Seeking Community in Vancouver's High Rise Ghost Towns

The Province in Vancouver reports (in "15% of downtown Vancouver condos sit empty, turning areas into ghost towns: Study") that "much of the downtown core is starting to look like B.C.’s ghost towns — with apartments languishing empty, businesses closing down and residents not feeling the sense of community they bought into." The study, by University of British Columbia (UBC) planning professor Andy Yan, indicates that the problem is most pronounced outside the long-established high-rise district of the West End. He notes that in Coal Harbour, well located adjacent to the downtown area along Burrard Inlet, approximately 25% of the condominium units are unoccupied.

UBC economics professor Tour Somerville suggests that the number may even be higher, at 65% vacant, including both unsold units and units that have been purchased but not occupied by their owners. Vancouver has had an unusual amount of investment from mainland China, especially as that nation has substantially limited the purchase of condominium units for investment purposes.

Reporter Mike Reptis of The Province notes the difficulties for businesses in the area, indicating that "it’s a problem to local small business owners and residents — especially in Coal Harbour — who have bought into the neighbourhood expecting more of a community, and more business."

A long time convenience store manager complained that “foot traffic has slowed" and "local people can’t afford (to live here)," concluding that "small grocery stores are closing up" and "A lot of small companies are closing up.”

Children Falling from High Rises in New South Wales

Frustrated young children confined in the small apartments proliferating in New South Wales are naturally inquisitive and incapable of judging risks.  They climb onto window sills or balustrades to fall onto concrete many metres below.

The results have been appalling. In Sydney during the period 1998 to 2008 169 children have fallen to serious injury or death, and, as the proportion of apartments increase, so do these tragic incidents, of which there is now one a week.

Apartments are especially unsuitable for bringing up very young children. Research  reveals that there are poor health and parenting outcomes. Crawling and walking is stymied due to space problems with children having little access to areas for meaningful activity. There is a lack of safe active play space outside the home. Parks and other public open space offer poor security due to the use of these areas by local youth gangs and the socially dysfunctional.

Over the past decade, the goal of the New South Wales Government has been that more than half of the population of NSW be squeezed into apartments by the year 2030. These high-density policies have placed a restrictive growth boundary around Sydney, and have been enforced by stripping away the planning powers of those local authorities that dared to offer any resistance.

This draconian approach is despite the fact that the vast majority of Australians prefer living in free-standing homes rather than in apartments. Half of apartment-dwellers would rather live in a house with a garden.

The government has been creating a child-hostile city and a child-hostile city is a disaster for the future.

The Westmead Children’s Hospital in Sydney formed a working party in 2009 in response to the growing number of child tragedies.  As a result the NSW Government has now belatedly announced that window safety locks that restrict the degree to which windows can open will be mandatory for new apartments.

But is locking children into apartments and restricting fresh air a good solution? Surely a much better resolution is for the high-density policies to be unambiguously abandoned. Housing that the vast majority of people want should be readily available – that is family friendly single-residential housing with a safe backyard for children’s recreation. 

There is some good news for young children, namely the recent announcement by the New South Wales Government of a proposed modified Metropolitan Strategy with the Minister of Planning saying “We’re trying to be less constrictive and restrictive and what we’re saying is the market place should have far more of a say in what the mix of housing is and where it will be.” Might the long-suffering families in Sydney and their young children hope that the iron grip of the high-density policies of the last two decades could be weakening at last?

The new Metropolitan Strategy announcement may indicate a faint light at the end of the tunnel. One hopes this will not be a mere will-of-the-wisp, but that this glimmer will brighten into a beam that will consign urban containment policies to the dustbin of history - and prevent the ongoing falling deaths of some of our most vulnerable kids.


Portland's Slothful Creative Class?

In an article entitled "Portland area's college-educated workers depress metro earning power by choosing low-paying fields, shorter hours," The Oregonian's Betsy Hammond reports on a new study decrying the less than robust economic impact of Portland's younger college graduates, especially males. According to Hammond, " the Portland metro area's young college-educated white men are slackers when it comes to logging hours on the job, and that's one reason people here collectively earn $2.8 billion less a year than the national average." The report is characterized as finding that "Portlanders tend to choose majors, careers and work hours that lead to low pay."

