand and exciting to write, especially when Texas was a narrow two-party state.

But over the years, I developed a growing unease with survey research and its implications on elections. And whatever doubts I had about political polls have turned into a train wreck as I’ve watched news organizations such as CBS/New York Times and the Texas Tribune start using Internet panels to create their surveys.

First, even the old methods could have a negative impact on elections.

Democrat Jim Mattox complained to me in 1989 that a survey my newspaper had done showing Ann Richards far ahead of him shortly after she announced for governor had killed his fundraising. He called the poll a self-fulfilling prophecy because it was done at a time when she’d had a burst of publicity, and, while he admitted she was ahead, without money he’d never be able to run an adequate campaign to catch up.

Republican Kent Hance made a similar comment to me about polling that showed millionaire Clayton Williams far ahead going into the 1990 GOP primary. Claytie had gone up early on television, providing him with a boost in the polls. Inadequately funded, the rest of the field had trouble catching up. The surveys made it hard for the rest of the field to raise money. Let’s face it, the money folks like to bet on winners.

And when we started calling back the people we had surveyed, I often found people who had no idea of how they had answered. They would ask me what they told the pollster, and sometimes it was obvious they knew nothing about the candidates. But maybe that was just a reflection of an uninformed electorate.

Second, the public — and a lot of news people — have no idea how to actually read polls.

The public often comes away from news media polls believing they are like a pot of gold telling you exactly how the race is lined up. In truth, they are at best an approximation. For one, they are just a snapshot in time that can be affected by events that happen within or without the period that the survey was conducted.

For example, in Gov. Ann Richards’ re-election campaign, the survey research done for my newspaper was conducted over three days. The survey found George W. Bush winning on day one. But then on day two, Richards received the endorsement of Ross Perot and it was the news of the day. In the survey done that night, Richards closed the gap with Bush to where he was just barely ahead. Day three of the survey once again showed Bush with a substantial and winning lead. The final result was a poll that showed Bush ahead, but not substantially so. However, for those of us looking at the poll, we all knew it actually was saying Bush was going to win. So the stories came out this mishmash of “They’re neck in neck but the election is trending in Bush’s direction.” What does that tell the reader?

Also, most reporters and readers pay little attention to the margin of error. Polls are, after all, just a statistical extrapolation of the group of people surveyed. The margin of error is supposed to take care of mistakes or outliers. If a politician gets 42 percent support in a poll with a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points plus or minus, that really means their support could be as high as 45.5 percent or as low as 38.5 percent. If you really want to get an idea of what has gone on in this year’s governor’s race, look at the Pollster aggregation of polls that has a bubble for the margin of error.

Third, polling has taken a beating in recent years. People refuse to answer. Cell phones with one area code can be located anywhere in the United States. For the sake of cutting costs, a lot of telephone surveys have become robo calls with the respondent punching numbers on the phone so you don’t really know who is being surveyed.

But the most bothersome trend involves Internet survey panels as put together by YouGov.

The panels essentially are built off of groups of people on the Internet who agree to be surveyed for consumer products. So essentially, you start with a panel of people who have computers and enough disposable income to want to be surveyed about consumer products.

At the start of this year, The New York Times had a policy against even quoting a poll done by this method.

“Self-selected or ‘opt-in’ samples – including Internet, email, fax, call-in street intercept, and non-probability mail-in samples – do not meet The Times standards, regardless of the number of people who participate.” http://www.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/politics/pollingstandards.pdf

But in June, the Times announced it would be joining CBS in using YouGov panels to do surveys in this year’s election. One of the big differences is that their panel would use probability panels instead of non-probability panels. What that means, if I understand this correctly, is that the survey chooses the respondents it believes will represent the people who actually vote. Then they weight each respondent to represent the historic demographic pattern of voting.

This brought the Times a lot of bad publicity.

For a relatively unbiased look at the survey methodology I’d point you to this story from the Pew  Research Center. But the Times took it with both barrels from the nation’s professional pollsters. Take a look at Politico and The Washington Post. The American Association for Public Opinion Research derided the polling as untested:

Until this week, the Times maintained and published a set of rigorous standards to guide the determination about when polling data could (and could not) be used in a story. Those detailed standards were summarily removed and replaced with a statement indicating that the old standards were undergoing review and that “individual decisions about which poll meets Times standards and specifically how they should be used” would guide decisions in the interim. This means no standards are currently in place.

