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Tata Mundra: The newest World Bank coal project disaster

1 May 2014 - 10:42am
Tata Mundra coal-burning power plant serves as the backdrop for this local community in India. Photo courtesy of Joe Athialy.

The World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim and the bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) are at a crossroads -- they can either choose to to be on the right side of human rights and the environment, or they can continue ignoring the facts.

In 2009, the IFC loaned $15 million to a Honduran palm oil company -- Corporation Dinant (Dinant) -- despite public allegations of violence and intimidation. In that same year, a coup, allegedly backed by Dinant’s owner Miguel Facussé, overthrew president Manuel Zelaya and set off a wave of violence, causing Honduras to be labeled the most murderous country in the world. Since 2010, over 100 leaders from the rural farming communities have been murdered, including 40 linked to Dinant and the company’s forcible eviction of families in a campaign of terror against farmers.

But instead of responding to the growing crisis, the IFC dug in deeper, approving a $70 million loan to one of Dinant's biggest creditors, Banco Financiera Comercial Hondureña.

In response to growing complaints, Compliance Adviser Ombudsman (CAO) --  the independent investigative mechanism of the IFC -- reviewed the IFC’s involvement and issued a damning report, citing the IFC for failing to follow its own Integrity Due Diligence Procedure. This procedure is used “for identifying and documenting the potential risks associated with unethical and illegal activities which include environmental, social, governance and financial crime issues such as child labor, corruption, fraud, and money laundering.”

The IFC, however, appeared not to care. In a response signed-off on by President Kim, the IFC largely dismissed the CAO findings rather than taking meaningful action to correct the harm that had been done. This sparked a wave of protests from civil society groups in Honduras and overseas, forcing the IFC to make a U-turn only weeks later, admitting its failings and promising to draft a real action plan to address Dinant’s violent practices.

Unfortunately, Dinant is not an isolated case.

The CAO also upheld the complaints of fishing communities in Gujarat, India that were facing severe health effects and loss of livelihood as a result of the 4,000-megawatt coal-burning power plant, Tata Mundra. Tata Mundra has already received a $450 million loan from the IFC.

And just as with Dinant, the IFC appeared not to care about the CAO’s finding. The weak IFC response sparked outrage amongst environmental and human rights activists, promoting a series of scathing open letters to President Kim, one from over 100 groups in India and a second from over 68 groups in 28 countries.

However, unlike in the case with Dinant, the IFC is refusing to back down on Tata Mundra.

Tata Mundra’s backers in the IFC claimed the project would improve energy access in India, despite the dangerous local health and environmental effects. But realistically, generating more power from centralized coal projects like Tata Mundra rarely helps the rural poor, who cannot access the electricity without costly grid extensions -- extensions that may never happen. Despite any notion that Tata Mundra would help alleviate energy poverty, that idea was thrown out the window when the coal plant’s costs skyrocketed, and the Tata corporation requested a bailout from the government in the form of higher rates for consumers -- well beyond what India’s unelectrified population can afford to pay.

This situation would have been avoided had financiers like the IFC conducted adequate financial analysis that would have revealed these ‘too good to be true’ cost estimates. Furthermore, the crisis could become even more dire, with plans underfoot to add an additional 1,600-megawatts of generating capacity to the Tata Mundra, putting even more strain on local communities.

Earlier this month, Bharat Patel, general secretary of Machimar Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan (MASS) – or the Association for the Struggle for Fishworkers' Rights -- delivered over 24,000 signatures to President Kim during the World Bank spring meetings. The petitioners were calling on the IFC to recognize the mistakes it had made with Tata Mundra and put forward an action plan to address the lasting effects caused by the massive coal-burning power plant. Specifically, the petitioners demanded the World Bank :

  • Recognize the IFC policy violations and the serious impacts Tata Mundra has had on local communities, as confirmed by the CAO audit;

  • Develop a remedial action plan that has a clear timeline, specific targets, and measurable indicators to address restoration and reparation needs;

  • Withdraw IFC funding immediately from the Tata coal plant and rule out funding for project expansion.

It is not too late for Dr. Kim and the World Bank to make the right choice. In recent meetings with Bank Information Center (BIC), MASS, and the Sierra Club, the IFC pledged to reject any proposal to fund Tata Mundra’s expansion -- but this is not enough.

The IFC must publicly recognize the harm they’ve already caused to the people and environment of Gujarat and develop a meaningful action plan that addresses the damage. Furthermore, the World Bank and President Kim must ensure that Dinant and Tata Mundra are the last projects to flagrantly disregard local environmental and health effects, and are not the beginning of a new wave of dangerous and deadly ventures.

--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Nearly Half of Americans Live with Unhealthy Air

30 April 2014 - 10:49am

The American Lung Association released its annual "State of the Air" report today, and its disturbing overall finding was: "Nearly half of all Americans - more than 147 million - live in counties in the U.S. where ozone or particle pollution levels make the air unhealthy to breathe."

While there was some good news to report - "the continued reduction of year-round particle pollution across the nation, thanks to cleaner diesel fleets and cleaner power plants"- climate disruption is posing a serious air pollution threat, at the same time that ozone pollution is increasing nationwide. As temperatures rise, ozone pollution gets worse, threatening public health.

The long-standing problem of smog throughout the country is another why it's so important that we continue to move beyond coal to clean energy. Pollution from coal-fired power plants leads to smog (or ground-level ozone), a toxic compound and a dangerous irritant. Doctors liken inhaling smog to getting a sunburn on your lungs. It can cause chest pain, coughing, and breathing difficulties. It triggers asthma attacks, and it can lead to irreversible lung damage or even death. Smog exacerbates conditions like bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma - sometimes fatally.

Here are some more national findings from the 2014 State of the Air:

  • More than 27.8 million people in the United States (8.9 percent of our population) live in 17 counties with unhealthful levels of all pollutants measured in the report.
  • Twenty-two of the 25 most ozone-polluted cities in the 2014 report - including Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago - had more high ozone days on average when compared to the 2013 report.
  • Thirteen of the 25 cities with the worst year-round particle pollution reached their lowest levels yet, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Bakersfield.

You should take a look at the full "State of the Air" report, which allows you to look up air-quality ratings by zip code and also provides resourcing for taking action to clean up our air.

Categories: Sierra Club National

Sierra Club Makes it Easier for Corporate Fleets to go Tar-Sands-Free

29 April 2014 - 4:40pm

By Michael Marx, Beyond Oil Campaign Director

Today the Sierra Club released its new Tar Sands Fuel in Corporate Fleets report outlining steps that corporations can take to avoid fuels derived from tar sands crude in their company's cars and trucks. The report identifies 39 U.S. oil refineries that do not process tar sands crude into gasoline and diesel fuel. Though it is difficult for individuals to know the source of the fuel they buy at the pump, corporations with large vehicle fleets are often able to choose the sources of the fuel they use. The Sierra Club is asking companies to avoid whenever possible fuel derived from the high-carbon, highly polluting Alberta tar sands.

Oil refined from tar sands is one of the dirtiest sources of fuel on Earth. And while companies across America are making progress in raising fuel efficiency, burning oil from tar sands means taking two steps backward. The State Department estimates that oil from tar sands is 17 percent more carbon intensive than oil from conventional crude, but when you add destruction of boreal forest in Canada and the burning of pet coke, that number is actually much higher. Additionally, the tar sands industry is dumping vast amounts of toxic pollution in waterways and threatening indigenous communities. Fuel efficiency and sustainability gains can be wiped out when you fill that vehicle with oil from tar sands.

