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A Toxic Assault in the Senate

6 May 2014 - 1:58pm

It started off innocently enough. After months upon months of delays, the U.S. Senate was finally prepared to bring Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rob Portman’s (R-OH) bipartisan Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act to the floor for a vote this week.

But, an actual vote in the U.S. Senate on a substantive bill is a rare thing during this era of unprecedented obstruction and gridlock.  And instead of giving the bill a fair shake on the floor, big polluters and some in the Senate are waiting in the wings to hijack the bill with a cadre of toxic amendments. Now, if they succeed, they won’t just derail this energy efficiency bill - they will deliver a series of body blows to our air, water, and climate.

Remember - the underlying goals of this bipartisan bill are to create jobs, conserve energy, and save consumers money. But, if passed, the toxic amendments being proposed would wipe all of those benefits off the table. Take a look at what’s being considered:

  • An amendment to block the first-ever protections from climate-disrupting carbon pollution from new and existing coal-fired power plants.

  • An amendment to approve the dirty and dangerous Keystone XL tar sands pipeline;

  • An amendment to prevent any government agency from accounting for the costs of the extreme weather and health risks caused by the climate crisis;

  • An amendment to expand fracking and expedite the shipment of gas drilled in America overseas

Energy efficiency? Forget about it. This dirty fuels wishlist buries the best parts of the underlying legislation under a heap of coal ash, fracking chemicals, and petroleum coke. Consider how each of these amendments would affect our families and our nation.

Scrapping the Environmental Protection Agency’s common-sense carbon pollution safeguards is a giveaway to the coal industry that will lock us into to a dirty energy future our families and our climate cannot afford.  Coal-fired power plants are the largest single source of climate-disrupting carbon pollution in the nation, and these safeguards are our chance to start curbing these greenhouse gases and protecting the health of our families now.

Fast-forwarding the shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG)  fracked out of our backyards to markets overseas means American families will pay the costs while massive corporations rake in the profits. Our communities get astronomical amounts of fresh water contaminated with undisclosed toxic chemicals, unsafe air, and dangerous methane emissions while gas companies make sales in Europe and Asia. The more LNG that’s exported, the more fracking there will be -- and the worse the effects will be on Americans.

Extreme weather cost Americans $140 billion in 2012. The costs of healthcare related to asthma spurred by carbon pollution and smog are skyrocketing, currently at more than $50 billion a year and rising. Government spending related to climate disasters amounted to $100 billion in costs - about $1,100 coming out of the pockets of every  taxpayer. That’s real money coming out of our econom. Even ExxonMobil is trying to account for the costs of climate disruption in its economic projections - but the amendment under consideration in the Senate would ensure our government could not.

And, of course, the dirty and dangerous Keystone XL is a pipeline into world’s dirtiest and most carbon intensive fuel: tar sands. Tar sands are more corrosive than conventional crude, more dangerous to transport, and nearly impossible to clean up in the event of a spill. Yet this amendment would bypass executive authority, injecting Congress into the decision-making process that is already underway at the State Department and force all of the risks of this tar sands pipeline onto the American people just to help Canadian companies ship oil overseas.

What’s worse? All these new attacks on healthy communities and a stable climate come just as the historic, comprehensive, peer-reviewed National Climate Assessment indicates every region of our nation will face disastrous outcomes if we don’t act to curb the climate crisis now.

These toxic attacks in the Senate would only move us in the opposite direction, toward more fracking, more dirty fossil fuels, more threats to our health and our communities, and less stability for American families. That’s why it’s vitally important that each of these amendments are turned back and defeated.

-- Radha Adhar, Washington Representative, Sierra Club


Categories: Sierra Club National

To Live Dangerously or Not to Live Dangerously? It's Our Choice

6 May 2014 - 11:55am

What's next? What can I do? Those are questions you might be pondering if you tuned into Years of Living Dangerously on Showtime this weekend, or if you've been watching online clips from the "Preacher's Daughter" story that was featured on Sunday night. In the episode, actor Ian Somerhalder follows Anna Jane Joyner, a young woman trying to persuade her evangelical pastor father that climate disruption is real, while she is also a full-time climate activist and one of the real-life heroes working with me and thousands more to move beyond coal.

I watched the episode with my family, and the next evening we sat around the dining room table talking about how to translate the urgency of the climate crisis to evangelicals skeptical of science. My mother-in-law is a retired minister and my husband is a scientist, so it was a great discussion, and I imagine Anna Jane's story sparked many conversations just like it at kitchen tables around the country.

