Sierra Club Compass Blog
In Tonawanda, kids are getting sick, the community is deteriorating, and all signs point to polluters that have been getting away with it for a long time.
is home to one of New York's last remaining coal-fired power plants, NRG
Huntley, and to 53 industrial facilities. Within its borders are two petroleum distribution
terminals, multiple chemical bulk storage terminals, a tire manufacturing plant, and two interstate highways.
That's why more than 150 people gathered to discuss the community's ongoing health problems caused by toxic pollution that has gone unchecked for decades. The event was the culmination of a year-long organizing effort by a Sierra Club partner organization, the Clean Air Coalition of WNY. A $100,000 Community Action Grant from the Environmental Protection Agency made CAC's impressive work possible.
"This was the result of a years of hard work by our membership," said Rebecca Newberry, CAC community organizer."Since the program began we've engaged with more than 1,300 people on the doors, in focus groups, photography projects, and educational programs to capture the reality of life in Tonawanda," she said. "During this meeting, residents were able to learn the results of all the data we've collected and vote on the top five worst risks to their health, which will direct our work moving forward."
The community meeting took place a week after the state Department of Health released a study confirming what locals here already knew: The people of Tonawanda have higher rates of cancer compared with the rest of the state. The study found several cases of esophageal cancer among men and uterine cancer in women.
"There are just too many rare forms of cancer in this area, starting very young. That's just not heard of," Cindy Mannino, president of the Anthony V. Mannino Foundation, told local news outlet WIVB.
The grassroots campaign drew the attention of Los Angeles-based band Nico Vega, which took an "environmental tour" organized by the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. The popular band visited Tonawanda to see firsthand three of the area's dirtiest industrial plants and recorded an acoustic version of their song "Protest."
part of town we were in next to the factories didn't seem fit for residential
living," said the band's vocalist Aja Volkman. "We want to protect people from
being forced to sacrifice their quality of life for income. It's not right that
the people living in these homes and working these jobs are disease-ridden. Not
to mention the harm it's doing to our beautiful planet."
"The Clean Air Coalition's incredible work and unparalleled community relationships are helping residents connect the dots between industrial contamination, their health, and declining neighborhood conditions," said Jennifer Tuttle, a Sierra Club Beyond Coal organizer. "Good paying jobs are not easy to find in the Buffalo area, so some are reluctant to take on these industrial plants," continued Tuttle. "But across Western New York, community members are demanding a clean energy economy that will not only be built to last but will also support a healthy community."
-- Brian Foley
How do you create good paying American jobs, solve the climate crisis, and renew America's leadership in science and innovation?
A bill that Colorado Senator Michael Bennet introduced today could help accomplish all three of these goals.
This bill, titled the "Clean Energy Race to the Top" Act, would establish a $5 billion competitive grant program for states and local governments that enact policies to move the clean energy economy forward.
Here is how it works: Under the bill, state and local governments can apply for competitive grants to develop and implement clean-energy and carbon-reduction measures. Some ideas for possible proposals include renewable-electricity standards, regional or statewide climate action plans, increasing the percentage of energy-efficient public buildings, participation in a regional greenhouse-gas reduction program, or tax incentives for the manufacture or installation of clean-energy components or energy-efficiency upgrades.
Five billion dollars, or about one-tenth of one percent of federal spending, might not sound like much, but the effects would be truly significant.
Take, for example, job creation. This bill would create important new clean energy markets, which in turn would create new American jobs. At a time when our industrial and manufacturing sectors are fading in the face of global competition, clean-energy investments would help rebuild these important sectors. In fact, roughly 26 percent of all "clean economy" jobs are in manufacturing establishments (PDF), compared with nine percent in the economy overall.
Finally, the U.S. is losing in the global clean-energy economy battle, and this bill would help us catch up to the rest of the world. The global market for clean energy is estimated to be worth between $1.7 to $2.3 trillion over the next decade. China is now the global leader in wind and solar. India continues to emerge as a premier clean energy market, growing investments to $10.2 billion in 2011, a 54 percent increase.
Countries like Germany, South Korea, and Japan have quickly increased their investment in clean energy innovation since 2009 in an effort to become global leaders in the industry. But stagnant U.S. research budgets and looming budget cuts are sending us to the dark ages. They are providing an opening for other countries to capture the global clean energy innovation advantage that America is letting slip out of its grasp.
With looming budget negotiations in D..C and the effects of climate disruption becoming increasingly apparent around the country, this bill is a necessary one. We are missing out on our fair share of the clean energy economy, but with leadership from Congress and smart renewable energy investments, we can ensure our cities and states lead the way in clean energy.
