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Ambassador Recalled: Airbnb’s Chip Conley’s Mexican Misadventure

Rex Weiner

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Todos Santos: Fishing boats and resort construction in background. (Photo: Mike Brozda)

Juan and Manuel Salvador Orozco Cadena, a pair of fishermen from Baja California, Mexico, pushed off from Punta Lobos on the morning of November 4, 2015. Earlier, the Orozcos had repaired the transmission of their outboard motor, but then it broke down again. As night closed in, the brothers floated helplessly in their open panga 30 miles off the Pacific Coast, making intermittent contact by cellphone, before being rescued by the Mexican coast guard.

At the same moment the Orozcos had first pushed off into the sea, Airbnb executives 1,200 miles away were celebrating the defeat of a San Francisco ballot initiative aimed at regulating the short-stay rental titan. What could possibly be the connection between two Mexican fishermen adrift in the ocean and a company valued by Wall Street estimates at $25.5 billion?

The answer is Chip Conley, a good-looking, 55 year-old fit guy with a shaved head and a charismatic smile whose official full-time job is Head of Global Hospitality for Airbnb. According to a profile in Fast Company, Conley is one of CEO Brian Chesky’s “most trusted advisers.”

After the defeat of the San Francisco initiative, Conley celebrated Silicon Valley media’s “Glowing perspective on Airbnb’s prospect,” tweeting one tech blogger’s headline,  “With Prop F Gone, Airbnb Is Now Unbeatable.”

 

 

Less well known has been Conley’s side job, before and during his Airbnb tenure, as visionary leader and chief pitchman for Tres Santos, a mega-resort under construction in Todos Santos, a small Mexican fishing and farming town on Baja’s wild Pacific Coast.

Conley’s adventure, which played out amid investigations by Mexican authorities into the development’s permits and licenses — is over. It ended suddenly January 2, when Tres Santos announced on its Facebook page a parting of the ways with Conley, “as he redirects his full attention to Airbnb.” Conley himself, replying to a Capital & Main query, brushed off his departure as a mere consequence of his decision not to renew his contract with the resort project. As with many aspects of the Tres Santos enterprise, the truth requires a close reading between the lines.

“Airbnb has no relationship with Tres Santos in any way,” Conley had told Capital & Main by email last November, describing himself as “a part-time, at-will consultant” for the Baja developers. That may have been, but it’s hard to believe that Airbnb had not become aware of the shadow that the escalating backlash from local residents and fishermen against Tres Santos was casting over Airbnb’s international ambassador, and on the growing export of short-stay capitalism. (Todos Santos has 200 Airbnb listings.) Especially during a time when Airbnb tries to address growing controversy over its impact on affordable housing in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles, and prepares for a widely-expected public offering.

 

How the Hospitality Guru Got That Way

conley

Chip Conley
(Photo: Mindfulwiki

Chip Conley’s hospitality career began in 1986 with his purchase of a no-tell hotel catering to hookers in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. The newly-minted Stanford MBA, just 26 years old and with no hotel experience, gave the run-down Caravan Motor Lodge a $200,000 makeover and re-launched it as the Mid-Century style Phoenix Hotel. Catching on as a destination for touring rock groups and their managers trying to save a buck, the Phoenix would rise to become the flagship of a $230 million empire called Joie de Vivre, with more than 3,000 employees and a collection of 34 hipster-friendly boutique hostelries.

In 2010, he sold a majority stake in Joie de Vivre to an investment firm headed by Hyatt Hotel heir John A. Pritzker. While retaining ownership in 15 hotels, Conley devoted himself to his restless interests, creating a website curating arts and cultural festivals around the world and writing inspirational business books. Influenced by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, Conley roams the country giving motivational talks pegged to his latest book, Emotional Equations. A regular at Burning Man, Conley is a director on the board of the annual self-expression jamboree’s nonprofit sponsor.

“I’ve always liked rebellious business people, so this was a natural fit,” Conley told Fast Company of his new job. “Airbnb,” he explained in another interview, “is the new disrupter.”

But one person’s disrupter is another’s disruption, and in the town of Todos Santos, people have been saying that disrupter was Chip Conley and his cohort at Tres Santos.

 

Todos Santos—The Magic Town

An hour north and a world away from the luxury tourist bacchanal of Cabo San Lucas at the tip of the Baja peninsula, Todos Santos has for many years been the sleepy little dirt-road Mexican town of every gringo’s dreams. Great surfing, the best fish tacos, colonial streetscapes, easy-going locals, easy on the pocketbook. For some it still is. But change is no longer mañana.

The rustic paradise that I first visited 30 years ago now boasts art galleries, boutique hotels and an array of fine eateries. Recent municipal progress includes paving the dusty dirt road in front of the old adobe brick hacienda I’ve co-owned with some friends since 1985. Between the dust of yesteryear and what often sounds today like the Baja 1000 racing past our windows, we’d prefer our margaritas served dusty, por favor, and at a flip-flop-friendly pace.

The unavoidable truth is that the trajectory of global commerce, propelled by international protocols like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), leads to paved-over Margaritavilles everywhere. In that spirit, Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism officially designated Todos Santos in 2006 as a “Pueblo Magico,” one of about 80 towns across the nation chosen for their natural beauty, unique culture, historical significance — and potential to attract the Yankee dollar.

Many Todosanteños welcome the uptick in business. A sugar-producing boomtown in the 1800s with refineries working night and day, the town went bust when sugar market prices bottomed out in the 1950s. Todos Santos was, until fairly recently, an economically depressed and forlorn pueblo that only the most intrepid travelers—mainly surfers—reached via a perilous two-lane highway.

The fate of neighboring Cabo—lurching seemingly overnight from ramshackle fishing camp to over-built, high-end hotel corridor and cruise ship destination — bypassed Todos Santos for three reasons. For one, the town’s steeply banked coast, plied only by the brave open boats of the local fishing fleet, is too rough for a swimming beach or yacht port.

A second reason is that ownership of prime ocean-view terrain mostly belonged to the ejidos – communal agricultural groups formed after the Mexican revolution to take over property confiscated from wealthy oligarchs, and prevented by law from selling that land to foreigners. In 1994 NAFTA ended Mexico’s experiment in land reform, leading the federal government to break up the ejidos by granting titles to individual ejiditarios, allowing them to sell fields once planted with chilis and tomatoes to foreigners building their vacation and retirement villas. A few speculators bought up multiple lots, but the economic downturn over recent years left Todos Santos real estate offices in a torpor.

A third reason is that there’s just not much fresh water in Todos Santos. A natural oasis, the town sits on the banks of a buried Pleistocene river fed by seasonal runoff from the high slopes of the Sierra de la Laguna. A 2012 study commissioned by a subsidiary of the developers and supplied to Capital & Main predicted that Todos Santos has sufficient water at current usage to last six more years.

But is there enough water and resources to support 4,000 new homes, tripling the town’s size, plus a hotel with a beach club and pool, along with a research lab for Colorado State University, and a farm to produce organic fruits and vegetables?

All are currently under construction on 1,100 acres quietly purchased from private and ejido owners, and assembled over the past five years. Tres Santos was first officially unveiled in early 2014. While travel and leisure industry media hailed the project, spotlighting Chip Conley’s role, the town has struggled to comprehend the impact the huge development will have on its resources and way of life, despite the developers’ public posture of transparency.

 

Not So Saintly Tres Santos

At Todos Santos’ main intersection, a block from the 19th-century Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de La Paz, a former funky grocery store is now the Tres Santos Hub, the development’s sales office. The tidy storefront rents mountain bikes, offers tours and has dispensed brochures that declare “Mind + Body” and “Sea + Soil.” Under the heading, “Our Team,” Chip Conley tops the list with the title of “Hospitality, wellbeing & placemaking.”

The brochure notes the companies backing Tres Santos; Denver-based Black Creek Capital and its Mexican affiliate, MIRA, are described as “a fully-integrated real estate investment and development company in Mexico.” Black Creek Group is a real estate firm “with 15 years experience in Mexico.” The companies’ websites detail the developments, mostly industrial, that MIRA and Black Creek have undertaken.

Tres Santos’ website eschews the corporate look and feel of Black Creek and MIRA for a more touchy-feely appeal. Click around to see healthy hikers, surfers catching waves and slim, blissful men and women in yoga poses framed by burnished sunsets. Tres Santos is a sustainable, holistic “Movement,” the website says, in harmony with the land, the town and even the fishermen (“We support their tradition”). Interested parties are urged not to simply buy, but in language redolent of Burning Man, to “Join the community. Write. Paint. Breathe. Grow. Surf. Don’t stop. Live at Tres Santos.” There are “artisanal homes” in three locations—”Beach, Hillside and Farm”— that start at $200,000. Beachside homes are price-tagged in the $1 million range.

The “Mindful Living” approach was a marketing concept largely crafted by Conley, who says that the developers brought him in “to help them envision how the project could innovate, creating a community that’s more focused on farm-to-table restaurants and healthy living than a traditional Mexican resort.” Travel & Leisure described Tres Santos as a “wellness community.”

Nowhere in the sales literature does the name of the team’s most important member appear—James R. Mulvihill. Founder and CEO of Black Creek, Mulvihill is a prominent Denver citizen with a political history that bends sharply to the right. Federal Election Commission records reveal Mulvihill is a significant financial supporter of Republican politicians who stand for the full array of GOP ultra-conservative positions on issues like immigration, renewable energy, abortion, same-sex marriage, climate change, the environment — and such “wellness” programs as the Affordable Care Act.

In Todos Santos, Conley’s alliance with Mulvihill and Tres Santos earned him the title of Persona Non Grata #4 (after hotel builder Liz Lambert, Mulvihill and MIRA chief Javier Barrios) from the Todos Santos Pueblo Magico page on Facebook, administered by local Mexican activists. Despite the rough fun they’ve had with him on social media, many of the anti-Tres Santos activists say they don’t feel great animus toward Conley personally. They have been baffled by the contradiction between Conley’s track record and persona—the empathic man, compassionate employer and spiritually enlightened businessman—and his role in a conflict that cast him on the side of the bad guys.

“I have no reason to believe he’s not a decent guy,” says Todos Santos resident Ricardo Madrazo, an independent video producer who has corresponded by email with Conley. With his wife Jamie, Madrazo posts photos, videos, and pertinent documents regularly in English and Spanish on the Salvemos Punta Lobos and Baja Sur TV Facebook pages.