Through the Future Fleet campaign, the Sierra Club and ForestEthics have been pushing companies such as PepsiCo, which operates an enormous fleet of vehicles in the U.S., to slash overall oil consumption and reduce reliance on tar sands fuel. Already, 19 companies, including Walgreens, Whole Foods, and Columbia Sportswear have committed to take action on tar sands fuel for their vehicle fleet and shipping operations. Other companies interested in taking action on tar sands have expressed confusion over the chain of custody for petroleum. With this new information on refineries, it's easier for fleet operators to know where their fuels are coming from and avoid the dirtiest sources of oil. I'll be talking with companies about how this report can help them avoid tar sands fuel. 

The Sierra Club report, along with a map showing U.S. refineries' tar sands usage, can be viewed here.  More detail from Oil Change International on refineries that process and don't process tar sands crude can be found at www.RefineryReport.org.

The climate movement and the Keystone XL campaign are shining a bright light on the oil industry's dangerous shift to more extreme sources of oil. The first step for any company is to reduce the amount of oil they use. A second important step is to understand the source of their fuels, and, whenever possible, avoid the worst fuels in the market place. Tar sands tops the list when it comes to a rapidly growing fuel source with a devastating environmental impact.

Categories: Sierra Club National

Supreme Court: One State's Coal Pollution Not Allowed to Make Another State's Families Sick

29 April 2014 - 10:19am

In a huge victory for public health, today the Supreme Court issued its opinion in a case considering the EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution rule, which is designed to protect Americans from dangerous air pollution from coal-fired power plants.

In a 6-2 decision, the court delivered a resounding victory for clean air and public health, affirming EPA's authority to deliver a protection that will reduce soot and smog pollution from power plants in 28 states, improve air quality, and reduce life-threatening respiratory illnesses that affect millions of Americans.

Air pollution from power plants doesn’t stop at the state line, and without this strong safeguard, communities living downwind from coal plants would have suffered greater exposure to severe health problems. The Cross-State Air Pollution rule will prevent thousands of premature deaths, avoid 19,000 hospital and emergency room visits, prevent 1.8 million missed work and school days, and improve the lives of millions every year.
 
I grew up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, one of the many places where this standard will make a big difference. In the Smokies, we suffer from air pollution blowing in from the many coal plants in the Tennessee and Ohio Valleys. That is the very "cross state air pollution" that this safeguard will reduce.

The Cross State Air Pollution standard is an update of a system that has been in place in the eastern half of the U.S. for years, to set air pollution levels for the coal plants in the region. This region-wide system was created to help alleviate coal pollution generated in one state and blowing into many others. When I was growing up in the Smokies, the predecessor to the cross-state rule delivered results: it made our air cleaner and safer, reduced acid rain, and helped clear the endangered mountain views that were the bedrock of our tourism-based economy. But there is still more work to do, because power plant pollution still harms public health and local economies.

The Cross-State Air Pollution rule updated that time-tested system to reflect the latest science and better protect public health. Unfortunately, the rule’s fate was thrown into question after industry and a handful of states challenged the rule and prevailed in a lower court. But today the Supreme Court, in a clear and unambiguous ruling, affirmed the EPA's authority to regulation air pollution that crosses state boundaries.

Today’s decision upheld the rule in its entirety, in a resounding victory for EPA, clean air, and public health. Now the people of East Tennessee, and many other states and cities, can look forward to cleaner air. The ruling means that parents won't see as many "red alert" air quality days forcing their kids to stay indoors, and we can keep making progress in cleaning up unhealthy air. It also means that coal plants in the central and eastern US that have not yet installed modern pollution controls will be under more pressure to finally deal with their air pollution.

In the U.S., more than more than 40 percent of people live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution. Americans need the Cross State Air Pollution because it will improve air quality for much of the nation. This updated safeguard means that, for the first time in years, the air that people breathe in cities across the central and eastern United States will more likely meet minimum public health safety standards.
 
Next, we will press ahead to implement the Cross State Air Pollution rule to make sure the air is cleaner for everyone. But for now, let's take a moment to celebrate this major, historic victory for clean air and healthy families.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Director

Categories: Sierra Club National

Bullets Can’t Stop India’s Coal-Fighting Heroes

28 April 2014 - 1:05pm

Indian economic development is at a critical juncture. From slowing economic growth to the depreciating rupee to widespread disgust with rampant corruption, India’s “anything goes” model has failed to provide a realistic, prosperous future for its people. Across the country, local communities have been steamrolled by reckless expansion of coal plants and coal mines that have displaced local communities, destroyed the remaining Indian forests, and ravaged the livelihoods of those left in their wake.

But today, the Goldman Environmental Prize is shining a spotlight on one of the grassroots activists that has fought back against this devastation. Ramesh Agrawal, one of this year’s recipients, comes from Chhattisgarh, India. The tenth largest state in India, Chhattishgarh is a place where the devastating reality of a reliance on coal can be seen every day.

Photo courtesy of Justin Guay.

“I found it impossible to say ‘This is OK’ while in India’s coal country,” wrote National Geographic contributor Rob Kendrick, who documented coal mining in Chhattisgarh in a powerful series of photographs  . “I’ve worked in India for 22 years and I’ve seen a lot of poverty but always the people were safe, clean, and lived reasonably. This time was different.

“Human suffering happens in many places.This situation is not unique, but entire communities being pushed down so far to provide something that comforts some just seems grotesque. It would be like a farmer growing food for others while seeing his own family face hunger.”

What Kendrick has described is the day-to-day reality for the average Indian living in Chhattisgarh and other coal mining areas -- and the atmosphere that surrounded Ramesh’s community. But the even darker secret surrounding these areas is the horror that awaits activists like him that are brave enough to stand up to big coal and demand justice.

The Goldman Prize is awarded annually to six grassroots activists who made “sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.” That description fits Ramesh - and the circumstances he and other activists face every day -  perfectly.

Over the years, the residents of these coal towns have witnessed horrors that seemingly have no bounds, from intimidation of locals to the brutal murder of a nun who was seeking compensation for mining-affected communities.

This was the history of coal mining that preceded Ramesh when he first saw the fliers promoting a series of public hearings on a proposed mine expansion. He decided to attend the hearings, and what Ramesh saw shocked him: a wildly powerful and out-of-control industry was using their undue influence to pressure locals and carry out acts of violence on those with opposing views.

Ramesh knew he needed to do something to challenge the overly-powerful coal industry. He dedicated the next several years of his life to fighting the expansion of the industry. It was not an easy task, and his early efforts were met with defeat after defeat.  

But just as countless other activists had before him, Ramesh persisted. After several years and dozens of attempts to secure justice for communities through the local courts, Ramesh received some shocking news -- he won a case.

Having never won a case before, Ramesh had to first call his lawyers to ask what he should do. And even before that, he committed to continue the fight. Before even hanging-up with his lawyers that same day, Ramesh made arrangements to challenge a new mine expansion.

Along with his valiant activism came perilous risks. In 2012, after challenging a powerful local company -- Jindal Power -- local gunmen, allegedly associated with the company, barged into his cafe and shot him. Ramesh was able to think quickly, throwing his mobile phone at his attackers, causing their aim to falter and hit him in the leg. This wound spared Ramesh’s life, but he’s been bed-ridden in the hospital ever since. Even so, Ramesh has continued his work even from the confines of the hospital in his quest to bring justice for Chhattisgarh.

Ramesh’s story is a powerful symbol of a social and environmental crisis coming to a boil. All across India, a coal expansion marked by violent repression  -- where widespread death and arrest has earned comparisons to war zones -- has prevailed as companies with seemingly infinite resources are met with fierce local resistance. This conflict is a direct result of a wave of proposed coal plants and associated coal mine expansions, with eye-popping industry growth rates as high as 800 percent.

But the truth is, this fight against coal expansion is just the latest iteration in a decades-long struggle with development and infrastructure expansion that have disproportionately impacted poor communities. From the Chipko movement to Narmada Bachao Andolan, Indian activists have long fought against the staggering rates of forced evictions and displacement caused by these projects. This displacement paired with the increasing rates of Indian development has created a paradox economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen have described as “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa.”

