Thursday, December 03, 2009

Coal should heed Senator's words

Finally, some common sense from a coal-state Senator.

Sen. Robert Byrd, the longest serving Senator in history, calls it as he sees it. If only someone would listen.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Sparks, anyone?

Why do cars have ashtrays?

I know people smoke, but really: Why do cars have ashtrays? If you've ever ridden in a car with a smoker, you know they don't use the ashtray. They roll the window down just a crack, and stick the tip of the cigarette out to knock off the ashes.

If you've ever been behind a car with a smoker in it, you know they seldom put the cigarette out in the ashtray either. They just shove the damn thing out the window.

Of the few who do use the ashtray, most only use it for temporary storage of the butts. As soon as they get to a parking lot, they pour the contents out on the pavement beside the drivers' door.

So again I ask, "Why do car's have ashtrays?" What they really need is smoke alarms.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Two arrested in alleged Danish terror plot

It's not really a close call, but it still makes you think.

Federal authorities have arrested two men in connection with an alleged terrorist plot to be carried out in Copenhagen, Denmark. The first arrest occurred a day before I left for the Danish capital.

The FBI arrested David Coleman Headley at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on Oct. 3. Police say he had espoused the view that the Danish newspaper that published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed should be punished, and had met in Pakistan with members of Harakat-ul Jihad Islami, a group the U.S. government says has ties to Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani terrorist group.

Agents also arrested Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a Canadian citizen.

Headley, who the FBI says was bound for Pakistan again, was carrying video of the newspaper entrance and Copenhagen Central Station, the city’s main train station. The station was about a five minute walk from my hotel, and the station where I arrived from the airport and departed on my way out of Denmark.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A sad statement

Back on the ground in the states, and it was a jarring landing. Not the airplane – that was great. I mean the realization that our security procedures in this country are way more intrusive and aggravating than they need to be.

Getting on the plane in Denmark, I passed through three security checkpoints and a passport control station, showing my passport at each spot. The metal detectors were easy. I had to take literally everything out of my pockets, but I got to keep my shoes on, and no one frisked me. The screeners were always very friendly and courteous.

I got to Atlanta, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents greeted me with smiles and a “welcome home” as I went through passport control. Agents at baggage claim and the agriculture check station were very courteous as their dogs sniffed my bags and they asked the required questions about food items, and my visit to a farm.

Then I got to the TSA. That was end of smiles and courtesy.

First, the woman at the x-ray machine snarled at me for not laying the paper bag with my duty-free items flat, and for putting my shoes in a basket rather than directly on the conveyor. Then I forgot to take my belt off before I went through the metal detector. I have only one thing to say to Mr. Sideburns-and-Beer-Gut manning that machine: Being a jerk doesn’t make my travel any safer. It just makes me write a hostile blog.
And it wasn’t just me. They were universally nasty to everyone who passed through.
I realize that we’ve been attacked here, and I realize that we need security. But how much is too much?
While in Denmark, I had the chance to visit two government offices – the Center for Green Transport and the Climate and Energy Ministry. At the Green Transport building, we had only to walk through open front door and up the stairs to a receptionist.
A minister is essentially like a cabinet secretary in the U.S., though Danish ministers also serve in Parliament. Going to Minister Connie Hedegaard’s office required no sniffing, no metal detector and no snarling security officers in paramilitary uniforms. We walked through a glass door by the receptionist, and were then shown upstairs to her office.
That same night, during Copenhagan’s annual Kulturnatten (Night of Culture), hundreds and possibly thousands of people wandered through Minister Hedegaard’s private office, shaking hands and making small talk with her. There was not even one guy in sunglasses, dark suit and ear piece. And Connie Hedegaard, as nearly as I can tell, is the Hillary Clinton of Denmark.
Just as refreshing was the trip to Amalienborg Palace, home of Queen Margrethe and the Royal Family. No gates, no fences, no concrete barriers. Cars drove through the palace courtyard unimpeded. The only guards in view were a handful of Royal Life Guards, one at each of several small guard stands along the outer walls of the courtyard. In their bearskin hats and 18th century-style uniforms, they stood in front of small guardhouses and stared straight ahead, making no move to stop, question or search tourists and citizens coming into the palace yard.
The White House, on the other hand, is surrounded by an iron fence, concrete barriers and a very conspicuous police and Secret Service presence. No one drives through the gate or walks through the gate without an invitation.