The report, "Higher Education & Regional Prosperity; The Story Behind Portland-Metro's Income Decline," was commissioned by the Value of Jobs Coalition. It documents a "startling decline in per capita income relative to the US" metropolitan average. Since 1997, metropolitan Portland's per capita income has fallen from 5% above the national metropolitan average to 5% below.

The report indicates that "the biggest driver of this trend is our college educated workers, who work less and earn less, creating a significant income gap," though cautiously notes that it is not clear whether” the lower hours and earnings are the result of a lack of higher-paying/time-intensive jobs available or the result "life style choice(s)" to not work in higher-paying jobs."

The report found the largest differences compared to other metropolitan areas to be among white males from 25 to 39 years old. The differences with the rest of the country were substantially less among older white males.


New Metropolitan Area Definition Winners: New York, Charlotte, Grand Rapids, and Indianapolis

Metropolitan America continues to expand. The new Office of Management and Budget metropolitan area definitions, based upon the 2010 census indicate that the counties composing the 52 metropolitan areas with more than 1 million population increased by 1.65 million from the previous definition. This includes more than 1.4 million new residents in the previous 51 major metropolitan areas and more than 200,000 in Grand Rapids, which has become the nation's 52nd metropolitan area with more than 1 million population.

The fastest growers due to the addition of counties were New York, Charlotte, Grand Rapids, and Indianapolis. New York had a 670,000 increase in its metropolitan population, resulting from the addition of Dutchess and Orange counties. New counties also increased the population of the Charlotte metropolitan area by 459,000, the Grand Rapids metropolitan area by 215,000 and Indianapolis by 132,000. The largest percentage gains were in Grand Rapids (28%) and Charlotte (26%).

Ten metropolitan areas had population increases under 100,000 from expansion of the metropolitan area definitions.

For the most part, the major metropolitan area county components were unchanged, with 31 having the same boundaries as under the previous definition. Six metropolitan areas were reduced in geographic size.

The changes in population for 2000 based upon the new metropolitan area definitions are indicated in the table. The components of metropolitan areas are determined by commuting patterns to urban areas (not to the historical core municipalities).