Photo courtesy of Justin Guay.

It is this long tradition of opposition to highly unequal development that produced an activist like Ramesh Agrawal. Despite his personal struggle and close brush with death, Ramesh survived. His story is now being told around the world, and the exposure and award money from the Goldman Prize will help even the playing field between him and the powerful coal industry. Others have faced entirely different fates.

That’s why Ramesh’s story needs to be just the beginning. Just as the Narmada projects brought the world’s attention to the horrific impacts of displacement from large dams on the Narmada River in India, Ramesh’s struggle exposes the violent repression coal companies impose on citizens each and every day. As the international community awakens to this scourge, India’s soon-to-be elected government will be forced to acknowledge and deal with the problem.

Until then, countless activists will continue fighting, and perhaps dying, to right this wrong.

Sompeta Ignites India's Anti-Coal Movement from Justin Guay on Vimeo.

--Justin Guay, Associate Director, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Building Green Makes Housing More Affordable

28 April 2014 - 9:12am

Ivy Main, chair of the Virginia Sierra Club, penned this guest op-ed for the Richmond Times Dispatch.

If you think of "green" homes and solar panels as luxury amenities for high-end housing, you might be surprised to learn that these are becoming standard features in low-income housing, even here in Virginia.

Buildings with added insulation, better windows, energy-saving light fixtures and Energy Star appliances translate into big savings on utility bills. This should matter to all of us, but it’s especially important for low-income households. For them, lower energy bills can mean not having to choose between keeping the lights on and putting food on the table.

Reducing energy costs is equally important for low-income housing owned by the government or nonprofits. Using energy efficiency and renewable energy to lower utility bills saves the public money and makes it possible to keep rents stable.

Recognizing these benefits, the Virginia Housing Development Authority 10 years ago began to incentivize green building techniques. As a result, when government agencies and nonprofits build low-income housing in Virginia today, they make green building a priority.

Today there are more than 11,000 units of affordable housing in Virginia that are certified to EarthCraft standards, one of the strictest measures of home energy efficiency. According to Philip Agee, green building technical manager for EarthCraft Virginia, these new affordable housing units are 28 percent more efficient than homes that are built to the 2004 model housing code. Units renovated to EarthCraft standards average a 43 percent improvement in efficiency.

The Richmond-based Better Housing Coalition now builds all its low-income housing to exceed EarthCraft standards. As its website explains, "installing energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, energy-efficient windows and lighting, and blown cellulose insulation are standard practice for BHC homes. So, too, is the use of durable cement-board siding and tankless water heaters. Reduced energy usage means reduced utility bills for our owners and residents."

Even more striking is the inclusion of solar energy in recent projects. Many of the Better Housing Coalition’s buildings include solar PV panels for electricity and solar thermal systems for hot water. Last year the Better Housing Coalition built the first net-zero-energy apartments for low-income residents, combining super-efficient construction with solar to produce as much energy as residents consume.

Another leader in the solar movement is Community Housing Partners, a nonprofit organization that designs and builds low-income housing throughout the Southeast. It has worked with Virginia Supportive Housing to include solar panels on at least four of its recent projects, each system sized to provide 20 percent of the building’s electricity.

The Heron's Landing apartments in Chesapeake include both 61 kilowatts of solar PV and a 13-kilowatt solar thermal array to supply hot water to the 60-unit complex designed for formerly homeless residents. Across the state in Charlottesville, The Crossings includes 33 kilowatts of solar PV and a 76-kilowattt solar thermal system for 62 units serving homeless and low-income residents. Both projects used Charlottesville-based AltEnergy as the solar contractor, supporting solar jobs in state. Paul Risberg, AltEnergy's CEO, says his firm is currently working on two more Virginia projects.

Solar systems are also part of the Community Housing Partners' developments in Richmond (Studios at South Richmond) and Portsmouth (the attractive South Bay Apartments). Now, like the Better Housing Coalition, the organization plans to take the next step, making its latest housing development for low-income seniors in Christiansburg net-zero.

Municipalities, too, are working solar into their plans for low-income housing. Last year the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority worked with Staunton-based Secure Futures LLC to install solar on its Polly Lineweaver apartment building, which serves elderly and disabled residents. According to a local television report, the contract will save the authority money over time and help keep rents stable.

Building green is proving such a money-saver for low-income housing that it’s a shame Virginia isn’t applying this lesson more widely. The state's failure last year to adopt the 2012 model building code standards means that even buyers of brand-new homes won’t be guaranteed the level of quality built into these low-income apartments. Let's hope the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe takes note and changes course.

Categories: Sierra Club National

‘Noah’ panelists address connection between faith and the environment

25 April 2014 - 2:32pm
The panelists from left to right: Jack Jenkins, Michael Brune, Danielle Baussan, Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel, and Chris Mooney. Photo courtesy of Javier Sierra.

Faith and environmentalism: two concepts that are typically not intertwined in the minds of everyday citizens have a growing connection around the country and the world.

It is the intersection of these two powerful communities that director Darren Aronofsky wanted to highlight in his recent blockbuster Noah. He addressed the “nexus of faith and environmentalism” in the film Wednesday afternoon at a panel co-hosted by the Sierra Club and the Center for American Progress (CAP).

Aronofsky was joined by fellow panelists Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club; Ari Handel, co-writer of Noah; Danielle Baussan, managing director for energy policy at CAP; and Jack Jenkins, senior writer and researcher for the faith and progressive policy institute at CAP.

Moderated by Climate Desk’s Chris Mooney, the panelists were given the opportunity to address the prevalence of the environment in the Bible and how to bring the faith and environmental communities together.

“I think to try to remove an ecological message from the story of Noah is a bigger edit job than to sort

Darren Aronofsky (left) with Ari Handel. Photo courtesy of Javier Sierra.

of emphasize [the environment],” Aronofsky explained. “[...] It’s about saving the animals, so there is clearly an ecological message in there.”

From that ecological message comes the idea of stewardship, or “the moral responsibility to be a good caretaker of the environment,” Mooney said.

When discussing dominion, Jenkins explained, “There is this bifurcation within a lot of Christian communities of of folks who see dominion as an excuse to exploit the planet and those who understand dominion as authority and as stewardship.”

That idea is highlighted throughout the movie, and was specifically noted when Noah’s character says, “We broke this world. We did this. And now it begins again.”

“He was speaking from a hopeful perspective. It was about resiliency,” Brune said of Noah’s words. “I think that is a lot of what the struggle is for our constituency in the environmental community right now, in that there is great cause for despair when we think about climate change. When we think about species loss and the devastation that we’re seeing across all ecosystems on almost every part of the planet. And yet, at the same time we have greater awareness, we have greater participation in environmental solutions,and a greater ability to actually solve some of these problems.”

And those solutions can be extended beyond the environmental community to communities of faith.

“One thing that I think is an interesting part of that nexus is caring for the poor, which is obviously a tenant of most faith organizations and faith communities,”  Baussan said. “But it’s also common knowledge in the climate community that the poor are going to be the first and the worst hit by climate

Michael Brune (left) with Darren Aronofsky. Photo courtesy of Michael Brune.

change. And so there is this common nexus, and an opportunity for the two groups to work together using the knowledge of the climate community with the network and outreach that the faith community has among poor communities to both inform and help mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

Handel emphasized, “Whatever is the problem, is the problem that is the responsibility of every single person. You’re taking the easy way out if you say, ‘you know what, if those guys would just do a better job of what they need to do, then everything would be okay.’ Actually the question is, ‘if I do a better job of what i need to do, then maybe everything will be okay.’”

Using that idea and idea of stewardship, the intersection between environmentalists and communities of faith are becoming stronger and more frequent. And that’s a right step in the direction to protect our planet and the generations to come.

“The faith community itself is so broad and diverse, and opportunities to bring the faith community into the climate change discussion is an opportunity to bring people to the table that have often been left out of that conversation,” Baussan said.

