In December of 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cracked down on Canyon Plastics of Valencia, California, for allegedly polluting local waters with nurdles. Tiny bits of resin used in the manufacture of plastic products, nurdles leach chemicals as they collect on beaches and clog up the digestive tracts of marine creatures. Canyon Plastics, the EPA alleged, had been disposing of them in a tributary of the Santa Clara River, which empties into the ocean. The nurdles posed an immediate threat to the endangered steelhead trout that persist in the river, and after an inspection, the federal agency proposed a fine and a remediation plan that was open to public comment.
Nurdles in the Santa Clara might seem trivial compared with lead poisoning a city’s tap water, or Volkswagen (and now, allegedly, Fiat Chrysler) cars tricking smog tests. But policing nurdles is an example of an important function of the EPA that often flies under the radar of anyone who hasn’t been subscribing to the agency’s news feed. Just in the last few months in California, the EPA has ordered a home renovator in Anaheim to spend $34,000 on blood tests for clients’ children, who may have been exposed to lead dust; forced Trader Joe’s grocery stores to spend $2 million to fix faulty and polluting refrigerators; and imposed a six-figure penalty on a Bay Area refinery that was illegally disposing of the toxic chemical benzene in an unlined waste pond.
All of the small, cumulative enforcement actions over time add up to a single, worthwhile purpose: The safeguarding of the country’s air and water to the extent that the EPA’s resources allow.
That news feed abruptly went dark this week, as Myron Ebell, the overseer of the EPA transition for the Trump administration, ordered staff to cease communicating with the public except for critical messages. Ebell also ordered the suspension of grants and contracts, according to information provided to the Huffington Post and ProPublica. The unprecedented move was a cold reminder of what everyone following the news has known since December 7, when the news broke that then-President-elect Donald Trump would pick Scott Pruitt as his EPA administrator: The federal agency created under the Nixon administration to enforce our environmental laws may very well be in peril. “Pruitt,” says Vermont Law School professor Patrick Parenteau, “is everything people say he is.” To wit: no friend to regulation that restrains the polluting industries.
The proof is in Pruitt’s record. As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt pinned his career on fighting laws and regulations that would stand in the way of agricultural, mining or energy interests. He has sued to stop a creature on the brink of extinction from being added to the endangered species list; he went to court to defend a state ballot measure that would bar any restrictions on agribusiness’ right to pollute the state’s waterways (the measure failed at the polls).
Pruitt has also gone after the EPA itself — 19 times, in fact — suing to block a rule that would reduce the haze that contaminates the skies in national parks. He’s even tried to stop the time-honored practice of citizens—privately, or under the aegis of environmental nonprofits —taking the agency to court when it falls short, a practice enshrined in the nation’s bedrock environmental laws.
There was much discussion of citizen lawsuits during Pruitt’s January 18 confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. (Pruitt affirmed, to Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, that he opposed the practice.) Also on the docket was Pruitt’s handling of poultry waste in the Illinois River, with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker recounting how Pruitt turned his back on a legal settlement that Pruitt’s predecessor, Drew Edmondson, had achieved with the poultry producers to reduce phosphorous pollution. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders pressed the nominee on his views on climate, which, like every other Trump nominee’s views on climate, came out sounding more measured and reasonable than the president’s “Climate change is a Chinese hoax” remark.
Less attention was paid, however, to what will happen to these many smaller enforcement duties when the EPA and Justice Department abandon their roles in protecting public health. Pruitt has said that he respects state’s rights; it’s been one of the key phrases of his tenure. He nevertheless indicated during the hearing that he might deny California its currently held right to impose limits on tailpipe emissions that exceed federal standards; he also suggested that the federal government should have stepped in sooner in Flint, Michigan’s water crisis. “The EPA should have acted expeditiously” when it became clear the state wasn’t acting to clean up the lead in the city’s water supply, Pruitt said. But that’s a statement that runs counter to literally everything Pruitt has done in his active career as the chief enforcer in his home state, where, as Delaware Senator Tom Carper noted, every county for which data is collected consistently exceeds federal air pollution standards.
Pruitt’s record on enforcement has been one of laxity, not enforcement. His inaction as the new EPA head could nullify environmental laws in practice even while they remain on the books.
Environmental laws are only as good as their implementation,” says Jared Blumenfeld, the recent former regional EPA administrator for the Pacific Southwest and Hawaii. “They are great things to have on the books; we can feel good about them. But without enforcement, they’re paper tigers.”
Enforcement, in fact, is the very reason for the EPA’s existence—as well as the defining characteristic of modern environmentalism. If President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous camping trip with John Muir had ushered in the era of conservation, it was Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, a “quietly shocking tale about the widespread pesticide poisoning of man and nature,” according to the agency’s official origin story, that gave rise to “a political movement which demanded the state not only preserve the Earth, but act to regulate and punish those who polluted it.” It was, at the time, a nonpartisan ideal: The EPA’s first administrator was a staunch Indiana Republican, William Ruckelshaus, who nonetheless believed wholeheartedly in the agency’s mission. “Obviously,” he told senators at his confirmation hearing, “if we are to make progress in pollution abatement, we must have a firm enforcement policy at the federal level.”