 

All Saints vs. Three Saints

Whatever James Mulvihill’s personal stance on global warming is, environmental agency officials in the state capital, La Paz, have blamed some of the acute problems afflicting Tres Santos on climate change.

The Hotel San Cristobal, under the banner of the Austin, Texas-based Bunkhouse hotel chain, is an anchor property in Tres Santos’ grand plan. The hotel, in construction on the long curving beach at Punta Lobos, perches precariously on the edge of a wave-lashed seawall. Its first floor is unfinished, the iron rebar ribs of a second floor are starkly exposed. At high tide the ocean covers the sand right up to the seawall, blocking passage from the fishing co-op’s boat anchorage to the rest of the beach. Officials inspecting the site have weighed in on whether the construction violates  Mexican law dictating public access to all national beaches.

 

Cristobal2

Hotel San Cristobal above seawall. (Photo: Mike Brozda)

José Carlos Cota Osuna, an official with the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources), told BCS Noticias that while the construction of the seawall may have originally complied with limits of the Federal Maritime Protected Zone, measured from the high tide mark, changes in the coastline may bring the wall illegally into the zone. Surveys in “eight or 12 months,” he said, would determine if the developers must apply for a federal grant to remain in place and be fined for the violation.

Pronouncements by community officials, reported by local media online, and by citizen journalists following the officials’ every step with handheld Facebook video newsfeeds, say the builders were not necessarily to blame. Mexican officials in charge of such matters claimed it was the sea itself, powered by climatological conditions, that violated the law.

The fishermen say they don’t care about climate change, they just want their beach back. Nearly losing the Orozco brothers was the last straw and shortly after their rescue, other fishermen established an encampment near the San Cristobal.

The motor damage done to the Orozco brothers’ boat had originally resulted from its propellers hitting rocks swept down the beach from the San Cristobal’s construction site. The seawall, buttressed by truckloads of rocks, was built to protect the new hotel but also interrupts the stretch of beach where the fishing fleet has, for generations, hauled its boats ashore to harvest their catches. Within days of the Orozcos’ return, the town turned out to support the fishermen’s co-op, bringing food and supplies to their encampment that blocks the road to the beach — effectively halting construction on the hotel.

Juan Jose Peralta Torres, a representative of the Punta Lobos fishing cooperative, told BCS Noticias online news that the hotel construction has impacted the fishermen’s business by reducing daily catches of shark and red snapper by at least 15 precious kilos. The co-op’s eight demands addressed to Tres Santos range from compensation for boat repairs and economic hardship, to demolishing the seawall — which would probably mean tearing down the hotel.

Meanwhile, Robert McKinley, the designer brought in by Conley to design the private beach and pool club adjacent to the hotel, says he’s unsure how it’s all going to work. The powerful beach break at Punta Lobos poses potentially fatal risks for swimmers.

“It’s weird for me, with the strong undertow,” McKinley told Capital & Main. “I mean, who wants to go to a beach club where you can’t swim in the ocean?”

Then again, the beach clubs McKinley has been associated with have not necessarily been about swimming. Ten years ago, as co-owner of the Surf Lodge in Montauk, on the tip of New York’s Long Island, McKinley and his partners similarly drew the ire of locals in that little fishing community by transforming another down-market hotel into a hipster hotspot that drew all-night parties and road-clogging traffic.

Roused to action by the increasingly public outcry, state agencies overseeing the water supply—the Organismo Operador Municipal del Sistema de Agua Potable —have been meeting with Tres Santos/MIRA representatives to sort out the issues, from the fishermen’s complaints to the development’s water rights. The encounters, avidly reported by a local online news site, often via on-the-beach video, are animated and entertaining to watch, no Spanish required.

 

(Photo: Mike Brozda)

(Photo: Mike Brozda)

So far, the officials have declared in online reports that the developers actually do have some kind of water permit that they’ve paid for, but not exactly the right permit for the water they’ve been using. Unfortunately, no one knows how much water Tres Santos has used; the developers admit they have been tapping the town’s water for many months without a meter. A soon-to-be-built desalinization plant, the company insists, will help fulfill their public promise not to burden the municipal water supply.

The developers have issued statements claiming everything they’re doing is legal. A message posted by MIRA’s Javier Barrios on a freshly created “inclusive community” website declares: “Our plan is designed to keep Todos Santos from being overrun by large, high-rise hotels and the kind of rampant, unchecked growth that is present elsewhere in the region and would destroy the magic of a place we love and want to protect.”

“Check the facts,” Chip Conley insisted in an email to Capital & Main. “Listen to both sides of the story as there are many locals who support the project for all kinds of reasons. More than anything else, I believe both sides—the critics and the developer—need to do a better job hearing each other. I’ve told the developer that.”

Anti-Tres Santos activists in contact with Conley say his decision not to renew his contract was made before the holidays. Conley expressed to them his distaste for the personal level on which the conflict is being waged between the townspeople and Tres Santos. Conley had also been taking pains in recent months to distance himself from his partners, telling Capital & Main last November, “I’ve allocated a few hours a month to the project as a consultant, but my role has had nothing to do with the construction or development plan or water permits or the seawall.”

Does that mean Conley accepts no responsibility for how the project turns out? What about all those people he was pitching the project to recently in Hollywood at “An Evening Dedicated To Mindful Living,” hosted by Tres Santos at Wanderlust, a high-end yoga studio? Or at a similar event in New York last year?

“As a lover of Todos Santos, I want the project to be a net positive for the whole community,” he avows, “and I’ve done my best to give feedback to the developer in that regard. And the developer has similar aspirations and seems to have appreciated the feedback they’ve gotten from me and others.”

The fishermen’s blockade will delay the Hotel San Cristobal past its scheduled April 2016 opening, says Bunkhouse founder and Conley protégé Liz Lambert. Like Robert McKinley, Lambert was enlisted by Conley. The hotel is now scheduled to open this fall.

“I think that issues around the development process are extremely complex, and things don’t always go according to plans,” Lambert told Capital & Main. “From my experience, I believe that the partners in the project have good intent, but given the current situation with a few of the locals who are against the project, my guess is that some things could have been communicated better.”

Some local residents are still willing to give Conley the benefit of a doubt.

“Either he was knowingly exploiting his image on behalf of this project, or he was being lied to,” resident Ricardo Madrazo speculates. “If he’s truly sincere about the image he’s created over the course of his entire career, I would appeal to him to cast a more critical eye on this project that he was representing.”

Other Todosanteños who oppose Tres Santos have drawn a direct line between Airbnb’s hospitality guru and what they see as a kind of groovy green-washing of what is essentially just another real estate developer trying to make a buck off cheap Mexican land. With Conley shedding his part-time gig for his full-time job at Airbnb—one of the trend-leaders in hiring liberal frontmen to lobby against regulations that might curtail their business—Tres Santos has lost its only progressive face.

What remains is an ongoing conflict, unavoidable as visitors entering the Pueblo Magico are greeted with a banner strung across the road that reads, “Defendamos Punta Lobos! La Playa es TUYA! (Let’s defend Punta Lobos! The beach is YOURS!”). And as the fishermen’s blockade of the construction site counts its second month, the issues raised in Todos Santos by Tres Santos are the same as those raised by Airbnb, Uber and other sharing economy businesses everywhere: Where gentrification pits the haves against the have-nots, who benefits and who loses?

Environment

L.A. Gas-Fired Power Plants on Hold as DWP Considers Greener Alternatives

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has paused the rebuilding of three aging power plants to study whether they should continue using natural gas — or could take the leap into renewable energy as soon as possible.

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Scattergood power plant. (Photo: Trekandshoot/Getty Images)

By signing into law Senate Bill 100, which sets a goal of 100 percent carbon-free electric power generation by 2045, Governor Jerry Brown not only solidified California’s ongoing transition from fossil fuels, he numbered the days of the state’s gas-fired power plants.

But some new gas plant projects are still on the table. In the South Bay of Los Angeles County three aging plants — Scattergood, Haynes and Harbor — had been slated for replacement with gas-fired generating units that don’t use ocean water. In 2009 the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) required all gas-fired plants that use ocean water to cool them (called “once-through cooling plants”) to be phased out, due to the danger to aquatic organisms.

But last year the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) paused the rebuilding of those three plants to study whether they should continue using natural gas, at least for a few years, or could take the leap into renewable energy as soon as possible. An independent report on the consequences of not rebuilding gas-fired plants, the LADWP told Capital & Main, is due in February.

Energy watchers say it’s not a sure thing that the agency will abandon plans to rebuild these plants to use gas power, despite the state’s 2045 carbon-free mandate and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Sustainable City Plan. One reason, experts say, is the need to protect electric reliability in this densely populated region; another, and possibly more significant one, is bureaucratic inertia.

Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s Climate and Energy Policy Program, said that some gas plants will be needed for years to accommodate for the occasional mismatch of supply and demand when the sun isn’t shining and wind isn’t blowing.

“Location is important,” Wara said. “You can’t replace a gas plant on Santa Monica Bay with solar farms in the desert yet.”

The other reason LADWP might embrace the status quo – gas power – is the industry’s risk-averse mindset, Wara added. “Change is risky to utilities,” he said.

Evan Gillespie, Western Regional Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said he hopes LADWP will “clearly state the problems” to the public of taking all gas power off line in the short term, but also enlist green energy companies to show the utility that battery storage for renewables, though costly now, could be cheaper in the long term.

“We want to see RFPs [requests for proposals] to test the market to see how far clean energy can go to replace these plants, rather than the DWP doing the market analysis,” Gillespie said. “I think the clean energy developer community has a penchant for more creativity and they’re inclined to turn over more stones.”

Gillespie, like Wara, said LADWP doesn’t need to retire all three plants now, and that Scattergood, which finished rebuilding one of its units last year, could “let that run for a decade or two” but that the utility should draw the line at starting construction on any more gas-fired units.

LADWP’s initial estimate for rebuilding the three gas-fired plants was $2.2 billion, with a scheduled completion of the final phase in 2029.

The Grayson Power Plant in the inland L.A. suburb of Glendale, is the fourth, and last, gas-fired power plant in the state that might be rebuilt to use fossil fuel. But renovation plans for it, too, were put on hold earlier this year, spurred by intense public pressure, so that the Glendale Water and Power utility could look at renewable alternatives.

In Northern California, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is moving headlong into renewables.  In June,  the company requested approval of four energy storage projects that would replace three gas-fired power plants it manages. The utility also plans to replace a gas plant in Oakland with batteries and multiple solar panels.