How did we get to this place in our country? Presidents used to let the masses into the White House on Inauguration Day, one even had his clothes stolen while skinny dipping alone in the Potomac River.
It’s a sad statement on the world climate that our president, an officer elected by the people, has become more secluded and more guarded than a European monarch.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Random shots in the dark

It's my last night in Denmark, and I'm too tired to put together a very coherent blog. Here are some random thoughts on the week.

  • The bike lanes in Copenhagen really are a safety necessity. On streets that don't have them, cyclists will run down innocent pedestrians without blinking. More than once, I saw guys pedaling madly through the middle of crowds at Kulturnatten, an annual festival of Danish Culture that draws probably hundreds of thousands of walkers onto the streets to bounce from one museum to another.

  • Cab drivers in Copenhagen are crazy. Take a train.

  • Finding a train station in Copenhagen is easy. You walk approximately 8 kilometers to your destination and the station is across the street. The other end is in an undisclosed location.

  • The letter 'd' is pronounced like the letter 'l' unless it's at the beginning of a word. The letter 'r' is pronounced like you have fish bone caught in your throat no matter where it appears in the word.

  • There are more than 200 places to see during Kulturnatten. They're all on a map that will show you how to walk in a circle without finding the one you're looking for.

  • Given a choice of visiting an art museum, Danish Parliament, or the Danish Design Center, Copenhageners will crush each other getting into the milk and cheese exhibit in the agriculture building.

  • A kroner is like a miniature dollar. It's shorter and it buys less. If you go, take a wheelbarrow.
One other random thought: This is the most beautiful city I've ever seen. It's worth taking the wheelbarrow.

Once again, for a more serious look at Denmark go to

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A burger is a burger, but a smørrebrød is an adventure

I have seen only one Danish restaurant since I arrived in Copenhagen on Monday morning.

There are Indian restaurants, Middle Eastern restaurants, Turkish restaurants, Greek restaurants, Thai restaurants, Mexican restaurants, joints that sell pizza and kabobs, and Italian cafes, but you don’t see much down home Danish cooking.

So far, the only ethnic place I’ve eaten in was a Thai restaurant in an alley off Vesterbrogade, after which I was afraid to breathe near the sprinklers in my hotel room. The peppers were hot enough for me to light the way back to the hotel just by opening my mouth.

But with the dearth of Danish Restaurants, I have still eaten true Danish food several times now. The Danes are nothing if not hospitable.

I spent much of this morning listening to an in-depth discussion of insulation, during a meal of what can only be described as gourmet smørrebrød.

For those of you who haven’t looked it up yet or haven’t been to Denmark, smørrebrød (pronounced something like “shmoorbrool”) can be almost anything

I first took it to mean the same as the Americanized word Smorgasbord, which is a corruption of the Swedish meaning “belly up to the trough and eat everything you see.” The translation for smørrebrød, however, is something like “all-you-can-eat-of-everything-the-cook-couldn’t-find-enough-of-for-a-full-meal-but-could-put-together-to-make-a-full-meal-on-one-slice-of-rye-bread.”

And it’s cold.

Today, smørrebrød included a couple of pieces of smoked salmon with dill, some sort of ham, spiced sausage called rullepølse made from rolled up meats sliced thin enough to read through, cooked onions, a mushroom, some pieces of roasted tomato, a piece of cheese, a piece of rare steak, a spoonful of caramelized nuts, a slice of cinnamon apple and several things I could not identify, but tried anyway. The idea is to put as much of that as possible on a piece of bread.

Yesterday it was sliced roast turkey, cucumbers, tomatoes, orange slices, lemon, lime, parsley, beets, a liver paté, some boiled shrimp, boiled eggs, yogurt, beef, some thinly sliced cured pork, and several other things that I couldn’t identify.

These were food combinations I would never have thought of. The surprising thing is, it’s really good. It has also opened up entirely new possibilities for me when I get home.

“I don’t need to go the store, honey, we can have smørrebrød.”

As long as we have bread, I’m on solid ground with that argument.
Read a more serious account of Denmark and ways to fight climate change at Going green in Denmark, my blog on

A more serious side to Denmark

Just a reminder that you can read a more serious account of my trip to Denmark at The blog there is called Going Green in Denmark.
The latest post is on wind energy and democracy on the island of Samso. Later today, I'll be posting something on energy-efficient housing.
Later still, I'll post the day's or week's absurdities and stream of consciousness here.
See below for a post on speaking Danish to Danes.

Irritatingly polite

OK, I’ve done it now. I’ve pissed off the Danes.

