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Power Plants Continue to Pollute Our Water; EPA Must Act

Wed, 06/17/2015 - 11:33

Arsenic. Hexavalent chromium. Lead. Mercury.  Do these sound like things you want in the glass of water you are about to drink? I'm guessing no, but power plants are discharging more than 5.5 billion pounds of these pollutants into our waterways every year.

A new report out today from Clean Water Action, the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Sierra Club details the extreme amount of pollution coal plants are releasing into our nation's waterways, and the urgent need for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enact strong clean water protections.

The report:

presents evidence that EPA has been under-estimating the public health benefits of controlling metals … released by power plants into rivers, streams, and lakes.

While EPA has estimated that controlling these pollutants would provide $14 million to $20 million worth of health benefits per year, a more accurate assessment would likely far exceed $300 million annually...

According to the report, "power plant wastewater has contributed to over 3,000 miles of contaminated rivers, fish too polluted to eat in 185 bodies of water, and the degradation of 399 water bodies that are used as public drinking water sources."

The EPA is required to release new standards for toxic water pollution from coal plants in September, the result of decades of advocacy that Robert. F. Kennedy, Jr. and I chronicled in a column last year, and these protections can't come soon enough.

"Strong clean water laws are about a child's right to grow up healthy and holding polluters accountable for decades of toxic dumping," said Casey Roberts, an author of the report and staff attorney at the Sierra Club. "As things stand today, thousands of lives are unnecessarily put at risk due to outdated policies and irresponsible polluters."

My five-year-old daughter (that's her fishing in the photo at the top of this blog post) and I spend endless hours during the summer playing in the local streams and rivers near our home in West Virginia, and I want her and all kids to grow up in a world where the water is healthy to drink and a safe place to swim and fish.

Polluters must be held accountable for their waste - not allowed to use our streams and rivers as their garbage dumps. The EPA must enact strong clean water safeguards for power plants this September. It's critical for public health and the health of the places we love. and it's long overdue.

Mary Anne Hitt From Compass

Fast Track Flop

Mon, 06/15/2015 - 15:13

In a major victory for the American people, the U.S. House of Representatives stalled a harmful fast-track bill when it voted against Trade Adjustment Assistance, a woefully insufficient program that would have failed to protect workers displaced by trade. This move decimated hopes of completing a package of trade bills last week, and maybe forever, including a “fast-track” bill that would limit congressional authority and oversight over international trade deals like the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  But the fight is not over yet, so we must continue to fight to bury fast track once and for all.

Despite the fact that the TPP would impact every aspect of our lives, from the quality of the food we eat to the air we breathe and our ability to protect our climate, all negotiations have been brokered behind closed doors. Since the public is left in the dark and even Congress has limited access to the text, the Sierra Club and other leading environmental groups have opposed the fast-track bill that would strip Congress’s ability to meaningfully evaluate the costs of trade deals on our economy and environment.

“This is a major victory for everyone who thinks trade should be fair and responsible,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, after the weak Trade Adjustment Assistance bill flopped, and fast track stalled, on June 12.

Past trade deals, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, have taken away hundreds of thousands of American jobs and undermined safeguards on clean air and water. The TPP would be more of the same, but at a much larger scale since it ecompassess 12 nations.

Across the country, Sierra Club staff, members, and volunteers have urged their members to stand with communities and for our environment and oppose fast track for the TPP. That dedication is paying off, but the fight is not over.

“The era of free trade deals that harm workers and the environment is coming to a close,” Brune said. “Now, we must bury fast track and trade deals that threaten our air, water, and climate once and for all, and start fresh to build a new model of trade."

Representatives will continue to face intense pressure from corporate lobbyists who want to pull out all the stops to dictate America's trade policies with their own profits in mind. Clean air, clean water, and climate activists must persist in making it crystal clear to every member of Congress that the people they represent reject a fast-track bill that sacrifices our air and water for corporate profit.

The fight isn’t over yet. Contact your representative now to slam the door shut on fast track, once and for all.

M.C. Tilton From Compass

The Pope's Encyclical On Climate

Mon, 06/15/2015 - 14:55

12 Praise-Worthy Takeaways From The Pope's Encyclical On Climate

Climate enthusiasts everywhere rejoiced as Pope Francis released his long-awaited breakdown of climate impacts in the world today. He's got some pretty rad points that are worth celebrating for the impact they'll have on societal opinion.

[View the story "12 Praise-Worthy Takeaways From The Pope's Encyclical On Climate" on Storify]

M.C. Tilton From Compass

5,000+ Join Tar Sands Resistance March

Fri, 06/12/2015 - 15:40

Saturday, June 6th, 2015, more than 5,000 people took to the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota to march against tar sands pipeline expansions and for clean energy solutions.  From the proposed Keystone XL pipeline through the largest freshwater aquifer in Nebraska to the expansion of the Alberta Clipper and Line 3 pipelines threatening our country's largest body of freshwater, the Great Lakes, this fight keeps water, climate and communities at the forefront.

The Tar Sands Resistance March started along the banks of the Mississippi and we made our way through the streets of St. Paul to the Minnesota State Capitol.  The energy of a crowd this strong was tangible throughout the throngs of people in the streets.  From the drums of the Hoka Hey tribal drummers and Danza Azteca at the front of the march to chants of  “we are unstoppable, another world is possible” from students and grandparents alike, we made sure the power of the people standing together was heard. 

The March, like much of the movement against tar sands, was led by indigenous people from the Great Lakes region and from Alberta, Canada, both are places where tar sands extraction and transport threatens the health and safety of communities. From the contamination of sacred lands and waters and lack of consultation with tribal governing bodies to the long-term effects of climate change, the development and transportation of the tar sands violates indigenous treaty rights.

Impacted community members from the frontlines of this fight stood together with communities of faith, students, environmental activists, landowners and many others to call for a halt to the expansion of tar sands infrastructure.  Various projects have been proposed that would expand tar sands pipelines across the Great Lakes region.  Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline company, seeks to nearly double the amount of tar sands crude oil it brings across the border on its Alberta Clipper pipeline, from 450,000 to 800,000 bpd, nearly the same as TransCanada’s dangerous Keystone XL pipeline. 

Expanding Alberta Clipper's capacity would expose our communities and tribes to tar sands' full complement of disturbing climate, safety, and environmental implications; potentially devastate cultural and historical resources; give the landlocked tar sands industry access to ports and enormous new overseas markets; and enable the massive, environmentally devastating tar sands growth planned by the industry.  And to make matters worse, they are looking to do all of this with no public notice and bypassing the Presidential permit process.  Join us to call on the Obama Administration to stop this illegal scheme: Take Action here!

We have all the evidence that we need to say no to dirty tar sands.  In a study in the journal Nature earlier this year, researchers found that we need to leave all the Canadian tar sands in the ground in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, and just yesterday, 100 scientists from across North America released this letter outlining the risks of toxic tar sands to our climate and public health.  From the stories of people living in the shadow of tar sands refineries to devastating impacts of tar sands pipeline spills in communities near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, it is not just the scientists who know that the tar sands need to remain in the ground to protect our water, climate and communities.

As Winona LaDuke, Executive Director of Honor the Earth, said in speaking to the crowd gathered at the Capitol, our elected officials have “a choice between water and oil.  It’s time to make the right choice.”  And for the sake of our children and grandchildren, I sincerely hope that they do.