You can check out a video of the panel here.

-- Cindy Carr, Sierra Club Media Team

Categories: Sierra Club National

Stalemate: U.S. and Japan Fail to Advance Trade Talks

25 April 2014 - 7:48am
Photo: WikiLeaks

President Obama recently wrapped up a meeting in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, where the leaders once again failed to make a breakthrough on their deadlock in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP).

Obama and Abe have been in negotiations over Japan’s treatment of sensitive agricultural products including rice, beef, pork, wheat, and dairy products and on trade in automobiles -- but a breakthrough is still out of reach. This lack of progress is just one of several indicators that the TPP is faltering, if not failing.

There are still a great number of red flags surrounding the pact that spell trouble ahead for the agreement.

To begin with, the public and Members of Congress continue to criticize the secrecy of the negotiations. After more than four years of negotiations, the only text available to the public is what WikiLeaks has exposed on their website. The lack of transparency is one of the myriad reasons that so many Members of Congress oppose fast track authority for the TPP. Fast track would limit Members’ influence to a simple up-or-down vote on the agreement as a whole, with little debate and no room for amendments or changes.

Another outstanding issue in the incomplete TPP puzzle is the trade pact’s chapter on the environment. A leaked version of the environment chapter, posted to WikiLeaks on January 15, revealed that the TPP’s stance on environmental safeguards are extremely weak. The Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, and Natural Resources Defense Council called the draft “unacceptable” in our joint analysis.

In response to the leak, the office of the United States Trade Representative published a blog post saying that the United States “will insist on a robust, fully enforceable environment chapter in the TPP or we will not come to agreement.” More than 100 Members of Congress also weighed in, saying that the “TPP must include new and robust commitments for member countries to protect and conserve forests, oceans, and wildlife and obligate member countries to comply with both domestic environmental laws, not derogating from those laws, and meet their commitments under multilateral environmental agreements.”

We understand, however, that TPP countries still have not agreed to make the environment chapter legally enforceable. They have also not yet agreed to many (if any) of the provisions that the Sierra Club has been calling for -- such as a ban on shark finning and on trade in illegally-harvested timber, wildlife, and fish.

Members of Congress have made many other demands of the TPP, including disciplines on currency manipulation, but so far to no avail. Among the many other unresolved issues still under intense debate are the level of labor standards and protections and the pact’s effects on our internet freedom and access to affordable medicines.

Congress and the public have largely been opposed to granting fast track authority for an agreement that has been negotiated in such secrecy and with so many complicated and controversial issues.

There’s a bumpy road ahead for the TPP, and the continued stalemate between the U.S. and Japan is a harbinger of things to come for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

--Ilana Solomon, Director, Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Behind the Veil: The Truth About Trade in 'Environmental Goods'

22 April 2014 - 2:58pm

The United States might be part of another disheartening trade deal veiled with a false promise of environmental protection. As I wrote about before, on Jan. 25, a group of World Trade Organization (WTO) members including the United States, the European Union, Australia, and Canada, want to eliminate tariffs on a set of supposedly “environmentally beneficial” products.

At first blush the idea makes sense. Eliminate the taxes, or tariffs, on a set of environmentally beneficial products and they’ll be traded and used more. The problem, however, comes when the so-called environmental goods that governments want to trade more of actually harm the environment.

Here’s a bit of background. The WTO negotiations will build on the work of the 21 countries that make up the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). In 2012, these countries agreed to reduce or eliminate tariffs by the end of 2015 on a list of 54 "environmentally beneficial" products.  Unfortunately, a number of products on APEC’s list could actually do more harm than good.  Incinerators, for example, are used to burn waste material and release toxic chemicals and byproducts into the water we drink and the air we breathe. Steam generators are found in equipment used in producing dirty fuels such as coal and nuclear power. And, centrifuges, which are used to filter and purify water for a variety of reasons, can also be used in the production of oil and tar sands — dirty fuels which should stay in the ground as more clean energy comes online in America. Yet each of these products is considered “environmentally beneficial” according to the APEC.

Sounds bad, but it might just get worse.

According to Inside U.S. TradeU.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Mike Froman sent a letter in April requesting that the International Trade Commission provide a report containing its advice as to the “probable economic effect of providing duty-free treatment for imports of environmental goods for all U.S. trading partners” on industries in the United States and on consumers.  Because there is no universally accepted definition of an “environmental good,” the USTR requested that the Commission analyze the effect of increased trade on a set of products attached to the letter.

Here’s where things get ugly.

The list attached to the letter contains hundreds of so-called environmental goods—many of which could be described as nothing other than destructive for our air, water, and environment. According to Inside U.S. Trade, a USTR spokeswoman said that the products listed comprise "all environmental goods" proposed for trade liberalization during past WTO and APEC meetings, in addition to "products we anticipate other WTO members may propose in the course of the forthcoming environmental goods negotiations.”

Here are just a few of the products listed:

  • Liquified natural gas, which is an extremely energy-intensive fossil fuel that, when exported, incentivizes more fracking;

  • Crude palm oil, which is made from the fruit of an oil palm tree and can be used to produce a variety of products from cosmetics to margarine to biofuels, and which, when exploited and exported, increases deforestation and habitat loss for endangered species;

  • Wood pellets, which the United States is increasingly exporting to Europe to be burned in power plants, and which, when cut and burned, are carbon intensive and associated with deforestation and habitat loss;

  • Nuclear reactors, which facilitate expensive and dangerous nuclear energy projects;

  • Ethylene, a flammable gas used to produce ethylene oxide, which the Department of Labor says is associated with cancer, reproductive risks, and other health hazards.

Vacuum cleaners and digital cameras also appear on the list. These items aren’t necessarily bad for the environment, but they also aren’t good – which raises the question of why any of these products are classified as “environmental goods.”

The answer to that question is increasingly apparent. This is merely a front for expanding free trade under the guise of environmental protection. In fact, these WTO members are considering tariff elimination without any analysis (that we know of) on the environmental impact. What we need for the health of the planet is not an expansion of the WTO or our current model of free trade. Instead, we need fair and responsible trade to sustainably manage natural resources and confront the climate crisis.

--Ilana Solomon, Director, Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

World Bank's Tata Mundra conflicts with climate findings

22 April 2014 - 7:45am

If we don’t curb greenhouse gas emissions now, we’ll soon be past the point of no return to save the planet.

That’s the conclusion of the newest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But how does Tata Mundra, a massive coal-burning power plant in India, fit into that equation?

It doesn’t.

For the local people living near Tata Mundra on the Kutch coast of Gujarat, India, this information is crucial. When the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) poured $900 million into one of the world’s largest coal-burning power plants, they were dooming the local residents to years of air and water pollution.

The Tata corporation attempted to justify these risks under the pretense of increasing cheap energy access for millions of people. However, Tata Mundra’s expenses quickly ballooned, and the Tata corporation requested permission to raise rates, forcing residents to foot the bill. Even if nearby communities could afford to pay for power generated by Tata Mundra they couldn’t actually access the power without costly grid extensions. Now, the residents are suffering from the health effects of coal pollution without reaping any energy access benefits.

Clearly, the Tata Mundra coal-burning power plant is not a viable solution to meet energy demands in India, and the IPCC report also shows it is the wrong choice for curbing global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the report, the energy supply sector is the biggest climate disruption culprit. In 2010 alone, energy emissions from coal and oil accounted for 35 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions -- and we can already see the effects.

“The consequences of unchecked climate change for humans and natural ecosystems are already apparent and increasing,” the report concludes. “The most vulnerable systems are already experiencing adverse effects. Past emissions have already put the planet on a track for substantial further changes in climate, and while there are many uncertainties in factors such as the sensitivity of the climate system many scenarios lead to substantial climate impacts, including direct harms to human and ecological well-being that exceed the ability of those systems to adapt fully.”