-- Radha Adhar, Sierra Club Associate Washington Representative
Imagine that you've grown up in a beautiful, hilly countryside near many streams where you played and fished as a child. Now, years later, you can't even let your own kids or grandkids play in those same waterways because of pollution from a nearby mountaintop-removal coal mine.
Such is the reality for thousands of people living in small Appalachian communities across West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky.
"Mountaintop removal makes aquatic life sick; it makes people sick; and it destroys vital communities," says Jim Sconyers, Sierra Club West Virginia chair.
This week the Sierra Club joined the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in filing a series of legal actions to protect West Virginia waterways from mountaintop-removal-mining-based water pollution. These actions allege that Alex Energy, the Fola Coal Company, and Consol are violating the Clean Water Act by allowing their mining sites to contaminate several waterways with sulfate, selenium, and other dissolved solids.Mountaintop-removal coal mining has damaged or destroyed nearly 2,000 miles of streams across Appalachia as the coal companies dump mountaintop removal waste into valleys. This practice poisons waterways these communities rely on for drinking water and recreation.
Unfortunately, the four states ravaged by mountaintop-removal coal mining refuse to take the threat to our water seriously. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that nine out of 10 streams downstream from valley fills associated with coal mines are biologically impaired. But neither the state of West Virginia nor the EPA has taken action to require compliance and cleanup of the polluted streams.
"Amazingly, at the same time that data show more and more streams impaired by coal mining, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is seeking to reduce the number of streams on the state's impaired streams list," says Jim Sconyers.
"Rather than forcing the mining companies to clean up the impaired streams, WVDEP is trying to redefine the meaning of 'impairment' administratively so that it no longer exists. So groups like ours have to do WVDEP’s job. We can't allow these companies to keep poisoning our streams."
Selenium, the pollutant at question in the Consol case, is a toxic element that causes reproductive failure and deformities in fish and other forms of aquatic life, and is discharged from many surface coal mining operations across Appalachia. Selenium accumulates in the tissues of aquatic organisms over time.
TAKE ACTION: Tell President Obama and the EPA that everyone deserves clean water. Urge them to act now to protect Appalachia from mountaintop removal mining!
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
Today, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Japan's intention to enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact (TPP). With Japan's entry, the trade pact will now include 12 nations along the Pacific Rim, including the United States. It's similar to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) -- only way, way bigger. And the threats it poses to the health of our families and the future of our planet may be much more severe.
One of the reasons that Japan in interested in joining the trade pact is that countries in the bloc will likely get automatic access to U.S. natural gas. Normally, the Department of Energy is required to examine whether exporting U.S. natural gas is in the public's interest before it makes a decision on whether to export. That is a critical step in building a responsible energy policy that protects the public and the environment. But this crucial requirement is waived for countries that have signed a free trade agreement like the TPP with the U.S.
This means that the United States could be forever ceding our ability to manage our own natural gas resources. It also means that even if U.S. exports are found to harm our economy and the environment -- as there is every indication exports would -- the U.S. would still be forced to send natural gas overseas to our trading partners without any review or delay. As the world's largest natural gas importer, Japan will fundamentally change U.S. energy policy as we know it by joining the TPP.
Here's what’s at stake for our health, our environment, and our economy:
Increased exports would require us to produce more natural gas, which means more fracking across the United States -- in our backyards, near our schools, and next to our hospitals. Fracking contaminates drinking water and pollutes our air, exposing communities to serious health risks. Moreover, the highly energy-intensive process of cooling, liquefying, and transporting gas across the world has tremendous effects on our climate. The emissions associated with exporting natural gas, in fact, are said to be even larger than emissions from burning coal. The risk to public health and the future of our planet is too important to overlook.
Japan's entry into the trade pact may have other serious implications for the environment. A leaked version of the pact's controversial chapter on investment reveals that -- like NAFTA and more recent trade pacts -- the TPP would give broad rights to foreign corporations. The pact goes so far as to allow foreign corporations to sue a government in a private trade tribunal for unlimited cash compensation over new laws, policies, or regulations that hurt the corporation's bottom line.
More than 6,000 Japanese corporations have operations in the United States -- many in the oil, gas, and mining industries -- and each could challenge new U.S. laws and policies designed to protect our air and water. They could easily follow the example of a U.S. energy firm that recently filed its notice of intent to sue Canada over Quebec's moratorium on fracking using similar investment rules. The energy firm was essentially asking Canadians to forfeit their clean air and water for the sake of its profits. As another example, Swedish energy firm Vatenfall is suing Germany over the government's phaseout of nuclear power and for new coal regulations. Once again, trade rules are being abused to ratchet up the profits of dirty fuel interests at the expense of whole communities and their health. Japan's entry into the TPP throws the door wide open to more outlandish cases like these.
