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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 The package includes the progressive renewable energy production tax credit (PTC) - key policies originally enacted to support the development of renewable energy production facilities here at home, boosting the American wind industry.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

Money Out, Voters In: Unity at the Supreme Court and Nationwide against McCutcheon’s Assault on Democracy

3 April 2014 - 1:35pm

Protesting the McCutcheon decision outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday

Just hours after the Supreme Court declared aggregate campaign contribution limits unconstitutional, opening the floodgates to even more corrupting corporate money in politics, Sierra Club members joined our allies from the Democracy Initiative and other organizations at rallies across the country to express outrage and unity.

At a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington D.C., George Kohl, Senior Director of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) eloquently expressed what everyone was thinking.

“It sucks, and our members are pissed off about it!”

This ruling will only directly affect about 1,200 people who had hit the previous limit of giving a total $120,000 directly to candidates and parties - an amount out-of-reach for almost every other American. Now, they’ll be legally allowed to dump upwards of $3.6 million every election. But though just a handful are directly impacted by the change, Nick Nyhart, President and CEO of Public Campaign, made it clear the impact on the rest of the country would be hard to ignore.

“This is a political gift for millionaires and billionaires,” Nyhart said, declaring that the ruling amounted to “Government of, by, and for the campaign contributors.”

These 1,200 people will be sure to take advantage of the new ruling. Courtney Hight, Director of the Sierra Club’s Democracy Program, pointed out that after the Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case allowed unlimited outside spending, the Koch Brothers alone spent more in 2012 than the entire McCain campaign did in 2008.  

That’s of particular concern to those of us fighting for healthy communities and a healthy planet, as these decisions allow oil barons like the Kochs to pour even more money into elections.

“The same people who are doing the polluting are fighting to overturn our democracy,” Hight said.

An outspoken champion for protecting the public interest, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) joined the rally in Washington and told of the dangers of the Supreme Court’s flawed decision.

“What the Supreme Court has said today is that big money should be the dominant factor in the U.S. political process,” the Senator shouted. “This is not what people fought and died for.”

But amid all the anger and frustration with the conservative justices of the Roberts Court, faith was not lost. The parade of speakers had a message of hope.

Jotaka Eaddy, NAACP's Senior Advisor to the President and CEO and Senior Director for Voting Rights (right), was one of many who exclaimed, “Organized people always beat organized money.”

Miles Rapoport, President of Common Cause, proposed several needed changes to the system, including increasing the power of small dollar donations, fighting for stronger contribution disclosure laws, and halting assaults on voter rights across the country.

Representative Keith Ellison (MN-05) reminded those gathered that terrible decisions that came out of the Supreme Court in the past, such as Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, were resolved through legislative action. In particular, Ellison referred to the Government By the People Act, a bill to lift up small-dollar donors that he cosponsored and the Sierra Club supports.

Drew Courtney, Director of Communications at People for the American Way, called the day “a step forward, because we are together.” He went on to say that “we have a powerful coalition right here, but there are a hundred rallies going on today across the country.”

Sierra Club Activists in Massachusetts Stand With Allies Against Corruption

In fact, about 130 rallies across the country gave concerned citizens—including Sierra Club members—a chance to speak out about the disastrous McCutcheon decision.

In Massachusetts, Sierra Club activists stood with our friends from Common Cause and other advocacy groups against corruption. In San Francisco, Sierra Club Deputy Executive Director Bruce Hamilton spoke out about why environmentalists care about getting big corporate money out of politics.

Sierra Club Deputy Executive Director Bruce Hamilton Speaks at a Rally Opposing the Decision in San Francisco

"Environmentalists are standing shoulder to shoulder with civil rights champions, organized workers, good government advocates, and concerned citizens who are sick and tired of our democracy being bought and sold to the highest bidder,” Hamilton said.

Going forward, we are united and motivated, nationwide.  

As George Kohl from CWA said, “We are more than them, and we will win.”