One of the first things Blumenfeld did after President Obama appointed him was rebuild the EPA’s enforcement division, which had been gutted way back under President Ronald Reagan’s first EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch. (George W. Bush’s administration further hobbled enforcement staff, sending longtime staffers fleeing in disgust.) Still, the Obama administration’s EPA has not been the most robust in history. Criminal prosecutions for environmental crimes, which peaked under President Bill Clinton in 1998, in 2016 were the lowest they’d been in two decades, reports the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. But that’s mostly a problem of diminishing resources, a situation Congress has responded to by further diminishing them.
And Pruitt is right about Flint: The EPA did err when it failed to intervene in that city’s water crisis, long after agency scientists knew lead was leaching into the water supply. But the Flint disaster also points up why the EPA is necessary. Most enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, those twin landmark laws first authored during the Nixon administration, is delegated to the states, which in turn pass the responsibility on to regional or local authorities. (California, for instance, takes its federally delegated authority to regulate pollutants under the Clean Air Act and distributes it among 35 local air districts.) When those local agencies fail to protect public health, the EPA can and should intervene. Its failure to do so in Flint shows what happens to state environmental law when the EPA isn’t there as a backstop.
“States need to know that someone else is watching to make sure federal environmental laws are being effectively implemented and enforced,” Blumenfeld says.
Even a governor who views himself as an environmental warrior at times lacks the political will to do the right thing. In 2011, when California regulators warned that Central Valley oil-drilling operations risked polluting local aquifers, Governor Jerry Brown fired the regulators; three years later, the EPA ordered a more thorough review, and shut down 56 wells.
There’s also the issue of local authorities getting to know their industrial operators a little too well. “The basic enforcement philosophy at EPA is that the closer the relationship between the enforcer and the entity that’s being inspected, the greater the likelihood that problems will arise,” says Blumenfeld. Exide Technologies’ battery recycling facility in Vernon was allowed to pollute the community under a temporary permit for 33 years, with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control exacting only minimal fines before the story broke wide in 2013. This, despite a long history of inspections that revealed leaks of lead-acid battery waste and arsenic into the neighborhood’s soil and water. It took the EPA and U.S. Department of Justice to close down the plant for good.
And even when California regulators abide by environmental laws better than their counterparts in other states—and pass emissions laws that exceed federal standards—there’s no guarantee California will remain the beacon of environmental progress that it is now. Jim McElfish, a senior attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Law Institute, points out that Wisconsin was once “one of the great environmental pioneers” and the home of conservationist hero Aldo Leopold. Now, with Wisconsin under conservative political leadership, environmental groups complain that the state has scrubbed all mention of climate change from its official websites, and say officials repeatedly turn a blind eye to Clean Water Act violations.
“California might feel pretty good right now with a unified state legislature and governor and strong economy,” McElfish says. “But if you look back a decade, when you had a legislature that couldn’t pass much of anything, a huge budget deficit and the economy flagging — it was hard back then to do much for the environment.” Depending on shifts in the political winds, California could go that way again.
“States,” says McElfish, “can regress.”
Environmental enforcement at its best, however, happens when states’ own environmental laws are strong and the federal government acts to shore them up. Richard Frank, an environmental law professor at the University of California, Davis, cites the recent Volkswagen settlement as an example of that fact: A state with rigorous air laws had the support of the federal government to make them stick. “The opportunity for an efficient, effective and swift resolution of that case was enhanced considerably when you had the state of California and its air board working shoulder to shoulder with the EPA and the Justice Department,” Frank says. “It’s a very good example of a collaborative, aggressive approach.” A similar drama is now unfolding with Fiat Chrysler, which also allegedly installed test-beating software in some of its cars.
Such collaborations will no doubt be rare in the next four years — the arrest of Volkswagen’s emissions compliance executive, Oliver Schmidt, at Miami International Airport on January 7, may be the last of its kind for a while. (Schmidt allegedly lied to California regulators about why polluting diesel cars were passing their emissions tests, adding a criminal investigation to the civil settlement). In California, potential criminal operators might still be found out, but holding them accountable will require more time and money. And the air we breathe could well get worse.
Which brings us back to those EPA announcements that until recently came over the email transom—not just the news of penalties and fix-it orders, but the grants and the financial support the agency provides for clean-fuel vehicles in polluted areas, or its offers to install better ventilation in alarmingly toxic nail salons. However much the average citizen blanches at the surfeit of data, however mind-numbing all those announcements had become to the public and reporters, there’s always a subset to whom each one of them matters a great deal: The people whose air or water has been contaminated, whose children on some days can only breathe with the help of inhalers, who’ve been living on bottled water for fear of what issues from their taps, whose parents died young of some strange cancer. Before the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were written, a smog event in Pennsylvania had killed 20 people in a single week, and a river in Ohio had burst into flames. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the creation of a Republican president under pressure from both an alarmed public and a relentless Democratic congress, was established to stop such things from happening.
Congressional Democrats are hosting a panel discussion today, Tuesday (live video here), to hear testimony about Pruitt’s nomination from tribal leaders, environmental advocates and other interested parties, in order to probe “serious questions” that remain about Pruitt, Sen. Carper’s office said in a statement Monday. Pruitt may not be confirmed, but his defeat wouldn’t be the end of the threat. The next pick will still come guided by Ebell, known as the “climate contrarian” of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry-lobbying group.