Catherine Collentine From Compass

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti Leads on Protecting California Desert

Fri, 06/12/2015 - 13:13

Today Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) showed tremendous leadership by supporting protection for an important and ecologically fragile area of the California desert. The City of Los Angeles spoke with one voice and rejected buying power from the ecologically damaging Soda Mountain Solar project. Given the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) recent decision to approve the project, this leadership from Los Angeles is well timed and makes a powerful statement.

The Soda Mountain Solar Project is a massive development in an ecologically fragile area less than one mile from the boundary of Mojave National Preserve. The project threatens bighorn sheep populations, desert tortoise habitat, unique natural areas, and the ecological integrity of adjacent wilderness study areas. Environmental groups including the Sierra Club oppose this project, and so does the Bureau of Land Management’s own Desert Advisory Council. Nine retired Interior Department employees, including five former Park Service Superintendents, have spoken out against development at this location. Desert residents have also demonstrated their support for this special area; recently a remarkable coalition of local business owners, hunters, recreationists, residents and environmental groups jointly petitioned the BLM to designate this entire proposed solar site as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, in recognition of its unique ecological value.

Protecting and caring for the environment is a core value for Angelenos. With his Sustainable City pLAn, Mayor Garcetti has established a course of action to make Los Angeles a more sustainable city, including building as much as 1,500 megawatts of local solar by 2025. That is a much better path than environmentally damaging, poorly located projects like Soda Mountain. Sierra Club applauds these efforts.

As former Sierra Club Board President Dave Scott recently wrote in an op-ed, while the United States has made great progress in developing renewable energy projects to fight climate change in the last few years, “we also have learned some painful lessons. Many of the projects on public land have caused unintended damage to lands and wildlife. Habitat has been lost, migration corridors cut off, and wildlife harmed. Soda Mountain is a place where our wisdom is needed and our ability to learn from these harms is being tested. In our climate crisis, we must act quickly and yet we must act with wisdom.” 

With today’s act of leadership, Mayor Garcetti and the LADWP helped make it more likely that future generations of Angelenos and others from around the world can enjoy Soda Mountain.  We hope other utilities and companies will follow Los Angeles’s lead in saying no to this ecologically destructive project.

Sarah Friedman From Compass

In San Diego and Elsewhere, Cleaner Driving and Cleaner Air Within Sight

Fri, 06/12/2015 - 12:45

Photo Above: NREL employee Kevin Donovan plugs his electric vehicle into one of the 36 charging stations in the NREL parking garage.

Recently, Politico announced what we at Sierra Club have long known: across the country, King Coal is on the ropes. In a long-form piece detailing the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign strategy and history of success, the numbers spoke for themselves. The Sierra Club and our allies have, through grassroots organizing, lobbying, litigation, and media engagement, secured the retirement of one dirty coal-fired power plant every 10 days on average for the last five years -- and are on track to have secured the retirement or announced retirement of one third of the coal fleet by year's end. Within five years, Beyond Coal and allies plan to have the entire U.S. electric sector on a cleaner safer path as we work, the article notes, to "electrify everything."

On this goal -- to "electrify everything" -- the Sierra Club's Electric Vehicle Campaign is already hard at work. This is because we know a widespread switch to electric vehicles (EVs) is one key way to slash oil use and greenhouse gas emissions. EVs are already cleaner than standard cars just even when using today's electricity sources to power them, and they’ll become even cleaner as we move toward a 100 percent clean energy electrical grid.

To get more people driving EVs, we need to make them more well-known, affordable, and accessible. We're working to do just that through public outreach and policy advocacy. Recently, we've turned some of our attention to how utilities can accelerate EV adoption by providing incentives to consumers like cheaper rates for EV drivers,discounted rates for off-peak use, and rebates on EVs and EV chargers. With the right policies in place, utilities and regulators can also play a role in supporting large-scale deployment of EV charging infrastructure. To address this opportunity, we've recently focused our advocacy efforts in the California Public Utilities Commission, where there's been a vibrant discussion over separate plans by San Diego Gas & Electric, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison to deploy some 60,000 total EV charging stations across the state.

Last week, the Sierra Club, along with San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and a diverse set of public interest groups, automakers, labor unions and EV charging companies, submitted a proposed settlement to the Commission to accelerate the deployment of EV charging stations across San Diego. The settlement, if adopted, would bring the state one step closer to meeting its own ambitious EV goals, complying with federal air quality standards, and improving access to clean transportation options.

Under the settlement, SDG&E would add about 5,500 chargers to the grid by the end of the project's five year term. The charging infrastructure would be installed at workplace and multi-family homes buildings across SDG&E's service territory.

By siting EV chargers at workplaces, and multi-family homes, the program targets two critical market gaps. Workplace charging can be scarce, and yet it is the second most likely place for EV drivers to charge their cars (after their homes). Similarly, apartment dwellers often lack access to an outlet or garage, limiting EV ownership in higher density urban areas that could most benefit from cleaner transportation.

At charging sites, EV drivers would have access to a range of charging equipment options and rates, promoting competition and growth in the EV charging service industry. At the same time, the prices would maximize fuel cost savings for EV drivers. The pilot program has a built-in price signal that should encourage customers to charge their EVs at night (when energy prices are low) and in the mid-afternoon (when renewable energy is plentiful). This is a win win -- all utility customers stand to realize health benefits and cost savings from cleaner cars, greater integration of renewable energy sources, and improved grid management. To make sure EV customers in SDG&E's service territory get the full benefits of vehicle electrification, the Sierra Club and other groups are also working to move this utility and others to 100 percent clean energy.

Our advocacy, along with that of many allies, also aims to ensure that a more diverse set of people and communities benefit from EVs. Under the settlement, SDG&E would deploy at least 10 percent of the charging stations in disadvantaged communities while facilitating the expansion of electric car sharing in order to increase access to clean transportation.

In addition to Sierra Club and SDG&E, the proposed settlement was negotiated and signed by Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenlining Institute, California Coalition of Utility Employees, Plug In America, Environmental Defense Fund , Center for Sustainable Energy, Green Power Institute, ChargePoint, NRG EV Services, Smart Grid Services Siemens AG, KN Grid, CALSTART, General Motors, Honda Motors, and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

The California Public Utilities Commission is expected  to make a decision on the proposed settlement later this year.

As we turn our attention toward spurring other utilities to expand EV infrastructure and incentives in states from California to Florida, we’ll use a smart, strategic combination of grassroots organizing, legal work, policy analysis, and collaboration with a diverse mix of partners. Working together to "electrify everything" -- starting with cars -- will help the world move away from dirty fuel extraction of all kinds (including offshore drilling and mountaintop removal coal mining), cut carbon pollution to help tackle the climate crisis, and reduce unhealthy air pollution that makes it harder for everyone, especially the most vulnerable, to breathe.

Gina Coplon-Newfield, Joe Halso From Compass

Financial Dominoes Fall for Coal as Divestment Trends Gather Steam

Fri, 06/12/2015 - 10:14

Fossil fuel divestment news filled my newsfeed over the past week, adding to a growing list of impressive divestment stories from the past year. Again and again, we see young people convincing their colleges to divest, activists convincing banks to divest, and shareholders convincing companies to divest.