Effect of New Metropolitan Area Geographic Definition on Population: 2010
Population Change Rank Metropolitan Area Old Definition New Definition (2013) Change % Change
12 Atlanta, GA        5,268,860        5,286,728 17,868 0.3%
15 Austin, TX        1,716,289        1,716,289 0 0.0%
15 Baltimore, MD        2,710,489        2,710,489 0 0.0%
15 Birmingham, AL        1,128,047        1,128,047 0 0.0%
15 Boston, MA-NH        4,552,402        4,552,402 0 0.0%
15 Buffalo, NY        1,135,509        1,135,509 0 0.0%
2 Charlotte, NC-SC        1,758,038        2,217,012 458,974 26.1%
15 Chicago, IL-IN-WI        9,461,105        9,461,105 0 0.0%
46 Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN        2,130,151        2,114,580 (15,571) -0.7%
15 Cleveland, OH        2,077,240        2,077,240 0 0.0%
7 Columbus, OH        1,836,536        1,901,974 65,438 3.6%
8 Dallas-Fort Worth, TX        6,371,773        6,426,214 54,441 0.9%
15 Denver, CO        2,543,482        2,543,482 0 0.0%
15 Detroit,  MI        4,296,250        4,296,250 0 0.0%
3 Grand Rapids, MI           774,160           988,938 214,778 27.7%
15 Hartford, CT        1,212,381        1,212,381 0 0.0%
49 Houston, TX        5,946,800        5,920,416 (26,384) -0.4%
4 Indianapolis. IN        1,756,241        1,887,877 131,636 7.5%
15 Jacksonville, FL        1,345,596        1,345,596 0 0.0%
48 Kansas City, MO-KS        2,035,334        2,009,342 (25,992) -1.3%
15 Las Vegas, NV        1,951,269        1,951,269 0 0.0%
15 Los Angeles, CA     12,828,837     12,828,837 0 0.0%
51 Louisville, KY-IN        1,283,566        1,235,708 (47,858) -3.7%
13 Memphis, TN-MS-AR        1,316,100        1,324,829 8,729 0.7%
15 Miami, FL        5,564,635        5,564,635 0 0.0%
15 Milwaukee,WI        1,555,908        1,555,908 0 0.0%
6 Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN-WI        3,279,833        3,348,859 69,026 2.1%
5 Nashville, TN        1,589,934        1,670,890 80,956 5.1%
11 New Orleans. LA        1,167,764        1,189,866 22,102 1.9%
1 New York, NY-NJ-PA     18,897,109     19,567,410 670,301 3.5%
15 Oklahoma City, OK        1,252,987        1,252,987 0 0.0%
15 Orlando, FL        2,134,411        2,134,411 0 0.0%
15 Philadelphia, PA-NJ-DE-MD        5,965,343        5,965,343 0 0.0%
15 Phoenix, AZ        4,192,887        4,192,887 0 0.0%
15 Pittsburgh, PA        2,356,285        2,356,285 0 0.0%
15 Portland, OR-WA        2,226,009        2,226,009 0 0.0%
15 Providence, RI-MA        1,600,852        1,600,852 0 0.0%
15 Raleigh, NC        1,130,490        1,130,490 0 0.0%
52 Richmond, VA        1,258,251        1,208,101 (50,150) -4.0%
15 Riverside-San Bernardino, CA        4,224,851        4,224,851 0 0.0%
10 Rochester, NY        1,054,323        1,079,671 25,348 2.4%
15 Sacramento, CA        2,149,127        2,149,127 0 0.0%
47 St. Louis,, MO-IL        2,812,896        2,787,701 (25,195) -0.9%
50 Salt Lake City, UT        1,124,197        1,087,873 (36,324) -3.2%
15 San Antonio, TX        2,142,508        2,142,508 0 0.0%
15 San Diego, CA        3,095,313        3,095,313 0 0.0%
15 San Francisco-Oakland, CA        4,335,391        4,335,391 0 0.0%
15 San Jose, CA        1,836,911        1,836,911 0 0.0%
15 Seattle, WA        3,439,809        3,439,809 0 0.0%
15 Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL        2,783,243        2,783,243 0 0.0%
14 Virginia Beach-Norfolk, VA-NC        1,671,683        1,676,822 5,139 0.3%
9 Washington, DC-VA-MD-WV        5,582,170        5,636,232 54,062 1.0%
Total   167,861,575   169,512,899    1,651,324 1.0%


Sydney to Abandon Radical Urban Containment Policy

The New South Wales government has proposed a new Metropolitan Strategy for the Sydney area which would significantly weaken the urban containment policy (also called urban consolidation, smart growth, livability, growth management, densification, etc.) that has driven if house prices to among the highest in the affluent New World (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) relative to household incomes.

According to the Australian Financial Review, the state's Liberal-National government plans to allow the building of more than 170,000 new homes, with the vast majority being on greenfield sites, largely beyond the current urban footprint. Premier Barry O'Farrell and his party had promised in their electoral campaign in 2011 to liberalize land-use regulation and to moderate the previous Labor government's quota that required 70% of new houses to be built within the current urban footprint and 30% on greenfield sites. In fact, however, under the Labor government's administration, new house building had been produced at a well below demand level.

Among the major New World metropolitan areas rated in annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Surveys, Sydney has been the most unaffordable, along with Vancouver, in recent years. Sydney and Vancouver have had among the most stringent urban containment policies in the New World, and the resulting unaffordable house prices under such circumstances are consistent with economic principle.

Premier O'Farrell told the Sydney Morning Herald that the government wanted to "make home ownership a reality again." He continued, "The more blocks of land (lots) we can release, the greater downward pressure we can put on housing because it's been so high for so long." In a press release issued by his office, the Premier recalled that “Before the election, I said I wanted to ensure owning a home wasn’t a fading dream for young families" and noted that the massive housing package "will go a long way to delivering on that commitment."