And finally, it's important to note that we cannot fully understand the broader implications of Japan joining the trade bloc since we don't have access to the text of the pact. Despite the fact that negotiations have been under way for years and may conclude as early as this October, we still haven't seen a single word of draft text or a single U.S. proposal. Transparency -- a basic principle of our democracy -- is crucial, particularly as the trade deal continues to inflate. We must have a meaningful chance to engage in how our trade and energy rules are set before it's too late.
-- Ilana Solomon, Sierra Club Trade Representative
Although we've taken many steps to clean up our air over the last few decades, four in ten Americans still live in places where the air is sometimes dangerous to breathe. Our cars and trucks remain a leading source of smog-forming pollution such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. These pollutants increase rates of asthma, respiratory disease, and premature death.
The Obama administration has the power to dramatically reduce pollution from our cars and trucks. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose "Tier 3" cleaner tailpipe standards. These standards would require refineries to produce cleaner-burning gasoline beginning in 2017 and automakers to phase-in advanced pollution control technology to reduce tailpipe pollution beginning in the 2017 model year.
Unfortunately, the oil industry is opposed to anything that would make them clean up their act. Groups like the American Petroleum Industry are asking their friends in Congress and the White House to delay cleaner tailpipe standards.
It is critical that the Obama administration stand up to the oil industry and move forward with cleaner tailpipe standards. Delay would mean that we won't get cleaner-burning gasoline in 2017 and the health benefits that come with it. This is a big deal -- in 2017 alone, cleaner-burning gasoline would keep 260,000 tons of nitrogen oxides out of the air, equivalent to taking 33 million cars off the road. The Obama administration has a choice to make -- either give in to oil industry pressure or stand up for public health and move forward with cleaner tailpipe standards.
You can help secure cleaner air for all of us to breathe. Call the White House today and tell President Obama to stand up to the oil industry and move forward with cleaner tailpipe standards!
-- Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Sierra Club Green Transportation Campaign
I remember the first time I saw a mountaintop-removal coal mining site -- Kayford Mountain in southern West Virginia. Those images have never left my mind -- a barren landscape where there was once lush forest. And right around the destroyed site, homes where people were trying to live despite having the world blown up next door.
Peoples' lives are never the same once a mountaintop-removal coal mine starts blasting. One major loss for these families is clean water. We expect our water to be safe and drinkable. Many folks here in Appalachia have streams or creeks running through their backyards. Kids from Kentucky to Tennessee grew up fishing, and many of us still enjoy heading out with the pole for a lazy Sunday afternoon hoping to snag a trout.
Sadly, for many people in Appalachia, that pristine ideal no longer exists. Pollution from mountaintop-removal mining has poisoned many of our streams making them dangerous for certain fish and other aquatic life.Mountaintop-removal is the process by which companies use explosives to remove the peaks of Appalachian mountains to get at the coal underneath. They then dump millions of tons of rubble and toxic waste into the streams and valleys below the mining sites. This devastating practice has damaged or destroyed nearly 2,000 miles of streams, and threatens to destroy 1.4 million acres of mountaintops and forests by 2020.
Mountaintop-removal coal mining allows toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, selenium, and arsenic to leach into Appalachia's local water supplies. Research shows that "residents in mining areas -- especially mountaintop removal mining areas -- have higher incidents of cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, birth defects, premature mortality and other issues."
One key measure of water pollution from mining is called water conductivity. The Environmental Protection Agency has stated that "high levels of conductivity, dissolved solids, and sulfates are a primary cause of water quality impairments" downstream from where mountaintop-removal rubble is dumped.
In other words, corporations dump the waste from their mountaintop-removal mines into nearby valleys, and at the bottom of each of those valleys is a stream that gets covered up. The water still runs through all that dirt, it just comes out the other side chock-full of pollution.
Scientific studies show that, when conductivity levels get too high below mine sites, some fish can no longer maintain healthy populations. And when selenium, a key contributor to conductivity levels, gets above a certain point, fish can be born badly deformed.These fish, and our waterways, are signals that the safety of our water and the health of our environment are declining.
Unfortunately, the governments of the four states that make up our Appalachian community -- Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky -- refuse to take the threat to our water seriously. West Virginia and Kentucky are actually both considering state action to make it even easier to pollute our waterways with mining waste.
Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee have shown themselves unable to responsibly enforce clean water safeguards, and that puts our families at risk. That's why now is the time for our EPA to work on a real solution to the problem.