Financial dominoes just keep falling for the coal industry, which makes divesting from coal not just a smart move for the climate, but a prudent investment decision as well. SNL Energy just reported that the market value of publicly traded coal companies fell by 50 percent in less than a year. As Politico's Mike Grunwald summed it up in a tweet this week:

If you listened to the eco-freaks and divested from coal a year ago, you avoided losing half your money.

— Michael Grunwald (@MikeGrunwald) June 10, 2015

Here is some of the latest:

The divestment movement is powerful, and it means business. These unrelenting financial headwinds for coal underscore the urgent need for our nation to put resources and political leadership behind an economic transition plan to assist with the move from coal to clean energy, especially for Appalachia. This movement represents thousands and thousands of people who see the harm that fossil fuels are doing to communities and our kids' future. It is taking billions of dollars out of the hands of industries who continue to meddle in politics in order to fight climate action and clean air and clean water protections. And it's just getting started.

Mary Anne Hitt From Compass

New EIA Report Details Trade Deal Failure to Support Environment

Tue, 06/09/2015 - 11:52

On June 4, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) published a new briefing paper that demonstrates how free trade agreements fail to lift up environmental standards. Their report, focused on the failure to enforce environmental obligations in the U.S.-Peru trade pact, is particularly timely given that proponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal have claimed that its still-secret environment chapter will lift up environmental safeguards in countries like Vietnam and Malaysia.  

As EIA’s report demonstrates, however, simply including environmental obligations in trade pacts provides no guarantee that environmental protections will improve in reality.

And if enforcement has been this difficult in a free trade agreement with only one other country – a trade agreement containing the most detailed conservation rules in history, no less-- it is impossible to imagine that implementation and enforcement will look any better in the 12 country TPP, especially since we expect the TPP will include broad and often-vague conservation rules.

So here’s a bit of background and some highlights from EIA’s new report.

In 2007, in response to the illegal logging crisis in Peru that was fueling climate disruption, destroying communities and ecosystems, and threatening U.S. jobs, the U.S.-Peru trade pact included a detailed set of binding obligations to curb illegal logging and associated trade. Years later, however, the obligations still haven’t changed the reality on the ground, and the illegal logging crisis continues unabated.

In 2012, EIA released an investigative report that documented the systemic fraud and corruption that plagued the Peruvian forest sectors. The report uncovered at least 112 illegal shipments of cedar and mahogany—high value, precious hardwoods—coming into the U.S. EIA and the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) formally petitioned the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to take action under the U.S.-Peru trade deal to stop the illegal timber trade and hold those responsible to account.  

More specifically, the organizations called on the USTR to verify the legality of these and any future shipments from two companies EIA found to have a well-documented history of exporting significant volumes of illegal timer to the U.S. But USTR did nothing,and the two companies continued to export large volumes of high-value cedar species into the U.S., thereby allowing U.S. consumers who purchased this timber to become the unwitting financiers of the black market trade that is decimating the Peruvian Amazon. As EIA noted in its report, “Not only has no one been held accountable for past violations, but the U.S. is turning a blind eye to ongoing trade in timber that should be considered at high risk of illegality….”

In the petition, EIA and CIEL also called for an audit of 29 concessions—or state owned forested areas that are given to a person or firm to selectively harvest timber under certain conditions. In 2012, EIA found that in many cases, the owners of concessions falsified documents with information about trees that didn’t actually exist on their concession so they could obtain permits that they used to illegally harvest timber from outside their concession. In some instances, the concession owners attempted to crudely cover up their crime, including by literally staging cut down stumps on their concessions when authorities came to visit.

The USTR, however, once again declined to take any enforcement action or use any tools in the free trade pact to try to address these egregious violations of Peruvian law and of the trade pact. It justified this decision by reporting that 22 of the 29 concessions highlighted in the petition (just a subset of those highlighted in its report) had been suspended or cancelled, meaning that the right to harvest timber from these forested area had been removed.   

EIA’s report, however, uncovered that the majority of the concessions that were listed as suspended or cancelled have actually been under appeal to a non-existent tribunal--meaning that the concessions could still be in operation. USTR told EIA back in December 2012 that the tribunal, which is supposed to be in charge of solving appeals, was close to being established. But EIA’s report revealed that the establishment of the tribunal has been delayed for the past 2.5 years, and has just now begun recruiting the personnel needed to operate. As a result, the report notes, “the appeals have not been heard and many of those concessions may well not have stopped operations.”

Furthermore, in USTR’s recent report which boasted the environmental benefits of free trade agreements, the USTR noted that Peru is developing a “state-of-the-art electronic timber tracking system that will trace logs from stump to port in order to better detect illegal exports.” Sounds impressive, right?  Well, it would be, if it weren’t for the fact that EIA found that “the entire system is based on fraudulent inventories that are used by concessionaires to launder timber, resulting in a ‘garbage-in, garbage-out’ tracking system.” While the USTR has been made aware of these weaknesses, the problem has still not been addressed.

And finally, it’s worth noting that EIA also found that no exporters or importers have been held accountable for the clear violations of Peruvian law and the free trade pact. No investigations, no prosecutions.  

So given the complete lack of environmental enforcement with the U.S.-Peru trade deal, it seems completely reasonable—and in fact necessary—to question the assertions that having rules in an environment chapter of a trade pact—a trade pact like the TPP—will lead to any meaningful change on the ground. Getting the rules right is important, but change requires political will—political will that is clearly lacking today. 


Ilana Solomon From Compass

Brune to Walmart Executives and Shareholders: Living Wages, Living Planet Hitched Together

Mon, 06/08/2015 - 14:48

Last Friday Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune asked Walmart executives and shareholders to exercise real leadership on climate by

  • setting a goal to reduce super-sized marine shipping emissions that are disrupting our climate and
  • setting a deadline of 2020 to meet its commitment to shift its operations to 100 percent clean energy. 

At the same time, Brune, presenting the resolution of longtime Walmart "associate" and Our Walmart member Mary Pat Tifft, called on Walmart to raise the wages of all its associates to $15 an hour, and to make peace with the courageous associates who are part of Our WalMart by reopening the five stores that it closed after workers in them took action to stand up for their rights, and by reinstating those workers with back pay and benefits.

Brune’s foray into the frenzied sports-stadium fray of the shareholder meeting on behalf of the "visiting team," Walmart's workers, provided a powerful example of the Club’s contemporary commitment to building a powerful, diverse, equitable and inclusive "movement of movements." It also reflected the foundational insight of John Muir, who famously observed, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

Today, we can't pick out the transition to the 100 percent clean energy economy from the struggle for economic justice for working people. In the case of Walmart, the business model of the world's largest and most powerful company prioritizes low prices and high profits over the quality of the human and natural environments. It's really impossible to separate the climate impact of its metastasizing marine shipping emissions, the result of a decision to premise growth and profits on low cost manufacturing overseas, from the decision to build that growth on the backs of the public by paying workers so little they have to rely on public assistance.

Brune dug into the intrinsic interconnectedness of the economic and climate justice fights when he spoke to fast food workers at the Fight for $15 national day of action on April 15:

You all are taking on the same corporate business model that is threatening our planet. The same big box and fast food stores that pay so little that their own workers can't afford to eat the food they sell are running global supply chains that are emitting carbon pollution that's destroying our climate. 

Here's what we're saying to the Walmarts: You have to change your business models so that we can live. We want living wages and a living planet! And for us to get there, here's what you need to do: You need to invest in people by paying your employees enough to live on. And you need to invest in communities by sourcing your products locally.