LADWP, the largest public utility in the country, could follow PG&E’s lead, Gillespie said. “Replacing two gigawatts of gas with energy storage isn’t easy [for LADWP] but it isn’t impossible.”

Responding to a question about a possible move toward renewable energy, LADWP spokesman Joseph Ramallo said in an email that the department’s planned study would provide a “detailed assessment of a comprehensive set of alternatives” to gas-powered plants and would determine how much the department could reduce natural gas while maintaining system reliability.

In the wake of the 2000-2001 energy crisis, California commissioned many natural gas plants. Wara said that for the next two decades the 200 natural gas plants connected to the grid will be decommissioned, one by one, shuttered by market forces or regulators in a game of “musical chairs.”

A recent independent analysis conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that California could immediately retire at least 28 of the 89 natural gas plants in the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) territory without affecting the stability of the electric grid.


Copyright Capital & Main

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Environment

Why Was Climate Change Omitted From Colorado’s Debate Over Fracking?

Co-published by Westword
The total absence of climate change discussion in Colorado’s 2018 election was striking, considering the state’s intensified floods, droughts and wildfires.

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Illustration: Nicolás Zúñiga

Over eight debates between gubernatorial candidates Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton, Colorado’s press corps mustered just three questions about climate change.


 

Co-published by Westword

It is no overstatement to say that Colorado’s Proposition 112 and Amendment 74 were two of the most significant and far-reaching climate change measures in America’s entire midterm election. But don’t blame yourself if you didn’t know that. While the initiatives sparked a pitched battle about the fossil fuel industry just as scientists were issuing a dire warning about climate change, that term — “climate change” — was largely absent from the state’s political conversation in 2018, even though some local officials say climate change could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the near future.


While Colorado’s oil and gas industry was asserting that burning carbon-emitting fracked gas is “helping to reduce carbon emissions,” it sponsored an anonymous website attacking journalists who report on energy and climate issues.


Oil and gas corporations spent roughly $40 million to oppose 112, which would have mandated larger distances between fossil fuel extraction sites and schools, hospitals and residential neighborhoods, and likely restricted some fossil fuel development. Some of that money also went into promoting 74, which would have empowered those same oil and gas companies to sue towns that try to restrict drilling and fracking. While the industry offered a smorgasbord of arguments in its campaign — it would defund schools, it would kill jobs, etc. — those criticisms were all based on one central premise: that the setbacks measure would allegedly ban all new oil and gas exploration.

Had climate change been a central topic of conversation, that assertion could have boomeranged on the industry — proponents could have argued that an all-out ban was in fact urgently needed in light of a recent United Nations report warning of a full-fledged dystopia if new fossil fuel development is not halted. And they might have found a receptive audience: Recent polling from the University of Colorado has shown that 70 percent of Coloradans say they are at least somewhat concerned about climate change — and that survey was done before a summer of climate-change-intensified wildfires.


Even though Prop. 112 was not a total ban on fossil fuel extraction, at least a few national voices noted that it represented an important front in the climate change battle.


However, the Colorado press corps barely mentioned climate change in its coverage of the fight, and groups pushing the proposition never made climate change a central argument in their campaign.

An analysis by Media Matters found that out of 12 Colorado newspaper editorials about 112, just one — that of the Boulder Daily Camera, which endorsed the measure — even mentioned climate change. News coverage of 112 focused alternately on the health and environmental hazards highlighted by activists and industry doomsaying about its economic and budgetary implications, but reporting on fossil fuel-related carbon emissions and their contribution to climate change was almost nonexistent.

That was true not only of the fight over 112, but of the state’s wider political discourse. Over eight debates between governor-elect Jared Polis and opponent Walker Stapleton, the Colorado press corps mustered just three questions about climate change, accounting for less than 10 minutes of discussion during eight and a half hours of debate.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association was sponsoring an anonymous website attacking journalists who report on energy and climate issues. And as a backup measure to defang any potential climate arguments, the industry also ramped up its production of promotional PR asserting that burning carbon-emitting fracked gas is “helping to reduce carbon emissions,” as COGA insists. That assertion relies on the public never realizing that it’s only true in comparison to burning coal, but not actually true overall: Natural gas is a fossil fuel, so carbon is emitted when it is burned — no matter what COGA tries to insinuate.


The defeat of an explicitly climate-related ballot measure in Washington State suggests that many voters are not willing to support even modest efforts to frontally address climate change.


That context, though, is rarely noted in a political arena that has long been dominated by armies of fossil fuel lobbyists and millions of dollars of fossil fuel campaign spending. This year, much of that money was spent on ads designed to narrow the debate to one primarily about jobs and economic impact, thereby precluding 112 campaigners from broadening the conversation to one about the climate change dangers of fossil fuel extraction. Colorado Rising, the group behind Proposition 112, was boxed into making arguments only about better protecting the public health and safety of those living near fracking rigs, and to defensively insist that the measure wasn’t an actual ban.

In a media environment that was already erasing climate change from the conversation, there was no space for them to more straightforwardly argue that dramatic reductions in fossil fuel extraction are necessary to address climate change.

“What the polling is showing is that if people are really convinced that it’s an outright ban, they aren’t going to vote for it,” Colorado Rising’s Anne Lee Foster told Capital & Main when asked why climate change wasn’t a more prominent part of the campaign. “It’s not about what the actual percentage [ban] is, it’s proving that they have been blowing this out of proportion the whole time.”

At times, 112’s proponents ended up publicly asserting that the measure would not significantly reduce fossil fuel extraction at all, even as climate scientists argue that’s exactly what’s necessary.

“The oil and gas folks out there will still be able to do their thing,” said Mark Williams, a former Democratic congressional candidate, at a Longmont town hall where he promoted 112. “My concern is you have all these operators that are out there that are trying to make a quick buck, [but] Colorado does not have strong enough regulations.”

There’s no guarantee 112 would have been more successful had the proponents tried to focus the fight on climate change; the oil and gas industry’s success in defeating an explicitly climate-related ballot measure in Washington State suggests that many voters are not willing to support even modest efforts to frontally address climate change.

However, the total absence of the issue in Colorado’s 2018 election was striking, considering not only the IPCC report, but also the state’s own specific struggles with the effects of climate change. After all, leading scientists say that climate change is already intensifying Colorado’s floods, droughts and wildfires. And although COGA has demanded that “natural gas must be part of the climate change conversation,” many of those scientists disagree.

“There is more than enough carbon in the world’s already developed, operating oil, gas, and coal fields globally to exceed 2°C,” wrote a group of 26 climate scientists in a July letter to California Governor Jerry Brown, urging him to immediately halt the approval of all new oil and gas drilling. “There is simply no room in the carbon budget for any new fossil fuel extraction.”

“Absolutely no new fossil fuel developments. None,” said climate scientist Will Steffen, when asked earlier this year what the U.S. needs to do to help avoid global catastrophe. “That means no new coal mines, no new oil wells, no new gas fields, no new unconventional gas fracking. Nothing new.”

This is why even though 112 was not a total ban on fossil fuel extraction, at least a few national voices noted that its potential to somewhat reduce that extraction represented an important front in the climate change battle.

In a guest column for the Denver Post, former NASA scientist James Hansen encouraged Coloradans to vote for 112 because it would “help prevent climate change by making oil and gas harder to access.” Senator Bernie Sanders, who has called for a nationwide ban on fracking, also endorsed the measure on climate-related grounds. And toward the end of the campaign, 350.org founder Bill McKibben promoted the measure as part of his organization’s nationwide push to combat climate change.

But by that point, the industry’s PR machine was already skilled at suppressing any discussion of climate change and transforming every 112 argument into economic alarmism. An editorial in oil magnate Phil Anschutz’s Colorado Springs Gazette was emblematic: In attacking McKibben, it didn’t even bother to mention climate change, much less address his substantive argument.

Instead, its headline simply screamed, “Out-of-stater comes to kill Colorado jobs.”


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Environment

The Climate Summit’s Inconvenient Truth: People Need Jobs

Co-published by Fast Company
Much of the recent gathering in San Francisco involved corporate and government backslapping — noble but too easily mocked.

Judith Lewis Mernit

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Photo by Judith Lewis Mernit

Co-published by Fast Company

 

Amid the swell of protesters demanding California put an end to oil, and a police force growing irritated with their monotonous chanting (“I’m going to be singing that one in my sleep,” said one officer), I met Theodore Hunt. It was not a chance meeting. Earlier, on the first day of the Global Climate Action Summit at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, I had rented an electric-assist bike to get to a lunch meeting, navigating the downtown streets by way of Google Maps with my iPhone in the bike’s basket. In a rush to lock up the bike outside the restaurant, I left my phone behind.

Hunt was my savior. When I called my number on a borrowed phone, he answered, and promised to leave the phone for me later at the office of the bike company. But the office was far, and I needed my phone, so instead I tracked him down using an iPad and the Find Your iPhone app. When the tiny phone icon showed up at a building across the street, I scurried down three flights of escalators, borrowing phones along the way to sync up my coordinates with Hunt. Cops, security guards, random strangers — by the time we all spotted a tall African-American man on a bright red bike waving from across Third Street, it seemed all of San Francisco had become invested in our saga. When Hunt and I made the handoff and I hugged him with gratitude, a small cheer went up.

It was a magically reassuring moment during an international gathering of climate activists, elected officials and corporate leaders who had come here committed to holding the United States to the terms of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, Trump and his administration be damned.

Much of the summit was simple corporate and government backslapping — noble but too easily mocked. What does it matter if General Electric presents its climate ideals when the corporation refuses to back down on plans for a new coal plant in Kenya? Starbucks might have banned plastic straws, but emissions still accumulate in the long lines at its many drive-throughs. And McDonald’s? Really?

For protesters outside the fences, maintaining global temperature below the point-of-no-return threshold means that, in some cases, entire industries have to be shut down. “We have to keep 80 percent of the fossil-fuel reserves that we know about underground,” the noted author and climate warrior Bill McKibben has written. “If we don’t—if we dig up the coal and oil and gas and burn them—we will overwhelm the planet’s physical systems, heating the Earth far past the red lines drawn by scientists and governments.”

The problem with that strategy is that with those industries, oil and coal, come many thousands of well-paying, often union jobs. “Climate strategies that leave coal miners’ pension funds bankrupt, power plant workers unemployed, construction workers making less than they do now,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a speech on opening day, “fundamentally undermine the power of the political coalition needed to address the climate crisis.” The issue of the climate versus jobs will be used by the foes of both labor and clean energy to divide the country, Trumka noted. It already has.

