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Sierra Club Compass Blog
Beginning October 4, PBS will air a special conversation between two of the people I admire most in the world - Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry, and journalist Bill Moyers. Among many other topics, these two giants of American culture will discuss issues very close to my heart: coal, climate change, and the future of Appalachia and the planet. I can't wait to tune in to Wendell Berry: Poet & Prophet. I hope you will, too.
I've been a reader of Wendell Berry since I was a young woman, because he was a beloved author of two of my most important teachers and mentors - Jack Reese, a former chancellor who took me under his wing when I was an undergraduate in his Southern literature course at the University of Tennessee, and my high school English teacher Dale Gilmore, who was the kind of Dead-Poets-Society teacher that every smart kid in a small town wishes they had, and who helped set me on a path of living a life that matters, a path I still walk today.
Wendell Berry spoke to us, and so many others, because his essays, poems, and novels told a deep, clear truth about the place where we lived, about Appalachia and the South, with some of the most beautiful language I've ever encountered. That included telling the truth about coal, and the legacy of social, environmental, and economic unraveling it created across Appalachia, which stills plagues the region today. Wendell Berry brings this same lucidity and power to the topic of climate change, and the urgency to act now, before it's too late.
Another amazing thing about Wendell Berry is that he matches his words with action. He has protested and risked arrest in opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining, and to call for action on climate change. For those of us who have been working for many years to end mountaintop removal coal mining, Wendell Berry has been a prophet, a sage, and an inspiration.
In 2011, he joined Kentuckians For The Commonwealth in occupying the office of Kentucky governor to call for an end to mountaintop removal. The protesters expected they would be arrested after a couple of hours, but Berry is a revered figure in Kentucky - awarded the prestigious National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2011 - and so instead of arresting him, they let him stay. Berry and his fellow protesters occupied the Governor's office in what became a four-day sit in. Berry tells that story in this clip from the special.
Berry described mountaintop removal this way, in a 2005 essay: "Coal is undoubtedly something of value. And it is, at present, something we need - though we must hope we will not always need it, for we will not always have it. But coal, like the other fossil fuels, is a peculiar commodity. It is valuable to us only if we burn it. Once burned, it is no longer a commodity but only a problem, a source of energy that has become a source of pollution. And the source of the coal itself is not renewable. When the coal is gone, it will be gone forever, and the coal economy will be gone with it."
In the PBS special, Berry tells Moyers, "We don't have a right to ask whether we're going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is 'what's the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?'"
The combination of Wendell Berry and Bill Moyers, perhaps the wisest voice in American journalism today, is sure to yield profound insights about the fate of our planet and the obligation each of us has to help build a better world. I hope you’ll tune in - it's sure to be moving, inspiring, and unforgettable.
Wendell Berry: Poet & Prophet airs on "Moyers & Company" beginning October 4. For more information, go to billmoyers.com.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
Today, is Yosemite National Park’s 123rd birthday -- an important occasion for one of our nation’s oldest National Parks. Yosemite is among our country’s crown jewels, and voices all across the nation are wishing the park a happy birthday. Even Google updated its homepage for the special day.
Its not hard to understand why so many Americans are passionate about Yosemite. The Park covers more than 760,000 acres -- about 95 percent of which is wilderness --and draws more than 3.7 million visitors a year. Sierra Club founder John Muir described his first experiences seeing Yosemite as “a window opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator.”
Yosemite’s big day is reason to celebrate --but, unfortunately, no one will be attending it’s birthday party. In fact, any visitors already there are being ushered out of the park. Why? Because Yosemite’s birthday falls on the very first day of the first government shutdown in seventeen years.
When the clock struck midnight last night, the federal government officially ran out of funding -- and the story of how we got to this point is an example of the Washington dysfunction that is affecting Americans all across the country. Effectively, House Republicans refused to pass routine legislation to fund the government without toxic political riders. As a result, they failed to fulfill the most basic aspect of their job: keeping the government open and working for American families.
The cost falls on everyone else. Hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country will be temporarily out of work. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will furlough 9 out of every 10 employees, leaving vulnerable Americans with almost no one to monitor pollution that could make them sick. And, our national parks and monuments are closed -- to everyone but oil and gas drillers.
American families deserve better. Yosemite deserves better. 123 years is a milestone of a birthday, marking 123 years of hikes, climbs, picnics, and camping trips. This marks 123 years of visitors experiencing spectacular granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, and Giant Sequoia groves.
But, today, visitors won’t be able to see that opening into heaven. We won’t be able to celebrate this birthday in person. Because of these political games Yosemite and other national parks and monuments are shuttered -- and the communities that surround them are bracing for impact. Each day visitors can’t experience Yosemite has a financial cost, too, as Yosemite tourism creates upwards of $379 million in economic activity each year. The National Parks Conservation Association estimates that communities around our parks could lose business adding up to about $30 million for every day of the shutdown. That’s real people losing real money because of a Washington political crisis that didn’t need to happen.