Walmart can no longer dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to ship a bunch of stuff from across the ocean just so they can avoid paying people here enough to live.  That's a death economy. We want a life economy. For that, we need living wages on a living planet, powered by 100 percent clean energy. And you are the ones who are getting us there.

As much as Brune deserves credit for amplifying the Walmart workers’ courageous struggle, what;s even more impressive is the sustained commitment those workers have shown to the struggle to combat climate disruption, and their consciousness of the strategic importance of their efforts as the workforce of one of the world’s leading global climate polluters. 

Walmart has announced a decision to increase its purchases of products made in the U.S. If it keeps that promise, the growth of imports will decline, emissions will decline, and the U.S. will add jobs. As Brune said, "what's not to like about that?"  But Walmart has a history of falling short of its promises to become a more socially responsible company. It was 2005 when Walmart announced its commitment to shift U.S. operations to 100 percent clean energy. Nearly a decade later, according to a study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Walmart had barely inched its reliance on renewables up to three percent

Yet, four hours after Brune joined climate activist Bill McKibben in a telepresser last Black Friday criticizing Walmart's slow progress on renewables, the company announced a decision to install solar on an additional 400 stores over the next four years, and since then, the company has promised to "driv[e] the production or procurement of seven billion kWh of renewable energy globally by Dec. 31, 2020." Similarly, after Walmart workers, who have been organizing for years, struck the company, also last Black Friday, and kept the pressure on in the following months, Walmart agreed to raise wages, first for half a million associates (hourly workers) and then for a hundred thousand managers.
Of course these steps are not enough, and it will require redoubled pressure to make the world's largest retailer the company it claims to be. The point is that one has to be in serious denial to claim that the progress that has been achieved is the result of anything other than the strategic and no doubt uncomfortable (for Walmart’s executives and apologists) concerted pressure of social movements. It is also hard to deny that the workers and the environmentalists are accomplishing a lot more by hanging together than they would have by succumbing to Walmart’s efforts to divide their movements, in part via a sophisticated greenwashing effort. Taking the tempting bait offered by Walmart's corporate largesse would likely result in a reaffirmation of Ben Franklin's wisdom that these movements would "assuredly all hang separately."

In short, Brune's advocacy for Walmart workers, and their advocacy of stronger action on climate and clean energy by their employer, suggests that the strategic alliance between the Sierra Club and Walmart's workers is a recipe for success. Not only are the economic and climate justice movements substantively inseparable, they're simply more powerful together.

Dean Hubbard From Compass

Massive New Proposed Federal Coal Leases Sound Alarm Bells

Mon, 06/08/2015 - 13:39

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has just made an under-the-radar decision that threatens to set back U.S. progress on clean energy and climate change. President Obama has made some big steps forward on clean energy, including the Clean Power Plan which will reduce carbon pollution from power plants, and stronger fuel efficiency standards for cars, trucks and planes. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are competing dollar-for-dollar with fossil fuels, and advocates have won the retirement of 190 U.S. coal plants since 2010. Last year for the first time in over 40 years, carbon emissions flatlined while the economy grew. We are making progress toward clean energy in the U.S.

But a recent move by BLM would take us in exactly the opposite direction. BLM has just released a resource management plan that calls for up to 10 billion tons of coal development and thousands of new fracking and oil and gas wells in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. At a time when the rest of the Obama Administration is taking meaningful steps to address climate disruption, the carbon impact of BLM’s proposal is enormous. To put this in perspective, BLM’s plan could add up to 16.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere -- the equivalent of 19 times the carbon pollution generated by all U.S. passenger cars in a year.

Unfortunately, this plan, known as the Buffalo resource management plan, is not an outlier for BLM. As part of its landscape-level planning efforts, the agency is also proposing that industry be allowed to develop a whopping 71.2 billion tons of coal from BLM's Miles City planning area in Montana. At a time when scientists and policy experts around the globe are sounding the alarm about the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground in order to stave off the worst effects of climate disruption, why is BLM looking to lock in billions of tons of climate pollution that industry doesn’t need and the market can't sustain? This plan is frankly an industry dream that only highlights how disconnected BLM is from the urgency of the situation and how out of step the agency is with the rest of the Obama Administration on climate.

These dangerously short-sighted plans from the BLM are inconsistent with the Obama administration's climate change goals and out of step with the priorities of U.S. voters, who increasingly favor renewable energy over polluting coal.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who heads up the BLM, has expressed a desire to hold an "honest and open conversation" about reforming the federal coal program. She also acknowledges that government "must do more to cut greenhouse gas pollution that is warming our planet."

Turning vast new areas of federal lands over to private coal companies at a cost of billions of tons carbon pollution is not "doing more" to cut greenhouse gas pollution. Fossil fuels produced from public lands are not only costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars a year in climate change-related damages, they're also a sweetheart deal for coal companies that hits taxpayers in the pocketbook today, because the coal is sold at far below market price. Over the last 30 years, analysts estimate that the BLM has squandered nearly $30 billion by failing to charge market prices for coal mined on public lands

While the Sierra Club welcomes the Secretary's commitment to confront the climate challenges facing our country head on, we are still waiting for that open and honest conversation about the climate impacts of the federal coal program to begin. And until it does, the Sierra Club is calling on Secretary Jewell to at least be upfront with the public about the climate impacts of BLM's federal coal leasing program. "Business as usual" for BLM is taking the country down an expensive, unnecessary, and potentially ruinous climate path.

BLM's plans turn up the heat on a cooking planet at the very moment when the Obama administration is taking significant steps to demonstrate international leadership on climate. The U.S. simply cannot afford to keep subsidizing coal mining on public lands, and the Interior Department must not continue to blindly expand the scope of this program without informing itself and the public of the predictable, expensive, and avoidable climate consequences.

The Obama Administration's decisions about federal coal leasing are some of the most significant climate decisions this President will make. We need strong leadership from Secretary Jewell and President Obama, not business as usual from the BLM. Our future, and their climate legacy, depends on it. 

Photo of a coal mine in the Powder River Basin courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Mary Anne Hitt From Compass

The Myanmar Crossroads

Fri, 06/05/2015 - 11:50

With embargoes against Myanmar, also known as Burma, recently lifted, oil, gas, and coal industrialists are hungrily looking to the “last unopened Asian market” as a new source of wealth and power. Fossil fuel companies already have big plans to drill for natural gas and build massive new coal plants, both largely for export.


Many of the Burmese people, however, have other ideas.


Wherever coal plants or mines are proposed, communities are challenging them, and nowhere is that more true than in the town of Andin in Ye Township in the Mon State --  5,000 people joined the latest in a series of protests against a proposed 1,280 megawatt coal plant from the Thailand-based Japanese company Toyo-Thai Corporation PCL. (TTCL).


The TTCL plant is an example of the many problems that developers are keen to overlook as they rush headfirst into Myanmar. The project has massive opposition. A local parliamentarian estimates 90 percent of residents are opposed to the coal plant, and while TTCL promised a one-time payment of USD $1.5 million to locals, villagers estimate they generate USD $5.8 million every year from farming and fishing that would be jeopardized with this dangerous coal project.


Water is at the center of the frequent protests. The plant will draw in 210,000 liters and release what’s left, possibly with pollutants and at higher temperatures, potentially devastating the fish population locals depend on. On top of that, the local government has opposed a feasibility study for the project.