California can still do a lot to protect the environment within its borders, and no doubt will. The chair of the state’s air board, Mary Nichols, who served in President Bill Clinton’s EPA, is renowned as a relentless firebrand on clean air policy—she’s even pushed for an end to the internal combustion engine. State water authorities, while refusing to speculate on the new administration, insist they’ll carry out their duties to public health and ecology with or without the support of the federal government. “Our authority is very clear,” wrote spokesman George Kostyrko in an email, “and we will continue to ensure that the beneficial uses of surface waters are sustained for the residents of California under our authority within both the Clean Water Act and California Water Code.”
“We’ve been the best environmental stewards in the country,” says Mark Gold, associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Our economy is tied to the green economy, and our economic recovery is an example of what happens when as a state you do what’s in the best interest of the environment.”
California’s environmental groups aren’t in an unfamiliar place when it comes to taking up the slack of a feckless EPA. The key, say some, is to ride herd on the state while continuing to pressure the feds in court. Blumenfeld points to the example set by Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico Del Valle, a nonprofit based in the Imperial Valley that uses citizen science to take action on local pollution. In 2007, the group began conducting “Toxic Bus Tours” of low-income neighborhoods in the Imperial Valley; Olmedo and his crew later branched out with websites where people can report environmental violations and keep track of whether they’re being addressed. So far the group has developed portals for seven communities and has outfitted some with air-quality monitors.
Olmedo calls the online reporting system a way of “democratizing environmental protection,” inspired by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s data crowdsourcing after the BP oil-spill disaster of 2010. It’s raised the community’s environmental awareness and fostered relationships between local communities and state regulators, who show up at local task force meetings to discuss current or impending issues.
The new White House’s policies and practices aren’t of much concern to Olmedo; his group’s information gathering, he believes, is insulated against politics. Data-gathering is hard to fight on partisan grounds. “We’ve already been through two administrations in the time since we’ve been evolving this model,” he says. Transparency, he finds, gives a community the “political muscle” to force change. “It’s proactive policing.”
Crowdsourcing may be California environmentalists’ best chance of protecting the state’s resources in the face of federal hostility. Many complaints of potential environmental crimes, Olmedo says, come from business owners who are following environmental laws and want their competitors to do the same. “Even in the worst of circumstances, communities can expose corruption and get it addressed,” he says. “What we have is a feasible way for the state to cover more ground.”
And that’s probably what the state agencies will have to do—expand their reach, and investigate more deeply. It can be done. “We learned during the Bush administration that we can’t rely on the federal government to fix our problems,” says Mark Gold. “California is big enough to lead by example.”
Trump photo by Michael Vadon; Yosemite photo by Guy Francis.
L.A. Says No to Repowering Gas Plants
“This is the beginning of the end of natural gas in Los Angeles,” Mayor Eric Garcetti announced Monday.
Donning the mantle of a Green New Deal warrior Monday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that the city-run Department of Water and Power would not repower a controversial trio of natural gas-fueled power plants. DWP had planned to spend $2.2 billion rebuilding the aging Scattergood, Haynes and Harbor facilities, located, respectively, in El Segundo, Long Beach and Wilmington.
Instead, the coastal plants, which supply the city with 38 percent of its electricity, will be phased out by 2029, in line with L.A.’s goal to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
“This is the beginning of the end of natural gas in Los Angeles,” said Garcetti. “The climate crisis demands that we move more quickly to end dependence on fossil fuel.”
See Larry Buhl’s earlier analysis of what the repowering of the three plants would mean for Los Angeles.
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Green New Deal Targets Link Between Trade Policy and Climate Change
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution spotlights stealth connections between free trade deals, offshoring and carbon emissions.
Congressional Democrats on Thursday unveiled landmark Green New Deal legislation outlining proposals to combat climate change — and the measure does not stop at the American border. The resolution calls for new trade laws to halt America’s continued export of carbon pollution to countries across the globe.
The link between trade policy and climate change may seem far-fetched, but it is illustrated by the relationship between emissions in different countries. For example: In recent years the United States and Europe had been reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions. That seeming progress has been offset in developing countries such as China, which has seen a significant spike in emissions to the point where it now produces more greenhouse gases than the United States and the European Union combined.
On the surface, these trends might appear to show wealthy nations’ proactively decarbonizing their economies, and developing nations failing to do the same. However, China’s emissions are not happening in a vacuum: Research suggests they are being fueled by the United States through the trade policies that the Green New Deal resolution targets.
Over the last few decades, under major free trade agreements, corporations have been shifting manufacturing facilities from the United States to developing-world nations like China, where labor and environmental laws are weaker. That shift has not only eliminated millions of American manufacturing jobs, it has also moved carbon emissions to those countries.
The result: The United States and EU had been domestically producing less greenhouse gas emissions, but the picture looks much more grim when considering “consumption-based” emissions — that is, emissions associated with the production of imported goods purchased by a nation’s consumers.
“What appears [at first sight] to be the result of structural change in the economy is in reality just a relocation of carbon-intensive production to other regions—or carbon leakage,” wrote Dutch researchers in a 2016 report for the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET).
* * *
Data compiled by researchers at Oxford and the University of Edinburgh show that when consumption-based emissions are considered, the United States and the EU have been fueling carbon emissions through their import-dependent economies.