For everyone out there who has been having those conversations, let me bring you up to speed on what's happened since the episode was filmed, and how you can help me, Ian, Anna Jane, and thousands more move America beyond coal. Around the nation, we keep on winning. Just last week, we announced coal plant retirement #165, when we won our campaign to retire the Reid Gardner plant in Nevada. Even better, the utility announced it will replace much of the power from the plant with a massive solar project.

In Asheville, the campaign featured in the Years episode, Duke Energy has announced for the first time that they're considering retiring the Asheville coal plant. The announcement comes in the wake of a horrific spill of toxic coal ash from a retired power plant that devastated over 70 miles of the Dan River flowing through North Carolina and Virginia. The public outcry that followed has sent shockwaves all the way to the governor's mansion. I helped lead a protest outside Duke headquarters a few weeks ago, and last week activists rallied at Duke's annual shareholder meeting, calling for the retirement of the Asheville plant and the cleanup of not only the Dan River spill, but all of Duke's coal ash sites in the state.

Meanwhile, Ian Somerhalder and his Ian Somerhalder Foundation have rallied people around the world through their #coalsucks social media campaign. The intentionally edgy and provocative hashtag is opening the eyes of millions to the threat of coal pollution and the urgency of moving to clean energy.

All this momentum comes just as more climate alarm bells are ringing. Today, a national committee of experts in agriculture, climate science, commerce, and disaster relief released the National Climate Assessment. The report is the nation's foremost comprehensive, peer-reviewed analysis of the impacts of climate disruption, showing us the effects of climate disruption across the country.

The headline - the U.S. is already being seriously affected by climate change. As you might guess, the assessment shows the significant toll on our health and wallets that extreme weather is already exacting across the U.S. Here are just a few findings from the report that stood out to me:

  • The most recent decade was the nation's and the world's hottest on record, and 2012 was the hottest year on record in the continental United States.
  • U.S. average temperature has increased by 1.3°F to 1.9°F since 1895, and most of this increase has occurred since 1970. Temperatures are projected to rise another 2°F to 4°F in most areas of the United States over the next few decades.
  • Evidence indicates that the human influence on climate has already roughly doubled the probability of extreme heat events such as the record-breaking summer heat experienced in 2011 in Texas and Oklahoma. The incidence of record-breaking high temperatures is projected to rise.
  • The stakes are high, as nearly five million Americans and hundreds of billions of dollars of property are located in areas that are less than four feet above the local high-tide level.
  • Climate change affects human health in many ways. For example, increasingly frequent and intense heat events lead to more heat-related illnesses and deaths and, over time, worsen drought and wildfire risks, and intensify air pollution.
  • Certain groups of people are more vulnerable to the range of climate change related health impacts, including the elderly, children, the poor, and the sick.

More than 240 authors from across the country with diverse expertise helped create the National Climate Assessment, and this is especially disturbing - the findings are considered conservative estimates of the effects of climate disruption.

The report is also very clear about this - the effects will only grow worse if we fail to curb carbon pollution, the main culprit behind climate disruption. The assessment lets us know that it's not too late to act, but we must do it now if we want to stop the worst of the expected climate disruption. You can weigh in right now and support EPA's efforts to tackle our biggest source of climate pollution – coal-fired power plants. Just click here to take action.

We can choose to stop living dangerously by moving beyond coal, doubling down on clean energy, and holding our leaders accountable. We need your help. Join us.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director

Categories: Sierra Club National

India’s Idyllic Coastal Waters Threatened by Coal

6 May 2014 - 9:05am

The fight against big coal in India has gone bicoastal.

On the heels of the clash over Tata Mundra in the west, local fishing communities on the east coast are fighting back against a proposed 4,000-megawatt “Ultra Mega” coal-burning power plant near Cheyyur.

The Cheyyur project is slated to be built in Tamil Nadu on the very spot these local fishworkers have lived and fostered their livelihoods for decades.Their struggle and the increasing resistance to the proposed project has been highlighted in a recently released documentary from u-ra-mi-li that can be seen below.

From this unique perspective, the plight of the fishworkers has been contrasted against the background of their beautiful land.

The fishing communities, located between Chennai and Pondicherry, source most of their livelihoods from a combination of fishing and agriculture. Residents here rely heavily on the varied fish species in the area to supply fish for thousands of people in the cities of Cheyyur, Maduranthankam, Chengalpet, and Panaiyur.

The natural resources in the area -- including seagrass, mangroves, sand dunes, and estuaries -- provide an idyllic location for thousands of birds and millions of fish. The combination of these resources and the skills acquired over generations for fishing and farming have allowed the local people to thrive in this area for decades.

But the Indian government is seeking to disrupt their way of life with big coal.