In fact, many of Myanmar’s proposed coal plants are in conflict zones, which seems surprising until you realize that the companies plan to export much of the power generated. This is particularly troubling when you consider that Myanmar has some of the lowest electrification rates in the world -- but grid connections are expensive and people and companies across the border can pay more. Marubeni has stated that it plans to export 80 percent of power generated from its proposed plant in Myeik to Thailand. Protests against the Marubeni plant led a local company involved in the project to say it will withdraw if there are impacts on the environment.


The impact of all these coal plants is difficult to gauge. Myanmar does not have a formalized project approval process or disclosure of information. In fact, the proposed coal plants are shrouded in secrecy. Villagers opposed to the TTCL plant in Mon say they have received little information or input on the project, and allege affiliated companies have deliberately misled them – claiming to purchase land for a fish and prawn pond when it was really for the coal plant.


The lack of information is also concerning from a technical standpoint. TTCL says it plans to complete the plant in a blistering 4-6 years. This is unheard of for such a large project, not to mention potentially dangerous.


Environmental impact assessments and other studies are not just about protecting local people, they also let builders know if the ground will subside under a project and a host of other potentially critical issues. The rush would almost be laughable, if the potential impacts weren’t so serious.


Also bordering on the absurd is the question of where the coal to fuel the TTCL and other proposed projects will even come from. Because Myanmar has limited domestic coal reserves -- and what it does have is poor quality -- most of these plants will rely on imported coal. However, in addition to not having an electricity grid in place to distribute the power once it is generated, the infrastructure to transport coal to the plants also doesn’t exist. Moreover, international coal markets are very volatile, which has caused projects relying on imported coal in India to stop being financially viable.


So we are looking at a rushed, poorly researched coal build out with little information disclosed and potentially devastating impacts on local communities, all for power that could largely be exported out of the country. Its a plant the country can’t accommodate and that the communities do not want.


The energy needs in Myanmar are very real, but this is clearly not the way. It is critical that the impact of these projects be analyzed, alternatives be considered, and the information be disclosed so local people have a voice in the decisions. This will help to make sure the solutions implemented actually work and deliver on their promises.


With this information, it’s clear that other energy options are more appealing. We have the technology to start deploying off-grid and mini-grid solutions today that will generate power where people need it, without waiting for costly grid extensions that may never happen, and without the power being exported abroad while devastating nearby communities. Additionally, unlike fossil fuel projects with their ongoing fuel costs, sunlight and wind are free.


Myanmar is at crossroads, and it is imperative decisions made now are informed and transparent to ensure it is the people, not just the fossil fuel companies, that benefit.

Nicole Ghio From Compass

High Schoolers Speak Out in Utah Solar Fee Debate

Tue, 06/02/2015 - 17:45

Figuring out how to face up to utility monopolies and government leaders is daunting, especially for people still in high school, but there’s no reason why we have to do it alone. In the face of a threat to the future of solar in Utah, I worked with a local advocacy group, Utah Clean Energy, to make sure our policymakers knew that young people want a clean energy future.


In recent months, two events occurred that will affect the growth of solar power in Utah: first, the utility company Rocky Mountain Power (RMP) renewed its efforts to impose a new charge on owners of solar panels; second, the Public Service Commission of Utah began an analysis of the costs and benefits of rooftop solar and, upon the conclusion of their analysis, will rule on whether RMP can implement the new fees.


This decision will not only determine the utility bills of current solar users; it will also determine the competitiveness of solar in Utah. A similar policy enacted by utility companies in Arizona resulted in more than a 40% reduction in new applications for residential solar, a devastating hit to a fledgling sector of clean energy consumption.


In response to this danger, I worked with Utah Clean Energy to write a petition on behalf of my school that urged the commission to take into account the full benefits of solar, rather than what RMP claimed were its costs. In January, I gathered nearly 200 signatures (in a school with fewer than 300 students) and submitted the letter to the commission alongside comments of hundreds of other Utah citizens.


I was surprised at the response my letter generated. In May, I spoke out about my school’s petition and the importance of solar at a press conference to bring additional visibility to the commission’s ongoing investigation. And what I had initially thought to be a small-scale project became the subject of interviews with television, radio, and newspaper networks. I realized that young people’s voices mattered and that making an impact on the policy process was not nearly as complicated as I had once thought.


We are surrounded with more than enough resources to help us make our voices heard. Reach out to a local organization or speak with your political science teacher or just do some research online – you’ll be sure to find individuals and materials to help you on your way.


Even something as seemingly small as a letter can send a powerful signal to our governments and our communities to show that young people are invested in clean energy. The decisions that are being made today will determine our future. We have the right and the ability to help determine it for ourselves.

Claire Wang From Compass

West Coast Warnings of Unfair Trade

Tue, 05/26/2015 - 08:59

Across the West Coast, where Sierra Club membership is robust and active, residents are seeing warnings of a trade deal that could disrupt the climate and the environment.

The United States is currently negotiating a trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, with 11 other Pacific Rim nations. The TPP would threaten almost every aspect of our lives: our environment, access to healthcare and affordable medicines, and even the food we eat, air we breathe, and water we drink. But we’re not allowed to see the text of the deal.



Even worse, the TPP’s investment chapter would give multinational corporations including Big Oil and Gas polluters the right to sue governments over clean air and water protections that corporations aledge reduce their profits.

The Sierra Club launched a targeted ad campaign in California, Washington, and Oregon exposing these and other risks. The TPP has the potential to undermine decades of environmental progress in our country and threaten our ability to keep dirty fuels in the ground where they below. The West Coast has always been at the forefront of environmental progress, so it is critical to shed light on this toxic trade deal.  


The ad blitz, which includes radio airtime in English and Spanish, online ads, billboards, and even ads on public transportation, focuses on just a few of the major threats of the TPP -- including that the TPP could increase fracking and threaten environmental protections because of corporate privileges in the deal. It exposes the complete and total lack of transparency of the ongoing negotiations of the TPP. Not only are talks going on behind closed doors, but every indication shows the TPP has the potential to wash away protections we rely on to clean up our air and water from pollution and other vital safeguards.

You can hear the radio ad, aptly-named “Secret” (or “Secreto” in Spanish), that states “If you think it’s wrong for Americans to be left in the dark, while some of the world's worst corporate polluters are actively involved in shaping the text of this pact, then visit to demand fair trade, not toxic trade.”  We’ve taken to billboards, radio, television, transit, and online to spread a warning cry.  You can add your name to demand fair trade, not toxic trade, too


Kate McCormick From Compass

Santa Barbara Oil Spill Yet Another Reason Why We Need Clean Energy Solutions

Fri, 05/22/2015 - 13:37

As a former graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, I remember vividly my time spent at Refugio State Beach on so many gorgeous sunny afternoons. The scene was almost too beautiful to believe, with glittering green water, chalky white cliffs dotted with palm trees, and so many dolphins that you were almost guaranteed to catch a glimpse of one every time.

Which makes it all the more painful to see the pictures of this spectacular beach now marred by more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil, polluting more than nine miles of the Santa Barbara coast.  This spill is such a stark reminder of the fact that even the most pristine, cherished places are not safe from the very real impacts of our continued dependence on fossil fuels—and a demonstration that it truly is a matter of when, not if, this infrastructure will spill and tarnish our land and water.