Rather than make the American people pay the cost, House Republicans need to stop the political posturing and get back to work. In the meantime, the Sierra Club’s 2.1 million members and supporters are proud to wish Yosemite a happy birthday. This year, the milestone is bittersweet, as the park will have to celebrate alone.
--Athan Manuel, Director, Lands Protection Program, Sierra Club
There is no question about it -- a government shutdown would be a debacle for American families. But, Congressional Republicans are refusing to do even the most basic and routine aspect of their jobs -- namely, keeping the government operational -- without extreme political grandstanding that has brought us to the eve of the first government shutdown since 1996. This past weekend, all eyes were on Speaker John Boehner, with questions lingering as to whether he could carve out a deal with his own Republican colleagues to pass routine funding legislation without toxic political riders added on.
But, with the clock ticking and every minute a precious opportunity to negotiate, John Boehner wasn't in Washington working on a deal to prevent a shutdown -- instead, he was at the Greenbrier, a fancy hotel in West Virginia, dining with coal executives.
How's that for priorities?
Let's be clear about what the shutdown means. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, not just in Washington, D.C. but across the country, will be temporarily out of work. Our national parks will close -- to everyone but oil and gas drillers. The Environmental Protection Agency will effectively be shuttered, with 9 out of 10 employees furloughed, taking our clean air cops off the beat and leaving vulnerable Americans with almost no one to monitor pollution that could make them sick.
Maybe that’s why the coal industry was happy to host Boehner at a time when he could have been working to cut a deal: a government shutdown could mean that the floodgates will open for air pollution with few on the job to enforce critical public health and environmental safeguards.
On the eve of a government shutdown that would rattle the lives of millions of Americans, John Boehner wasn't working to corral his reckless caucus -- he was dining with coal executives. If you needed any more evidence that House Republicans put polluters before people, this is conclusive.-- Melinda Pierce, Deputy Director of Federal Policy, Sierra Club
Starting with President Obama's announcement of an end to overseas coal financing in his Climate Action Plan, and quickly followed by new energy strategies at the World Bank and European Investment Bank that also reject coal, large international financial institutions are finally wising up to the fact that coal is a financially risky investment that causes massive suffering in local communities while doing little to alleviate energy poverty. But investigations by our partners at Oil Change International reveal that the World Bank continues to fund development policy loans and financial intermediaries that then use the money to fund coal projects, a clear violation of the coal ban that must end now or risk calling into question World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim's commitment to protect public health and fight climate disruption.
So how exactly does this work? In their report, Oil Change International shows how the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) created and financially backed the Indonesia Infrastructure Guarantee Fund, which then provided a $33.9 million guarantee for the Central Java coal-fired power station, for which the IFC served as a transitional advisor. In what Oil Change calls a "coal industry wish list," the World Bank's infrastructure program in Indonesia includes policies and government subsidies to promote over 40 coal projects, promoting dirty and deadly coal over renewable alternatives.
The danger posed by massive coal-fired power plants like Central Java cannot be understated. More than 7,000 local residents are strongly opposed to the project, and they have successfully stalled the $4 billion project by refusing to sell their land over the environmental impact of the plant. This is a story we've seen repeated time and time again across the globe, as local communities band together to save their land, their water, and their health from deadly coal.
The truth is that coal-fired power does little to reduce energy poverty. While industry likes to claim coal can provide power to those without access, the truth is that local communities are forced to contend with all of the devastating effects while transmission lines carry the energy to industries that can afford to pay more for electricity. In fact, the International Energy Agency found that over half of energy services must be provided by clean, off-grid renewables if we are ever going to reach 100 percent energy access.
Programs like the Indonesia Infrastructure Guarantee Fund provide a backdoor to funnel money towards dirty coal projects and undermine both the World Bank's energy strategy and President Obama's Climate Action Plan. As the Bank's largest shareholder, the U.S. has an obligation to oppose these loopholes, and as a longtime public health advocate, Dr. Kim must recognize the danger posed by coal and support local communities striving for safer alternatives. But there is good news. Project finance for Central Java will not go forward until October 6, which means the World Bank still has one week to reverse course and stop this deadly project.
-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International and Trade Representative
On the heels of last week's release of carbon pollution safeguards from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which requires future power plants to deal with their climate-disrupting carbon pollution, news is rolling in from across the U.S. about massive new clean energy projects that are meeting America's energy demand – and giving dirty fossil fuels a run for their money in the marketplace.