Which is a long, roundabout way of bringing us to this week’s survey about the Texas governor’s race.

The CBS/NYT/YouGov survey found Republican Gregg Abbott leading Democrat Wendy Davis 57 percent to 37 percent. With a margin of error of +/- 3, that means the actual survey could be 54-40 — still a substantial Abbott lead but not the 20 points as widely reported.

By manipulating the margin of error, I got a result closer to the Texas Tribune/University of Texas survey that found the race at 54-38. But those pollsters also used a YouGov panel to develop the poll. So other than having a different set of social scientists massaging the panel, you still have the same closed-loop of people taking the survey.

Now, as much as my Democratic friends would like me right here to say the polls are wrong, I’m not going to. This state has a majority Republican voter turnout and likely will for some time.

But, here comes the self-fulfilling prophecy part.

The Democrats this year through the Davis campaign and Battleground Texas have spent large sums of money on a voter-turnout effort. I doubt even if it was totally successful that it would win any statewide elections this year. It might make them close, and that would change the psychological landscape going into the next election. However, with all the media attention on surveys that show Davis getting clobbered, those potential voters are likely to ask themselves why they should bother when it is already over.

Maybe it is time to give the political polls a rest. It won’t happen, but it should.

 

 

Whither the paycheck in the digital age?

There’s money to be made in the digital age, the big question is whether it will be made by just a few.

Of course there has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the decline of newspapers. But we’ve also been losing the small mom and pop businesses, the brick and mortar bookstores, and the big, traditional department stores are going the way of the mammoth.

Take a look at this excellent piece in The Atlantic on the shifting patterns of retail sales. There has been a dramatic decline of department stores, new car dealerships, music stores, book stores, novelty shops — while online shopping and the Walmart-type super centers are taking over.

Sears, which invited mail order shopping as pretty much the Amazon of the American pioneer, is in such sad shape that it is cutting health care benefits for its retirees. J.C. Penny excited the stock market merely by cutting its losses.

In the publishing industry, ebook sales have flattened out. For authors, that might mean more publishers will not have the first knee-jerk reaction of: We can do it as an ebook. (Note: Authors usually make more money off of hardbacks.) But bookstore sales also are down. Barnes & Noble may be on the verge of a comeback, but only because it dumped the Nook e-reader and partnered with Google. But while chains like B&N did a pretty good job of driving independent booksellers into the lake, this move to online book buying may be good for the independents, if for no other reason than bibliophiles love holding the physical book.

I could keep going on CDs, musicians, newspapers, etc. But I think you get the drift. The Internet is great for musicians who want to get around the corporate suits, or the writer who just wants the world to see their art or experience their personal anguish. The problem is how will people in the future make a living doing these kinds of things that they love.

 

The rush to frack ourselves

Perhaps the time has come for a pause in the natural gas boom until we know a little bit more about hydraulic fracturing and its impact on the environment and people.

I’m not tree-hugging environmentalist, but I’ve seen and read enough to know the rush to “fracking” may eventually see the evils outweigh the good.

The good is easy to see: A new source of energy less damaging to the atmosphere than traditional fossil fuels, plus fracking creates jobs and billions of dollars in profit. Natural gas has great potential for slowing, if not halting, global warming. But is there a trade-off on the production side that negates those positives?

Consider this recent story from the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio:

NEW MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — The first time Judy Pack felt the earth move, she was asleep in her house in rural Mahoning County, just a few houses from the Pennsylvania state line.

A natural-gas processing plant had recently been built across the street; Hilcorp Energy, a Texas oil company, had started drilling and fracking for gas about 3 miles away.

Judy and her husband, Ralph, had almost become used to the lights blazing from the plant and the trucks rumbling down their usually quiet road. This felt different.

Mrs. Pack awoke; their bed was shaking.

It was about 2:30 a.m. on March 10, and a magnitude 3 earthquake had just rolled through the area. The epicenter of that quake was near one of Hilcorp’s wells.

The follow-up was that Ohio officials made a link between the earthquakes and fracking. Perhaps this will help the cause of the folks in Azel, Texas, to get a little more attention out of the Texas Railroad Commission. And in Oklahoma, there’s a whole lot of shaking going on.