In the near term, if oil extraction were to suddenly come to an end in California, 30,000 people would lose their livelihoods, and thousands more will be out of work in places where industries depend on California oil. In the long term, jobs wouldn’t be available to a new generation full of people like Theodore Hunt — smart, honest and capable, but not necessarily pre-armed with the privilege and educational credentials to parlay those qualities into a six-figure job. Hunt, who is 28 and single, told me he works as much as he can: As a mechanic servicing the city’s network of electric bikes, he can earn as much as $800 on a busy week. If he meshes his maintenance duties with a food-delivery service, like Uber Eats, he might make $1,200 in a week — a decent living wage almost anywhere besides San Francisco, where he can’t afford to live.

But the big weeks are rare, and if Hunt gets sick, or injured, or takes a mental-health break, he doesn’t get paid at all. He belongs to the 8.5 percent of California workers whom the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center calls the “unincorporated self-employed.” He gets paid when he delivers a meal or services a bike. He does not get paid when he stops to eat lunch. If he wants health insurance, he must buy it himself.

Hunt likes his job: The hours vary, he gets to be outside, he interacts with people. Like so many other “green” jobs, Hunt’s is many times more pleasant and safer than mining coal, or working on an oil rig. But it’s not a steady living on which to buy a house or support a family.

Nor is installing solar panels on rooftops, a job that generally pays $14 to $20 and hour, rarely with benefits. Trumka told the summit that 4,000 megawatts of solar had been installed in the San Joaquin Valley over the last two decades. “Fifteen million job-hours of union work, at union wages and with union benefits, made that possible,” he said. But once those plants are built, it takes only a few people to keep them operating, and no one has to mine the fuel. The same math applies to wind farms: Once the turbines are up, most of the work is done.

Paul Getsos, national director of the People’s Climate Movement, has spent more than a decade thinking through what it means to bring the labor movement into the climate fight by way of a just transition for workers. He organized in disadvantaged communities around the Obama administration’s stimulus package. Later, he assessed green jobs for the Center for Community Change, and found that “the promise of ‘green jobs’ wasn’t fulfilled for a lot of communities. There’s a very narrow view of what a ‘green job’ is.” The solution to the worker-transition conundrum for a 100 percent clean energy economy is to expand that definition. “Manufacturing electric cars is a ‘green job,’ said Getsos. “Rebuilding infrastructure in North Carolina to keep people safe from coal ash — that’s a ‘green job.’”

Retrofitting homes and business to use less energy is also a green job — and one of the best, according to Getsos: “[Energy efficiency] is one of the areas where there is access to new jobs that don’t require higher education.” It’s also ripe for job growth. In New York City, a mandate to retrofit the city’s buildings — which account for two-thirds of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions — will yield 17,000 jobs between now and 2030.

Energy efficiency isn’t a big field in some of the smaller towns where dirty fossil-fuel plants exist. In Centralia, Washington, where a coal plant employing 300 workers making $80,000 a year will begin shutting down in 2020, environmentalists and labor negotiated an agreement with the city and the plant operator, TransAlta, to invest $55 million in worker retraining and community development in exchange for an expedited permit to build a natural gas plant on the same site. (Natural gas isn’t perfect, but for the climate it’s better than coal.)

Legislators could also intervene with laws granting benefits and collective bargaining rights to people like Theodore Hunt. As smart technology expands further into transportation and utilities, some necessary jobs will become more fluid for employers and less rewarding for workers. California Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher has introduced two bills over the past few years to give contract employees workers’ compensation benefits and the right to form and join unions, and Assemblymember Evan Low last session brought up a bill that would guarantee contract workers portable benefits. None have yet made it to the governor’s desk.

“We can’t just say ‘green jobs’,” Getsos said. “We need to say green jobs, good jobs and worker access.”

Those principles might be as consequential to the clean-energy economy as are the protesters’ demands.


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Young Activists’ Lawsuit Seeks to Phase Out Fossil Fuel Emissions

Environmentalists are hoping that a trial, due to begin October 29, will explain to the public how the government has known for decades about the dangers of fossil fuels but failed to act on this knowledge.

Gabriel Thompson

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The lawsuit would expand the doctrine of public trust–which is normally reserved for resources like land and water–to the atmosphere.


 

In August of 2015, lawyers representing 21 young people, aged 8 to 19, filed an ambitious lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Oregon. They argued that the federal government, by allowing and encouraging fossil fuel emissions, had violated “fundamental constitutional rights to life, liberty and prosperity”–a burden that would fall heaviest on coming generations.

The lawsuit, spearheaded by Our Children’s Trust, a Eugene-based environmental organization, seeks to force the government to phase out fossil fuel emissions. In response, the Obama administration filed a motion to dismiss, as did representatives of the fossil fuel industry, including the American Petroleum Institute. Both motions were denied. In 2017, the new Trump administration took the rare step of petitioning for a “writ of mandamus” to ask that a higher court—in this case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—order the District Court to dismiss the case. That petition was rejected in March, and a second petition was rejected in July, setting the stage for what promises be a monumental trial that will begin October 29.

The case, Juliana v. U.S., takes its name from lead plaintiff Kelsey Juliana, a 22-year-old University of Oregon student who once marched 1,600 miles from Nebraska to Washington, DC to demand action on climate change. When she was 15, Juliana co-filed a separate lawsuit, also supported by Our Children’s Trust, against Oregon’s governor that sought the creation of a climate emissions reduction plan. In 2015, an Oregon Circuit Court ruled against Juliana and Our Children’s Trust; they have appealed the decision.

Our Children’s Trust has pending legal actions in nine states on behalf of youth plaintiffs.

At the center of these lawsuits is the concept of the public trust doctrine, which posits that the government has a duty to protect the natural resources that a society needs to survive. But these suits add a twist by expanding the doctrine–which is normally reserved for resources like land and water–to the atmosphere, based on a theory pioneered by University of Oregon law professor Mary Wood.

The legal outcome of the trial is impossible to predict, but advocates for stronger climate action, like professor Wood, are excited about the opportunity the trial presents to explain to the public how the government has known for decades about the dangers of fossil fuels but allegedly failed to act on this knowledge. In a 1965 address to Congress, for example, President Lyndon Johnson said, “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through…a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

“It is of paramount importance that the American public understand what government’s role is in causing the climate catastrophe,” Wood said in a recent interview with 350 Eugene. “Because if the American public doesn’t understand how it is caused, it won’t take action towards a solution.”

Jacob Lebel, another of the youth plaintiffs, grew up on a farm in Oregon. “Years from now, Trump and his cabinet—they won’t be the ones dealing with starvation and refugees and resource wars and all that stuff,” Lebel told KQED last year. “We’re the ones who are gonna be dealing with that. As young people, we think about that every single day.”


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Former EPA Official Finds Hope in the Middle of the Climate Crisis

“Those of us who’ve been working on environmental justice and climate justice,” says Mustafa Ali, “understand we’re talking about housing, transportation, the environment, public health and jobs.”

Judith Lewis Mernit

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Mustafa Ali photo by Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusXM.

“Because the current administration is so anti-science, so anti-environment, so anti-climate, people who weren’t paying attention before are paying attention now.”


Until he resigned last year, Mustafa Santiago Ali served as the Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he’d worked since 1992. Under the direction of the agency’s first administrator of the Office of Environmental Equity, Dr. Clarice Gaylord, Ali helped begin the EPA’s effort to recognize and address the disproportionate impacts of pollution on communities situated closest to industrial polluters, communities where people — often people of color — live in poverty. He worked with the Clinton administration on Executive Order 12898, which established a federal program to address environmental justice in communities of color and low-income communities, and in 2007, he went to Capitol Hill to work as a Brookings Institution Congressional Fellow with Rep. John Conyers. He returned to the agency the next year, and stayed until the Trump administration proposed cutting nearly $2 billion from the EPA’s already meager $8.2 billion budget, and a leaked memo revealed plans to eliminate the Office of Environmental Justice that Ali had helped found. (Congress ultimately rejected the cuts in the current federal budget, passed in March of 2018).

Ali is now the Senior Vice President of Climate, Environmental Justice & Community Revitalization for the Washington, DC-based Hip Hop Caucus, a national nonprofit that joins the hip hop community to the civic process of politics, social change and the environment. At the recent Climate Reality Conference in Los Angeles, he spoke on a panel of environmental justice advocates, which included Catherine Flowers and mark! Lopez of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. Ali had audience members join hands and reaffirm their collective power to effect social and political transformation. I spoke with him afterwards in the over-air-conditioned lobby of the Los Angeles Convention Center.


 

Capital & Main: You spent 24 years at EPA, beginning when George H.W. Bush was still in office, and stayed through the second Bush administration, too. How did you weather other more conservative administrations?

Mustafa Santiago Ali: When I started, at the end of [then-EPA Administrator] William Reilly’s administration in 1992, we were really blessed that there was a lot of energy around environmental equity, which became environmental justice. A number of the leaders had gotten together in 1991, through the first National People of Color [Environmental Leadership] Summit in Washington, DC, and put together a set of recommendations before they began to engage with the federal government. One of those recommendations was the creation of an Office of Environmental Equity/Environmental Justice. Those recommendations drove a lot of work that happened in both Republican and Democratic administrations in the early days.

We began to move forward on the creation of the environmental justice small-grants program during the first Bush administration. In the transition to the Clinton administration, we were able to move things forward because an executive order came that I was blessed to be able to work on. Out of that executive order came the interagency working group, which means there are now 17 federal agencies – back then it was 11 — and a couple of White House offices that have distinct responsibility for environmental justice.

There had been successes under all of those administrations. There were challenges in that certain administrations were more tied into business and industry. But all of them made progress before this administration we’re in now.

So even Bush II. They had an office to doctor studies done by scientists within Fish and Wildlife, for instance. But you’re saying there was still progress on environmental justice then?

There was. It was incremental, and I don’t want to oversell it. But without a doubt, it existed. No one ever talked about eliminating the Office of Environmental Justice under Bush.

How hard was it for you to leave?

I had to struggle with it. I prayed, I talked to my parents, I talked to my mentors. There were a couple of times I was going to jump out right at the beginning [of the Trump administration]. Maya Angelou has that great quote about how when someone tells you who they are, believe them. But there’s always that thing, you know, maybe they’ll have a road to Damascus moment. Maybe there’ll be this transition. But it wasn’t going to happen. That was being overly hopeful.