As part of the Sierra Club's 100 Days of Action on Climate and Clean Energy, this week we're focusing on the theme of mountaintop-removal coal mining. For the sake of our rivers, our community, and the responsible stewardship of our land, it's time for enforceable clean water protections against coal mining pollution.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
More than 80,000 American drivers have purchased plug-in electric vehicles in the past couple of years, but only 900 of them are in my home state of Massachusetts. Why? One reason is the lack of incentives and coordinated planning in the state compared with others -- like California, Colorado, and North Carolina.
This week's Massachusetts Electric Vehicle Roundtable event, organized by the MA Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Massachusetts Clean Cities Coalition, and the Conservation Law Foundation, set out to change that. It brought together leaders from utilities, auto companies, environmental advocacy groups, and the departments of Energy Resources, Transportation, and Public Utilities. There were even three state agency commissioners and a cabinet secretary in attendance. I was encouraged.
The day began with a reminder of Massachusetts' aggressive climate policies, which have set a goal to reduce carbon emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. The consensus was that we won't get there without a significant shift from gasoline to electric driving -- in addition to a whole range of other strategies, including better public transit.
Steve Russell, the coordinator of Massachusetts Clean Cities Coalition, said that some progress had been made in the state through the training of electricians to install EV-charging units, safety training for emergency responders, a specialized MA EV license plate, and the installation of 160 public charging units throughout the state. Rachel Szakmary, from the City of Boston, described some of the city's EV-friendly policies, such as one that requires new parking garages to install EV-charging units.Some of the other speakers pointed to what other states have done (and Massachusetts has not yet done) to incentivize EVs. These include providing HOV lane access to EV drivers; state tax credits (in addition to the federal ones) that make it less expensive to purchase EVs; waivers on sales tax and emissions inspections; and policies that make it easier to obtain permits to install EV-charging stations and to sell electricity for EV charging.
Nick Nigro, from the Center for Climate & Energy Solutions, shared a tool that could benefit Massachusetts officials. It's an interactive resource for state agencies that evaluates tangible EV-related opportunities, including grants, public education, and strategic installation of EV-charging stations.
Mike Payette, from Staples, talked about the office supply company's 53 Smith Electric Vehicle trucks in operation in Ohio, Oregon, California, Texas, and Missouri, which he said have traveled 670,000 miles and have saved 750 tons of CO2 from being burned in their first couple of years on the road. If Massachusetts puts more EV-friendly policies in place for consumers and businesses, perhaps Staples' next EV delivery trucks will be seen on the streets of Boston and Cambridge.
Emily Norton, from Environment Northeast, described an EV driver in a Boston suburb who had recently received one ticket for riding alone in the HOV lane, another for driving without an inspection sticker, and another for charging his EV in an illegal spot. In many other states, key programs ensure that an EV driver would have been allowed to do all of these things. Her point was that if we had incentives and programs in place in Massachusetts that encourage a switch to EVs, then drivers would feel rewarded and not hindered for cleaner driving.
At the end of the event, participants discussed the idea of an EV-readiness council to be appointed by the governor or legislature. Other states, such as Illinois, Maryland, and Connecticut, have pursued this model. I think it's a terrific idea, as long as there is high-level involvement from the state, auto companies, utilities, and environmental groups as well as a concrete and fast-moving action plan that comes out of the process. Massachusetts may not catch up to California anytime soon when it comes to EV adoption but, as Jenny Rushlow, of the Conservation Law Foundation, said, "Massachusetts is behind now, but can become a regional leader on EVs."
(Image of two cars charging in front of Boston City Hall by Gina Coplon-Newfield.)
-- Gina Coplon-Newfield is the Sierra Club’s Director of Green Fleets & Electric Vehicles Initiative.
A groundbreaking new report has, for the first time, estimated the human toll from India's dirtiest fuel source. According to the study, 80,000 to 115,000 people died prematurely as a result of emissions from coal-fired power plants in 2012. Those deaths, along with a slew of other health impacts, including millions of cases of asthma, respiratory distress, and heart disease caused by coal emissions, cost the Indian government $3.3 to $4.6 billion. The toll is staggering and it comes at a time when the Indian government seeks to dramatically expand its reliance on this destructive fuel source with a pipeline of coal projects matched only by China.
The study, conducted by Delhi-based research group Urban Emissions (India) and commissioned by Conservation Action Trust in partnership with Greenpeace, reveals the health impacts of some of the weakest air pollution standards in the world (see the comparison of emissions from the International Energy Agency below). Debi Goenka of Conservation Action Trust says of Indian emission standards, "They are either absent or shamefully behind those of even China, let alone the EU or U.S. Does the Ministry of Environment consider Indian lives to be less valuable?"