We've seen the heartbreaking photos of beachgoers trying to rescue oil soaked birds from the blackened beaches, aerial photos of migrating whales appearing to swim directly through the slick, and oiled sea lions lying on the beach. And this pipeline was only pumping 1,300 to 2,000 barrels per hour—a mere fraction of the 800,000 barrels per day that the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would pump through the critical Ogalalla aquifer in the fragile Sandhills region of Nebraska. Although California Governor Jerry Brown has declared an official state of emergency in response to the spill, officials indicate the cleanup effort could take months.

So how we can continue to deepen our reliance on oil, allowing pipelines to slice across our heartland and oil rigs to punch holes into the Arctic seafloor, when we see these devastating consequences again and again? We know that the few safety regulations that do exist to govern the oil industry’s dirty deeds are barely enforced and are hardly sufficient to truly protect our land and water—let alone our climate.

We know that that these companies cannot and should not be entrusted to protect our natural resources on their own (the company responsible for the Santa Barbara spill seems to be a particularly negligent actor, with a rate of safety violations more than three times the national average). We also know that if we hope to avoid increasingly disastrous effects of climate change, like the record-breaking, debilitating drought California is currently suffering, we need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels sooner rather than later.

And yet, we also know that the solutions to this problem are out there—we simply need the political will to make them happen. As Governor Brown has emphasized with his visionary commitment to cut California’s oil use 50 percent by 2030, we can decrease the oil we use as a society by investing in public transportation, community planning, and efficient vehicles. We don’t need ever-increasing oil resources, brought to us by increasingly extreme and dangerous oil infrastructure, like oil rigs in the Arctic ocean, exploding bomb trains (which soon may be coming to the Santa Barbara coast if we don’t stop them), or massive tar sands pipelines. What we need is a firm commitment to clean energy solutions and  regulations that will keep our communities and climate safe while we bring those solutions to scale.

It’s devastating to see what’s happening in Santa Barbara, and my thoughts are with the community, workers, and wildlife harmed by the spill.  Let’s not let this happen yet again. It’s time to stand together and demand that our elected officials invest in the clean energy solutions and regulatory protections that can truly safeguard our communities and our climate.

TAKE ACTION: Stop the proposed Alberta Clipper tar sands oil pipeline!

Top photo: A dead, oiled octopus washed up on Refugio State Beach. Photo courtesy of Mike Eliason. Second photo is of the oil spill's pathway from pipeline to Refugio State Beach. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Lena Moffitt From Compass

A Victory in the Decades-Long Fight for Environmental Justice in the Gulf and Beyond

Fri, 05/22/2015 - 13:04

Suzie Canales never planned on going back home. But, when she saw what was happening to her family, her friends, and her neighbors in her community, she could not stay away.

In 1999, Suzie visited Corpus Christi from Illinois at a time of tragedy. Her sister Diana had passed away at the age of 42 due to breast cancer, and she was back in Texas for the funeral. As she explained to, it was there that she heard people repeatedly tell her that many others in the area around her sister’s age also faced cancer, prompting Canales to begin to question whether or not, in a community home to industrial facilities like refineries and power plants, something in the local environment could have contributed to her sister’s death and the deaths of so many others.

From there, she started organizing in her community, co-founding Citizens for Environmental Justice (CFEJ) to dig into exactly what was getting into the local air and water. Over the years, Canales and CFEJ mobilized around some of the more egregious cases of environmental injustice in the country. Among the largest problems were upsets, malfunctions, and flaring of gases that would happen all hours of the night and day, or while children were at school, and all without enforcement or penalties by state or federal agencies. As it turned out, the facilities were getting a free pass to pollute during those episodes, and the communities had little recourse as a result.

Today the Obama Administration and the EPA issued a much-needed, long-overdue public health safeguard that marks the beginning of the end of those regulatory loopholes in 38 states that have for decades allowed big polluters to dump huge amounts of off-the-books harmful air pollution onto neighboring communities with impunity.

The new Clean Air Act protection -- called the Startup, Shutdown, and Malfunction (SSM) Emissions standard -- will help protect some of society's most vulnerable communities from big polluters. It reflects many years of hard work from citizen and environmental groups and legal advocates across the country, and stems from a 2011 Sierra Club petition and years of pressure by environmental justice organizations like CFEJ urging EPA to initiate a rulemaking to redress the widespread problems. 

This is a jaw-dropper - some industrial facilities, such as coal plants and oil refineries, often release more toxic pollution at times of startup, shutdown, and malfunctions than they emit during normal operations throughout the entire year, presenting major health risks to people with asthma, children, and seniors who are just trying to go about their daily business. The toxics that pour out during these incidents can instigate asthma attacks, exacerbate conditions like bronchitis and emphysema, and contribute to thousands of premature deaths annually.

In Corpus Christi, Canales and CFEJ organized for safeguards that would curb pollution from routine day-in day-out emissions, pushed for enforcement of laws that were routinely violated, and raised attention to the problems of all the upsets, malfunctions, and flaring events that poured toxics into the air of her community -- and she took her fight about industrial emissions and closing the SSM loophole straight to the top. During a one-on-one meeting with then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2010, she promptly voiced her dismay at the level of governmental neglect shown to the most vulnerable communities. And she wasn’t alone. Over the last 30 years activists from so many affected communities organized, spoke out, went to court, and amped up the pressure in the fight for environmental justice.

Today, they scored a victory on the long road to real environmental justice with the new SSM standard. In the 38 states where this loophole was exploited in communities like Corpus Christi, polluters will be reined in, the air will be cleaner, and kids can breathe easier.

"For decades industrial plants have received a free pass from the Clean Air Act every time they have upsets or malfunctions. These emissions create giant plumes of pollution that make our eyes water and pollute our communities. I’m glad the EPA is finally pushing states to address this problem. Children walking to and from school must be protected from off-the-book emissions from big facilities," said Canales.

EPA’s action is just the beginning of a long road ahead until fenceline communities can finally breathe cleaner air. The rule establishes a deadline of 18 months for states to propose fixes to their rules that are consistent with the statute. And after EPA approves a state’s rules, each facility’s permit will need to be modified. Still, closing the SSM loopholes is a great step forward to ensure that all people have access to clean air and water, no matter where they live or who they are.

Photo is of a playground in the shadow of a power plant in River Rouge, Michigan.

Mary Anne Hitt From Compass

Presidents’ Climate Commitment: Campus Carbon Neutrality and Loyola University Maryland

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 18:45

Growing up in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, I witnessed the effects of climate change and pollution directly. Every year, I saw tides of the Miles River creep closer and closer to my doorstep; I witnessed shorelines being washed away; I sat and listened as teachers, skipjacks, and waterman talked about the number of dead zones in the Bay rising, and the number of oysters diminishing; and I watched defenselessly as the unique cultures of Smith, Tangier, and Poplar Island progressively wash away. I knew there needed to be change, and Loyola’s campus seemed like a good place to start.   


I began taking action on energy issues through a club I had been a part of since my freshman year, Loyola University Maryland’s Environmental Action Club.


This past school year, Loyola University Maryland’s Environmental Action Club has been pressuring our President, Father Brian Linnane, to sign the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. By signing, Loyola would be agreeing to go climate neutral and have two years to make a carbon neutrality plan.  We also asked that the first step be purchasing 15% of the University’s energy from renewable sources starting this summer when the energy contracts are renewed.