Some rattled nerves and a few nick-nacs bounced off the china cabinet might be the price we pay for progress. However, let’s consider the real China.

China, with its reliance on coal, is one of the world’s leading contributors to air pollution and global warming. Natural gas from fracturing may be the answer to a lot of China’s energy problems. Extraction is fraught with peril, though.

The shale deposits in China are about 13,000 feet below the surface, twice as deep as in the United States. And while it only takes weeks to drill a well here, the first well in China took 11 months. And then there’s the location of the drilling: the Sichuan basin in southwest China. The problem is this area also has some of the most active, and the most dangerous fault lines in China.

Sichuan, an area the size of Spain, lies on some of the world’s most active fault lines and has suffered two major earthquakes in the past five years, including the Wenzhou quake in 2008 that killed at least 70,000 people.

Sacrificing the sleep of folks in Azel or Oklahoma or Ohio is one thing, but would we really want to sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of people as an up-front solution to global warming?

Unlike Ohio, Texas official so far have taken a head-in-the-sand approach to questions involving earthquakes and air pollution potentially caused by the hydraulic fracturing process. And today’s Austin American-Statesman has a disturbing example of that:

The Texas environmental agency has frozen funding for a San Antonio area governmental coalition’s air quality improvement work after an official there publicly shared modeling results that suggested fracking contributed pollution to the city.

Last summer the Alamo Area Council of Governments made public a report that found that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Eagle Ford shale field endangers air quality in the San Antonio area — and, to a milder extent, the Austin area.

It is understandable that the state agency may be upset that the Alamo Area Council of Governments released a report paid for by the state before giving it to the state. But, frankly, this looks like the state agency is doing more than just punishing the Alamo COG; it looks like the state doesn’t want the Alamo COG doing any more studies on hydraulic fracturing.

I’m not advocating a knee-jerk response to the problems of hydraulic fracturing. There is more than ample evidence, however, that the time has come for a true cost-benefit analysis of hydraulic fracturing and the production of natural gas.

Nuke dumps and repositories

The spokesman at the Department of Energy came to loath me.

One of my first beats as a Texas Capitol reporter in 1983 was to cover the debate surrounding DOE plans to bury high-level nuclear waste in a salt dome in Deaf Smith County. The DOE referred to it as a high level nuclear waste repository, but in asking questions about the latest twist or turn, I’d always call it “the dump.” The spokesman without fail, and often with an exasperated tone, would correct me, “It’s not a dump. It’s a scientifically designed facility that can safely serve as a repository for spent nuclear reactor rods.” But would it hold the waste safely for thousands of years? Even with that considered, the folks in Hereford saw economic opportunity.

“If we can put a man on the moon, I’m sure we could bury this radioactive waste safely,” says Wes Fisher, mayor of Hereford, the Deaf Smith County seat. “What bothers folks most is that it’s in the hands of the feds.”

Keep in mind, these were the days when everyone believed nuclear power was the devil’s tool. Nukes would result in the end of time for human civilization. The movie The China Syndrome had opened in 1979 just twelve days before the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor went wild and almost melted down. That was before Chernobyl or Fukushima captured global attention.

The Texas project was put on hold, in part because of widespread environmentalist opposition. If there was not place to store the spent fuel rods, then the expansion of nuclear power would be slowed. Environmentalists also helped block a low-level waste facility in Sierra Blanca, but once private enterprise took over with wheels greased by campaign contributions, the way was paved for a low level facility in Andrews County despite opposition from environmentalists.

Now, in the era of global warming, nuclear power is not looking so evil. And environmentalists are increasingly divided on the hazards of nuclear power against the growing concerns over global warming.

However, it appears that a fossil fuel is standing in the way: Hydraulic fracturing and the natural gas it produces has driven the cost of electricity production so low that nuclear expansion is on hold through most of the country. An expansion of the Comanche Peak nuclear facility in North Texas was suspended last year. Plans for the South Texas Project also have been hitting a bumpy road.

But here it is three decades after I sparred with that DOE spokesman over the words dump versus repository and the nation still has neither. And Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Joe Straus are interested once again in putting Texas on the table as the national dumping ground for those spent fuel rods.