In the longer run (by 2031), the government intends to provide for a total of 545,000 new homes, while abandoning the practice of allocating locations based upon planning theory. Planning and Infrastructure Minister Bradley Hazzard told the Sydney Morning Herald that the government intended to “look further afield” than the presently planned greenfield suburban growth centers. He continued: "We're trying to [be] less constrictive and restrictive and what we're saying is the marketplace should have far more of a say in what the mix of housing is and where it should be,'' adding that ''it doesn't matter'' what percentage was delivered in greenfield and established suburbs. He concluded: ''No one should be preoccupied by particular prescriptive formulas.''

The government also indicated its intention to encourage one half of employment growth over the next 20 years to be in Western Sydney. Western Sydney is virtually across the urban area from the central business district. This dispersion of employment, along with roadway improvements in the area, is likely to improve the metropolitan balance between jobs and housing.

The plan for greater job dispersion would, if successful, bring Sydney more into line with urban best practices, which are exhibited by the location of most new jobs in edge cities, as well as throughout the entire urban area. Sydney has among the longest work trip travel times in the New World. The one-way work trip travel time is newly reported in the Metropolitan Strategy to have reached 35 minutes. Work trip travel times are worse only in Melbourne, at 36 minutes. By comparison, Dallas-Fort Worth, with a larger population, a much lower urban area density and a mere fraction of the Melbourne or Sydney transit work trip market share has a far shorter one-way work trip travel time (26 minutes).

The Sydney developments are the latest in a trend toward liberalizing urban land use in four nations.

In October, the New Zealand government announced plans to liberalize land-use amid growing concern about the extent to which that nation's urban containment policies have destroyed housing affordability. In the introduction to the 9th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, Deputy Premier Bill English said:

Land has been made artificially scarce by regulation that locks up land for development. This regulation has made land supply unresponsive to demand. When demand shocks occur, as they did in the mid-2000s in New Zealand and around the world, much of that shock translates to higher prices rather than more houses.

Recent polling has shown support, by an almost 2 to 1 margin for government action to improve housing affordability, with even higher stronger support in the 18 to 34 age group, where the margin was more than 3 to 1.

The United Kingdom Cameron government is also embarked on a program to liberalize that nation's restrictive land use policies, which former Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member Kate Barker found to be the cause of severe housing unaffordability in a report commissioned by the Blair Labour government. Planning Minister Nick Boles has characterized the unaffordability of housing as "the biggest social justice problem we have."

In 2011, Florida repealed its statewide smart growth mandate and closed the administrative bureaucracy that had overseen the program. Before that, the government of the Australian state of Victoria substantially expanded the urban growth boundary of the Melbourne urban area.

Wanted: A Reasoned Approach to Dealing with America's Infrastructure Needs

It seems like not a week goes by without fresh warnings about the nation’s”crumbling infrastructure" and renewed appeals to rebuild our aging highways and bridges.  President Obama reinvigorated the campaign with his State-of-the-Union proposal for a $50 billion program of infrastructure investments, $40 billion of which would be devoted to a "fix-it-first" program targeted at urgent improvements such as "structurally deficient" bridges. The following day, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing on "The Federal Role in America’s Infrastructure," focusing on the importance of infrastructure for the U.S. economy and the federal role in its preservation and expansion. The same day, the U.S. Chamber held a "Transportation Infrastructure Summit," a day-long gathering to explore "transportation infrastructure challenges and promising solutions" with prominent industry representatives. Yet another meeting, this one convened by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-NY), a longtime proponent of a National Infrastructure Bank, will explore innovative strategies for financing infrastructure in a March 18 forum on Capitol Hill.

Two recent reports have added to a sense of urgency about America’s deteriorating infrastructure. The Building America's Future coalition has published a report, Falling Apart and Falling Behind, urging development of a long-term national infrastructure strategy, establishing a National Infrastructure Bank and lifting restrictions on tolling. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has released a report, Failure to Act: The Impact of Current Infrastructure Investment on America's Future, warning that if the investment gap is not addressed, the economy is likely to suffer $1 trillion in lost business and a loss of 3.5 million jobs.  ASCE's 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, a detailed analysis of the performance and condition of America's infrastructure  to be  released on March 19, may be expected to reinforce this gloomy forecast (a previous  "report card," issued in 2009, gave the U.S. infrastructure an unflattering grade of D.)     