“If we switched to a consumption-based reporting system,” wrote these researchers, “the annual CO2 emissions of many European economies would increase by more than 30 percent and the USA’s emissions would increase by seven percent.”
While not fully fleshed out, the Green New Deal resolution appears to recognize the link between trade and climate change. The measure, which is sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (MA), calls for “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments with strong labor and environmental protections to stop the transfer of jobs and pollution overseas; and to grow domestic manufacturing in the United States.”
That demand challenges the existing template of American trade pacts: Up until now, those deals have not included provisions designed to reduce carbon emissions. Indeed, watchdog groups have noted that the term “climate change” was not mentioned in the draft of the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership — a deal that environmentalists said would accelerate greenhouse gas emissions.
The Green New Deal — which is only a non-binding resolution and would not create new programs — asks for a change in that trade model. The idea is to include environmental provisions in trade pacts and to use trade policies to encourage manufacturing facilities to return to the United States, where they would be subjected to more stringent emissions rules as they produce goods for Americans.
That demand is supported by the findings of the INET report, which noted that because of the globalized economy, domestic emissions reductions alone will not be enough to ward off catastrophic climate change.
“It is no great achievement to reduce domestic per capita carbon emissions by outsourcing carbon-intensive activities to other countries and by being a net importer of [greenhouse gases],” they wrote.
Copyright Capital & Main
Can Jay Inslee Make Climate Change a Top Issue in the Presidential Race?
“Those who would shackle us to the pessimistic view of inaction doom us to sacrifice,” says Washington’s governor. “They doom us to sacrificing our clean air and to sacrificing the ability to walk in a forest that’s not charred down.”
How important will climate change be in the 2020 presidential campaign? If Jay Inslee has any say over the matter, it will be front and center — he’s the Democratic Governor of Washington State who is running for president on a promise to make climate change his number one priority.
Capital & Main reporter David Sirota recently talked to Inslee, who as governor has championed legislation to force utilities to use renewable energy. Inslee most recently backed a carbon tax ballot initiative in 2018 — but it lost at the polls.
During the conversation Inslee discussed the ins and outs of his plans to confront climate change, and talked about whether tackling the problem will require major societal sacrifices. What follows is an edited excerpt of the conversation.
David Sirota: Climate change has been emerging as a global emergency for years, but it hasn’t been a central focus of presidential campaigns in the past. Why do you think that is — and why do you think that will likely change in 2020?
Jay Inslee: The problem has become more urgent. It was obvious to me a decade ago when I co-authored a book about it, but it has become more urgent. Therefore, the public is more willing and able and I think ready to take action against climate change.
For the public, what used to be just a chart on a graph is now a personal experience in their lives. It’s smoke in Seattle that made Seattle’s air quality the worst in the world last summer. We had to shut down swimming pools in parts of our state because the air quality was so bad. Kids couldn’t go outside and play. It’s the hurricanes, it’s the precipitation events in Houston, it’s the sea-level rise in Miami, it’s extreme weather precipitation events where Iowa farmers can’t get out and harvest. I was in Iowa a few weeks ago, and they literally couldn’t get out to harvest their crops because it was so muddy. It’s Paradise, California, where I was to see a town of 25,000 people burned out. Looking like Dresden in World War II.
It’s all of those things I think have changed the public’s eagerness for action on this.
I believe what people have missed is the power behind this, because this is consistent with the character of the American people, which is we are optimists. We are can-do people. We’re innovators. We see ourselves as world leaders. And that this scientific issue, if properly positioned, just supports the identity we have as our national character and people have failed to see that.
They have failed to realize that in talking about this, it is as important or more important to identify who we are and who the opposition is. We are the optimists who believe we can defeat climate change. Donald Trump is a pessimist who doesn’t believe we’re smart enough. We are the can-do advocates for a high-tech, clean energy economy and Donald Trump wants us to be stuck in something that was discovered in the 1700s or before that. Those are character issues that are winning issues and I think people have missed that fundamentally.
What is more important — demand-side climate policies that support solar panels and electric cars, or supply-side climate policies that seek to limit fossil fuel extraction?
I think both have their place, and the demand side has many, many tools [and] we’re proposing to use many of them in the state of Washington…We intend to do quite a number of them here in the state of Washington this year. On the supply side, I believe they are necessary as well, but the question is what they are and how they are and how fast that spigot is turned down. That’s an issue.
Clearly, the most obvious one is to not allow the misuse of public resources on our public lands where the Trump administration has attempted to turn our public lands into subsidiaries for the fossil fuel industry, and that’s perhaps the first place where supply side message or supply side policy is necessary for climate purposes.
What do you see are the big sacrifices that society will have to make in order to halt climate change?
I think there’s change, but there’s not sacrifice. That is different. Somehow, people can’t envision that. We changed a lot of things in our lives. We use cellphones instead of bulky landlines. We’re driving electric cars instead of internal combustion engines. We are using ultra-efficient heating and cooling systems. And those have been changes, but none of them have been sacrifices…
Look, this is fundamentally between the pessimists who want inaction and the optimists who want action. That’s the fundamental choice that our nation faces.