I knew the policies they were moving forward on literally could kill people. I knew that, because even when things are moving in a somewhat positive direction, people are still very vulnerable. And I knew that these folks, they just didn’t care about all of these leaders, these grassroots leaders and others, who sacrificed everything to try and strengthen environmental laws, to try to get real enforcement actually happening. They’ve put into their own reports that they know their policies are going to kill people – especially people of color.

Enforcement of environmental crimes is almost non-existent.

I knew that was coming. They were very clear about what they wanted to do around air pollution issues. And since I led the inter-agency working group, I knew that the cumulative effect is that more people were going to get sick and more people were going to die.

You’ve addressed in your career an overlooked part of environmental justice: the impact of natural and man-made disasters on disadvantaged communities. We saw it in Katrina, in Harvey, and we saw it in Irma and Maria. There are vulnerable people who suffer a disproportionate share of the impacts of these events.

The reason for that — we saw it in Hurricane Maria, all the lives that were lost — is if you don’t have a specific focus and understanding of the additional impacts that happen in vulnerable communities, you can’t protect folks and help them recover. Flint, the BP oil spill, the hurricanes — we can go down the line in terms of disasters. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about low-income white communities, communities of color or indigenous communities. You’ve got to be thinking, What are the additional things we need to do to help those people?

The Trump administration has been trying to weaken many regulations for chemical facilities and hazardous waste facilities that were written to protect the public. That will also affect vulnerable communities when disasters happen.

They’re actually extracting wealth from these communities. Lots of times people think, Oh, these communities in Appalachia. These communities in the Rust Belt. What wealth is there? But when [industries] continue to put these [dangerous facilities] in these communities, housing values plummet, while everyone else’s are going up. So you’re taking wealth from these communities.

In the same way, when people say climate change isn’t real, that means [those communities] can’t invest in renewables. That means that communities in the Rust Belt that really need new jobs never get a chance at them. So once again you are taking wealth away from these communities.

How do you get those people to care — the people in the Rust Belt, for instance, who may not understand how they’re being harmed by these policies? You tweeted a story about people in Kansas whose water had been contaminated for seven years, and the state health department knew about it but didn’t bother to tell them.

That was intentional. It was intentional because sometimes we’ve set up these barriers in our country around environmental justice. That’s a shame. It’s about those black people, brown people, maybe indigenous people, and white brothers and sisters [who] sometimes don’t think they’re going to be impacted also. When we don’t help everybody understand that these impacts affect everybody, then we allow people to put these boxes around it and say, “Well, I care, but that’s something that’s happening to these other folks.”

Even in some of the disadvantaged communities of color, it can be hard to get people to care. People are busy feeding their kids. I heard Van Jones make the point years ago at the Bioneers Conference that you can’t knock on doors in marginalized communities and scream about how the polar bears are dying. How do you reach out to those people who are already stressed just getting through a day in their lives? How do you talk to them about pollution, let alone climate?

I like to anchor my message in what’s going on in people’s lives. Normally I would talk about how 27 million people in our country have asthma. Seven million kids. Most folks of color in the urban setting can relate to asthma. They have kids or grandchildren or nieces or nephews [with] asthma. Then we have a conversation about, Okay, where’s that coming from? How is this situation being exacerbated? It’s because of pollution that’s coming out of these plants and pollution coming from the backs of cars. Then I link them into, “Well, did you know that there’s currently policy being made that’s going to let more pollution come out, so there’s going to be more health impacts?”

Those of us who’ve been working on environmental justice and climate justice for a while understand we’re talking about housing, transportation, the environment, public health and jobs. So I talk to people also about their vote, not only in the environmental context, but in the context of the violence that continues to happen in some communities. And how your vote makes the decision about who’s the police chief, who’s the district attorney. I bring all that together. Then people are like, “Yeah, I got power. And my power’s tied up in my vote. And the vote will determine the resources coming into my community, and who’s leading that process.”

In California the climate fight on the environmental justice front lines and the legislative space are often at odds. It’s frustrating, because as mark! Lopez of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice said on your panel, the frontline communities in the environmental justice fight are where our climate problems begin.

I’ve noticed that [about California]. Legislators can’t do something because of how it will affect business or industry, [but] people in the environmental justice space are saying, “We’re the ones who are going to be affected by pollution first. We’re the ones who have to deal with this first.” [The answer lies in] creating authentic collaborative partnerships.

If we’re in a relationship, it means you care about me, and I care about you. In a good marriage, a healthy friendship, many times you care more about the other person than you do about yourself. We’ve got to get to that. That will get to a greater understanding of how to create a policy that’s truly protective of everyone.

You mentioned that 200,000 people die every year prematurely because of air pollution. Can you imagine if 200,000 people were dying of bird flu?

It would be a public health emergency.

But we don’t move like we would move if it were a public health emergency. How do you convince people who are making the laws that it is?

We’ve got two different dynamics going on. One, we really need to accelerate the creation of renewable energy jobs, to create a just transition for the workers in those industries, and to get new people into that space.

Two, we’ve got to get the money out of politics. We know that’s an even harder fight than getting renewable energy jobs in place. There’s an addiction to that money. I was at Netroots Nation and many of the political leaders who came to that signed the no fossil-fuel money pledge. If you don’t have any accountability to the fossil-fuel world and that money that exists there, then you’re less likely to make decisions based on a monetary thing, and you’re more likely to be basing your decisions on public health.

You say you’re a realist, but also an optimist. What is your cause for optimism right now?

This is an interesting time. I think that our country had to go through this. If we’re going to have real talk, we have to acknowledge that there’s been no administration that’s lived up to what they should be doing on these issues. But now because the current administration is so anti-science, so anti-environment, so anti-climate, people who weren’t paying attention before are paying attention now. Foundations are saying we’ve got to shift our portfolios to better support this work. We have a common destiny that’s tied to this.

Even scientists. I have a science background and it hasn’t always been the case that scientists [were involved in public policy]. There’ve always been good scientists, but it’s not like the larger scientific organizations were saying we need to do more. Now that is happening. For all the craziness the current administration tries to do and does, [it has] also been a catalyst for people saying we’ve got to start honoring each other. We’ve got to start working together. That’s what keeps me going — I see these new relationships forming.


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Michael Mann Says This Summer Is a Big Warning About Climate Change

Many scientists assert that this summer’s intense weather is being fueled by climate change. One of the most prominent is Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, who says the connection between the two is like “the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer.”

David Sirota

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Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

In late July, a CNN story summed up what was becoming a watershed moment. The cable TV outlet reported that “the summer of temperature extremes just keeps going, with record heat waves this month on all four continents that occupy the Northern Hemisphere.”

And yet for all the heat and wildfires, relatively little media coverage has contextualized the situation with a mention of climate change. The watchdog group Media Matters reported: “Over a two-week period from late June to early July, ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 127 segments or weathercasts that discussed the heat wave, but only one segment, on CBS This Morning, mentioned climate change.”

Despite the media blackout, many scientists assert that the intense weather is being fueled by climate change. One of the most prominent is Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, the author of the books The Madhouse Effect and The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. In a new podcast, Capital & Main recently spoke with Mann about why he believes this summer is a turning point in the battle over climate change.

What follows is an lightly edited excerpt of the podcast interview. Podcast subscribers can click here to hear the full discussion.


 

David Sirota: What do you say to those who argue that there is no definitive proof that climate change is directly responsible for intense weather systems like the ones we’ve seen this summer?

Michael Mann: It’s sort of in the domain of the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. We don’t question that link. You know, smoking cigarettes leads to lung cancer and other diseases, because it increases the likelihood of those afflictions by such a large amount that we basically equate it with a causal relationship…

We would not be seeing this in the absence of climate change, so the signal of climate change as expressed in extreme weather is now undeniable…We are talking about floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires and superstorms, you name it. We have seen unprecedented events in each of those categories over the last year that we would not have seen in the absence of climate change.

When I say that, I don’t literally mean that the underlying weather event might not have occurred. What I’m saying is the extreme nature of that event would not have been observed…What would have been a bad drought becomes a record drought, becomes an unprecedented drought. What would have been a bad wildfire becomes the largest wildfire in California history…

Wildfires aren’t supposed to happen in the winter in California, and what that tells us is that we’ve now evolved into a state where there isn’t a fire season in California anymore, there’s a perpetual fire season.

Which areas of the United States do you think are facing the most extreme and intense consequences of climate change?

Everywhere essentially along the coast of the United States you have increasing coastal threats because of climate change impacts on sea level rise, hurricanes. As you go inland, you look around, you can’t find a region of the country that hadn’t dealt with a thousand-year flood within the last couple of years…

The wildfires in the west, not just California. Essentially the entire Western U.S. has been afflicted with massive wildfires, drought, and a drought in California that’s now the worst in at least 1,200 years, as far back as the paleoclimate scientists are able to go, and heat waves that have basically crossed the entire country this summer. There’s no region of the country that hasn’t dealt with a record or near-record heat wave this summer.

You would be hard pressed to find a region in the country that hasn’t been impacted by one of those extreme weather events, and of course that’s just the U.S. We can say that now about essentially the entire globe. This is the summer where climate change showed its hand.

If the weather and wildfires that we’re experiencing aren’t a wake-up call to the political system about climate change, what will be?

What more do people need to see? We’ve had what I sometimes call the Cuyahoga River moment, that critical moment when a river caught on fire and that captured the public imagination. It led to Richard Nixon establishing the EPA, the Clean Air Acts, the Clean Water Acts. What is that moment in the climate change debate? How many do we need to have?

This summer, many of us who work in this space think that we’ve finally reached the point where it’s impossible for anybody to credibly deny not just that climate change is happening, not just that it’s caused by burning of fossil fuels and the elevation of greenhouse gases, but that it is already a problem.

We are already suffering the consequences. It’s already costing us far more. The cost of inaction is already so much greater than the cost of taking action. What’s playing out in California of course is sort of Exhibit A in that argument. We are now suffering the consequences, toll on infrastructure, human lives and our economy, frankly. What will it take?

The opponents of dealing with climate change seem to prey on people’s fear of change – they portray aggressive action as so radical that it will completely disrupt and destroy everyone’s lives. Are the changes we need to make really that radical and scary?

Not nearly as radical or scary as the critics would like people to believe. It’s going to require change. Remaking the global energy economy, shifting away from a two-century-long reliance on fossil fuels to new sources of energy? Yeah, that’s going to take action. It’s going to require some sort of market incentives, a price on carbon.