But the IPCC also indicated that it’s not too late to halt the climate crisis, and the report’s authors have called for a carbon-free electricity supply in the form of clean energy for all. Over the past decade, the cost of clean energy has dropped dramatically and has “achieved a level of technical and economic maturity to enable deployment at a significant scale,” according to the report.

Additionally, the report reveals, “[t]here are often co‐benefits from the use of [renewable energy], such as a reduction of air pollution, local employment opportunities, few severe accidents compared to some other forms of energy supply, as well as improved energy access and security.”

If World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim is serious about improving public health, providing a road out of poverty, and fighting climate disruption, he should direct the World Bank and encourage other international financial institutions -- like ADB -- to invest in the clean energy solutions recommended in the IPCC report. By doing so, the World Bank would support all three of Dr. Kim’s goals for a cleaner, healthier planet rather than defend dirty coal projects like Tata Mundra that will undoubtedly cause irreparable damage to our environment.

--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Kosovo Says No to World Bank's Dirty Coal

15 April 2014 - 2:02pm
                    Visar Azemi (center) at KOSID's fourth annual workshop.                     Photo courtesy of KOSID.

Editor’s Note: Visar Azemi is the coordinator for the Kosovo Civil Society Consortium for Sustainable Development (KOSID) and a faculty member at the University of Maryland. Before joining KOSID, Mr. Azemi, a Kosovo native, was an electrical engineer.

Leaders, journalists, and civil society organizations gathered at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. this past weekend for the World Bank’s annual spring meetings. Halfway across the world, the people of Kosovo were and still are speaking out.

The Republic of Kosovo, nestled in the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe, is home to approximately 2 million people facing an energy crisis. If the World Bank gets its way, our young country will be locked-in to a dirty energy future for decades to come.

The proposed Kosovo Power Project (KPP), a 600-megawatt lignite coal power plant, is slated to be built despite the outcry of the public. Lignite coal is widely considered one of the dirtiest forms of coal, and its use in the existing power plants is already taking it’s toll on our people.

In the World Bank’s own estimate, air pollution in Kosovo “is estimated (midpoint) annually to cause 835 premature deaths, 310 new cases of chronic bronchitis, 600 hospital admissions, and 11,600 emergency visits.”  The total economic costs for those health effects are estimated to be as much as 158 million euro annually.

If KPP is constructed, we can expect those numbers to increase.

Additionally, Dr. Ted Downing, president of the international network on displacement and resettlement (INDR), released a report earlier this week that sheds light on the potential involuntary displacement over 7,000 Kosovars will face if KPP is constructed. These thousands of people from the Obiliq municipality would be displaced in favor of an expanded open pit mining operation, called New Mining Field (NMF). Once again, money would come before the people.

The report warns that forced displacement would trigger, “a tsunami of likely outcomes, including joblessness, homelessness, loss of livelihoods and income-earning assets, marginalization, increased food insecurity, loss of common land and resources, increased health risks, social disarticulation, disruption of formal educational activities, loss of sacred sites, threats to cultural identity, disappearance of mutual self-help mechanisms, and the loss of civil and human rights.”

But we aren’t just going to stand by and let the World Bank evict our countrymen and decide the fate of our country.  The Kosovo Civil Society Consortium for Sustainable Development (KOSID) wants to make sure its voice is heard. With 11 organizations on board, KOSID has been working to ensure that Kosovo’s future isn’t left out of the global conversation and our countrymen and women have a chance at a clean energy future.

As KOSID continues to bring awareness to Kosovo’s energy situation, we implore our government to pursue clean energy solutions for our energy crisis. The sequencing of measures the government and the stakeholders involved in the energy sector in Kosovo should take are of the utmost importance. By investing in energy efficiency and solar and wind energy, Kosovars will be healthier, our country will be more independent, and our future will be brighter than ever.

Categories: Sierra Club National

Signs of Life for Key Wind Investments in Congress - Will They Continue?

15 April 2014 - 1:11pm

The facts are speaking for themselves: wind is winning. But is Congress listening?

Deemed the fastest-growing energy source in the world, wind has created 80,000 jobs at over 550 U.S.-based manufacturing facilities, powered over 15 million homes, and added $105 billion in domestic investments over the last 10 years. In the face of severe weather and extreme climate disruption, wind has offered the U.S. and the world the opportunity to invest in a clean solution to meet our energy demand without exacerbating climate disruption.

But without the support of our legislators, the wind industry could--to the detriment of millions of Americans and our environment--slow its progress.

The Production Tax Credit (PTC) was enacted as a temporary provision over two decades ago as a part of the Energy Policy Act. Despite expiring eight times, the PTC has led to continual progress and job-creation in the wind industry.

More than four months ago, however, the PTC expired once again, leaving the wind industry in the lurch. In a positive move last week, the Senate Finance Committee advanced a package of renewable energy tax credits--including the PTC--marking the first step toward future wind progress. The next step in the process is moving the legislation to the Senate floor where it will likely face staunch opposition from Republican climate deniers.

But the facts don’t lie. Wind energy has created thousands of jobs and invested millions in our economy, and failing to renew the PTC would be economically and environmentally irresponsible.

A recent report released by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) reveals that “U.S. wind power deployment through 2020 is sensitive to both the prospective PTC level and market conditions over time.”

The report continues, “a reduction in domestic wind power deployment is likely to have a direct and negative effect on U.S.-based wind turbine manufacturing production and employment. This is notable as the manufacturing sector has been observed to represent a substantial share of wind industry jobs.” If recent history has taught us anything, it is that reductions in demand will rapidly lead to factory closures and job losses.

The report predicts that without a PTC renewal, yearly wind installations will drop to as little as 3-gigawatts a year, though by 2020, experts expect 9.6-gigawatts will be needed per year to help fill the 80 percent energy supply gap left by retiring coal plants. Additionally, the report calls for 38 gigawatts of wind energy to be added each year to completely decarbonize the energy sector by 2030.

Essentially, we won’t be able to meet our clean energy needs without wind and the PTC.

Wind energy has seen development and job creation in over 70 percent of congressional districts. If our members of congress are serious about creating jobs and bolstering our economy, they should support the PTC and invest in a clean energy future for their constituents, our generation, and the generations to come. Click here to take action and tell your member of Congress to extend this critical credit.

--Radha Adhar, Associate Washington Representative

Categories: Sierra Club National

WWF Holds Big Coal Accountable

14 April 2014 - 2:33pm

Wildlife is fighting back against big coal--the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), that is.

Yesterday, WWF filed a complaint against the world’s largest private coal company, Peabody Energy.  The complaint, filed with Belgium’s Jury d’Ethique Publicitaire (JEP), alleges that an advertisement Peabody ran in the European edition of the Financial Times breaks JEP’s code for honest advertising.

While Peabody makes its billions though dirty coal, its advertisement scheme attempts to put the coal titan among the ranks of “clean, modern technology.” With a clean energy revolution thriving, Peabody is desperate to keep coal on top and wind and solar just out of reach for those who need it most.

When the ad appeared, WWF was quick to act.

“As coal loses ground in developed countries to more modern sustainable alternatives, Peabody is marketing its dangerous technologies onto those poorest countries with the least development options,” Tony Long, director of WWF European Policy Office, said in a press release.

“Trying to sell coal to poor people as a path to better and healthier lives is socially irresponsible and morally wrong. We already know that poor countries are most affected by climate change, and are the least equipped to fight its negative impacts.”

Specifically, WWF alleges that in the advertisement, Peabody “fails to disclose that the core of its operations is coal mining and supplying coal-fired power plants; claims that energy poverty is ‘the world’s number one human and environmental crisis’; claims that ‘clean, modern energy’, meaning so-called advanced clean coal technologies, is ‘the solution for better, longer and healthier lives’ misleading readers as to the negative climate, environmental and health impacts of coal pollution; uses absolute and misleading assertions such as ‘clean coal’ that are not substantiated by relevant scientific evidence and commercial application.”