Those who would shackle us to the pessimistic, fearful view of inaction doom us to sacrifice. They doom us to sacrificing our clean air, and they doom us to sacrificing the ability to go for a walk in a forest that’s not charred down, and they doom us to have our subdivisions and our homes torched in fires like Paradise. They doom us to precipitation that’s actually drowned people. That’s sacrifice. Those who (are) pessimists who can’t see a vision of changing how we use energy are the ones who are asking us to sacrifice through the inertia and deadly fatalism of inaction. It’s like a guy standing underneath an avalanche that’s coming down and saying, “Hey, don’t ask me to sacrifice to move out of the way.” No, the sacrifice is when you get buried.
And that’s what the inaction crowd and the Donald Trump climate hoax and climate denier crowd ask us to do. This is actually in our self-interest, both short and long-term. And so, no, I think we’re making something that’s clearly in our economic benefit, clearly in our benefit and health, in national security, and certainly the things we love, and in creating jobs. So, no, I don’t look at this as a sacrifice issue.
Yes, there are some investments that we need to make just like we make investments in other things we care about. When we buy a house, people don’t usually think of it as a sacrifice. But yes, you need to have some capital to make the investment. When you buy an electric car, yeah, it takes some capital, but you save on energy because instead of being a slave to the oil and gas industry, you get fuel that’s 80-85 percent less expensive. When you put up a solar panel, you do have an investment, but you save making a monthly payment for 30 years…Investment doesn’t mean sacrifice.
Where do the resources for those investments come from?
There’s a whole host of places where equity comes. Both private and public. One is that when we create the demand for these products, private equity flows into the economy. When we have a 100 percent requirement, which I hope to have of clean electricity in the state of Washington, private equity will come in and help finance some of these investments. That will give us, over the longer term, more reasonably priced electricity because we can use renewable sources rather than non-renewable sources. We can deal with free sunshine instead of monopolistic coal and oil.
Private equity is the largest source of capital that’s involved in this transition. To the extent that the public resources are used…that can come from a variety of sources starting with the Trump tax cut of the giveaway to the wealthiest folks that can help finance some of these measures, and there may be some others.
Now, you can have some carbon-pricing systems to also finance that. I don’t think that should be necessarily taken off the table. It’s not something I’m committed to proposing right now. We’ve decided to move forward on things we get done right now because urgency is important. Time is of the essence. This is the 11th hour. We don’t have time, so we’re moving on things right now that don’t have a direct carbon price in the state of Washington.
There’s a variety of ways of financing these things, but again, the more expensive route is to not finance them and let the economy be ravaged. Let us have to face again a $650 million hit on our agricultural economy in the state of Washington because of a drought. And our insurance rates going through the roof because of massive extreme weather events. And healthcare costs going up because their kids are getting asthma…No, these are wise investments.
What are the big lessons that you’ve taken away from Washington voters defeating the carbon tax ballot measure in 2018?
The number one lesson is you’ve gotta be undaunted and creative and flexible and if one route doesn’t work, you need to take another route.
Suffragettes worked on (voting rights) for decades. The gay marriage proponents worked for decades. The number one lesson is you don’t give up. Climate change isn’t going anywhere, so neither are we. We’re just back at it with a new tool.
The other thing I would say is you gotta realize whatever struggle you’re in with the fossil fuel industry, they are the most powerful special interest in human history. They spent $32 million against that initiative, and sometimes that can’t be overcome. There’s a couple lessons. The other is that any direct pricing system may be a little more difficult than a regulatory system. It’s easier to pass a clean fuel standard and 100 percent electrical grid standard and a net-zero building standard than it is perhaps in a direct pricing system. But all these things in my view need to be under consideration.
How can Democrats avoid having climate policies be portrayed and perceived as unfairly hurtful to people at the lower end of the income scale?
By telling the truth — and the truth is that marginalized communities, people who live in poverty, are the first victims of climate change, and they will be the first beneficiaries of these policies.
I was telling a story of a 14-year-old girl I met who lived next to a freeway and next to an industrial area near the Duwamish River in South Seattle. She told me that she was 11 years old before she found out some kids didn’t have asthma. Everybody else had asthma. She did some research on her own and found how asthma rates went up dramatically the closer you lived to pollution and diesel fuels. These are the people who are most benefited by anti-pollution policies, number one.
Number two, you can build into your policies all kinds of measures to help alleviate those concerns, including direct subsidies to people based on their economic status. You can build those into any carbon pricing system, and you can build them into non-pricing systems. You can build them into regulatory systems as well.
Number three, the thing that really is important…you need to realize that you can have massive carbon pollution reduction without a direct price. It is the investment side that gives you actually the biggest bang for your buck. In the carbon initiative here in the state of Washington, 90 percent plus of the carbon pollution reduction was achieved by the spending, by the subsidies, by the incentive, by the investments, not just by the price signal.
That’s really an important point. But you have many, many ways to move the ball on this to get carbon pollution reduction even without a direct price signal. And we’ve discovered that and that’s why I’m very excited about what we’re doing here this year. My sweep of proposals will get roughly the same carbon pollution as the carbon pricing system would have achieved in the initiative.
California’s Car Population is Exploding
A new state report says increasing automobile traffic is derailing California’s climate goals.
Researchers claim that even though cars and trucks have increased fuel efficiency, the state cannot drive its way toward a cleaner future.
A blunt report recently compiled by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) finds that Californians are driving more than ever — and unless the state reverses that trend it will not meet its ambitious climate milestones. These include a target of producing emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and reaching California’s 2045 carbon-neutrality goal. The report is the first of a series of four-year assessments to take stock of the state’s progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions under Senate Bill 375.