We pay a little bit more right now here in Central Pennsylvania to elect to get all of our power from renewables, from wind, and we’re happy to do that. Most people won’t do that just because it’s the right thing to do, and that’s why you need market incentives to guide people in the right direction.

The irony is that there’s a great degree of projection in that sort of argument from the critics, this idea that we have to make great sacrifice, that it’s going to [harm the economy]. They said that when we acted on acid rain, they said that when we acted on ozone depletion. At every juncture, they said, “This is going to destroy the economy,” and the reality is it didn’t destroy the economy. Instead, it actually saved our environment. At every juncture, they’ve made that argument, and it’s always been proven to be false.

The reason I say it’s projection and misdirection is that they don’t want people to focus on the fact that we are making a huge sacrifice right now. If you look at California, if you look at Houston, if you look at Puerto Rico, if you look at Miami Beach, we are making a huge sacrifice right now in terms of the toll that climate inaction is taking, and they don’t want people to notice that. They want to turn it around on its head, to somehow argue that the steps that we need to take to mitigate that damage and risk are somehow the costly scenario, when the costly scenario is not acting on this problem.

I think many people accept that climate change is happening and that it’s a really dangerous thing, but I also think lots of people feel like since it’s already happening, there’s nothing that can be done to combat it. What do you say to folks like that?

I think there are people of good will, who mean well, who really are frightened and really think that we may be close to if not past of the point no return, and are expressing genuine frustration and genuine fear. That having been said, I think they have been happily co-opted by the forces of inaction, by the forces of denial…This sort of despair and this argument, this defeatist notion that it’s too late to do anything, is in some ways every bit as dangerous and paralyzing as outright denial of the problem itself, because it leads us down the same path of inaction.

Ultimately for that reason, it has been convenient for the forces of denial, who are looking to divide the public, to actually amplify those arguments in a cynical way and provide a voice to those arguments that, “Hey, there’s nothing we can do about it, so why enact any policies to deal with the problem?” I do think that it’s dangerous. I don’t think that those making the argument are cynics or have themselves been co-opted, but I do think that the forces of inaction and denial have happily capitalized on this, and have used it as a way to divide the community of people who do care about this problem and do want to solve it.

A recent study raised the prospect of so-called “Hothouse Earth” – or runaway climate change that is far more extreme than anyone predicts. Do you think that’s a possibility?

James Hansen has been making this argument for a number of years, I think with some credibility. These authors, to me it was just sort of recasting that basic way of looking at the problem. I think it just happened to get a lot of media attention, in part through a provocative headline. It’s real, the threat is real. We have to think about these worst-case scenarios, and if this is true…then it means that not only do we have to stop emitting carbon into the atmosphere, we are going to need to find ways to draw it back down, to bring it back out of the atmosphere over a longer time frame, over many decades, if we want to mitigate the higher-end risk here.

What are the most positive things happening in the effort to address climate change?

Probably first and foremost to me, the re-energization of our youth, the fact that the youth of this country are re-engaging with politics. We saw that in the wake of the Parkland High School shooting, but that seems to have taken. We seem to be going through sort of a tipping point now where the youth of this country have recognized that if they want to protect their future, they have to be involved in the political process. I think that could be a game-changer. To that extent, there is room for political progress here if we see younger folks re-engaged with our politics coming out to vote in this midterm election. That could really make a difference.

Then separately from that is just stepping back and taking a very high-level view of what’s going on here. The world is moving on. We moved on in the 19th century from whale oil. We recognized that something better had come along when it comes to providing energy, fossil fuels, and now we’ve gone through that next transition where we realize the dangers and the risks of our dependence on fossil fuels, and something better has come along in the form of renewable energy and the world is moving on…

There’s an exponential trajectory that we’re on right now. We’d like to see the growth even faster, but it is exponential. We’re moving away from a global fossil fuel-driven economy towards a new renewable energy economy, and I believe there’s nothing that can stop that transition.

Now, the problem of course is here in the United States, we have gone from a position of leadership, relative leadership on this issue under the past administration, to a political landscape where the United States is essentially the only holdout in the global community. Trump has threatened to withdraw from the Paris Accord, and if we were to do that, we would be the only country now in the world that’s not committed to Paris.

To some extent the only decision that we will be able to make here in the United States isn’t does the world move on, it’s do we get left behind in that transition. That’s the only thing that we can actually do.

What does our world look like 20 or 30 years in the future, if we are doing what needs to be done to seriously addressing climate change?

I think we can envision a future just in terms of the trends that we see under way, not necessarily just towards electric vehicles. At least in urban locations, we may see the elimination of personally-owned vehicles. We will have a more advanced transportation system, streets filled with Lyft and Uber and automated vehicles potentially.

There are studies that show that if we do that, if we move towards automated vehicles, that sort of system, then that shrinks the footprint of a city down tremendously, because it’s so much area. Take New York. You know how much surface area is used for parking of vehicles. If we can get rid of that, then the populations condense. There’s a smaller spatial footprint. That means less resource depletion…

We will have renewably-driven microgrids. There’s a real question as to whether we will have the sorts of continental-scale power grids that we have today. We may see more decentralized sources of electricity generation. We may all live off the grid, in the sense that we’re not part of a continental-scale grid.

Our food choices, I think we’re going to be healthier in our food choices. I think there’s a movement in that direction.

There are many possible futures, and one can certainly imagine a dystopian future where none of that happens, where we double down on the trends that are under way in the era of Trump, and one can envision a dystopian future like Mad Max, Soylent Green, The Road or Hunger Games. One can’t rule that out, but one can also imagine a utopian future that’s more like the one that I just laid out.

I don’t pretend to know. Predictions are hard, especially about the future, as Niels Bohr once famously said. It turns out it’s not Yogi Berra, it’s actually Niels Bohr, the physicist, who said that. The choice is ours to make, and I’m convinced of that.


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California’s Dirty Oil Threatens Jerry Brown’s Climate Legacy

Co-published by Newsweek
There’s something hinky about the governor’s climate leadership, an inconsistency that environmentalists warn will threaten his legacy.

Judith Lewis Mernit

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Jerry Brown, right, with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. (Photo: U.S. Dept. of the Interior)

Co-published by Newsweek


Brown accused one environmentalist of ‘political terrorism’ when she asked him ‘to stop being Chevron’s stenographer.’


 

In his two most recent terms as governor, which began in January 2011, Jerry Brown has signed legislation to increase renewable energy standards for utilities, to establish California’s first groundwater regulations and to require state public pension funds to divest from coal. To the country and the world, he’s widely regarded as a climate firebrand. He has stepped into the climate fray ahead of presidents, mayors and other governors; he has traveled to China, the Vatican and Russia to address crowds about the subject. Under his leadership, California joined with the German state of Baden-Württemberg to found the Under2Coalition, a partnership among local governments and nations to keep global temperature rise from ever exceeding 2 degrees Celsius.

But there’s something hinky about Brown’s climate leadership, an inconsistency that environmentalists caution will threaten his legacy. To wit, while Brown warns often in speeches that one-third of the world’s oil reserves must remain untouched to avert climate catastrophe, the governor has not done much to keep California’s reserves in the ground. To the contrary: In 2011 Brown flagrantly axed two state regulators for holding drillers to account for their environmental infractions. In 2013, he inserted last-minute amendments into a bill to regulate hydraulic fracturing and acidizing — dissolving rock with toxic chemicals to access trapped oil. And while he managed to extend California’s greenhouse-gas trading market, cap-and-trade, as far out as 2030, he did so in collaboration with oil lobbyists, who saw many of their demands included in the bill.


‘He talks a good game, but when you look at what you need to do on climate, he is silent.’


When RL Miller, chair of the Democratic Party’s environmental caucus, pointed this out, circulating a petition “telling Brown to stop being Chevron’s stenographer,” Brown accused her and her cohort of “political terrorism.”

“He talks a good game,” says Miller, who also runs the advocacy nonprofit, Climate Hawks Vote. “But when you look at what you need to do on climate — move the electricity over to 100 percent renewable energy, for instance — he is silent.” He has not, in other words, come out in full support of state Senate Bill 100, the 100 percent renewable energy bill currently facing its last hurdle before making it to the governor’s desk: passage in the Assembly.

That Brown’s actions sometimes conflict with his climate credentials isn’t much discussed outside of California. But environmentalists like Miller, plus a wide phalanx of elected officials, national environmental leaders and public interest groups, are trying to change that in the waning days of the governor’s last term. They hope their “Brown’s Last Chance” campaign will pressure the legacy-conscious politician to rein in the oil industry before his time is up in January. They have two specific demands: Stop approving permits for new wells in the state, and declare a phase-out of oil and gas production, with funding for workers to transition into the clean-energy economy — they want both to happen before September 12, when Brown welcomes governments, investors, environmentalists and concerned citizens at the three-day Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.


‘Permitting more oil wells next to people of color,’ says Bill McKibben, ‘is not what a climate leader for this day and age would do.’


Such actions would only be in keeping with Brown’s legislative accomplishments, says Bill McKibben, author and founder of the climate nonprofit, 350.org. “He clearly was a climate leader in the early stages of the fight, and that can’t be denied,” McKibben wrote in an email to Capital & Main. “California has moved to cut energy demand and build renewables, and he’s been a part of that. The question is now whether he has the moxie left to embrace the climate movement as it has evolved.” That evolution has included embracing environmental justice. More than three-quarters of new oil wells approved on Brown’s watch are in low-income communities and communities of color, according to an analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Permitting more oil wells next to people of color,” McKibben says, “is not what a climate leader for this day and age would do.”

Oil wells in California are not granted permits through the state alone. Local agencies participate in the process, as does the federal government. Drillers have to follow a suite of regulations that differ by proximity to aquifers, residential areas and land ownership. Does Brown really have the authority to unilaterally deny an oil company permission to drill on all California lands?


If California stops producing oil, Brown has argued, other states and countries will produce more to make up the difference.


Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, insists that he does. “We’re asking the governor to do things precisely because he has the power to do them,” she says. “[His] administration has issued new permits for 20,000 new wells since 2011. Each of those wells was [at] the discretion of state regulators. They report to the governor, and the governor has to follow the law.” If the state looks at all the risks the well poses and the harm it might cause, pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act, it can decide to reject a permit.