Last year, Loyola's EAC presented this commitment to Father Linnane along with about 500 signatures from students, faculty, and administration.  Father Linnane pushed aside student and faculty concerns and said to ‘wait and come back in the fall’ claiming it was too late in the school year to take action.


So at the start of this year, I emailed Father Linnane to see if now could be the time to commit to going climate neutral by 2020, 2025, or even 2030.  It took him months to respond. He finally got back to us on Christmas Eve, he said no…again. This time we took it up a notch.


Just getting people to sign their name was not going to cut it.  Instead, we had people write why sustainability at Loyola matters to them, and then, sign their name.  This showed that people were taking more than two or three seconds to sign their name on a piece of paper.  They were taking time to think about why they cared.


On top of this, some students, faculty, and administrators wrote full letters explaining why sustainability at Loyola matters to them and why it is important that Father Linnane sign the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.  For Earth Week 2015, we submitted over 450 of these letters, with the last letters being submitted on Earth Day by a large group of students.  Unfortunately, he did not show up to receive the letters, but at least we filled up his office!


Last week, I received an email response from Father Linnane.  Again, he said no.  He said that, while the University is already doing the majority of the requirements of the Commitment, he cannot fully commit to all that is required of the University if he were to sign the document.  He did not mention anything about the 15% renewable energy.


Father Linnane denied my request to meet with him before my graduation over this past weekend, but did agree that the Interim President, Dr. Susan Donovan, who will take Father Linnane’s place during his six month sabbatical starting this summer, will be more than happy to meet with Alex Torres, the next Environmental Action Club President, in the Fall.


Our next step is to propose a signing of the Catholic Climate Covenant. While this does not mean as much work on the University’s part, it still means that they will be taking a stance on Environmental issues that we must address.


My hope is that Father Linnane, or Dr. Susan Donovan, will sign the Catholic Climate Covenant; the Environmental Action Club will continue its growing presence on campus in order to create a culture shift within our student body’s mindset and an energy shift in our University for 100% clean energy; and that I will not see the complete disappearance of Smith, Tangier, and Poplar Islands within my lifetime.


I will end with one of my favorite quotes.  There is a Greek Proverb that says: “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.”  I hope that those trees will be planted on Loyola’s campus within the coming years.

Taylor Rogers From Compass

Cash on the Hood of an Electric Car

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 13:22

You've probably heard of that psychology study that found children are more likely to go for one marshmallow now than the promise of two marshmallows later.  Researchers at UC Davis found that car buyers are no different and are more likely to buy the car and take advantage of an immediate discount -like a rebate accessible within several weeks- than one that comes with a tax credit available several months later, even if the longer-term one is of higher value.

This week, Governor Dannel Malloy of Connecticut wisely announced a new electric car rebate program that gives a more immediate discount than any other state has provided to date; you get the rebate right at the dealership whether you're leasing or buying the car. In the car-selling world, they call that "cash on the hood of the car."

Though plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) are cheaper to fuel and maintain than conventional cars, they tend to have higher upfront costs. EVs are much lower in carbon emissions than conventional cars, even factoring in the emissions from the electricity used to charge them. That's why we need consumer incentives for EVs to bring the cost down and accelerate consumer interest.

California, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania offer EV rebate programs of $1,500 to $2,500, and Colorado offers a tax credit of up to $6,000. These are all on top of the up to $7,500 federal tax credit on plug-in cars.

But for all these rebates and credits, consumers must wait several weeks or up to several months for their money. In Connecticut, the state pay-back is immediate. For plug-in vehicles with small batteries, it's $750, with medium-sized batteries, it's $1,500, and with large batteries, it's $3,000 off the base price of the car. That's real money!

Another unique aspect of the Connecticut program is that it's not just available for individual consumers, but also for businesses, non-profits, and municipalities. And the rebates will stretch a little further because high-end cars like the Tesla won't qualify for this discount. Additionally, the dealer gets a small commission in exchange for a bit extra paperwork during the deal.

The initial program is only funded at $1 million (not using tax-payer dollars, I might add), which will likely run out in the next several months. That's why we need longer term resources for this program (and those in other states). Connecticut is part of an eight state collaborative to get 10 million zero emission vehicles on the road by 2025 as one important way to slash dangerous air pollution. We have long road to travel to get there, so rebates like this one need a longer shelf life to jumpstart consumer interest in these cars, which happen to be really fun to drive. The Sierra Club is part of the Connecticut Electric Vehicle Coalition that will continue to educate the public and policymakers about the benefits of switching to EVs.

Georgia and Illinois recently ditched their EV discount programs. This means we need more forward-thinking policymakers like Malloy to step up and help accelerate this market. Malloy said when announcing this program, "…new technologies - such as EVs - can help us build a healthy economy, create jobs, and address the energy and environmental challenges we face. These new CHEAPR rebates will provide an added incentive for consumers to embrace new approaches and help lead the way to a more sustainable future."

Sierra Club intern Christina Rohrbacher contributed to this article. Photo courtesy of Darrell Clarke. You can follow Gina on Twitter at @GinaDrivingEV.

Gina Coplon-Newfield From Compass

Power for All Campaign: Seeking a Faster Timeline for Universal Energy Access

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 09:36


This week, the Sierra Club is participating in the second annual United Nations Sustainable Energy for All Forum in New York, a forum bringing together key world actors advocating for sustainably to address the problem of energy poverty worldwide. Representatives from civil society, universities, national governments, and multilateral institutions are in attendance to address questions of policy, technology, and financing relating to energy access.


Among several new initiatives being announced this week is Power for All, a global education and advocacy campaign dedicated to promoting clean, decentralized energy solutions as the fastest, most cost-effective, and sustainable approach to universal energy access. Power for All seeks to accelerate universal energy access by asking governments, lenders, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the private sector, and energy consumers to respond to specific calls to action in order achieve universal energy access by 2025.  Founders include d.light, the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association, Greenlight Planet, Off-Grid Electric, Practical Action, and SolarAid.


Almost all of the 1.2 billion people currently without access to electricity live in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia. Of those without access, 85 percent are in rural areas where the fossil-fuel powered grid has failed to reach them on a reasonable timescale, and centralized energy generation is expensive, inefficient, and often unhealthy.  


“By focusing on key accelerators that will help leapfrog ‘business as usual’ energy delivery -- just as mobile phones leapfrogged landlines in the developing world -- we believe that we can achieve universal energy access in half the time for a fraction of the anticipated costs,” said Kristina Skierka, Campaign Director for Power for All.  


Graph courtesy of Power for All



While a global campaign, Power for All intends to focus on a critical mass of countries with significant energy access needs, including several which happen to also be prioritized in the U.S. government’s Power Africa initiative: Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania.  


Power for All includes active engagement by the off-grid clean energy sector, which represents decentralized solutions to energy poverty that do not rely on grid extension.  


“We shouldn’t have to wait a generation for universal energy access. Decentralized, renewable market-based solutions can deliver energy access today,” said Koen Peters, Executive Director of the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association (GOGLA). “The market for solar light and power in the developing world is growing very fast to meet demand, and already reaching millions of households. Several GOGLA member companies are already outpacing the world’s traditional electrical utilities in terms of number of customers.”


GOGLA’s members include companies utilizing pay-as-you-go business models which offer flexible payment options for energy customers -- often using mobile money technology.  A recent report by Lighting Global, a program of the World Bank Group, found that mobile money “catalyzes clean energy uptake among off-grid users.”    