The planned Cheyyur project, first proposed by a subsidy of the government-owned Power Finance Corporation -- Coastal Tamil Nadu Power -- would burn an estimated 45,000 tonnes of coal and generate 5,000 tonnes of toxic coal ash waste each day.

In addition to building the Cheyyur project, Coastal Tamil Nadu Power also plans to use over 1,000 acres to build a massive port to receive the coal, a 6.5 km conveyor belt, multiple pipelines, railroads, and an enormous coal ash pond. The port alone will introduce an estimated 310,000 tonnes of coal from around the world.

In an area heavily dependent on fishing and agriculture, the local people are justly worried.

“If this project materializes, it will affect the soil, environment, and agriculture,” one man said in the documentary. “The plants won’t grow buds. Flowering trees will not give proper fruit.”

“We don’t know how they will consume water,” another man added. “I worry that they will ruin our water resources and therefore our agriculture and our livelihood.”

The local people from the fishing villages were given no warning and no input as to whether the Cheyyur power plant will be built or not. In fact, the documentary reveals that the local people only heard of the project recently, nearly two years after the Ministry of Environment and Forests approved Coastal Tamil Nadu Power’s plan.

On top of that, it was not the government that notified the fishworkers but non-governmental organizations in the area who spread the word. When the government did eventually hold a public hearing about the coal project, they failed to advertise and ultimately prevented the few fishworkers who attended from voicing their concerns.

“There is no information at all,” one resident told the filmmakers. “No notice was given.”

“They just come, do what they have to do and go away,” another added. “They haven’t respected our village by letting us know about the construction.”

Though the government offered to pay the local residents a sum of money for their land, the people realize the natural resources they use every day are priceless.

“Whether [the money offered] is enough [...] doesn’t matter,” one local man exclaimed in the documentary. “There is no way we can leave this land and find another place. [...] No matter how much money you give us it will not be enough.”

“Electricity is extremely important for the growth of a country, of a state, and even for us,” one man commented. “But if it’s going to come at the cost of nature, then we will say no to it.”

Similarly to other coal projects in India -- like Tata Mundra -- the local people have begun to fight back. When a government-funded environmental impact assessment (EIA) was released in 2013 by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), it claimed that the area around Cheyyur consisted of flat, barren land and had no estuaries, surface or groundwater, little to no fishing, and no fish breeding grounds.

The local fishworkers quickly responded.  In conjunction with the Community Environmental Monitoring group (CEM) -- a local environmental organization from Chennai -- the fishworkers publicly disputed the report, calling out the “blatant lies” they say the EIA purported.

And while they may still have a long road ahead of them, ultimately the fishworkers and CEM hope to hold the EAC accountable for their false information and stop the development of the Cheyyur coal project. They’ve dedicated themselves to fight for their way of life, and want to provide a clean, viable future for the generations to come.

“We need this land to survive,” one man said.

-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Program

Categories: Sierra Club National

The North Carolina Republican Primary: No Matter Who Wins, We All Lose

6 May 2014 - 8:38am


Imagine there is a blaze rapidly burning in a field next to your neighborhood, threatening to incinerate your home and everything around it. You decide you’ve got to do something to protect your family and your livelihood, so you pick up the phone, and dial 911. But instead of connecting you with the fire department, the operator laughs and tells you that they won’t do anything. In fact, they tell you they don’t even believe the fire exists -- all while the smoke fills your windows and the flames nip your doorstep.  

Sounds ridiculous, right? Not so much, in North Carolina.

North Carolina is home to a Republican U.S. Senate field that completely fails to recognize one of the most pressing crises facing the state. Thom Tillis, Greg Bannon, Heather Grant, and Mark Harris -- each and every one of the four candidates going before voters in the GOP primary today -- deny that the climate crisis even exists.

One local paper said “few places in the United States stand to be more transformed” by climate disruption than North Carolina. The sea level of the ocean adjacent to the state is expected to rise by more than three feet in the decades to come -- threatening a coastal area four times larger than the state’s largest county. That puts more than 30,000 homes and buildings in danger -- more than $6.9 billion in property in just four counties.

You’d think someone like Thom Tillis would be screaming for action at every chance he could get, agreeing with the 97 percent of climate scientists recognizing that the climate crisis is very real and very dangerous. ButTillis, Bannon, Grant, and Harris all have their heads in the sand while the sea is rising.

It’s a bad situation for any Republican voter in North Carolina who actually wants to protect their home or business from extreme weather fuelled by the climate crisis. And it’ll be much worse when one of them moves on to the November general election, with an eye on heading to the U.S. Senate.