Instead, Siegel says, the state agency in charge of reviewing oil-drilling permits, the Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) “rubber-stamps every permit that comes to them from the oil industry,” when closer analysis would reveal them as environmental law-breakers. “It’s actually not only within the governor’s discretion. It’s his obligation to tell those regulators to follow the law.”

In response to the accusation of “rubber-stamping,” DOGGR spokesman Don Drysdale says that “California has some of the most comprehensive and rigorous laws and regulations for oil and gas production in the world.” The Department of Conservation, DOGGR’s parent agency, “has significantly increased its oversight of the industry to safeguard the environment and the public.”

But that’s still at odds with fast action on climate, Siegel says. “There’s no way that any new fossil-fuel development can be compatible with a safe climate.”


‘California’s climate policy will be the blueprint for the next Democratic president and the world.’


Oil is a $111 billion industry in California. Though only 2.7 percent of the state’s GDP, its political muscle is legendary. The industry’s trade group, the Western States Petroleum Association, spends millions annually on lobbying the legislature, more than any other group in the state. Individual companies — Aera Energy and Chevron in particular — add in more.

Brown has said many times that California — which burns more oil than any other state save Texas — still imports 70 percent of its oil. If California stops producing oil, he’s argued, other states and countries will produce more to make up the difference. That’s true, according to the Stockholm Environmental Institute, which last February released a report analyzing the climate effects of California’s petroleum industry. “For each barrel of California oil [left in the ground],” an additional 0.4 to 0.8 barrels would be produced elsewhere,” say the study’s authors. At the same time, however, their research shows oil prices would rise, and global consumption would therefore decline by an estimated 0.2 to 0.6 barrels for each barrel not produced.

California continues to export refining byproducts of the state’s particularly heavy, dirty oil, including petroleum coke, a carbon-heavy solid that burns even dirtier than coal. Certain century-old, played-out wells in the San Joaquin Valley yield some of the most carbon-intensive oil in the world — by some analyses, it’s second only to Canadian oil sands in its climate footprint. Refining it into combustible fuel produces a lot of pet coke, which is shipped to other countries, mostly to be used as fuel.

“It’s literally the Koch brothers exporting pet coke from Long Beach,” Siegel says. Two Koch-run companies, Koch Carbon and Oxbow Carbon, operate terminals at the Long Beach port almost exclusively for the export of pet coke and coal. That might soon change, however: India, which until recently imported more pet coke than any other country, on August 17 announced a ban on burning the substance for fuel, citing air pollution concerns.

Perhaps India’s move could move Brown to reconsider oil’s prospects. “California’s climate policy will be the blueprint for the next Democratic president and the world over,” Siegel says, including many aspirationally “green” nations — Canada and Norway, for example — that have extensive oil supplies. “We have to make it a blueprint that actually solves the climate problem.”

And that blueprint cannot include oil. Most climatologists agree that there’s more carbon in already-producing fields to push the world past the warming threshold of 1.5 degrees. At that point, climate catastrophe may be irreversible.

The governor’s office has so far remained mum on the Brown’s Last Chance campaign. But Siegel is “hopeful,” she says, “that the governor will take action. There’s still time.”


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Lead Poisoning Widespread Among California Workers

The problem in California doesn’t appear to lie with finding out about lead-poisoned workers, but with what happens — or doesn’t happen — when some state officials get that information.

Joe Rubin

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Remaining part of Bay Bridge during 2015 demolition, left. (Photo: Burkhard Mücke)

Despite their company’s safety promises, 12 employees working on the demolition of part of the Bay Bridge were lead-poisoned between 2013 and 2016.


 

Last March, Capital & Main launched an investigative series, “Battery Blood,” which revealed that hundreds of workers at the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, California, had for decades been exposed to lead poisoning. Even worse, the state’s public health department knew about it but failed to act. Now, utilizing data obtained from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), our joint investigation with the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism has found at least 80 companies — including one that recently dismantled parts of the iconic  San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge — continue to have  workers in California who are lead-poisoned at levels high enough to cause birth defects, tremors and a variety of brain disorders.

Once again we found that CDPH routinely failed to refer even the most egregious employers to state enforcement officers who can levy fines and require mandatory changes.

Some of the most extensive problems were found at other car battery recycling plants in working-class areas of Los Angeles. At one plant, Trojan Battery Recycling Company had 174 employees with elevated levels of lead in their blood between 2015 and 2016.


A state safety agency accepted the dismantling company’s explanation that one bridge worker was lead-poisoned because he chewed tobacco.


“It’s beyond upsetting,” Bell city councilman Nestor Valencia said. He lives in one of the roughly 10,000 residential properties contaminated at levels above what is safe for kids by lead emissions from the Exide plant. “You know we need these jobs, but not at the expense of worker health or keeping kids who live nearby safe. This is what state government is supposed to be for, and they are failing us.” Valencia said he was shocked to learn that other nearby plants continue to have lead-poisoned workers.

The Bay Area also has serious ongoing problems. There were lead-poisoning victims among those working on the demolition of the eastern span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Despite promises to keep workers safe from lead, California Engineering Contractors, which received a $200 million dollar state contract to dismantle the earthquake-damaged span, had 12 cases of lead-poisoned employees between 2013 and 2016.

And at Target Masters West, an indoor gun range in the city of Milpitas, there have been more than 25 lead-poisoning cases in the last decade amongst workers who clean and manage the range. Seven cases were reported during 2015 and 2016, the most recent years for which data is available.


The California Department of Public Health has shown a stunning level of reluctance to turn lead-poisoning cases over to Cal/OSHA for enforcement.


Target Master West owner Bill Heskett bristled at the suggestion his workers had been poisoned, asserting that a spate of recent findings by public health experts that lead at lower levels is harmful to human health “isn’t based in real science and has been set by a bunch of clerks with no accountability.” Heskett said that the recent spikes in lead levels at his range were attributable to an employee “who wasn’t following protocols.” The employee was terminated, Heskett said.

In response to the Exide revelations in our March investigation, a bill was introduced in the California legislature by Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose). Assembly Bill 2963 would require mandatory inspections at any workplace where a worker’s blood lead level is at or above 25 micrograms per deciliter. Even at levels as low as 10 micrograms per deciliter, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Controls (CDC), people with prolonged exposure to the neurotoxin are at higher risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and reduced fertility.

While the legislation has faced stiff opposition from industry groups and only passed out of the Assembly by a single vote, it has stronger support in the Senate and appears likely to make it to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk.

Among AB 2963’s supporters is Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), who expressed dismay that problems at the Milpitas gun range (which is in his district), the Bay Bridge project and elsewhere have been allowed to linger. “If you had a family member or a friend exposed to high blood lead levels, you would want to see immediate action taken to reduce that exposure,” Wieckowski said. “The health and safety of all workers should be the top priority.”

Two Agencies Working in Silos

The problem in California doesn’t appear to lie with finding out about lead-poisoned workers, but with what happens when some state officials get that information.

At battery plants, gun ranges and other workplaces where exposure to lead is common, the state of California requires companies to test their workers for elevated levels of lead. The custodian of that testing information is a division of CDPH called the Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (OLPPP). The division is funded through a small fee on employers in industries that work with lead. In theory, OLPPP provides education to companies and at the agency’s discretion can refer serious cases to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA. The enforcement agency can then determine the cause of problems and issue fines when unsafe practices are found.


“They’ve lost sight of the fundamental mission, to make sure that at the end of the day workers come home to their families safe and sound.”


Our year-long investigation found a stunning level of reluctance on the part of CDPH to turn lead-poisoning cases over to Cal/OSHA for enforcement. Of the eight companies with some of the most persistent problems with lead exposure in California between 2013 and 2016, Cal/OSHA confirmed that it received no referrals from OLPPP for any of them during the last 10 years, and conducted no lead-related inspections at any of the companies. Many of the workplaces have had lead-poisoned workers for decades.

CDPH has declined repeated interview requests and did not respond in time for publication to written questions about its management of lead poisoning cases.

Through the state Public Records Act, Capital & Main obtained communications between OLPPP and California Engineering Contractors (CEC), one of the companies awarded a contract by California’s Department of Transportation to dismantle the Bay Bridge.

Read Documents Related to This Story

In October 2013, OLPPP informed the company that workers on the project would be exposed to lead coating as the steel bridge was dismantled. “Our role is to assist employers in identifying and correcting work practices that can result in employees being over exposed to lead,” the OLPPP wrote in a letter.

Within a year, workers on the project showed signs of elevated blood lead levels. The company asserted in an August, 2014 email to OLPPP that it could bring the situation under control. “We are confident we can get even the highest exposed workers under 10 µg/dl (BLL) with aggressive oversight and support,” wrote CEC safety director Robert Ikenberry.

Despite assurances, the problem of lead-poisoned employees grew worse. By 2015 one worker’s blood lead levels had exceeded 40 micrograms per deciliter, a level deemed “very high” by the CDC.  Michael McKinney, a safety manager for CEC had an explanation, which he provided in an email to OLPPP.  “The employee admitted to us that he was chewing tobacco during work. We feel that this practice is what caused the high lead level,” McKinney wrote.  OLPPP appeared to accept that explanation, and never referred the Bay Bridge project for Cal/OSHA inspection, even when elevated blood levels amongst workers jumped 25 percent the following year.

Mariano Kramer, a former district manager for Cal/OSHA, said that simply accepting emailed assurances from a company with lead-poisoned workers is not acceptable. “There are a myriad of issues which can cause elevated blood lead levels. A trained inspector knows how to identify them.”

In 27 states, workplace occupational lead safety standards are administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a federal agency. In those states, any blood lead level above 25 micrograms triggers an automatic OSHA inspection, through which fines for unsafe conditions can be levied and changes can be mandated. A similar standard would go into effect in California if AB 2963 becomes law.

Kramer said he supports the proposed legislation because it would empower his former agency to more aggressively target workplaces that lead-poison workers.

“But,” he added, “there are cultural issues within both agencies that no law will fix. They’ve lost sight of the fundamental mission, to make sure that at the end of the day workers come home to their families safe and sound.”

This article was produced as a project for the 2017 California Data Fellowship, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.


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Can the EPA Roll Back California’s Clean Air Standards?

Co-published by The American Prospect
The Trump administration wants to argue that California has no special right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. But their case, experts say, is weak.

Judith Lewis Mernit

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Los Angeles sunset.

The new Safer and Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles rule would nullify California regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes and its zero-emission vehicle program.