Even worse, the burden caused by woefully inadequate emissions standards is not borne equally. The study's results show that the burden of death and disease fell hardest on the Delhi-Haryana and Kolkata-West Bengal-Jharkhand regions, as power plant concentrations, wind patterns, and population density combined to cause an estimated 8,800 and 14,900 deaths in 2012, respectively. That means that while coal plants may be far away from India's growing middle class, their pollution is finding its way into the lungs of Delhi residents and their children.
Perhaps more worrying, however, is the direction India is headed. Coal kills 100,000 today, but what if an estimated 588 GW of new coal comes online? That is five to six times the number of existing coal plants (and twice the size of the U.S. coal fleet) -- all being built without modern pollution control equipment. India may be facing an environmental disaster of Chinese proportions.
But that is not the only impact these plants will have. Their construction is causing a social crisis, with local opposition leading to violent repression, death, and arrest. At the same time, economic realities caused by skyrocketing international coal prices and domestic coal shortages have created a wave of subprime coal loans so great that Indian banks worry it poses systemic default risk. On top of it all, the Indian government is pushing to mine what remains of the country's pristine forests to plug the growing shortage of fuel the pipeline requires.
India is paying a far greater price for its coal reliance than even these numbers reveal. But it need not happen. While the U.S. and India are clearly in very different contexts, in many ways this reminds me of what happened in the U.S. just a few short years ago. Between 2001 and 2010, the U.S. almost locked itself into a generation of 180 costly and unneeded coal-fired power plants. Campaigns led by the environmental community, the enacting of state renewable energy standards, and more-abundant competitive sources like energy efficiency, wind, and natural gas, headed off that almost catastrophic coal rush.
Now India faces a similar problem. And just as in the U.S., civil society is waking up to the threat. As Vinuta Gopal of Greenpeace puts it, "This is a wakeup call for our planners; the ongoing coal expansion is irrational and dangerous. Pollution from coal power plants is killing thousands; the coal is mined by sacrificing India's forests, tribal communities, and endangered species. And at the end of it all, coal has failed to deliver energy security. We need a moratorium on new coal plants and ambitious policy incentives to unlock the huge potential India has in efficiency measures, wind and solar."
-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International
By Erin Noonan, Beyond Oil campaign intern
As nearly 50,000 people shouted, "Hey Obama / We don't want no climate drama," I felt proud to be involved with last month's Forward on Climate rally, and to consider myself an environmental youth activist. Of the 140 buses that made the trip, nearly a third were packed with college students, representing universities from coast to coast. Student participation at the Forward on Climate Rally was crucial to its undeniable success that day. On February 17, students contributed the sustainable energy necessary to keep the crowd going in 25-degree weather. But what role will students play in the climate movement as we move forward?
Acting as a student organizer was not only rewarding—it also reminded me of the first Earth Day demonstration in 1970, still one of the most influential environmental rallies ever. Many of its organizers were also students, possessed of an attitude that was hopeful and ready for change. As college buses pulled up to the Forward on Climate rally site this month, I felt the same sense of hope and readiness for change that had ensured the lasting effects of Earth Day 1970.
When the Cornell University buses arrived, hands were waving from the windows; their excitement was visible. Excitement stemmed from not only the rally, but also from Cornell's recent decision to pass a call for divestment from oil. Their student assembly joined student groups at a growing number of universities across the country that have successfully prodded their schools to pass this resolution, taking the first steps that will eventually eliminate dependence on the fossil fuel industry. University divestment movements are a nationwide trend, and more and more campuses are stepping up and fearlessly advocating for divestment, positioning themself as climate leaders.
College institutions are agents of change, where young voices are not only heard, but where beliefs become materialized. Obama said, "I need you to push me." Who is better qualified to apply pressure than the youth who will one day inherit the earth the president is helping to shape—starting with his decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. This emphatic mindset is nothing new for rebellious youth. Historically, students have claimed their place at the forefront of social change. Speakers at the Forward on Climate rally, comparing the gathering to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s march on Washington, could not help but acknowledge a youthful presence, aware that it represents the beliefs of the future. Today, students' beliefs embody efficiency, innovation, and sustainability.
In a recent blog post, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune spoke about how society must relinquish a gradualist approach to climate change. The engagement of youth in the climate movement exemplifies the confidence that Brune says all of us must bring to the battle against climate disruption. We are rallying for change, and we will continue to do so until change is made. Our relentless energy forbids us from sitting idly by, waiting for legislators and corporations to open their eyes to modern science.