-David Shadburn, Sierra Club Intern
Categories: Sierra Club National

Time for Congress to Act and Save Clean Energy Jobs

3 April 2014 - 12:09pm

Today, the US Senate is casting a vote critical to the future of the U.S. wind industry. Wind power has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, and the wind industry now employs more than 80,000 Americans and generates enough electricity to power 15 million homes. Wind is providing affordable, reliable electricity from coast to coast - in 2013 Iowa got 27 percent of its electricity from wind power, while South Dakota got 26 percent. Despite this momentum, wind power's full potential continues to rest in the hands of members of Congress, including some with close ties to fossil fuel industries.

The Senate Finance Committee is voting today on legislation that includes an extension of critical clean energy tax incentives, namely the Production Tax Credit (PTC) and Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for renewable energy, as well as key energy efficiency tax credits. This is a critical step in ultimately renewing these provisions.

These clean energy incentives support tens of thousands of American jobs -- jobs that are at risk if Congress does not act immediately.  

Despite all the economic and environmental benefits the wind industry provides nationwide, Congress allowed the wind Production Tax Credit to expire at the end of 2013. The resulting uncertainty has slowed new investments in wind generation and hampered the massive growth the industry saw in 2012.

It’s incredibly frustrating to see some Members of Congress turn a blind eye to the benefits of wind power - from jobs and local economic growth, to clean air and water. While the Senate Finance Committee is moving proactively, the House of Representatives hasn’t yet moved off the dime, leaving tens of thousands of wind jobs hanging in the balance. Unfortunately, some of those Members of Congress are dragging their feet at the behest of fossil fuel interests, and blocking American innovation in the process.

Americans across party lines want the U.S. to be a clean energy leader, and the economic benefits of wind power are flowing to red and blue states. In fact, more than 80 percent of our nation's installed wind capacity is in US Congressional districts represented by Republicans. Last week, Texas set a wind power generation record - topping 10,000 megawatts, enough to power five million homes.

Clean energy is here to stay, and its future is even brighter. For the economy and for our environment, we need Congress to renew the Production Tax Credit, and ensure America continues to lead the way in developing the technologies that will power the world in the twenty-first century. TAKE ACTION: Tell Congress to protect American clean energy jobs!

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign.

Categories: Sierra Club National

New Business Model for Non-Profits Brings Solar Into Hostile Territory

3 April 2014 - 7:15am

Fourteen solar panels crown the entrance to the First Congregational Christian United Church of Christ in Chesterfield, Virginia. The small array generates 10 percent or so of the church's electricity, but the project is notable for a different reason: it was the first solar system installed anywhere under a new kind of contract called a Customer Self-Generation Agreement. The agreement allowed the church go solar with no money down, and without increasing its electricity costs.
The Customer Self-Generation Agreement (CSGA) is the brainchild of Tony Smith, founder and CEO of Secure Futures LLC, a solar developer based in Staunton, Virginia. Under its agreement with the church, Secure Futures owns the solar panels and reaps the federal tax benefits that make solar affordable. The church gets the electrical output of the system over the twenty-year life of the contract. Neither a lease (which would bar the church from getting the tax benefits) nor a third-party power purchase agreement (which the incumbent utility would have opposed), the CSGA occupies a financing niche all of its own.
For Secure Futures, the CSGA was born of necessity. In 2011, the company was blocked from completing a solar array at Washington and Lee University when Dominion Virginia Power sent "cease and desist" letters claiming the parties' use of a third-party power purchase agreement (PPA) violated the utility's monopoly on the sale of electricity. Although convinced it had the law on its side, Secure Futures backed down in the face of expensive litigation. The solar installation was only completed by turning the PPA into a lease and losing some of the tax benefits.  