The report estimates that about three-quarters of commuters drive alone to work, a figure that in most regions is staying the same or growing, and that statewide vehicle travel per capita has increased.
The report’s authors say California’s lofty climate agenda is undermined by two factors: a booming economy and the rising cost of housing, particularly in coastal metropolises — with the latter factor causing people to face longer commutes to their jobs. The researchers claim that even as cars and trucks have increased fuel efficiency, the state cannot drive its way toward a cleaner future.
David Clegern, a spokesperson for CARB’s climate change programs, said state and local government investments must make systemic and structural changes to help people do more than just buy cleaner cars.
“All the state, regional and local agencies involved need to up their game,” Clegern said. “It’s not so much that they aren’t working on it, but it’s an effort that needs to be a higher priority, since much of the climate fight will be at the local and neighborhood level.”
He added that a big part of that effort is incorporating mass transit into regional, local and neighborhood planning to provide Californians with options to get them out of their cars.
The report also highlights the difficulty of getting people to abandon automobiles when the only affordable housing options are far from their employment. Targeting housing costs as a key factor in the increased miles driven by Californians, the report states that nearly half of all renters spend more than the recommended 35 percent of their income on housing. Only one-quarter of affordable homes needed for low-income families have been built, the authors say.
The CARB report was released shortly before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the Centennial project, located 60 miles north of L.A., which has been derided by opponents as contributing to suburban sprawl, a car-based lifestyle and fire dangers.
In an email Barry Zoeller, a spokesperson for the Tejon Ranch Company, Centennial’s developer, said that the project’s proposed 3,480 affordable housing units make it “the largest commitment to affordable housing undertaken by any private developer in Los Angeles County for certain, and perhaps in California.”
A similar far-flung and controversial proposed development, Newland Sierra, was green-lit last year by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.
Aruna Prabhala, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Urban Wildlands program, says the argument that developments like Centennial and Newland Sierra will fix the housing crisis is specious.
“In California we say we’re committed to sustainability and greenhouse gas reduction, yet we still approve outdated models of development,” said Prabhala. “Developers present [models like] Centennial as solutions for affordability, but what solves the problem is infill development and housing close to existing jobs — not leapfrog development.”
Governor Gavin Newsom made affordable housing and increased building central to his 2018 election campaign. In the state legislature, several measures aimed at housing affordability are in the works. Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), for example, is planning legislation to encourage low-income housing construction through tax credits for developers.
In the state Senate, an expanded version of the controversial SB 827, which died in committee last year, was introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) in December and is expected to see its first committee vote in March or April. Like SB 827, SB 50 would mandate incentives for denser development near transit centers. Wiener told Capital & Main that the new bill addresses concerns of vulnerable communities by providing stronger tenant demolition restrictions and would encourage housing starts in job-rich areas that don’t have transit options.
Wiener said he was “pleasantly surprised and thrilled” by the CARB report’s conclusions and prescriptions. “It was clear and spoke the truth that our restrictive anti-housing policies are undermining our climate goals. Unless we address our land use pattern, car use and emissions will keep going up.”
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Will California Curb Workplace Lead Exposure in 2019?
Last year Governor Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have tightened scrutiny of the amount of lead absorbed by workers. Assemblyman Ash Kalra has vowed to pursue passage of his measure with 2019’s Assembly Bill 35.
Last September, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 2963, authored by Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), which would have tightened scrutiny of the amount of lead absorbed by employees in their workplaces. The measure was inspired by several articles that appeared on this site, written by Joe Rubin.
Assemblyman Kalra has vowed to pursue passage of his legislation with AB 35, which could land on the desk of the new governor, Gavin Newsom. An interactive graph, below, charts the contamination of Exide battery plant employees, while two infographics depict the general effects of lead contamination on workers. Capital & Main will report on AB 35’s progress throughout 2019.
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The Fires Next Time: Should California Allow Development in Fire Zones?
After two of the most devastating fires in California history, environmentalists and urban planners question why Los Angeles County, or any county in the state, would approve wilderness community developments.
The outgoing Cal Fire director says government officials should consider banning home construction in fire-vulnerable areas.
On December 11 the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors greenlit the controversial Centennial project, with only Supervisor Sheila Kuehl voting no. The project, nearly two decades in planning, would bring more than 19,000 homes to a private wilderness area on Tejon Ranch, approximately 65 miles north of downtown L.A.
The proposed Centennial development, covering mostly grassland and some high brush and woodland, straddles “high” and “very high” fire hazard severity zones as defined by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Cal Fire recorded 31 wildfires larger than 100 acres within five miles of the proposed Centennial acreage between 1964 to 2015, and four within Centennial’s boundaries, according to county planning documents.
Critics have said the project will create more sprawl, greenhouse gases and traffic congestion. Others question why Los Angeles County, or any county in the state, would approve a wilderness community just a few weeks after two of the most devastating fires in California history, with one destroying the town of Paradise. A new Los Angeles Times analysis based on Cal Fire data estimates that up to a million structures in California are at high risk because of wildfire.
“The fire behavior we are seeing today is so far out of the norm and getting more extreme every year.”