This new generation of environmental advocates is running on the same type of energy we have seen demonstrated by youth in previous generations, but we bring to the table a new sense of urgency along with viable alternatives to the status quo. The combination of the two allows us embody an energy as necessary as it is renewable, much like the energy we are fighting for.
It's easy to get excited about the future, coming off our recent announcement that we're halfway to our goal of retiring one-third of the nation's coal fleet. Seeing those successes city-by-city and state-by-state is inspiring, but it also is a frequent example of how different two places can be when it comes to clean energy and coal, whether they're right next door, or a state or two away.
This week's coal vs. clean energy examples come from Montana and Minnesota.
Having once lived in Montana myself, I can't imagine wanting to ruin such a beautiful big sky with coal pollution -- but that's just what the Colstrip coal plant is doing. The Colstrip plant is one of the largest and most polluting facilities in the U.S., and this week we joined the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) in legally challenging the owners to clean up the plant.
The owners facing federal violations include high-profile companies like Warren Buffett's PacifiCorp, Washington-based Puget Sound Energy (PSE), Pennsylvania Power and Light, Avista Utilities, Portland General Electric, and NorthWestern Energy.
We are demanding that this plant install long overdue modern pollution controls and pay for its Clean Air Act violations.
The reality, though, is that Montana can do better than this coal plant. Even with modern pollution controls, the coal plant would still emit millions of tons of climate pollution equivalent to three million cars, every year.
Because of big polluters like Colstrip, wildfires across the Northwest will grow in intensity and frequency, salmon species will start to disappear, and many downhill and cross-country ski locations will be out of business during our lifetime.
Puget Sound Energy holds the keys to one way to replace the entire Colstrip facility with clean energy: the Lower Snake River Wind Facility in Washington (PDF).
Meanwhile, over in Minnesota, clean energy vision is happening. This week a powerhouse coalition came together to launch the Minnesota Clean Energy & Jobs Campaign.
The more than 30 organizations -- businesses, unions, faith groups, environmental organizations, and more -- will support increasing the state's Renewable Electricity Standard to 40 percent by 2030, establishing a solar energy standard of 10 percent by 2030, and a series of policies that will make providing local power generation easier and more cost effective, as well as advancing building and industrial energy efficiency initiatives.
"We know that transitioning to a clean economy -- investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and making it cheaper and easier to use -- are the keys to creating good jobs in this state," said Pete Parris, political director for Sheet Metal Workers Local 10 and a representative of the BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of labor and environmental groups.
"We have an opportunity to stay ahead of the curve -- to create good jobs, and to make sure that we protect the environment for this and the next generation -- we can do that with this agenda."
I applaud this vision in Minnesota and look forward to seeing its successes. Minnesota isn't alone in its diverse coalitions pushing for clean energy. I know there are similar hard-working groups in Montana and Washington.
Closing PSE's Colstrip plant would mean the largest reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in Northwest history -- and they could replace that power with clean energy! How long will the utilities wait to listen to their customers who want clean energy instead of dirty coal?
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Director
The transition to a clean energy economy is imperative not only to tackle the climate crisis but also to spur development through new economic opportunities, new investment, and the creation of new green jobs. In seeking to capture these benefits, however, governments are increasingly turning to trade rules to challenge each others' domestic renewable energy industries, thereby undermining the global clean energy transition we all seek. Put simply, all governments must have the ability to develop domestic renewable energy industries to fight climate change and the entrenched fossil fuel industry behind the crisis.
In the most recent example, the United States has filed a case at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to challenge India's use of subsidies and "buy local" rules in its domestic solar program. This case exemplifies the misguided and harmful impacts of these challenges. It is particularly important because of India's potential as one of the world's largest solar markets and because of the local and global benefits to India's transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
In order to understand the importance of this case, it is important to first understand the progress that the Indian government has made in supporting solar. India's solar mission provides strong support to solar deployment and includes a goal of developing 20,000 megawatts of solar power capacity by 2022. A key objective of the program is to boost the capacity of India to domestically manufacture solar panels. To achieve this objective, the government of India has required Indian developers of solar photovoltaic ("PV") projects using crystalline silicon technology to buy solar modules manufactured in India in order to take advantage of the programs benefits, including subsidies and guaranteed long-term competitive rates for solar power. These requirements to purchase locally manufactured solar panels are referred to as domestic content rules.
The government of India initially exempted thin film solar cells -- lower-efficiency solar panels used in large-scale industrial solar projects -- from the domestic content rules because of low domestic capacity to manufacture such cells. This loophole created an opening for foreign countries, including the United States and China, to export thin-film cells to India. U.S. exports of thin film solar cells to India have been particularly successful thanks to low-interest loans from the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export-Import Bank.