Before leaving home, I decided that I would not be one of THOSE Americans. You know the ones I’m talking about – the ones who assume everyone in every country should speak English, and we, being from the greatest superpower on earth, should not be required to learn their language.

So in late spring, I downloaded a free language software called BYKI, and started learning Danish. A week ago, looking into the so-called Copenhagen Card that allows tourists to travel on buses and the subway and visit museums free (after buying the card), I was very pleased with myself when I was able to read the Danish web site enough to understand the requirements. Then I went off happily to the airport and boarded a flight for Copenhagen. All was well with the world.

When I arrived, my first stop was the train ticket office.

“Hej. Jeg vil gerne til Vester Søgade,” I said.

The ticket agent, ever the polite Dane, answered with a smile and a ”Hej!” (hello), and said something back to me. What she said totally evaded me, so I fell back on a tried and true phrase.

“Jeg forstår ikke. Kan du engelsk?”

The clerk frowned at me. “Of course I speak English.”

I got my ticket, but she seemed rather annoyed.

Again at the information desk at Copenhagen Central Station, I asked, “Kan du engelsk?” Again the annoyed look, and the clerk promptly switched languages and gave me directions to my hotel.

I vowed not to ask the stupid question again, but I still wanted to be as polite as possible, so I approached the hotel desk with the appropriate phrase: “Jeg har lavet en reservation.”

The clerk nodded, asked my name and I replied in Danish. That’s as far as I got. She spoke the rapid-fire language and I must have looked befuddled, because she certainly looked concerned. I quickly employed my most useful phrase: “Jeg forstår ikke,” (I don't understand). This time, I decided it best not to ask if she could speak English, I just made it clear that I was ignorant of the language. “Jeg er amerikaner,” I explained.

Again, a quick switch to English, but this time with no annoyance. “Have you been to Denmark before?” I told her I had not, and got a surprised look back. “How did you learn to speak Danish???”

I vaguely answered, got my key and went to my room. I’ve got the hang of this, I thought. Off to get some dinner that night, I walked past the strip clubs on Gammel Kongevej to a 7-11. (Side note: there are approximately 7,711 of these within a 100-yard radius of my hotel.)

The Indian clerk had locked the door to go the restroom, but he gestured for me to wait and came back to let me in momentarily, greeting me in Danish. I didn’t attempt an answer, simply nodding and saying, “Tak,” (thanks) as he opened the door for me. I was perusing the glass case of sausages when he finally asked a question in Danish that required an answer. So I again employed my favorite Danish phrase.

“Jeg forstår ikke. Kan du engelsk?”

Again the annoyed look. “Of course,” he said with a flawless British accent and pointed again at the sausages. “Would you like a hotdog?”

After two days here, I now know that Danes not only speak English, they speak it better than I do. Apparently, so do Indians who live in Denmark. Even the waitress and the manager at the Thai restaurant where I had dinner last night speak English better than any Asian I’ve ever seen in America.

Camilla Steffensen, a spokeswoman for Dansk Energi, explained it to me in her near perfect American accent. Danes begin learning English in school in third grade. They already hear it from their parents and in businesses all around them. Also, there are only 5 million Danes and the language is difficult anyway. They have to know other languages to communicate with the rest of the world.

And finally, the most important reason: “We watch a lot of American television.”

I’ve also learned that the advice a well-traveled friend gave may be more appropriate than I thought. The friend, a former U.S. vice consul to India, said there is one phrase Americans should learn in the language of every country they plan to visit.

“Don’t shoot – I’m a Canadian.”

Monday, October 05, 2009

The knees knows

They say that when it comes to riding a bike, you never forget.

My knees definitely remember riding a bike yesterday. I cycled seven or eight kilometers (70 or 80 miles, I’m not sure of the conversion) around Copenhagen, Denmark, on a tour with the chief lobbiest and the project leader for the Denmark Cyclist Federation and four other bloggers/journalists.

Most of me loved it.

My knees were the exception. My left one has asked my thigh to tell me it’s never going to speak to me again. My right knee cut out the middle man and gave me the message personally.

You see, I haven’t ridden a bike for any distance in probably seven years, and the distance then was less than a mile. Since then, my biking experience has consisted of swinging a leg over my son’s bike and walking it out of the carport so I could air up the tires for him.

In Copenhagen, everyone rides. Lise Bjørg Pederson, the lobbiest for the cyclist federation, said there are 30,000 bicycle commuters in Copenhagen, compared to only 15,000 automobile commuters. All of them passed me yesterday.