These four peas in a reality-denying pod have already shown they can’t be trusted in a crisis.

The Sierra Club Voter Education Fund seeks to educate voters about issues important to our members by responding to statements and positions made in an electoral context, with the goal to encourage the public to find out more about the candidates and their positions on these issues.

Categories: Sierra Club National

New Truck Standards: Opportunity to Cut Fuel Consumption 40% by 2025

5 May 2014 - 1:28pm

Did you know the average tractor-trailer on the road today gets roughly six miles per gallon? Thankfully, the Obama administration is taking action to make our trucks more efficient. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) are beginning the process of setting the next round of standards to reduce carbon pollution and fuel use from medium and heavy-duty vehicles (everything from delivery trucks to 18-wheelers).

Building on previous standards, we can reduce fuel consumption in new trucks 40 percent by 2025, when compared to 2010 trucks, with even greater reductions possible in future years.

Setting strong standards for delivery trucks and tractor-trailers is crucial if we are to cut carbon pollution and reduce oil use. Analysis from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that strong standards that reduce truck fuel consumption 40 percent by 2025 would save 1.4 million barrels of oil per day in 2030 - roughly equivalent to our oil imports from Venezuela and Iraq combined in 2011. Such standards would also keep 270 million metric tons of carbon pollution out of the atmosphere annually by 2030, all while providing tractor-trailer drivers $30,000 in annual fuel savings.

These strong standards are technically feasible. Using technologies such as advanced transmissions, low-rolling resistance tires and aerodynamic trailers, we can significantly reduce the amount of oil used by trucks. Many of these technologies are already being showcased, notably in the prototype Cummins-Peterbilt SuperTruck. Today tractor trailers account for roughly 66 percent of the oil consumption in the truck sector. Using advanced technologies, we can reduce the fuel consumption of new tractor-trailers 46 percent. Similarly, we can improve the efficiency of vocational vehicles (buses, delivery vehicles, garbage trucks) and heavy-duty pickup trucks and large vans.

Right now EPA and DOT are expected to propose the next round of truck fuel efficiency and emissions standards in March of 2014. This is a critical opportunity to reduce oil consumption and cut carbon pollution. The Obama administration should seize this opportunity and set strong standards that reduce new truck fuel consumption 40 percent by 2025.

Check out the great infographic below for more information!

-- Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Sierra Club

Categories: Sierra Club National

New Ads Reveal Coal Isn’t Cheap in Kosovo

5 May 2014 - 10:31am

People across Kosovo are banding together to save lives. 825 lives, to be exact. That’s the number of Kosovars the World Bank estimates die every year due to pollution from coal-fired power plants. But instead of helping Kosovo transition to safer, clean energy, and despite its own estimates of coal’s deadly cost, the World Bank and the U.S. Government are pushing for a new coal plant that will burn the dirtiest form of coal, lignite, in Pristina, one of Europe’s most polluted cities. Now KOSID, a consortium of nongovernmental organizations in Kosovo, is launching a series of primetime television ads revealing the exorbitant costs citizens from this impoverished country will bear if the project goes forward -- 100 million euro from their own pockets. Between the monetary price and the lives lost, the new ads ask: Is a coal plant really worth this cost?


This isn’t the first time KOSID has raised its voice about this deadly and expensive coal plant. In response to the complete disregard for their health and welfare, they launched a series of evocative ads exposing the dangerous health risks of the plan last year. But their calls have fallen on deaf ears.

Perhaps the most frustrating fact that neither the World Bank nor the U.S. Government are interested in clean energy in Kosovo is just how far superior these options are for this young country. The Bank’s former chief clean-energy czar, Dr. Daniel Kammen, released a study showing that clean energy can power Kosovo, and do it more cheaply than coal while simultaneously creating more jobs.

It’s time for the World Bank and the U.S. State Department to heed the increasing calls from local organizations in Kosovo to move the country into the 21st century and embrace the clean energy technology. That can save lives by powering Kosovo without the deadly pollution and high price tag tied to coal.

As KOSID’s new ad concludes: “the solution is not to use more, it’s to waste less.” It’s time the World Bank heeded that lesson with the scarce development dollars it deploys around the world. It’s time to stop wasting this money on coal plants that kill people when we have cheaper, abundant clean energy options.

--Justin Guay, International Climate Program, Sierra Club, and Jeta Xharra, Director of Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Kosovo

Categories: Sierra Club National

The Vampire, the Preacher's Daughter, and Me: Behind the Scenes of the Years of Living Dangerously

1 May 2014 - 1:17pm

This coming Sunday, May 4, Showtime will air the fourth episode in its Years of Living Dangerously climate series, which includes me and features the Beyond Coal Campaign. As the airing of the "Preacher's Daughter" episode approaches, I keep thinking back on a particular, beautiful Blue Ridge summer day that I’ll never forget.