In advance of the COP21 international climate negotiations -- the annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference being hosted in Paris starting this November -- Power for All is issuing a call to action for policymakers, stakeholders, entrepreneurs and customers engaged in driving universal energy access for the billion-plus people without reliable power worldwide. With its launch, Power for All will urge governments, investors, development agencies, foundations, and nongovernmental organizations to mobilize their resources in support of clean, decentralized solutions.

Vrinda Manglik From Compass

How Trade Could Lead to A Big Fracking Mess

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 08:07



Across the country, towns and communities are organizing against the destructive practice of fracking, and passing scores of bans and moratoriums against the practice. Unfortunately, wherever local communities have been able to pass these measures, the oil and gas industry has been ready to meet them with legal challenges. Some of these challenges have been successful – such as in Fort Collins, Colorado, where a voter-approved fracking moratorium was overturned by a judge in August 2014 – but others have failed. Prior to the passage of the state’s ban on fracking, for example, a New York judge ruled that towns could use zoning laws to prohibit oil and gas extraction, and in 2013 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down a state law preventing municipalities from enacting their own fracking bans.


These pro- vs. anti-fracking legal disputes can take on a David-and-Goliath feel. For example, the oil and gas industry spent more than $500,000 on advertising and brochures to fight the fracking ban in the town of Longmont, Colorado – more than 10 times what activists originally spent to enact it. But the New York and Pennsylvania rulings show that communities still have a fighting chance in U.S. courts. However, provisions within two massive international trade deals currently under negotiation could shift these fights away from the U.S. legal system and into a private court system exclusively available to multinational corporations, further stacking the deck against local communities.


The trade deals are the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), negotiated, respectively, with partners in the Pacific Rim and the European Union. While the U.S. administration is moving ahead full steam with the pacts, prominent lawmakers such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and Representative Rosa DeLauro have publically expressed their opposition to various provisions in the deals, and for good reason.

The deals are huge and would affect every aspect of our lives, from the quality of the food we eat to the air we breathe and the water we drink (which you can read about here and here). Potentially most threatening to the movement to stop fracking, however, is a set of rules called investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS.

ISDS grants foreign corporations the right to sue governments in private trade courts, in retaliation for policies that threaten a company’s profits. Over the last few decades both the number of trade and investments agreements including ISDS and the number of cases brought has exploded, making ISDS a way for deep-pocketed multinationals to fight environmental, health, and safety regulations.


Consider the case of Lone Pine Resources v. Canada. In 2011, the province of Quebec issued a moratorium on fracking under the St. Lawrence River, pending the result of a study of fracking’s health and environmental effects. The province was almost immediately hit with a $250 million lawsuit by Lone Pine Resources, Inc., a U.S.-based oil and gas firm, under NAFTA investment provisions similar to those proposed for TPP. Lone Pine’s suit argued that the government’s action constituted an “arbitrary, capricious, and illegal revocation of the enterprise’s valuable right to mine for oil and gas under the St. Lawrence River.” The suit is still being litigated, but it’s obvious that these suits can have a chilling effect on safeguards.

After the tobacco company Philip Morris sued Australia in an investor-state case for introducing plain-packaging laws for cigarettes, for example, New Zealand’s Ministry of Health announced that it would delay implementation of a similar law until a verdict was reached in the Australian case. Presumably, a large reward in favor of the tobacco giant would make the safeguard less attractive, even when the government knows it would save lives. A list of some of the more egregious ISDS cases can be found here.

As the cases above show, corporations have been using ISDS to challenge regulations that threaten their profits, even when the health and safety of communities are at stake. U.S. corporations are already using whatever legal tools are available to prevent communities from passing protections from fracking – ISDS provisions in the TPP and possibly in TTIP  would just add another tool to the corporate toolbox.


Park MacDougald From Compass

Asheville Coal Plant to Retire After High Profile Three-Year Campaign; Clean Energy Work To Continue

Wed, 05/20/2015 - 13:28

This week I want to honor some of the most hard-working activists on our Beyond Coal campaign - Team Asheville in North Carolina. After years of rallies, public meetings, educational forums, leadership from the Asheville City council,  letter-writing, and even a visit from TV star Ian Somerhalder, on Tuesday, all that hard work paid off.  Duke Energy announced it will retire its filthy Asheville coal plant, the 190th plant to announce retirement during the Beyond Coal campaign.

While Duke is unfortunately ignoring Asheville residents' demands of replacing it entirely with clean energy (Duke plans to replace the plant with natural gas), these tireless activists can still claim a victory to be proud of - winning a reprieve for the French Broad river from coal ash, eliminating the region's biggest source of air and climate pollution, and a making a strong show of grassroots power that held one of the nation’s most powerful companies accountable.

"Duke's announcement to retire the coal plant came with the unwelcome news of a new gas plant, which of course is not the vision we hold for a clean energy economy here in North Carolina," said Kelly Martin of Asheville Beyond Coal. "We claimed our victory, but stayed honest about the outcome. At least now there is an end in sight to the coal ash pollution, the sulfur dioxide pollution, and the carbon pollution from this plant."

The Asheville coal plant was featured by Showtime's Emmy-award winning climate series "Years of Living Dangerously," and I traveled to Asheville several times, both for the series, and to support the campaign, which became even more intense after Duke spilled coal ash into North Carolina's Dan River (for which they just ran apology ads in major newspapers nationwide). Just a few days ago, Duke pled guilty in federal court for Clean Water Act violations from coal ash at plants across the state, including at the Asheville plant.

I know first-hand  that Asheville's powerhouse team of clean energy advocates from Asheville Beyond Coal including MountainTrue, Waterkeeper Alliance, French Broad Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center, along with thousands of individuals and local leaders, will continue their work to move beyond fossil fuels in their city and in all of North Carolina. For years they hammered this Duke Energy coal plant for its Clean Water Act violations, its coal ash pollution, and its immense air pollution and today they’re one giant step closer to a clean, healthy Western North Carolina.

Let's look at some of the highlights from the years of accomplishments they achieved on the road to Tuesday's announcement:

October 2012: More than 100 citizens and Asheville Beyond Coal activists formed a flotilla on Lake Julian -- in front of Asheville's coal-fired power plant -- to raise three 17-foot banners to deliver the message loud and clear, "Let's Move Asheville Beyond Coal." That photo is at the top of this blog post.

August 2013: Hundreds of people gather for a rally encouraging Asheville to move beyond coal by retiring the plant. The rally includes Vampire Diaries star and enviro activist Ian Somerhalder.

October 2013: After amazing pressure from residents, the Asheville City Council voted unanimously to approve a resolution to move Asheville from coal-fired electricity toward a clean energy future.
May 2014: Showtime's "Years of Living Dangerously" series airs its episode on Asheville's coal battle and local activist Anna Jane Joyner, and it even includes yours truly.
Ads, ads, ads! In 2013, 2014, and 2015, Asheville Beyond Coal aired TV ads about the filthy Duke Energy coal plant in their city and how it needs to be retired.
February 2015: The team continues blasting Duke Asheville plant for fouling the air and water, this time with a report showing that the plant has been emitting harmful sulfur dioxide pollution at levels considered unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency for the past several years.
I look forward to seeing Asheville residents continue to push for clean energy. I know they will succeed. They are an inspiration to me, and to climate clean air and climate advocates nationwide.

Mary Anne Hitt From Compass