Donald Falk, a professor with the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment, told Capital & Main that fires in the Western U.S. are now hotter, faster spreading and increasingly unpredictable. “Now fires are burning with high energy in places that don’t appear to have enough fuel to support them,” he said. Falk added that the fire threat to homeowners who build in what is often called the wilderness-urban interface will be much greater in 30 years throughout California and much of the West. A 2017 study Falk co-authored projects that by mid-century the burn area in the U.S. will be five times greater than it is now.
“The fire behavior we are seeing today is so far out of the norm, and getting more extreme every year, that the conventional notions of what it means to be fire safe may quickly become outdated,” he said.
Falk isn’t the only expert sounding the alarm about development. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, outgoing Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said government officials should consider banning home construction in fire-vulnerable areas, such as canyons lined with flammable grass or tinder-dry chaparral, so that homeowners, firefighters and communities “don’t have to keep going through what we’re going through.”
Barry Zoeller, a spokesperson for Centennial’s developer, the Tejon Ranch Company, claimed in an email that the planning is “focused on minimizing fire risk and maximizing fire defense” through stringent fire codes, fire resistant buildings and placement of fire hydrants.” Homeowners must also clear brush around their properties and, because the community is master planned, Tejon Ranch Company officials say, all of its homes will be built to the same specifications and surrounded by fire-resistant landscaping and open space. Power lines, a frequent cause of fires, will be buried.
Tejon Ranch’s Centennial project and similar developments epitomize dueling priorities in California.
Zoeller also noted that, while Centennial sits in an area mapped as a higher fire risk, “There have been no fires on the site in the last 15 years and only four in the last 50 years.”
Tim Piasky, CEO of the Building Industry Association, L.A./Ventura Chapter, said that projects like Centennial would go a long way toward addressing the state’s housing shortage, and he asserted that 18 percent of the homes in Centennial would be set aside as “affordable housing.” And as for fire danger, “Centennial doesn’t provide the fuel for fire as other areas did, and people will have an easier way to get out.”
The Camp Fire in Butte County, the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, proved that grassland does burn if conditions are right. And urban planning critics contend that in the worst case, up to 60,000 people — double Paradise’s population — would have to evacuate Centennial on short notice.
Centennial’s plan has been peer reviewed by experts at Wildland Resource Management and has been reviewed and approved by the Los Angeles County Fire Department. But that doesn’t assuage J.P. Rose, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. Rose said his and other environmental organizations might sue to stop the project. “The California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA] prohibits Centennial to go forward unless public benefits outweigh environmental costs. And in our view the price on people, wildlife and our wallets outweighs any benefit of this project.”
There is precedent for stopping such a project. Earlier this month, a Kern County Superior Court judge determined that all approvals for another Tejon Ranch Company project, Grapevine, in Kern County, be rescinded because they did not comply with CEQA. The court had previously cited Kern County for failing to study the full environmental impact of that project.
Centennial and similar developments epitomize dueling priorities in California, which in this case include the need for housing and the need to mitigate wildfire danger to residents.
Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, said developers’ promises to use modern building and safety practices to reduce fire risks lead to a false sense of security.
“Wherever we build, fire follows,” Miller said, adding that human infrastructure itself — barbecue pits, electricity lines — is risky. “There is no such thing as fireproofing a house. The Thomas Fire in Ventura torched new homes that were built to a stringent code.”
Miller added that municipalities are generally reluctant to stop development projects like Centennial, because “housing starts is a barometer — but a false barometer — of economic health. City and county zoning offices have been greenlighting these projects, even when they see the Cal Fire [fire risk] maps. They have the information.”
In Southern California, some communities have been slowly buying up land to create more open space and prevent development where cities meet wildlife. Monrovia, a city 20 miles northeast of downtown L.A., in 2000 put a measure on the ballot to raise taxes to pay developers for fair-market value of hillside land. The tax brought in $10 million, with a matching grant from Governor Gray Davis and different pots of money to fill in the rest, to reach $24 million to purchase 1,416 hillside acres. Gloria Crudgington, a community activist at the time of the ballot measure and now a Monrovia city councilwoman, said the tax was not based on fire danger, but rather on quality of life issues. “We didn’t want to ruin views and hurt wildlife. But now we see that keeping the land open could prevent fire disasters too.”
Voters of Flagstaff, Arizona, have shown that citizens can, beyond buying back the land, take ownership of reducing wildfire risks. Reeling from two 2010 fires and post-fire flooding, in 2013 Flagstaff taxed itself by passing Proposition 405, a $10 million bond to prevent fires by thinning woodland in the Coconino National Forest surrounding the city.
Miller and Falk both say California’s housing crisis could be addressed by building up, rather than out, with infill developments. University of California, Santa Barbara wildfire specialist Max Moritz has suggested California could avoid some of these developments by creating a state building commission that would refuse to rubber stamp new community developments in the wilderness. Right now, no such commission is on the drawing board.
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Is a New Toxic Danger Threatening California?
PFAS compounds are found in clothing, carpeting, furniture, food packaging, non-stick cooking products and fire-fighting foams. They’ve been linked in humans to cancers and hormonal disruption, as well as developmental, reproductive and immune system problems.
PFAS compounds have been detected in water sources throughout California, including, background sources say, the groundwater at LAX.
There are many well-documented threats to California’s drinking water resources, but the latest has sprung to prominence only relatively recently, and has regulators and lawmakers scrambling for a response.