I was so slow, parents taking their kids along for the ride in cargo cycles (think pedal-powered SUV – SUC?) passed me. There were little girls, young women, men of all ages, grandmothers. Everyone was pedaling – fast. The thing that impressed me as an American is that there were no fat people, unless they were the few driving by in Mercedes and Audi cars.

Suffice it say that there must be a huge market for talcum powder in Copenhagen, and a very small market for gasoline, er, petrol.

Today I’m off to the island of Samsø, where 100 percent of the energy comes from renewable sources. More on that tomorrow.

Friday, October 02, 2009

New blog is up and running

Going Green in Denmark is now up on's Greenspot. You'll also see items from me soon on The Daily Yonder, as well as here.

I arrive in Copenhagen on Sunday, and I'll be writing about a variety of subjects. You can learn more about what to expect by reading today's post on Going Green in Denmark.

Monday, September 28, 2009

New blog coming up

Beginning next weekend, I'll be writing another blog -- this one attached to the's Greenspot, the online environmental section of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader.

The blog will chronicle my upcoming trip to Denmark to explore the environmental infrastructure and culture there, and see how some of that technology and mindset might be adapted to Appalachia.

"Going Green in Denmark" will be in the blog list on the right side of Greenspot, just below Easy Being Green and The Kentucky Pride Blog.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Turning the Black Gold Economy Green

Five years.

2,000 jobs.

175,000 acres.

125,000,000 trees.

628,868,602 pounds of carbon.

It’s a pretty simple equation, really. Maybe too simple for people to wrap their heads around. It sounds like a con – like it couldn’t really be that easy.

But it is.

Plant an acre of hardwood trees, and in six to ten years, they’ll take at least 1.63 metric tons of carbon a year out of the air. Plant 175,000 acres of trees, take 285,250 metric tons of carbon out of the air every year, create 2,000 jobs, and reforest a seventh of the land left treeless by strip mining in Appalachia.

The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, which includes the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, state mining agencies in the seven Appalachian coal states, universities, environmental groups, citizens and industry representatives, is talking about just such a project. And the White House is at least considering it.

The beauty of the project is that it doesn’t require an argument about the appropriateness of mountain top removal mining, a hot-button issue that has led to violence and arrests, particularly in the West Virginia coalfields. This is something we can do for the environment and for the economy now. We don’t have to wait for a fight to play out in Congress or the courts.

This project, known as a Green Forest Works for Appalachia, deals only with formerly mined lands that are in a state of arrested natural succession. In plain language, land that isn’t growing trees.

In order to prevent landslides, regulators required coal companies to compact mine spoils. While it was the best science at the time, we now know that the combination of 200-ton trucks running repeatedly over the ground and bulldozers “tracking in” the rock and dirt creates a runoff coefficient roughly equivalent to a shopping center parking lot. That makes it impossible for tree roots to penetrate the soil, and contributes to erosion.

Add to that the fact that coal companies can hydroseed aggressive grasses, achieve the required percentage of ground cover and recover their bonds quickly, and it’s little wonder that Appalachia has ended up with somewhere between 500,000 and a million acres of barren grasslands with nary a tree in sight.

But several years of research has proven that trees will grow on those old, overly compacted sites, if they’re properly prepared. That means plowing the rocky ground at least four feet deep with a hook mounted on the back of a bulldozer.

Sites planted this spring by ARRI and its partner, the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team, have a 90-percent survival rate after six months. The projects also proved that both coal companies and environmentalists will turn out to plant trees on abandoned mine lands. The projects were so successful that the two in Kentucky won ARRI and the ACCWT the Governor’s Environmental Leadership Award.

There are the obvious environmental benefits to the project, including reduction of erosion, reduced flooding risks, habitat improvement and carbon sequestration, but there are also economic benefits. Unlike previous tree plantings on strip mines, the current project plants a variety of high-value native hardwoods – oak, hickory, ash, persimmon, beech, black cherry. For owners willing to wait – land companies for example – those trees could represent a managed forest resource that will provide a future stream of income when the coal is gone.

And then there are the jobs.

Under the plan now proposed, 2,000 local workers would be hired by the fifth year, planting trees up and down the mountain range, but with most of the work centered in the central Appalachians – Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia – where the bulk of strip mining has taken place. And these jobs would not be limited to manual laborers with dibble bars and tree bags. The project would require heavy equipment operators, foresters, surveyors and administrative personnel. It would pump money into transportation, tree nursery operations, and local service industries ranging from restaurants and hotels to equipment rentals.

