Kobland: First of all, thank you Governor Rendell for this opportunity to speak with you.
As a zoologist I’ve been interested in the state of ecological affairs in Pennsylvania, and in the world at large–the loss of biodiversity and habitat–and I’m wondering if you, being on the inside track and always being very candid, would comment on these issues. There seems to be a big disconnect on the political level. The Republican presidential candidates don’t even acknowledge global warming and other environmental issues to the degree that they should. I’m wondering what you think about this, and if you have any thoughts about how to teach, or inform high level officials, more about the loss of biodiversity.
Rendell: I don’t think it’s a question of teaching. If you injected these Republicans—and by the way, in Pennsylvania some of the western Democrats, or rural Democrats, are just as bad on these issues—if you injected them with truth serum they would say, “Look, we understand there’s something called global warming, we understand the need for biodiversity, but the truth is that the proponents of those issues don’t give us campaign contributions, and the big logging companies, the big oil and gas companies do, and they’re more important to us in our role as politicians so we have to do what they want us to do.” To be absolutely candid, that’s the reason that we’re having so much trouble on environmental protection.
Kobland: I liken this to owning a single priceless, furnished and stocked, but uninsured, home, (i.e. the planet earth). If we lose this precious home, we have no other place to go.
Rendell: I think most people understand that, but politicians are interested in one thing, and that’s their own survival, and that trumps everything.
Kobland: That’s a pretty sobering statement.
Rendell: Yes, and again, the trouble with environmental issues is people are generally in favor of protecting the environment but they generally don’t vote on that issue. It’s one of a number of issues but they don’t vote on it. Most environmentalists are not single-issue voters, so they lose whatever clout they’d get at the ballot box if they were.
Kobland: Maybe I’m an optimist but I have to think that if they—top level politicians—really understood the significance of losing our biodiversity, they would do something about it because of its seriousness. How do you get the word out, how do you make them understand? Is there any way to do that?
Rendell: It appears not. All of the advocacy groups, PennFuture, Sierra Club, try to advocate that to their membership but it doesn’t seem to work. Give you an example: when Governor Corbett was running in 2010 he came out against a tax on the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania. Environmentalists were against that position; his opponents said we should get a reasonable tax. Corbett then received almost one million in contributions from the natural gas companies that had interests in the shale, and that was known, it was in all the newspapers, and yet it didn’t appear to hurt him in the election.
Kobland: Hmm. I think you personally understand the nature and necessity of biodiversity, how it’s connected to the production of ecosystems services that all Pennsylvanians need, how it purifies our air and our water, pollinates our crops; all that, and more. Do you think it’s true that most politicians do understand these issues, that it’s not a matter of educating them?
Rendell: Look, education has a value. Especially the newer people coming into the legislature, most of them understand, but they just follow the campaign cash, follow the lobbyists.
Kobland: Let’s get specific. How about the fracking situation?
Rendell: Perfect example. We don’t have strong enough regulations. We don’t have a shale tax which would give us the powers to enforce and regulate. And because the companies have high-powered lobbyists, they can deliver a lot of cash to campaigns, and that’s the answer.
Kobland: It doesn’t sound too promising. The habitat fragmentation that occurs with fracking is what concerns me. I just traveled through the shale areas in the western part of Pennsylvania, and up into NY state. You don’t see as many invasive plants and loss of habitat in the western and northern parts of the state as you do in southeastern Pennsylvania, but with fracking, that’s going to change; it’s not only going to fragment the habitats, which will increase species extinction, but…
Rendell: Yes, it’s a serious potential danger, but it doesn’t seem to me that people who are attuned to this danger are making much of an impact in Harrisburg.
Kobland: Do you have any regrets at all about the fracking?
Rendell: No. I think that with proper regulation and proper oversight it could be both something that helps our economy and energy independence in this country, and at the same time keep the environment basically as clean as can be. Look, no matter what we do there are some environmental drawbacks. If we do hydro, which is totally pollution-free, it endangers marine life. If we do wind, which is pollution-free, it endangers birds and bats. If we do nuclear, which again is pollution-free, it endangers all of us with the possibility of a meltdown. So virtually everything we do to produce energy has some down side. The key is to limit the down side and contain it to as low a possibility as possible.
Kobland: I have a suggestion for these alternate energy installations. Rather than locate them in wild, natural areas wouldn’t it be a good idea to locate, for instance, solar on rooftops and wind in already degraded habitat rather than in wild areas?