Secure Futures had been building a place for itself in the nonprofit world, appealing especially to colleges and universities that want solar power as part of their sustainability goals. The company's 104-kW solar array at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, completed in 2010, was the first PPA in Virginia and, at the time, the largest solar array in the state. But that project was not in Dominion's territory.
For a state like Virginia with few policies to support solar, accessing the federal tax credits is critical to financing a solar project. Tax-exempt entities like municipalities, schools, and churches are a natural customer base for solar, but because they cannot use the federal tax credits themselves, they must partner with a tax-paying company that can own the project. Third-party PPAs have been the answer in states that allow them. PPAs also frequently offer a no-money-down option, which has proven a huge market driver in recent years for homes and businesses as well as non-profits.
But after the Washington and Lee experience demonstrated both Dominion's hostility to PPAs and its willingness to use its legal firepower, Tony Smith decided to seek another way through the legal thicket. Working with regulatory lawyer Eric Hurlocker and tax specialists at Hunton and Williams, Secure Futures developed an innovative contract model that could provide the tax benefits of a PPA without running afoul of utility monopoly claims. CSGAs are contracts for solar services but, crucially, don't involve the sale of electricity.
Although Dominion Power eventually relented enough to cooperate on a bill passed in 2013 that allows a small number of PPAs within its territory on a "pilot project" basis, Secure Futures has continued to use the CSGA model in subsequent projects because it offers features that a standard PPA does not.
Perhaps more importantly, neither Dominion nor any other utility has signaled opposition to CSGAs. Suddenly, Secure Futures' niche looks huge. The ability to use CSGAs wherever PPAs would make financial sense opens up new opportunities among non-profits not just in Virginia, but in all of the 28 states where PPAs are currently either illegal or of uncertain status. As Smith notes, no state bars customers from generating electricity for their own use.
While Smith is eager to see his company grow, he says his larger goal has always been to open the floodgates for solar projects across the country where they are held back now only by outdated laws and flawed policies. He hopes to license the CSGA approach, ideally to a non-profit that could work with developers across the South to make this contract model widely available.
Virginia has always been a hard place to do business for solar companies, so much so that Smith refers to it as a "dark state." Knocking down the PPA barrier won't bring the sunshine in all by itself, but it does create an opening.

-- Ivy Main, Sierra Club Virginia

Categories: Sierra Club National

Activists to Pepsi: Tar Sands and Water Don't Mix

2 April 2014 - 3:00pm

Have you heard this one before?  A PepsiCo representative walks out of an industry conference...and his buddy tells him that they’re going to hand him over to the Sierra Club tar sands protesters.  

Actually, it's no joke - that's exactly what happened last week at the Food and Beverage Environmental Conference in Napa, California.  

The Sierra Club's Future Fleet campaign, is targeting corporations to slash oil consumption and to stop using tar sands in their gigantic vehicle fleets. Nineteen companies have already made a tar sands commitment, but PepsiCo has been lagging behind its peers.

Last week, we got creative. PepsiCo was sponsoring an industry event called the Food & Beverage Environmental Conference, which was themed around water. Tar sands, of course, spell disaster for clean water and everyone who drinks it, so the Sierra Club and our friends at ForestEthics turned out in Napa to make sure PepsiCo and its peers know that tar sands and water don't mix.

On Sunday, the day that conference attendees were arriving in Napa, Sierra Club volunteers took over downtown Napa - and the opinion page of the paper - to petition PepsiCo to make good on their public commitments around clean water by saying no to tar sands in their vehicle fleets. And meanwhile, our friends at ForestEthics hung a huge banner over the highway leading to the conference center right where conference attendees would see it.

But the action was just getting started. On Monday, conference attendees walked out of their morning sessions to a lunchtime rally outside the conference hotel that made front page news in Napa. With activists of every generation chanting, "Hey Pepsi, listen up! Don't use tar sands in your trucks!" the picket caused a stir among conference attendees, who commented about the conference never having been protested before and joked about handing the PepsiCo representatives at the conference over to the activists.

And the actions just kept on coming. On Tuesday, the Sierra Club released a report called "The Toxic Waters of the Tar Sands Industry" and invited company representatives and the general public to watch a special web session in which guest speakers with expertise on the devastation wrought by tar sands on water, including one representative from an impacted First Nations community, spoke about the issues highlighted in the report. You can watch the session here.

Just to make sure the report got into the hands of the industry representatives, early Wednesday morning, a team of activists ensured  it was delivered it to nearly all conference attendees' hotel rooms. That same night, ForestEthics activists in Seattle at the Sustainable Packaging Conference shined a giant light projection onto the outside of the conference hotel that said, "Coke and Pepsi: Stop Using Tar Sands Fuel."

We got word from PepsiCo that last week's actions were definitely noticed. It wouldn't be possible without folks' support in calling on PepsiCo and other companies to step up and do the right thing: Join the call to PepsiCo to get off tar sands here.