In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report that revealed the majority of energy access investments need to be in distributed clean energy in the form of mini-grids and off-grid interventions--not coal--if global energy poverty has a hope of being solved.

Graphic from IEA report page 22

According to the IEA, “modern energy access for all by 2030 would therefore require more than three-times the expected level of investment in the New Policies Scenario, growing from $14 billion per year to $48 billion per year.”

The New Policies Scenario, outlined in the 2011 IEA report, “takes account of broad policy commitments and plans that have been announced by countries, including national pledges to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and plans to phase out fossil-energy subsidies.”

This includes the “450 Scenario” to limit global temperature increase to 2°C, the “Efficient World Scenario” for energy savings to improve energy efficiency, and the “Energy for All Case” which “estimates the additional investment required to meet[...] the goal of achieving universal modern energy access by 2030 [...].”

With an increase in investments in these New Policies Scenarios, we can expect an increase in investments in clean energy, because when it comes to energy access, distributed clean energy is simply the right tool for the job.

The Sierra Club stands with the World Wildlife Fund’s efforts to hold the coal industry accountable while working toward a clean energy future.

--Justin Guay, Associate Director, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

How Japan replaced half its nuclear capacity through energy efficiency

10 April 2014 - 12:48pm

Japan was facing darkness.

Three years after the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake, Japan’s energy capacity was rapidly reaching its peak going in to the high-energy summer months. A tremendous amount of conventional generation capacity--including the entire nuclear fleet--was unavailable, and the country faced the risk of power cuts. But miraculously, or seemingly so, in just a few short weeks, Japan managed to avert the rolling power cuts that many believed inevitable. Even more impressive, Japan has turned these emergency measures into lasting solutions.

So how did a country on the brink of blackout suddenly meet their country’s energy needs without forcing people back to the stone age? Japan overcame this daunting task by tapping the cheapest and most widely available source of energy savings available--energy efficiency.

Much of the electricity savings were initially driven by a popular movement known as “Setsuden.” This movement emerged to encourage people and companies to save electricity and prevent rolling power cuts. Simple measures such as upping the thermostat by a few degrees in homes and offices, 'thinning' lighting by reducing the use of some lightbulbs, cutting back on the use of big screens and exterior lighting, and powering down electric toilet seats--a Japanese peculiarity--enabled Japan to dramatically reduce power demand almost overnight. Dress codes in offices were even eased to ensure employees were more comfortable in light of the changes, and both large and small companies were audited to identify savings potential.

These temporary measures have proven to have long term impact. They've dramatically increased the awareness of energy use and energy efficiency with large companies now running high-profile, long-lasting programs. Japan’s economy and gross domestic product (GDP) grew and power consumption stayed stable thanks to these newly ingrained practices.

More importantly, there is huge potential for technical measures to reduce energy usage even further--a resource Japan has only just begun to tap.

What's even more surprising is how far off the energy pundits were in predicting the impact this would have on Japan. Aside from worrying that the sky would fall, the pundits made dire predictions about the need to replace the nuclear fleet with 'cheap coal'--a myth we previously debunked.

Fortunately, through a combination of common sense energy saving measures, Japan instead turned to permanent efficiency gains. In the process, the Japanese people and its business community proved the pundits wrong.

The key lesson from the Japanese experience--the lesson pundits failed to appreciate--is that coal plant construction is simply too slow to be relevant in the modern world where resiliency is highly valued. To cope with rapid loss of generation capacity, Japan needed fast, nimble and modular 21st century solutions. That means efficiency and clean energy.

Despite major hurdles to deploying these solutions, due to a complete absence of renewable energy policies prior to the Fukushima disaster, solar power surged in 2013 blowing away earlier predictions. In fact, Japan invested the most money in solar power of any country in 2013, and this investment is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years.

In contrast, coal power projects proposed in the wake of Fukushima are still sitting on the drawing board. By the time these coal projects are projected to be online, their output will be rendered obsolete due to the rapidly dropping price of renewable energy. Even worse, these investments lock Japan into a volatile international coal market.

Japan should scrap these coal plans all together. Japan needs to look no further than India's recent imported coal debacle - Tata Mundra - for a warning of what that market can do to energy security. Coal investments there have knocked India into a market relying on volatile, dangerous fossil fuels that Indians can’t rely on.

At the end of the day, a nation can’t achieve energy security by depending on coal. Aligning energy investments with the need to address climate disruption is a critical concern to protect the health of communities and families. Replacing half of the nuclear fleet with efficiency is just one step in the right direction for an advanced country like Japan. As scientists continue to warn of the impending global greenhouse gas emissions peak, Japan must begin reducing its emissions--not increasing them with more fossil fuels. The easiest and most important step it can take is removing the illusion of the need for new coal-burning power plants.

After all, the efficiency gains and promising developments with clean energy show that Japan can be a leader in 21st century energy solutions.

--Justin Guay, Associate Director of Sierra Club's International Climate Program, and Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace

Categories: Sierra Club National

A Parent and Faith Leader's Perspective: Why We Need Strong Smog Standards

10 April 2014 - 12:21pm

As the father of an asthmatic child, and as a person of faith, I'm grateful for the Clean Air Act. That might seem like an odd introduction, but let me explain.

Last fall, Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) complained that, in enforcing the standards of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has "overreached" its authority. Overreach - that mental picture might seem scary to some: the hand of big government imposing its way into our lives to tell us what we can and cannot do.

As a Christian, though, the image that comes to my mind when I think of overreach is very different. On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, against a clear blue sky, God over-reaches space and time. In the touching of two fingers, heaven and earth meet, and Adam "became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7b). According to the second creation story, God took the dust of the earth and gave it human form. But the lump just lays there, inert, lifeless, until God breathed spirit---the Hebrew word is ruach, "breath" - into Adam's lungs.  

That Biblical story takes on real flesh and blood as I'm desperately racing to the emergency room with my son, Aaron, in the seat beside me. It's another bad air quality day where I live, and Aaron is having yet another asthma attack. His face is ashen and his lips are sky blue as he tries to suck in the life giving air that he can't force into his lungs. I reach out my hand across the seat to him---to assure him, to assure myself---but he's too weak to even lift his fingers up to meet mine. There is no breath in him.

I carry him in my arms, limp as a ragdoll, into the emergency room where doctors and nurses who meet us at the door. I watch as their hands reach out to heal. Aaron's breath is restored. Standing next to his bed I can't talk without crying, so I just make an OK sign with my hand, a question in my eyes. He lifts up his hand so his OK meets my OK. Overreach.

It could have been much worse for Aaron. The reason there aren't more bad air quality days like this for Aaron and for millions of others was because, in 1970, Republicans on one side of the aisle and Democrats on the other side of the isle reached their hands across the partisan divide to create the Clean Air Act.

The reason there aren't more bad days like this for Aaron and for millions of others was because a Republican president, reached over, pen in hand, to signed the Clean Air Act into law. As a result, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, some 400,000 premature deaths have been prevented.

Here in Arizona, the EPA is proposing to reduce harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), a coal plant that is one of the largest sources of NOx emissions in the U.S. as well as from the Apache, Coronado, Sundt, and Cholla generating stations. NOx is a key ingredient in both ozone and fine particulate pollution, both very dangerous forms of pollution.

Every year, air pollution from these coal plants contributes to significant health problems including heart attacks, asthma attacks, hospital admissions, emergency room visits, chronic bronchitis, and costing Arizonans hundreds of millions of dollars in health expenses. Certain groups are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, such as: infants, older adults and people with lung diseases like asthma.

Smokestack pollution from NGS also adds to smog haze in 11 national parks and wilderness areas surrounding the plant, including the Grand Canyon, which is less than 20 miles away. Emissions from the Apache, Coronado, and Cholla coal plants add to dirty air at 18 national parks and wilderness areas in four states. The Sundt plant, right in Tucson, affects our public lands and the public health of those in surrounding neighborhoods.