What kind of impact this flood of warnings and advocacy efforts will have on public opinion and on congressional attitudes and fiscal decisions remains to be seen. They come at a time of severe budget pressures and intense Republican efforts to curb excessive discretionary spending. To be successful, the pro-infrastructure campaign must persuade fiscally conservative lawmakers that there are urgent reasons for a boost in spending on public works that override the imperative to reduce the deficit and get the nation's fiscal house in order. 

Further, infrastructure advocates must convince the nation's  taxpayers--- who see no visible signs of  "crumbling infrastructure"--- that spending more  on transportation will not be wasted but will result in concrete benefits in the form of reduced congestion or shorter commutes. Infrastructure alarmists also must contend with a public that lately has grown skeptical about warnings of catastrophic consequences of minor cuts in spending.  

Lastly, the advocacy campaign must overcome a cynical perception that pressures to increase funding for transportation are nothing more than special interest pleadings of interest groups that stand to profit from higher levels of public spending.  As one transportation advocate at a recent conference observed, "there is an enormous disconnect between us and the American public" --- a disconnect that may not be easy to overcome.

Significantly, improving the nation's infrastructure was not a topic of discussion at the President's meeting with Senate Republicans, according to Sens. Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), as reported in POLITICO.  The President must have come to a conclusion that his $50 billion infrastructure plan stands no chance of winning a favorable Senate vote ---not to mention being an anathema with the House Republicans.

A Reasoned Approach

No one disputes the infrastructure advocates’ claim that some of America’s transportation facilities are reaching the limit of their useful life and need replacing. Nor does anyone disagree about the need to expand infrastructure to meet the needs of a growing population. But fiscal conservatives among these advocates (and we count ourselves among them) contend that this does not rise to the level of a national crisis requiring a $50 billion crash program as proposed by the President, or a two trillion dollar infrastructure investment program over fifteen years as recommended  by ASCE . 

The condition of infrastructure varies widely from state to state as studies by the transportation research group TRIP and by the Reason Foundation have shown. Most states maintain their transportation assets in a state of good repair and only a few need extensive modernization. "There are still plenty of problems to fix, but our roads and bridges aren't cumbling," said David Hartgen, lead author of the Reason study. "The overall condition of the public road system is getting better and you can actually make the case that it has never been in better shape." Hartgen's conclusion is backed by a detailed study of the condition of America's roads and bridges. The study is based on a variety of sources, primarily from the states themselves as reported to the federal government from 1989 through 2008. ( "Are Highways Crumbling? State and U.S. Highway Performance Trends, 1989-2008, Reason Policy Study 407, February 2013).

The generally acceptable condition of the nation's transportation infrastructure in most places, argues for a more selective approach. Rather than launching a new massive national public works program in the name of "fix-it-first," state-level efforts should be targeted specifically at aging facilities that are in a demonstrable need of replacement or modernization.  "The nation simply cannot afford blindly to throw money at the problem," in the words of one senior congressional Republican. "We have learned from the Administration's $8 billion high-speed rail fiasco that scattering resources in an unfocused manner in order to satisfy demands for geographic equity, leads to imprudent, irresponsible and often downright wasteful spending."     

To the extent that large-scale multi-year megaprojects demanding billions of dollars still figure on the drawing boards of state DOTs,  they can---indeed, they will ---be financed through public-private partnerships, tolling and credit instruments such as TIFIA and state infrastructure banks. They include the I-495 Beltway Hot lanes project in Virginia, New York's Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, the San Francisco Bay Bridge Eastern Span replacement, the I-5 Columbia River Crossing, the Highway 520 floating bridge in Seattle, the Miami Port Tunnel, the Midtown Tunnel linking Norfolk and Portsmouth VA, and two Ohio River bridges in Louisville, a joint undertaking of the Indiana and Kentucky DOTs. All of the above projects will be financed with long-term obligations rather than funded on a pay-as-you-go basis through annual congressional appropriations.