Will planting trees replace coal mining? No. But it is a piece of the puzzle.

An industry that provides 2,000 jobs is at least a start, particularly since many of the skills required are transferable from the coal industry, where jobs will be lost in the coming years. There is also a push to get active mines to adopt the Forestry Reclamation Approach. That method leaves the top four-feet of rock and soil uncompacted, negating the need to plow the land, but still creating a demand for skilled tree planters, nursery workers, and foresters.

While none of this addresses the energy problem, it does leave room for other solutions.

Wind and solar will become more in demand in the future, and where better to build those facilities than on mine sites that can’t be reforested? And if we are building that infrastructure on abandoned mine sites, why can’t we build the components on the mine sites that were reclaimed as industrial sites?

The coal production curve turns downward in 10 years, and our challenge is to replace coal with a sustainable economy before that happens. One question remains: Is 10 years long enough to turn an economy based on black gold green?

Monday, September 07, 2009

When the coal runs out

When coal companies began moving into central Appalachia a hundred or so years ago, jobs came with them. And that is how coal companies have framed the debate over mining practices ever since.

Now environmental groups opposing mountain top removal and coal-fueled power plants are trying to frame the debate in terms of the environment. There is the loss of miles of streams, the destruction of viewsheds, the loss of habitat and species, the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, mercury in fish tissue, coal ash spills, the danger of slurry ponds.

Coal companies are fighting back with the same argument they’ve made for a century, and all over the region, people scared by the possibility of coal jobs going away are wearing “Coal, our future” t-shirts, and the state of Kentucky has even issued a “Friends of Coal” car license tag that pumps money into the industry advocacy group.

Guess which argument is resonating with the majority of Appalachian residents?

As James Carvel famously wrote on the wall of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign headquarters, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Well, what if it really is about the economy?

And what if the economic outlook for coal isn’t as rosy as the industry would have us believe?

We have been told repeatedly that there are 200 years of coal left in the Appalachians, but so far not one industry advocate I’ve heard has said what that estimate assumes. For one thing, it assumes all coal, not just economically mineable coal. For another, it makes no distinction between low-sulfur and high-sulfur coal.

According to the industry, the equation is very simple: Coal production good; environmentalists bad.

But what if the real danger to coal mining jobs isn’t environmentalists?

What if the real enemy is increased coal production?

What if 200 years is a fantasy, and what if we really have a tenth that long?

What if I’m not making this up?

The U.S. Geological Survey released the National Coal Assessment in July. That report says that coal companies in Appalachia can increase production levels for only 10 more years. That’s when economic coal reserves in the most heavily mined counties run out, and the production curve turns downward.


Production is expected to drop to less than a third of current levels before the end of the century.

What then?

There are undeniable economic truths in the coal industry. Coal is a boom or bust industry. When demand goes up, price goes up and the coal economy booms. Production goes up and employment goes up.

Up until now, the downside of that cycle was that companies tend to over-produce, causing market gluts, followed by declines in production and employment. But if the USGS report is right, we are about to enter a different kind bust cycle.

And this bust cycle won’t end with the next cold winter. It will continue until the coal runs out.

Demand will go up, price will go up, production will go up, and employment will go up, in the short term, but then the supplies will begin to dwindle. Price will continue to go up because supply will not be able to keep pace with demand. This time, production will be hamstrung by the lack of mineable coal. Employment will go down because there isn’t enough coal to warrant a large workforce.

Given this equation, coal becomes more than just an environmental emergency, it becomes an economic and an energy emergency.

We have to address these issues. If production continues to rise, jobs will run out.

As coal production declines, energy will become more and more expensive.

It’s only a matter of time – and less time than anyone is willing to admit publicly.

The question then, is what alternatives do we have? I’ll explore some options in the coming weeks, from reforestation to wind, to alternative mining techniques.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back in the Saddle Again

It's nearly a year since I posted, but I'm going to be back in full swing soon.

I've spent the past two years immersed in environmental work related to coal, including stream testing, and reclamation of abandoned mine lands using a technique known as the forestry reclamation approach. Now I'm going to be putting that new knowledge and experience to work in writing.

Keep watching this spot, and others to be announced, for posts about energy technology, green jobs, and how we in the rural U.S. can learn from other countries. Plans are in the works for an environmental tour of a nation that is 100 percent energy independent, and I'll be blogging about the trip.

Stay tuned.