We should not have to wait decades for clean air. We need strong clean air standards that include the most protective pollution control technology to safeguard our health and our environment now, as well as that of future generations. I thank God for the Clean Air Act, and for the people who are willing to stand up in the name of life and healing and common sense. I hope Rep. Gosar can be one of those people who "overreaches" across the aisle to support strong EPA clean air standards.

- Rev. Doug Bland, Director of Arizona Interfaith Power & Light

Categories: Sierra Club National

Securing a Positive Climate Legacy

10 April 2014 - 7:10am

Our world faces an unprecedented environmental, social, and economic challenge-- climate disruption. As the most recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change notes, the impacts of climate change are already being felt around the world as seas rise, extreme weather events increase, areas suffer drought or flood, and plants and animals edge closer to extinction.  Scientists agree that fossil fuels are the main culprit behind climate disruption and as a new Sierra Club report details, it is vitally important that undeveloped dirty fuels remain that way.

Using publicly available data already gathered by federal agencies, the report, Dirty Fuels, Clean Futures (PDF), calculates the potential carbon dioxide emissions from dirty fuel development proposals. Such calculations send a clear message: Actions to effectively reducing climate disruption must include keeping dirty fuels in the ground.

Four major potential sources of carbon pollution have been identified, the Arctic Ocean, the Green River Formation, the Powder River Basin, and the Monterey, San Juan Basin and Marcellus shale plays. If just a fraction of the oil, gas and coal from these major climate disrupters was developed, the resulting carbon pollution would cancel out our country's greatest accomplishments in the fight against climate disruption--efforts like the Obama administrations new fuel economy standards.



Thankfully, President Obama can take pragmatic actions to keep dirty fuels in the ground and speed our country down the path to clean energy future.  Over the remainder of his time in office he has an opportunity to:

  • Fully implement his Executive Order 13514 requiring all resource management agencies to fully consider climate pollution, like they do other types of pollution, prior to leasing or exporting onshore and offshore oil, gas, coal, and unconventional fuels sources such as oil shale and tar sands.  
  • Stop any new leasing of federal oil, gas, and coal until potential environmental, climate, and public health impacts are fully considered, including:
  • Withdrawing plans to allow development of oil shale and tar sands on 800,000 acres of federal public lands in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.
  • No issuance of new federal coal leases until reforms that increase royalty rates, set sensitive lands aside, insure public transparency, and fully assess impacts from all aspects of coal production are implemented.
  • Withdrawing plans to offer any new offshore oil leases in the Arctic Ocean.
  • No issuance of any new oil and gas leases on federal lands that use fracking and well stimulation techniques until impacts on water, air, and climate are averted.
  • Close oil, gas, and coal industry exemptions from environmental and public safety laws.
  • Stop the export of coal and liquefied natural gas.

By showing leadership and taking these actions, President Obama can put the world on a path to avert climate catastrophe and create a clean-energy future that generates quality jobs, protects public health, and secures a wild lands legacy for our children’s future.  He can bolster his National Climate Action Plan and secure the progress that his administration has made in reducing domestic carbon emissions.

TAKE ACTION: Tell President Obama to keep dirty fuels in the ground!

-- Dan Chu, Director of the Sierra Club Our Wild America campaign

Categories: Sierra Club National

How Coal & Clean Energy Will Define Indian Elections

8 April 2014 - 2:06pm

On the coast of India’s Gulf of Kutch in Western Gujarat, near a small town called Mundra, an iconic fight against Tata Power’s Mundra coal plant is brewing. This fight has become the epicenter of a “rousing struggle” against coal expansion - and a microcosm of India’s election politics.

A small group of local fisherfolk are opposing the plant and leading a campaign that exposes the dark side of unchecked coal development and contradictions in the campaign of leading Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.

In a country that recently made headlines for the largest power outage in history, Gujarat is an anomaly – it has a power surplus. That, along with industry-friendly policies including a heavy emphasis on special economic zones (SEZs), has helped propel the state's Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, to become the primary challenger in the race for prime minister. Indeed, the idea Modi's campaign has touted about Gujarat energy development is something many Indians aspire to.

Even more appealing is that Modi's power surplus has been supported by a 'saffron revolution' thanks to dramatic solar expansion. A true anomaly in coal-dependent India.

But despite Modi’s fervent support for solar energy, Gujarat is also home to some of the biggest coal plants in the country. Power companies are building a series of 16 ultra mega coal power plants (UMPPs) to stem the power crisis, including Tata Power’s flagship Mundra coal plant, or “Tata Mundra.” But the projects have exposed just how poorly the industry is now performing, and just how desperate the need is to diversify India’s energy mix away from coal.

Tata Mundra has been a debacle since day one. Despite abundant promises of cheap power, Tata Mundra’s costs have skyrocketed, forcing it to raise rates for average citizens. Worse, it has set a harmful precedent in the country: it’s the first project to be exempt from a legally binding contract by the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission in order to raise rates and boost profits. Tata Mundra will be defending the exemptions in courts for years to come as states and consumers appeal these decisions.

The devastation to locals from this project is even more grim. Tata Mundra has burdened local fishermen by diverting waterways and releasing thermal pollution that kills fish for miles along the coast.

That’s why local fisherman have filed for a full audit of the World Bank Group’s financing of the project. The audit’s damning findings were swept under the rug by World Bank President Dr. Kim, but are once again under investigation by another international financier -- the Asian Development Bank.

Rampant, unchecked industrialization is ravaging the environment and the social fabric of India’s coasts, and Modi’s political enemies know it. Arvind Kejriwal, chief of an opposing political party, traveled to Gujarat to “tour" the development progress of the state.

While Gujarat has seen large industrial growth, it’s also home to some of the lowest social indicators in the country. In fact, Gujarat represents one of the lowest per-capita, per-day earnings for salaried people in the country. Most Indians don’t see these facts, thanks to Modi’s impressive marketing campaign.  

But it’s not just opposing political parties who are highlighting the contradictions inherent in Modi’s state and campaign. Already the Congress party has organized several political rallies up and down Gujarat’s heavily industrialized coastline to appeal to fishing communities affected by coal development. The message: end environmental destruction.

Modi’s association with some of the world’s largest coal projects will undoubtedly darken the candidate’s image. It may even put him in the same company as India’s current Environment Minister “Oily Moily.”

As Indians head to the polls, what’s happening in Mundra could end up ultimately defining Modi and his plan for the nation.

--Justin Guay, Associate Director, Sierra Club International Climate Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

Hazardous Waste Next Door: The Importance of the Definition of Solid Waste

8 April 2014 - 8:49am

Did you know that chemical companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and the industrial waste industry are exempt from a law requiring companies handling hazardous waste to protect public health and the environment?

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was enacted in 1976, but in 2008 the Bush Administration exempted these companies handling the most dangerous substances from complying. This new rule was called "The Definition of Solid Waste" (DSW).

Take a look at the chemicals slipping through this regulatory gap:

  • Solvents like benzene, toluene, TCE and perc (linked to cancer, low birth weight, miscarriages, major malformations, and heart defects)
  • Heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury - potent neurotoxins and carcinogens

In 2011, thanks to legal challenge from the Sierra Club, as represented by EarthJustice, and due to the advocacy of environmental justice, civil rights, public health and other organizations, the EPA completed a groundbreaking environmental justice analysis and found that DSW's lax rules for hazardous waste disproportionately affected communities of color and low-income communities:

  • Hundreds of sites where toxic releases have occurred in the past are consistently located in communities of color and low-income communities.
  • The 2008 DSW rule removes opportunities for public participation in siting and permitting decisions, disenfranchising non-white and low-income communities from critical decisions affecting their health and livelihoods.
  • The industries exempt from federal controls are often located in areas that already face exposure to multiple environmental hazards, and already have high cancer rates and neurological hazard rates as a result of exposure to pollution.