The result is that foreign thin-film panels now dominate India's market. Whereas global thin film installations are a very small portion of total solar deployment, in India they are the vast majority. To correct this imbalance and protect India's solar manufacturers, India is now considering expanding the use of domestic content rules to thin-film technologies in the second phase of its program, which may curtail imports of American-made solar panels to India.
Concerned about the impact that the potential expansion of India's domestic content rules to thin-film technologies would have on its exports, the United States filed a claim at the WTO. In its claim, the United States asserts that India's domestic content rules appear to have violated trade rules in the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, the Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures, and the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures by allegedly providing more favorable treatment to domestic solar producers and products than to foreign ones.
According to WTO rules, the U.S. and India have 60 days to try to find a resolution. If no resolution is reached, the U.S. can then request the establishment of a WTO panel to determine whether India has violated trade rules. A recent WTO panel ruling which found that Ontario, Canada’s domestic content rules in its renewable energy sectors violated trade rules does not bode well for India's case.
What's at Stake
Historically, as countries have industrialized, domestic content rules have been a standard policy tool used to foster, nurture, and grow their new industries. In this process, countries have sought to find the appropriate balance between allowing some degree of foreign competition while still protecting the new industry until it is internationally competitive.
In the case of India, allowing some degree of foreign competition may be important to stimulate its domestic companies to increase their efficiency and competitiveness. But, foreign competition must not undermine the ability of India to grow its own solar industry.
Here's why we think India must be in the driver's seat when it comes to determining the future of its renewable energy industry, and what is at stake in this case.
First, the growth and success of India's solar industry is being undermined by the power of its coal industry, which receives enormous subsidies and enjoys strong political backing in India. One way to challenge the power of the fossil fuel industry in India is to successfully develop a viable domestic renewable energy industry. The use of domestic content rules is one way to develop a domestic solar industry with skin in the game, which is necessary to counter the power of the fossil fuel industry.
Second, the presence of strong renewable energy industries in multiple countries, including India, can help spur competition and innovation that can ultimately drive down the global price of renewable energy technologies in the medium and long term.
Third, local content rules can help increase the political support for renewable energy programs by generating multiple local benefits, including new investment opportunities in a growth industry, opportunities for technological innovation, job creation, and new sources of tax revenue. For a country like India, with hundreds of millions of people still living in poverty, these added benefits are critical.
And fourth, because our planet is at
stake. Our global climate will remain in
peril if only some countries develop renewable energy industries while others
continue to rely on fossil fuels. There
is absolutely no question that in order to avoid catastrophic climate impacts, all
countries must be seriously investing in renewable energy technologies and
transitioning away from fossil-fuels now. The
global solar industry has seen significant gains in the past few years. In 2012, more than 100
gigawatts of solar PV installed worldwide,
breaking new records. Now is the time to encourage
countries to keep developing their domestic solar capacity in order to tackle
the climate crisis, not to slow this
process with trade disputes.
-- Ilana Solomon, Trade Representative of the Sierra Club and Justin Guay, International Climate and Energy Representative of the Sierra Club
Angelenos cheered this week when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced his intention to sign two agreements that will make the city coal-free no later than 2025.
This comes at a moment in our campaign when massive rallies across the U.S. in February called on President Obama to take immediate administrative action to tackle the threat of extreme climate change devastation.
Here in L.A., 2,000 Angelenos showed up in front of City Hall to demand national action on climate change last month. The good news this week is that Angelenos' demand for clean energy is driving significant progress in our own backyard.
L.A. gets nearly 40 percent of its power from two aging out-of-state coal plants -- the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) in Arizona and the Intermountain Power Project (IPP) in Utah. These aging plants have become a financial liability for Angelenos as a result of the necessary and required retrofits at both of the several-decades-old power plants.
The prospect of Los Angeles being poised to sign agreements to get off of coal represents a pivotal moment. This would mark a major transformation for our city and would be the result of ordinary Angelenos coming together to demand change in the energy choices we make. In 21st-century Los Angeles, it has become simply unacceptable for nearly 40 percent of our city's energy supply to continue to come from aging, out-of-state, polluting coal-fired power plants.
When Mayor Villaraigosa took office in 2005, the city got nearly half its power from coal and a measly three percent from clean energy. What a difference eight years make. Los Angeles was the first city in the state to hit 20 percent clean energy. It recently launched the largest urban rooftop solar program in the nation, and it has reimagined its energy-efficiency program to create good careers while saving more energy. In the past year alone, L.A. has locked in enough clean energy commitments to power 330,000 homes with solar (that's basically the equivalent of Cleveland or Minneapolis).