A transition from funding to financing of major transportation infrastructure projects was also the preferred approach of the financial practitioners and analysts assembled at the October 2012 conference on Public-Private Partnerships convened by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA). The most practical way to build future transportation megaprojects, these experts concluded, will be through project financing and public-private partnerships.

In sum, the Highway Trust Fund no longer can serve as a source of capital for new infrastructure, and funding large capital-intensive projects with current user fee revenues on a pay-as-you-go basis is no longer feasible. Instead, look for the states to assume responsibility for remedial "fix-it-first" activities, and for a shift from funding to financing for multi-year construction megaprojects. This may turn out to be the only practical long-term solution to our transportation funding dilemma. Mixes Apples and Oranges on "Worst Cities for Drivers"

The website mixes apples and oranges in producing a list of the 10 worst "cities" for car drivers in the United States. The ratings hardly matter, since the score is based on a mixture of urban area and municipality data.

The Apples: uses the Texas Transportation Institute traveled the may delay measures for urban areas. These are areas of continuous urban development that always include far more population than is in the central city or municipality. There is no data for the traffic congestion measures at the central city level. These traffic congestion scores are's "apples."

The Oranges: The oranges of the population densities for the core municipalities. For example, the density shown for New York is that of the city, at 27,000 per square mile. The urban area has a density of approximately 5000 per square mile.

The Comparison: The net effect is that uses the city of New York, with its 8 million people in approximately 300 square miles to the New York urban area with approximately 18 million people in 3,400 square miles. These are not the same things and any score derived from the mixing of these two definitions is inherently invalid.

This is one of all too many examples of comparisons that are made in the press between "cities," with editors and fact checkers taking insufficient care to ensure that they are using comparable data.

Top GOP Budget Officials Call for Investigation of Xpress West High Speed Train from Victorville to Los Angeles

Congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House of Representatives Budget Committee and Sen. Jeff Sessions, Ranking Member of the Senate Budget Committee have expressed serious reservations on the proposed taxpayer loan to the Xpress West high-speed rail line that would operate two thirds of the way between Los Angeles and Las Vegas (from Victorville).

A joint letter dated March 7 to United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood called the taxpayer risks untenable. They asked for a Government Accounting Office investigation of the project and asked Secretary LaHood to suspend final determination on the taxpayer loan until the GAO investigation is completed.

Texas Two Step

There has been a huge spike in the number of New Yorkers relocating to Texas in recent years, even at a time when fewer city residents were departing for Charlotte, Atlanta, Philadelphia and other traditional destinations.


Borough Breakdown: NYC Residents Moving to
Houston, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio (2004/05 to 2009/10)

Migration from Bronx to...
  2004/2005 2009/2010 % Change
Dallas County 77 92 19.5%
Harris County 202 310 53.5%
Tarrant County 28 58 107.1%
Travis County 22 27 22.7%
Bexar County 29 66 127.6%
Fort Bend County 31 33 6.5%
Total 389 586 50.6%


Migration from Brooklyn to...
  2004/2005 2009/2010 % Change
Dallas County 132 152 15.2%
Harris County 271 351 29.5%
Tarrant County 64 71 10.9%
Travis County 83 224 169.9%
Bexar County 76 64 -15.8%
Fort Bend County 40 62 55.0%
Total 666 924 38.7%


Migration from Queens to...
  2004/2005 2009/2010 % Change
Dallas County 146 166 13.7%
Harris County 412 404 -1.9%
Tarrant County 117 125 6.8%
Travis County 56 89 58.9%
Bexar County 80 99 23.8%
Fort Bend County 67 90 34.3%
Total 878 973 10.8%


Migration from Manhattan to...
  2004/2005 2009/2010 % Change
Dallas County 311 356 14.5%
Harris County 346 508 46.8%
Tarrant County 51 107 109.8%
Travis County 167 303 81.4%
Bexar County 96 91 -5.2%
Fort Bend County 15 54 260.0%
Total 986 1419 43.9%


Migration from Staten Island to...
  2004/2005 2009/2010 % Change
Dallas County N/A N/A N/A
Harris County 36 55 52.8%
Tarrant County N/A N/A N/A
Travis County N/A N/A N/A
Bexar County N/A N/A N/A
Fort Bend County N/A N/A N/A
Total 36 55 52.8%

Source: IRS Migration Data. For Staten Island, data was only available for migrations to Harris County.