In fact, in Illinois and Idaho, almost every hazardous waste recycling facility operating under the regulatory exemption is located in a community of color and low-income community.

The 2011 legal challenge required the EPA to publish a new DSW rule in 2012, but the EPA had taken no action until last month. On March 15, 2014, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) finally began its regulatory review of the EPA's DSW rule.

The Sierra Club is part of a coalition of public interest organizations and individuals from across the U.S. that supports a DSW standard that protects our health, environment and livelihood from hazardous waste released from recycling operations. Together we are urging the administration to abide by the 90-day limit for review of this rule and to publish a final DSW rule by July 1, 2014.

The delay in issuing a final rule is exacting a high toll on communities of color and low-income communities. Since 1982, hazardous waste recycling has polluted more than 200 sites, including many on the Superfund National Priority List, which identifies the worst toxic waste sites in the nation. The EPA found that the majority of the contamination at these sites occurred when recycling operations were exempted from compliance with safeguards under the RCRA.

This is why the final DSW rule must reinstate these essential safeguards. There is an urgent need to close this gap for the health of the nation and particularly for environmental justice communities. The rule impacts management of 1.8 million tons of hazardous waste, predominantly in communities of color and in low-income communities.

Any further delay is unacceptable while toxic releases to air and water poison fenceline neighborhoods at recycling operations. We call on the OMB, the EPA, and the Obama administration to ensure that this important rule receives the priority it deserves so that the safety of the nation’s most vulnerable communities can be ensured now and for future generations.

-- Leslie Fields, Director of the Sierra Club Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

West Virginians and North Carolinians Agree - It's Time for Serious Environmental Protections

7 April 2014 - 1:32pm

In the wake of dangerous coal chemical and coal ash spills in their states already this year, West Virginia and North Carolina voters have gotten a wake-up call on the need for environmental and public health protections - and they know it.

According to two recent polls conducted by Hart Research on behalf of the Sierra Club, a majority of West Virginians and North Carolinians believe that it is high time to get serious by taking action on policy that protects our families and communities.

On January 9th, a coal chemical plant owned by Freedom Industries spilled 7,500 gallons of toxic 4-methylcyclohexane methanol - part of the coal production process - into the Elk River, just upstream of the largest water treatment plant in West Virginia. The contamination affected drinking water for 300,000 people across nine counties in the Kanawha Valley. Local emergency rooms treated 169 patients for symptoms related to chemical exposure, and ten people were admitted to hospitals for non-life-threatening symptoms.

West Virginians were shocked and angry. According to a poll conducted between February 4th – 7th, 73 percent of Mountain State voters agree that their state "has spent too little attention to addressing threats to air and water, and that the Elk River spill is a wakeup call that things must change."

More than two in three voters across the political spectrum say that "stronger regulations and better enforcement of existing regulations would have prevented the spill" (79 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents, and 57 percent of Republicans).

And 62 percent of voters say they would be more likely to support a candidate who favors "strong regulations and enforcement to protect the water, air, and health of West Virginians."

"You can throw the coal industry's conventional wisdom out the window," says Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "[These polls are] yet another indication that Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in coal-dependent states want leaders who will stand up to big coal companies and enact common-sense initiatives to protect our air, our water, and our families from toxic coal ash and pollution."

North Carolinians received a similar shock in early February, when a Duke Energy facility spilled tens of thousands of tons of coal ash into North Carolina's Dan River. What's more, the Southern Environmental Law Center says that this plant has been leeching arsenic, boron, and sulfate into groundwater for years, and that "Duke Energy had experienced coal ash structural failures at three of its other facilities in North Carolina."

Voters in the Tar Heel state responded powerfully. A March 10th - 13th poll found that 63 percent of voters think state leaders are not doing enough to protect the state's rivers and streams from contamination. And an overwhelming 83 percent of North Carolinians feel that coal ash should be treated as a hazardous substance that needs to be regulated.

The issue crosses party lines here too, with overwhelming majorities of Democrats (91 percent), independents (85 percent), and Republicans (75 percent) all supporting designating coal ash as a hazardous substance.

If all of this wasn't bad enough news for big coal and special interests, voters in both states hold the coal industry responsible. Two-thirds of West Virginians say that the coal industry bears some or a lot of the responsibility for air and water contamination, while 70 percent of North Carolinians say Duke Energy is totally or mostly to blame for the spill.

The so-called conventional wisdom peddled by the coal industry has been turned on its head, and even in coal country the results are clear: voters want leaders who won't cave to the special interests in the coal industry and who will stand up for clean water and public health protections. It's time our elected officials started paying attention.

-- David Shadburn, Sierra Club Intern

Categories: Sierra Club National

Wind Wins in Senate Committee

4 April 2014 - 7:59am


Yesterday afternoon, the Senate Finance Committee advanced a critically important package of renewable energy tax credits, moving one step closer toward renewing these expiring or expired investments that help support clean energy jobs all over the country. The package includes the progressive renewable energy production tax credit (PTC) - key policies originally enacted to support the development of renewable energy production facilities here at home, boosting the American wind industry. But four months ago, those credits expired, resulting in job losses nationwide as the rug was pulled out from under the thriving wind sector - all while  fossil fuel companies counted among the most profitable in the world continued to get massive tax handouts.  

Today, the Senate Finance Committee gave a bipartisan vote of support to these wind investments, passing a successful mark-up of legislation including the wind energy PTC that should lead to consideration on the Senate floor soon.

The clearest sign of support for wind jobs and clean energy came in the face of opposition. Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, attempted to pass an amendment that would have crippled clean energy investments -- only to be met by a stiff wind of bipartisan support for these vital job-creating credits.

Toomey was only able to rally five Republicans to his side. Republican Senators John Cornyn, Mike Crapo, Rob Portman, and John Thune  joined 13 Democrats in supporting wind energy, sending Toomey’s amendment to the scrap heap by a vote of 6 to 18.

Senator Chuck Grassley - an Iowa Republican from a state with a thriving wind industry - dismissed the argument that supporting the wind PTC is akin to “picking winners and losers” as intellectually dishonest, pointing to long standing oil, gas, and nuclear subsidies.

Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow agreed, saying oil and gas tax credits were not part of the package under consideration “because we picked them to win a long time ago.”

As wind power supports tens of thousands of American jobs and powers homes and businesses across the country, its a wonder that the package didn’t receive unanimous support. That’s particularly true when you look at the impact wind has had in the home states of the small handful of Senators who opposed the package.

Kansas Republican Pat Roberts opposed the wind investments in spite of the fact that more than 870,000 homes in the Jayhawk state are wind-powered, and upwards of 5,000 Kansans work in the wind industry.

North Carolina’s Richard Burr seemingly voted in opposition to the 23 wind facilities currently operating in his home state, where combined production from offshore and onshore wind power is capable of exceeding the state’s energy needs seven times over.

Georgia serves as one of the headquarters for GE - the second largest manufacturer in the wind industry in the world. Yet, Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson voted against the jobs in his state.

Wyoming wind powers 400,000 homes, but Senator Mike Enzi opposed wind investments. Utah’s Orrin Hatch rejected wind tax credits while hundreds of Utah residents work in wind.

Most egregious, though, is Toomey, who sponsored the assault on wind energy in spite of 4,000 Pennsylvanians working in the wind industry, 300,000 homes running on wind power, and 18% of his state’s energy pledged to come from clean energy by 2021. Had Toomey’s amendment passed, he would have undercut not just this goal, but all of the Pennsylvania jobs wind will create.

Senators from both parties stood up for wind today - and we expect them to again do so when this legislation reaches the Senate floor. The numbers don’t lie - wind is creating jobs and powering homes and businesses from coast to coast.

--Radha Adhar

Categories: Sierra Club National