The potential “magnitude of the problem” is why the state must act more urgently “to try to understand this quicker and better,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), potentially toxic chemicals found with increasing frequency in drinking water systems across California and the nation.
“I have half a million constituents in my district, and the majority use a water system with less than 10,000 connections,” added Garcia. The bulk of the drinking water monitoring for PFAS chemicals thus far has targeted large systems serving 10,000 or more people. What’s more, many are concerned about the possible impact on poor communities already disproportionately affected by unsafe drinking water. Garcia’s suburban Los Angeles district is comprised of mostly blue-collar Latino communities.
The maximum detection of PFAS variants at the Navy’s China Lake site was 727,273 times what is considered a safe exposure level.
PFAS compounds are a class of chemical found in a long list of everyday items, including clothing, carpeting, furniture, food packaging, non-stick cooking products and fire-fighting foams. They’re persistent, meaning they biodegrade extremely slowly, hence their nickname, “forever chemicals.” And they’ve been linked in humans to cancers and hormonal disruption, as well as developmental, reproductive and immune system problems.
PFAS compounds have been detected in water sources throughout California, including, Capital & Main has learned through background sources, the groundwater at Los Angeles International Airport. A recent Union of Concerned Scientists report also identified 21 different California military sites where PFAS compounds have been detected in the drinking water or groundwater, sometimes at levels more than 100-times the safe limit advised by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). At the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, Kern County, the maximum detection of PFAS variants in groundwater was eight million parts per trillion (ppt) – 727,273 times what is considered a safe exposure level.
“The hard part is getting it out of the groundwater,” warned Patty Kouyoumdjian, executive officer of the Lahontan water board, the district in which China Lake is situated.
One reason why experts are so concerned about PFAS compounds is the sheer number of them – some estimates put the figure at more than 4,700 variants. PFOA and PFOS are two of the more ubiquitous ones. At the federal government’s urging, industry phased out these two specific compounds in the 2000s, but they’re still widespread in the environment, along with many others PFAS compounds.
While these chemicals have been used in manufacturing since the 1940s, the federal government has been criticized for long down-playing the problems they pose. Part of the problem lies in a decades-long effort by some chemical manufacturers to suppress negative scientific data. And even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a health advisory in 2016 for PFOS and PFOA, at a September 6 Congressional hearing the agency faced repeated criticism for continued lax leadership on the issue.
A few states have taken tougher action than what the federal government recommends. These include Minnesota, which has actively tracked and tackled PFAS contamination for over 15 years. By comparison, California “needs to do much more to protect its residents from exposure to these toxic PFAS chemicals,” said Jane Williams, California Communities Against Toxics’ executive director.
According to Jeff O’Keefe, chief of the Southern California section of the State Water Resources Control Board’s (SWRCB) Division of Drinking Water, PFAS contamination in California “is not looking as widespread” when compared to these other states. Nevertheless, state agencies are still figuring out the breadth of the problem here.
In response to the 2016 EPA health advisory for combined PFOS and PFOA of 70 parts per trillion (ppt), 12 California public water systems have tested above that threshold, and have taken steps to treat their water or take the source off-line, said O’Keefe. Earlier this year, however, the ATSDR released a draft toxicological report that found PFOA and PFOS risk levels were seven to 10 times lower than this EPA standard.
Between 2013 and 2015, as part of a federal monitoring program, all large community water systems in California and a select number of smaller ones were tested for six different PFAS chemicals. PFOS and PFOA compounds were detected in 68 different wells above 40 ppt and 20 ppt, respectively. Some systems performed voluntary monitoring, which yielded 297 separate PFAS source detections.
This July, the SWRCB took an important step towards an enforceable drinking water threshold for PFOA and PFOS when it established a non-mandatory interim Notification Level of 14 ppt for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS.
If California water agencies choose to test to these levels, they’re required to report the results to their governing boards and to the State Water Board. The state also encourages them to report the information to customers. But agencies are not required to treat the water in the event of a Notification Level exceedance.
Many experts urge haste in the state’s response to the emerging problem.
Even though “we’re still at a rudimentary stage” when it comes to understanding the full human health implications from exposure to these chemicals, the whole PFAS issue is a “cause for grave concern,” said Amy Kyle, a former associate adjunct professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.
One of the characteristics of PFAS compounds that make experts like Kyle especially concerned is that, unlike other persistent toxic chemicals that have posed major health risks in the past—like the once ubiquitous pesticide DDT, now banned—PFAS compounds are water soluble. “They get in the water and travel as fast as it does,” said Kyle.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly all Americans carry trace amounts of PFOA and PFOS in their bodies. As part of a state biomonitoring program, blood samples were taken from 430 L.A. County volunteers earlier this year, and tested for 12 different PFAS compounds. The results are expected to be publicly available early next year.
Assemblywoman Garcia said that an important next step is comprehensive monitoring of all water systems, large and small, including those in her district.
Before all water systems can begin testing to the new notification level, however, more laboratories need to be accredited to new federal testing standards. The state is currently in the accreditation process, said Jeff O’Keefe. “Once we get the labs certified and we expand our knowledge of the occurrences statewide at these lower detection limits, we’ll get a better handle on it,” he added.
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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.
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.
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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.
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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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.
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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