Co-published by The American Prospect

When officials within the Trump administration, on August 2, proposed scaling back Obama-era fuel-economy standards and revoking California’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes, they were betting on the chance that courts can’t tell the difference between a law against gas guzzlers and one against carbon belchers. Low-mileage cars and low-emissions cars are often one and the same, they may have reasoned. If you’re requiring a car to emit less carbon dioxide, you’re also asking that it burn less fuel.

That part might be mostly true, although there are emissions controls that have nothing to do with gas mileage. But from a legal standpoint, fuel economy and tailpipe emissions take distinctly different routes to regulation. Fuel-economy standards, known as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE standard, as defined in the Energy Policy Conservation Act, forbid states from making their own rules. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration enforces them; states have no control.

The 1970 Clean Air Act, on the other hand, gives California the explicit authority to regulate air pollution, albeit with EPA sign-off in the form of a “waiver” each time the state wants to impose a new standard. Other states can adopt California’s stricter rules (12 of them and the District of Columbia, have). Or states can stick with the standards set by the federal government. Tailpipe emissions of other pollutants from cars and trucks — carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides, for starters — have long been a chief source of air pollution, and California since 1961 has acted to curtail them.


“California regulators were the first to understand how smog was formed, the first to act on how to control that smog.”


That’s one of the reasons why the administration might lose its coming battle with 19 states and a host of environmental groups gearing up to fight the “Safer and Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles” rule, as the Environmental Protection Agency calls its apocalypse-hastening rollback, which would freeze the CAFE standard at 37 miles per gallon instead of aiming toward the 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 that the previous administration had set. It would nullify not only California regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes but also California’s zero-emission vehicle program, which requires carmakers to market a certain number of all-electric or hydrogen vehicles in the state.

But the rollback doesn’t pass legal muster, says Irene Gutierrez, clean-energy attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Among its many legal and factual flaws, the proposed rule seeks to revoke California’s authority over tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases on the grounds that “the environmental problems it addresses are not particular or unique to California.” Yet nowhere does the Clean Air Act mention “particular or unique” as a waiver requirement.


California’s transportation sector puts more carbon-dioxide and its equivalents into the atmosphere than any state but Texas.


“The EPA has not in the past looked at California and said, ‘Prove to us that your ozone problems are worse than any other place in the country,’” Gutierrez says. “It’s not like there aren’t polluted air basins in other states.” When past waivers were granted — there have been more than 50 — it wasn’t because California and California alone had an air-quality problem. It was because California was seen as particularly aggressive about cleaning up its air and, in 1970, was far ahead of the federal government in doing so.

“California regulators were the first to understand how smog was formed, the first to act on how to control that smog,” says Meredith Hankins, a legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles. So it allowed the state to forward with what’s known as “technology-forcing” regulation.

“Technology-forcing means regulators aren’t picking the technology, aren’t picking the winners and losers,” Hankins says. “They’re saying ‘You figure it out — you’re the technology experts. All we care about is public health.’”


Climate change is undeniably hitting the state now with a particular and unique dose of fury.


But even if the law said California had to be unique in its suffering from greenhouse gas emissions, it would not be hard to make the case that it is. For one thing, with its glut of cars, California has an urgent responsibility to reduce its contribution to greenhouse gas pollution from cars and trucks. Forty-one percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, according to the California Air Resource Board’s latest climate inventory. The state’s transportation sector puts more carbon-dioxide and its equivalents into the atmosphere than any state but Texas.

Plus, climate change is undeniably hitting the state this moment with a particular and unique dose of fury. “There are 18 fires burning in the state right now, and none of them are contained,” Gutierrez says. Several more have already leveled neighborhoods. One of them, near Redding, in Northern California, burned so hot that it scorched away a layer of earth.

It’s an odd time, then, for the Environmental Protection Agency to be fighting against environmental protection. Especially in California.

California’s climate gas waiver for cars was first denied by the Bush administration in 2008, when then-EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson made basically the same case: That California does not “need to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions” with respect to greenhouse gas pollution. Six months into the Obama administration, the EPA officially reversed that decision. “Opponents of the waiver have not demonstrated that California does not need its greenhouse gas emission standards to meet compelling and extraordinary conditions,” EPA Administration Lisa Jackson wrote at the time. She also affirmed that “Congress recognized that California could serve as a pioneer and a laboratory for the nation in setting new motor vehicle emissions standards.”

“Trump is trying to rehash those old Bush administration arguments,” Gutierrez says. Trump’s administration is also adding a bonus caveat: that clean vehicles are, by definition, small and unsafe. The proposal claims that canceling out both national fuel standards and California’s waiver will reduce traffic fatalities by 12,700 from 2021 to 2029.

Never mind that it’s possible to produce a substantial, low-emissions plug-in hybrid, such as Chrysler’s Pacifica minivan, just as it is to make a smaller car that pollutes (the 2009 model of the Ferrari F430, for instance, isn’t particularly big, but it packs the same climate wallop as the 2001 model of the hulking Ford Explorer.) Carmakers are getting better all that time at designing more substantial, longer-range and affordable cars that qualify as clean. Nearly every manufacturer has a plug-in hybrid crossover SUV on the line for 2019. Even Ford, which has been slow to the EV game — dutifully churning out “compliance” vehicles just to qualify for the strict California market — has announced a plug-in hybrid model of its crossover SUV, the Escape.

Besides, the goal of saving 12,000 lives rings a little hollow when you consider that heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the leading cause of all annual weather-related deaths in the U.S. The World Health Organization predicts that between 2030 and 2050, 250,000 people will die globally due to climate-related health impacts. Maybe we could all just drive a little more carefully.


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Energy Democracy in Alameda County: Greener, Cleaner. Or Is It?

Energy experts have their doubts about East Bay Community Energy’s ability to immediately deliver power that does not involve a hydroelectric dam — or even a smokestack.

Judith Lewis Mernit

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All photos by Crystal Huang

When, on July 18, a brand-new community energy venture unveiled its five-year business plan, advocates for clean energy and environmental justice touted it as a first-of-its-kind coup. East Bay Community Energy (EBCE), a coalition of 11 cities and unincorporated areas in Alameda County, came together last year to find potentially cleaner and cheaper electricity for its customers than their for-profit utility, PG&E, can supply. The group has also promised to nourish the local economy with good jobs tied to renewable energy development, harnessing the county’s abundant wind and solar resources to clean up the air.

But some experts who monitor California’s energy policies have their doubts about EBCE’s ability to deliver power that does not involve a (carbon-free but fish-killing) hydroelectric dam — or even a smokestack — at least in the near future. “The business plan is of little relevance,” says Matthew Freedman, staff attorney with The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a nonprofit that polices corporate utilities and advocates for ratepayers. “The proof is what they actually commit to buy.”

EBCE has come together under the aegis of a 2002 California law that granted local jurisdictions the right to procure their own power, as “community-choice aggregators,” or CCAs. The ideals of the CCA have always involved encouraging more clean energy generated locally, and offering it to consumers at competitive rates. For-profit utilities have been accused of delaying the transition from coal and natural gas to renewables, as well as starving local economies by importing power from out of state.

Yet even for the community energy groups, those ideals have been almost impossible to realize. Community power programs are opt-out — if you live in a place that has one, you’re automatically subscribed — but consumers can still defect if prices spike. Power suppliers have to stay competitive or die.

And some did die early on, victims of both organized campaigns by the large utilities, and a renewable energy landscape that wasn’t quite ready to meet their demands. Even after the price of solar cells began dropping in 2009, inciting a solar boom, labor unions still opposed CCAs on the grounds that the groups weren’t doing anything for new energy development — they were, instead, doing an end run around utilities to buy the same old dirty power. “At present, there is no pathway from a power purchase agreement with [traditional energy] companies to creating local jobs with union-scale wages and benefits,” read a statement from IBEW 1245 in 2013. (Disclosure: IBEW 1245 and the California Nurses Association are financial supporters of this website.)

East  Bay activists were acutely aware of these factors when they started lobbying for a community choice program in the county. “One of our demands was not to use ‘renewable energy certificates,’” says Jessica Tovar, lead organizer with Oakland’s Local Clean Energy Alliance. Renewable energy certificates, or RECs, are green-labeled kilowatts sold on the electricity market independent of actual generation. Because they’re not investments in new renewable generation, RECs don’t spur the development of new wind and solar projects. (They might not even originate from renewable generation at all — on the mixed-up electricity market, you can’t tell a coal electron from a wind one.) “We emphasized from the beginning that we wanted to have actual local renewables produced in the county.”

That demand was part of the organization’s “unity position,” says Tovar, along with the Alameda Labor Council and the California Nurses Association. “Oftentimes the environmental and social justice movements don’t work together,” she says. “It was a big deal for us to be able to ask for those things, working together, at the time.”

EBCE, which has supplied electricity to non-residential consumers since June, and will begin serving residential customers in November, has agreed only to buy renewable energy certificates if they prove necessary to its financial health. It’s hard to know exactly what that means. Until the CCA has the credit rating and assets to sign long-term contracts for new projects with local energy developers, it will have to rely on electricity from existing facilities throughout the West. Such purchases often involve some kind of environmental trading mechanism that can disguise dirty energy as clean. One of EBCE’s options offers “carbon-free” power, which in this case, means power from large hydroelectric plants in the Pacific Northwest or Canada.

“The carbon-free angle is worse than meaningless,” Freedman says. “We’ve seen Northwest utilities that have abundant electricity supplies send a clean resource [to a CCA] and then backfill with a dirty resource to meet their existing demand.” The amount of hydroelectric in EBCE’s resource plan, Freedman says, “is staggering.”

Tovar isn’t happy with the carbon-free option either. “We know better and want to do better,” she says. Doing better just takes time.

Freedman doesn’t dispute that. “When a CCA starts up it needs to have a product to sell on day one,” he says. “New clean energy infrastructure takes time to design and implement.”

If all goes well, Tovar sees EBCE paving the way for other energy innovations, such as shared solar, solar cooperatives and microgrids — small, self-contained distribution networks that can interact with the grid or “island” and operate on their own in a crisis. She and other clean-energy advocates hope to see rooftop solar and battery storage become accessible to low-income households and renters, through shared and community projects made possible by the CCA.

Those are all towering asks, and Tovar is careful to note that none of them will become reality if energy decisions get made in a bubble. Consumers have to participate, too. “We call it energy democracy,” Tovar says. “It requires us all to play advocates for the kind of energy we want to produce.”


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