As the Showtime cameras rolled, I shared the stage with actor Ian Somerhalder, activist Anna Jane Joyner, and leaders from Asheville, North Carolina, at a rally calling on Duke Energy to retire the nearby coal-fired power plant and replace it with clean energy. All three of us are included the "Preacher’s Daughter" episode, and to get more of the scoop from behind the scenes, I hope you'll join me and Anna Jane for a live Twitter Q&A on Friday, May 2 at 3:00pm Eastern Time using the hashtag #YearsProject.
Back to that sunny day in Asheville. Hundreds of community members and happy Somerholics cheered on our speeches as we made it clear that Asheville was eager to retire the coal plant, which is the region's largest source of carbon pollution, and join the growing ranks of communities being powered by clean energy.

Ian, star of the TV show The Vampire Diaries, was the final speaker. When he walked onto the stage, shrieks and a dense thicket of iPhone cameras shot up from the crowd. He was supposed to interview me on the site of the rally after his speech, but his fans were so excited to meet him - understandably - that we clearly needed a plan B. So after he visited with his admirers, we jumped in our cars and instead held the interview in the shadow of the coal plant itself. Here's a sneak peak video clip of my interview with Ian, hot off the presses.

I told Ian about the success of the Beyond Coal Campaign, a partnership between the Sierra Club and over 100 organizations nationwide, that has so far stopped 182 new coal plants from being built, won the retirement of one out of every three existing coal plants in the US. (164 plants, to be precise), and replaced much of that coal power with record amounts of clean energy. Coal plants are the nation's biggest source of climate disrupting carbon pollution, and all those coal retirements, wind turbines, and solar panels have added up to significantly move the needle on U.S. carbon emissions, dropping them to their lowest level in two decades.

I told Ian that these victories were even more inspiring because they had been won by regular people - moms and dads, teachers and students, doctors and ministers and local elected officials. One of those real-life heroes leaders was Anna Jane Joyner, who works on faith and the environment as a staffer for the Western North Carolina Alliance.

Anna Jane is the star of the "Preacher's Daughter" episode, which focuses on her journey to bring her father, an evangelical pastor who took over the empire of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, into the climate fight. When we meet him he is a climate skeptic, and if you want to find out where he lands on the issue, you'll have to watch the episode.

Anna Jane is also working on our ongoing campaign to retire the Asheville coal plant, which is where I came into the story. I told Ian that the work of Anna Jane and thousands of others in the Beyond Coal Campaign offers an antidote to the despair that many feel about climate disruption. In spite of dysfunction in Washington, D.C. and the deep pockets of the fossil fuel industry, we're winning. We're blazing a trail to a world powered by clean, carbon-free energy. And we're just getting started.

Being included in the Years of Living Dangerously series has been an honor and a wonderful experience. Having some of the best storytellers on the planet turn their lenses on climate change has resulted in great television that’s already proving to be a game changer. I've been moved by the deep commitment of the people I've met behind the cameras, like Joel Bach, Jesse Sweet, David Gelber, Dan Abassi, Cathy Olian, and so many more.

Working with Ian and Anna Jane has been a delight, and we've formed a friendship centered in our shared optimism that we can solve the climate crisis. I've been impressed by Anna Jane's grace, warmth, and courage. Ian is a true visionary who is deeply committed to building a better world, and I'm grateful that he’s lending his voice and compassion to help move beyond coal. I've been inspired by the many supporters of his Ian Somerhalder Foundation, who are doing great work around the globe in the climate struggle. Be sure to join me and Anna Jane on Friday for the Twitter Q&A at 3:00pm ET, to chat about the episode and where we're headed next - use the hashtag #YearsProject.

Since that summer day at the rally, a lot has happened in Asheville, too. In February, toxic coal ash spilled from another Duke Energy coal plant in North Carolina, devastating over 70 miles of the Dan River and creating a scandal that sent shockwaves all the way to the governor's mansion. Now, there is a fresh spotlight shining on the Asheville coal plant, citizens are demanding action on coal ash, and for the first time, Duke has stated they are considering retiring the plant.

The campaign in Asheville is at a pivotal moment, and I'll tell you more about what's ahead in my blog next week. For now, I hope you'll watch and enjoy the upcoming episode of Years of Living Dangerously. If you are one of the thousands of people out there helping us to move beyond coal, then it’s your story too, up there on the big screen. We couldn't have done it without you.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Director

Categories: Sierra Club National

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

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