Rendell: Well the problem for wind, it’s mostly the wild, elevated areas that produce the most wind and make the wind farms most valuable. So that’s number one; number two, we do have a program in Pennsylvania called Pennsylvania Sunshine that offers tax credits to incentivize businesses and homeowners to install solar on their roofs. It’s very successful–it’s oversubscribed every year.
Kobland: Right. There’s a great benefit in locating technology properly. My company Native Return is working with airports to both reduce carbon footprints and spare wildlife with a product I developed called FlightTurf™.
Rendell: That’s great!
Kobland: It’s a live turfgrass technology that needs mowing only once a year. It cuts down on mowing emissions by 95% and has other environmental benefits, plus a natural plant defense mechanism that animals don’t like, so they graze outside of flight areas.
Rendell: Awesome. Native Return’s FlightTurf™ benefits the environment and saves money at the same time!
Kobland: Speaking of animals brings to mind something I wanted to ask you. You’re probably aware of the local situation with the Philadelphia City Council enacting anti-raccoon legislation. I testified against it at City Hall, as I empathize with these animals. They’re caught along with other vector species, and whether raccoons, groundhogs, or foxes, by law they’re all killed. If you were the mayor of Philadelphia, I’m wondering whether you’d be going after raccoons?
Rendell: No, this is not one of the paramount issues facing the city today!
Kobland: Finally, to return to our earlier topic, I would like to get your response to two quotes from my recent interview with John Quigley, [former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, under Governor Rendell's administration]. I was talking to him about natural gas drilling, and I asked him how he saw drilling in the Marcellus shale affecting Pennsylvania’s forests, including wildlife populations over the next several decades. His response was “What will the impact of the spider web that will spin across two-thirds of our state be? Frankly I think there is little understanding of what the impact might be because of the scale on which those impacts will occur, and the complex interrelations of those impacts.” Do you agree?
Rendell: I think people understand the challenge of shale—the Barnett Shale for example, the Marcellus Shale drilling in west Virginia, because there are previous experiences with it which I think we understand. It will be challenging, but I believe if we do it right we can enjoy the boost it will give to the economy and energy independence without unduly jeopardizing the environment.
Kobland: I see. And as for the second quote, Quigley’s comment, when we were talking about the issue of loss of biodiversity, was “I think we have critically endangered our planet in many ways. We have polluted its air and water, destroyed habitat and biodiversity, and endangered life as we know it by conducting the largest uncontrolled chemistry experiment in history.” I happen to agree with him. It seems people with legislative power really do understand these things, yourself included, but there appears to be no hope for correction from the top, and my fear is that we’re going to annihilate ourselves through destroying the other life forms that we rely on.
Rendell: I don’t think there’s “no hope”. It’s not [a matter of] educating the legislature. I think the environmental advocacy groups have to continue their outreach and make sure the voters understand what the issues are, and vote accordingly. That’s the key. If you have a politician who has voted against sound environmental regulations, there has to be consequences to that vote. So I think the ball is in the environmental advocacy groups’ court, the PennFuture’s, Sierra Club’s, etc.
Kobland: And the Republican presidential candidates?
Rendell: Well, we’ll have to defeat them…
Kobland: That was my last concern. And even, quite frankly, President Obama. Because of my interest in the environment I voted for him because he said, ”no drilling”, and then he caved on that, which was really upsetting to me, and, I think, to a lot of people. So even when you believe you have a candidate who feels one way about it, the next thing you know there’s capitulation.
Rendell: That’s why we have to stay on top of these issues, and the advocacy groups have to do a better job.
Kobland: Well, that basically covers what I wanted to discuss. I’m thrilled that you met with me.
Rendell: These are very important issues, and I think we can eventually win, but it’s going to take everyone, which is why I’m so glad to see you doing this.
Kobland: I don’t know if you’ve seen my blog, www.east33.org. I blog about the loss of biodiversity, wildlife and environmental issues, my life cause–
Rendell: –Of course, it’s an important cause.
Kobland: Earlier this year Senator Vincent Hughes’ office asked me to be one of four area representatives, along with the PA Horticultural Society, who went to Washington to talk to the legislature about environmental issues, and I want to offer my support to you, too, if you see a need for a voice to support the issues we discussed today. Thank you very, very much for granting this interview.