This piece originally appeared a tthe Center for an Urban Future data blog.

Fracktivists for Global Warming: How Celebrity NIMBYism Turned Environmentalism Against Natural Gas

Over the last year, celebrities such as Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, Robert Redford, Mark Ruffalo, Mario Batali, Scarlett Johansson, Alec Baldwin, and Matt Damon have spoken out against the expansion of natural gas drilling. “Fracking kills,” says Ono, who has a country home in New York. “It threatens the air we breathe,” says Redford. 

In fact, “gas provides a very substantial health benefit in reducing air pollution,” according to Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment. There have been “tremendous health gains” from the coal-to-gas switch, MIT economist Michael Greenstone told The Associated Press. Indeed, air pollution in Pennsylvania has plummeted in recent years thanks to the coal-to-gas switch. "Honestly," added Greenstone, "the environmentalists need to hear it."

Fracktivism might be dismissed as so much celebrity self-involvement had it not reversed the national environmental movement's longstanding support of natural gas as a bridge to zero-carbon energy — and kept shale drilling out of New York state. Last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo was set to green-light 40 demonstration gas wells in a depressed part of New York until Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Bobby Kennedy Jr. called him and asked him not to.

Bill McKibben and his organization have made common cause with the anti-fracking movement, as has the Sierra Club. NRDC went from being supportive of a coal-to-gas switch to opposing the expansion of gas production. Even the Environmental Defense Fund’s chief, Fred Krupp, said in a debate last month that he opposes the expansion of natural gas.

All of this comes at a time when carbon emissions are declining in the US more than in any other country in the world. The USA is the global climate leader, while Europe and Germany are returning to coal. The main reason is gas, which increased last year by almost the exact same amount that coal declined

Just a few years ago, environmental leaders were saying that we faced a climate emergency, that emissions must start declining rapidly, and that enemy number one was coal. Now the same leaders are saying we have to stop shale fracking even though it is crushing coal and driving down American carbon emissions.

Of course, the fractivism isn't really about the fracking. Matt Damon's anti-natural gas movie was originally an attack on wind farms. In 2005, Bobby Kennedy Jr. helped lead a campaign to stop the Cape Wind farm from being built because it will be visible from the Kennedy compound. Meanwhile, he was championing the construction of a massive solar farm in the Mojave Desert, 3,000 miles away — itself opposed by local environmentalists.

Fracktivists like Mark Ruffalo protest that his NIMBYism isn't pro-coal. He told AP that we don’t need natural gas; we can easily switch from coal directly to solar panels, like the ones Ruffalo installed on his Catskills house. 

But when the sun isn’t shining on Ruffalo’s roof, he’s mostly getting his electricity from natural gas. In order to accommodate the intermittent nature of solar and wind, utilities rely on natural gas plants, which can be quickly ramped up and down to keep the lights on. Contra Gasland’s Josh Fox's claims about using "compressed air" in a recent debate with Ted at — cheap, utility-scale energy storage simply doesn't exist.

Privately, scientists and analysts within national environmental organizations are appalled that celebrity fractivism could get in the way of the coal-to-gas shift. They say the fracktivists undermine green credibility, and are disturbed by the failure of their movement’s leadership. 

But there’s little reason to expect national green leaders will become, well, leaders. They will likely continue to follow donors who demonstrate time and again that what matters most to them — whether in the case of a nuclear plant in Long Island, a wind farm in Cape Cod, or a gas well in the Catskills — is the view from their solar-plated eco-compounds, not the potentially catastrophic impact of global warming on the planet.

This post first appeared at