-- Rachel Butler is a campaigner with the Beyond Oil Campaign's Future Fleet Initiative. Photos courtesy of Ethan Buckner and Peter Menchini.

Categories: Sierra Club National

Dirty Fuels: Bad for Public Health, the Environment, and Your Investments

2 April 2014 - 12:49pm

As if fossil fuel's massive climate impacts weren't enough, there is another powerful reason we should leave them in the ground: they're a bad investment.

DC Divest's Matt Grason and graphic designer Stephanie Lenorovitz have put together this infographic based on research from eight financial firms, and major media and financial media outlets. It challenges the conventional wisdom that fossil fuels are "safe" investments, giving seven compelling "reasons to sell your stocks now."

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune recently said "We should be exporting clean energy innovation, not the dirty fuels of the 19th century." That logic applies to investments too, and this graphic suggests that investors should view fossil fuels with the same wariness as horse and buggy enterprises.

Click through to see the whole thing!

-- Courtenay Lewis, Sierra Club Beyond Oil Campaign

Categories: Sierra Club National

Supreme Court Sides with Polluters, Not The People

2 April 2014 - 9:26am

The 112th Congress was saturated by more than $34 million in direct campaign contributions from oil, gas, and coal interests. In addition, dirty fuel interests spent $270 million on television ads in just the last two months of the 2012 electoral cycle. And, on top of all that, the Koch Brothers reportedly spent $400 million in 2012. That's a pair of oil barons spending more in one cycle than John McCain's entire Presidential campaign spent in all of the 2008 cycle. It's an unbelievable state of affairs. And, today, with their ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court made a terrible situation much, much worse.

Four years ago, the court opened the floodgates to unlimited outside money in politics with its decision in Citizens United, letting a handful of big money campaign donors spend whatever they wanted to push their agenda and their allies into government. Today's decision in McCutcheon does the same thing for inside money, upping the amount of money these donors can give directly to candidates. The current limit is around $120,000. The McCutcheon decision will increase that to around $3.6 million. As you can guess, that doesn't affect a lot of everyday Americans.

It's as if the majority on the Supreme Court has had its eyes shut ever since Citizens United. Since that ruling, any progress in our government has ground to a dead stop, as obstructionists supported by big polluter dollars have distorted our government’s priorities and halted any effort to change the status quo. If Citizens United were a movie, no one but big money campaign donors would want a sequel - but the Supreme Court has delivered them just that today with McCutcheon.

Are you wondering who exactly will benefit and who will they be donating to? Take a look at who the case is named after: Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama Republican activist who made his fortune in - what else? - the coal industry. It's McCutcheon and other dirty fuel executives like him who wanted to pump even more money into the system - and the Supreme Court has rolled over and let them.

At the Sierra Club, we know that protecting our environment and our democracy go hand in hand - and when those who view contaminating our air, our water, and our climate as collateral damage are free to flood our government with millions more in unlimited cash, it drowns out the voice of everyone else.

Fortunately, big money campaign donors aren’t getting away with this corruption of our democracy without the American people putting up a fight - and the situation is far from hopeless. In a recent poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, results showed 91 percent of respondents want elected officials to "reduce the influence of money in political elections." Grassroots movements are emerging calling for public financing that levels the playing field and lifts up the voices of small donors. More and more Americans are demanding initiatives that pull back the curtain on political spending.

And, today, in dozens of locations across the country, Sierra Club activists are standing with labor union members, civil rights champions, and good government advocates at rallies demonstrating against the McCutcheon decision. We're showing that the people are more powerful than the polluters, no matter how much they want to pour into our elections. And we're demonstrating we’re ready to fight back. All told, the call for a democracy that is of, by, and for the people is growing louder and louder as more and more money pours in.

That is why we refuse to see the McCutcheon decision as a loss. Dozens of groups representing tens of millions of Americans opposing unlimited corporate money in politics will not just use this moment as a chance to speak out, but as an opportunity to organize together to make this a turning point in the fight to get money out of politics and get voters in.
The Supreme Court and the big polluters have made it clear what side they are on -- now, it's time we made it clear that its the wrong side.

-- Courtney Hight, director of the Sierra Club's Democracy Program

Categories: Sierra Club National