“The citizens of Texas — and every other state currently storing radioactive waste — have been betrayed by their federal government,” Perry wrote in a letter reported on in today’s Austin American-Statesman.

Because the expansion of nuclear power is on hold in Texas, the state’s need for a high-level dump is hardly greater today than a year ago. At present, most spent fuel is stored in water-filled pools at reactor sites — 75,000 tons of spent fuel. The Fukushima disaster shows just how dangerous these storage pools are.

But does Texas really want to become the storage facility for the nation? How safe is the transportation of high-level waste to the facility? Is there a danger to the state’s underground water supplies? And ultimately, what is motivating the state’s leaders: need or greed?

Yucca Mountain in Nevada beat out the Deaf Smith site that I covered years ago. The Yucca Mountain dump has not been built now may never be built.

Nuclear power is an energy source that produces waste that is dangerous for 250,000 years. Think about it, that is all of human history from the time of the death of Jesus to now — multiplied by about 125 times. Scientists believe the first homo sapiens walked the land about 250,000 years ago. That’s a lot of time for our trash to be dangerous to us. All the same, nuclear power at the moment may be the answer to buying humanity another 250,000 years as a hedge against global warming.

To paraphrase Dr. Strangelove, perhaps it is time to stop worrying and love the nuclear waste. In the words of General “Buck” Turgidson, “Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!”

For today, that’s my look at the world of tomorrow.

R.G. Ratcliffe

Tesla and the battle over dirty green batteries

Global warming is real and humans play a major part in it. But not all that is green is clean. I’m a big believer in the law of unintended consequences, and as such think many of our green solutions to energy and global warming problems fail to look at the big picture.

Evidently, I’m not the only one who feels that way. The other day I read an Austin American-Statesman story on Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s appearance here:

Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak entered the Energy Thought Summit at Austin’s Paramount Theater on Monday riding on a Segway and leading a marching band.

Despite the grand entrance, Wozniak had a sobering message for innovators and advocates of clean energy: “I think we get fooled a lot by what devices are green in terms of pollution.”

Wozniak said the total environmental impact, including the energy it takes to manufacture solar panels or electric vehicles, must be included in the net environmental good.

“We don’t talk about energy that was used to make it,” he said. “We don’t get the true picture.”

That in turn got me to thinking about Tesla’s  fight with the Texas Automobile Dealer’s Association over direct sales of vehicles and how that might impact the company’s decision on whether to build a Gigafactory for manufacturing lithium ion car batteries in Texas.

At 10 million square feet, Tesla estimates that the plant will have the capacity to produce 50 gigawatt hours of battery packs a year, which will be used for its Model S luxury sedan and a cheaper third-generation vehicle intended for the mass market. By 2020, Tesla estimates the facility will be able to make enough batteries to supply 500,000 vehicles a year.

I refuse to be drawn into the debate over the Auto Dealers restraining trade while Tesla promotes the free market. Let’s face it, the made-to-order Tesla starts at payments of about $600 a month. This is a vehicle for millionaires, not the average working folk.

But it does bring me back to the law of unintended consequences. Whether it is the Tesla or any of the other electric vehicles out there, are battery operated cars really better for the environment? The answer really is a yes and no.

While natural gas has become the leading source of producing electricity in Texas, coal-fired power plants remain a close second. Depending on where you live in Texas, you savings on greenhouse gases by switching from a dinosaur-powered car to an electric car may be diminished because it is still charged with another form of dinosaur power. The other problem comes from the manufacturing of the batteries using highly toxic materials.

At present, there is only one plant in the United States dedicated to recycling electric vehicle batteries. And the manufacturing of electric car batteries relies heavily on materials that are produced elsewhere in the world — so much for energy independence. Without reinventing the wheel, here’s several articles on the subject: The Energy Collective, Digital Trends and Why Electric Vehicles Have Stalled in The New Yorker.

When taken from a global perspective, are electric vehicles in the United States contributing to increased pollution in China, the world’s foremost producer of greenhouse gases? Will electric vehicles save the air in America without saving the Earth?

I don’t have the answers. Wish I did. And I’m not against electric vehicles. I just think we need to look at the total picture before smugly believing we have solved our problems.

For today, that’s my look at the world of tomorrow.

R.G. Ratcliffe