The coal transition is as much an economic transition as it is an environmental one, and it represents a victory for all Angelenos. The city’s new CLEAN LA Solar program (a solar buy-back or "feed-in-tariff") -- the largest city-wide program of its kind in the nation -- promises to create 4,500 jobs and nearly $500 million in economic development for the city. Toronto-based Solar Provider, for example, has plans to hire 30 Angelenos and to invest $50 million in Los Angeles as a result of the new program.
At the same time, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is ramping up its energy efficiency program, increasing its energy savings, goal which will help lower Angelenos' energy bills.
By leading on a transition away from coal, Los Angeles is showing how we can transform our economy to create jobs, clean our air and water, and improve the health of our environment. Crippling drought, devastating wildfires, and superstorm Sandy have brought climate change home. It’s time for a renewable energy future that breaks our addiction to dirty and dangerous fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, nuclear, and tar sands oil.
The Beyond Coal campaign's activists and supporters, along with countless other organizations, have been at the forefront for a transition from coal to renewable energy to reduce our city's human-caused carbon pollution footprint. We look forward to seeing the details of the agreements being considered for the mayor's signature. It's imperative that the city continue to replace dirty coal with more of the clean energy that is already bringing new jobs and investments to L.A.
We look forward to continuing to work with the mayor, city council, and Department of Water and Power to finally end our city's reliance on dirty coal.
-- Evan Gillespie, L.A. Beyond Coal. Photo of Mayor Villaraigosa from Moapa solar project signing ceremony in 2012.
Millions of Americans are breathing easier these days as we announce that the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign has crossed the halfway mark toward meeting our goal of securing the retirement of a third of the nation's coal-fired power.
It's only been a year and a half since Bloomberg Philanthropies gave a $50 million grant to the Sierra Club to support the efforts of the Beyond Coal campaign. As part of this partnership, the Sierra Club set the ambitious goal of winning commitments to retire 105,000 megawatts of coal -- about one-third of U.S. coal plants -- by 2015.
These coal plants are the nation's number-one source of the carbon pollution that is disrupting our climate, the sulfur pollution that causes heart attacks and premature death, and the mercury pollution that harms babies in the womb.
Today, thanks to the hard work of millions of people and dozens of partner organizations, our children, our grandparents, our friends, our neighbors, and so many others are enjoying cleaner air and water -- and U.S. carbon emissions are at a two-decade low. Earlier this week, we announced the three coal retirements by American Electric Power that put us across this halfway mark.
We are joined in this work by allied organizations, large and small, from coast to coast. I like to think of it as a grassroots, open-source effort that is winning big victories for our health and the planet. Together, our work averaged one coal plant retirement a week in 2012.
Let's look at this milestone by the numbers:
2,011 --The megawatts of coal retired by AEP that put us at the halfway mark last week.
12 million -- The tons of climate-disrupting pollution those three AEP plants will no longer emit.
84,000 -- The tons of sulfur-dioxide pollution those three AEP plants will no longer emit.
142 -- The number of coal plant retirements the Beyond Coal campaign and its allies have secured.
66,000 -- The megawatts of solar and wind power online today, enough to power 13 million homes. That number is increasing every day: In January 2013, every single megawatt of new installed electric capacity was from renewable sources.
According to the Clean Air Task Force, the 54,000 megawatts of coal that the Beyond Coal campaign and its allies have helped retire so far has resulted in these numbers:
3,900 lives saved.
6,000 heart attacks avoided
$1.8 billion in health costs saved.
206 million metric tons of climate-disrupting carbon pollution prevented from being dumped into our air every year -- the equivalent of removing 43 million cars from our roads.
Our work is not yet done, of course. We must continue to work on retiring the remaining coal plants, investing in clean energy, and ensuring strong transition programs for those workers and communities affected by coal plant retirements.
I write today with a deep commitment to carry that work forward, knowing that city by city and state by state, Americans will continue coming together to move beyond coal -- to clean energy. The health, safety, and prosperity of our kids and families depend on it.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
Currently, the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is being challenged before the United States Supreme Court. The Voting Rights Act is critically important legislation that ensures no federal, state, or local government may impede people from registering to vote or voting because of their race or ethnicity.
On February 27, voices from around the country spoke out in support of keeping this vital piece of civil rights legislation intact in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. The Sierra Club stands with these efforts, the NAACP, and other organizations working to protect the Voting Rights Act and to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to have their voices heard on the issues that matter to them -- whether it is keeping our air and water clean or securing a better future for our children.
-- Kristen Elmore, Sierra Club Media Team