This week Xcel Energy announced it will triple the amount of solar power it offers while also adding another 450 megawatts of wind power. Here’s the best part -- they're investing in clean energy because it's the most cost-effective option. Look at this quote from Xcel spokesperson Michelle Aguayo:
And this quote from Xcel CEO David Eves:"This is the first time that we've seen, purely on a price basis, that the solar projects made the cut - without considering carbon costs or the need to comply with a renewable energy standard - strictly on an economic basis."
The prices of clean energy sources have plummeted in recent years compared to coal. Wind prices, for example, are down 50 percent since 2009. The cost of solar panels is down 80 percent since 2008. This has helped spur more than 50,000 megawatts of clean energy coming online since 2010 -- just as roughly the same amount of coal-fired power has been retired across the country.
A recent study shows that the U.S. adds a new solar powered system every four minutes. As one example, news came out Tuesday that Detroit-area residents can install rooftop solar thanks to a solar financing deal with Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office.
On top of all that -- affordable clean energy is to out-competing coal. For example, wind energy in Montana is providing power cheaper than the state's existing coal plant, Colstrip.
Another added bonus: clean energy is a clear economic boost to customers, not just utilities. For Xcel, a study released this week showed that "solar power systems in Colorado Xcel Energy districts provide up to $11 million in benefits for customers," including those on the grid who haven’t yet gone solar.
Need more? Officials in Henry County, Illinois, just announced that a year with wind turbines had added more than $1 million to the county's coffers.
Earlier this summer we celebrated Georgia Power's announcement that the utility will add a whopping 525 megawatts of solar power to its grid, the biggest solar commitment yet in the Southeast.
This came about in part thanks to an unusual partnership between the Sierra Club and the Tea Party in Georgia, proof that the demand for clean energy crosses partisan divides and unites Americans of all stripes who want to ensure we have access to safe, affordable, clean energy.
Finally, in Massachusetts, the state's biggest utilities just signed long-term contracts for 565 MW of wind, because it was cheaper than other sources, including coal and nuclear. This is the largest procurement of renewable energy in New England history, according to the Boston Globe. And on top of all that, this new clean energy is going to save ratepayers money, an estimated 75 cents to $1 per month.
In short, the great clean energy news just keeps coming, and we're welcoming it with open arms. Clean energy is making an impact right now, providing power at a massive scale, boosting local economies, out-competing coal, and giving natural gas a run for its money, even with gas at record low prices. These are exciting times, and the good news is just getting started.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
Red means stop. No wonder so many of the 1,000 people who showed in opposition to a proposed coal export terminal wore red t-shirts to a public hearing.
The grassroots effort helped coal-export opponents outnumber pro-coal attendees 3-to-1 at the public hearing in Longview, Washington. The proposal that has awakened the entire Pacific Northwest is a massive coal export terminal that would send 44 million tons of coal on 16-mile-long trains through Longview every year en route to the coast, from where the coal would be shipped to East Asia. A massive export terminal would do little to benefit the local economy while leaving behind toxic coal dust. Endless coal trains would clog railways, hampering first responders and snarling traffic.
Last week's hearing, which lasted six hours, was first in the latest round of hearings. The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign has been organizing opposition to proposed coal export terminalss in the Pacific Northwest for the last two-plus years. Columbia Riverkeeper, Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Climate Solutions, Earth Ministry, and Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility all had a hand in ensuring a huge turnout.
At the Longview hearing, activists set up a "Coal is poison" sign on a 12-foot-tall inflatable globe outside the venue to greet attendees as they entered. Inside, speakers were selected through a random drawing.
"Our testimony was solid," said Laura Stevens, an Oregon-based Beyond Coal organizer. Teachers, nurses, business leaders, city councilmembers, and a cattle rancher from Montana offered testimony opposing the plan. Campaign organizers "even got an Australian from Newcastle to testify via Skype about the risks of living near a coal terminal there."
"How much more does my neighborhood have to suffer?" asked Dawn Hansen, a nurse who lives about a mile from the proposed terminal site. "Justice, not expedience, needs to be the guiding light in this process."
Earlier this month, Native American community representatives expressed their opposition."We don't see anything good for us or for our future generations with the proposed coal terminals," said William Iyall, chairman of Longview-based Cowlitz Tribe, as reported by the local media.
Outside the hearing, Dan Carpitha, whose mother's tribe, the Lemhi Shoshone, is the same as Sacajawea's, played a Native American prayer song on his flute. Carpitha told The Columbian newspaper that he opposes the coal terminal and is concerned about generations to come. The promised coal jobs, he said, remind him of "a bartender who continues to serve an obviously intoxicated customer because he needs the money."
Congratulations to the fantastic organizers and activists who worked hard for such a huge turnout!
-- Brian Foley
By Michael Marx, Sierra Club Beyond Oil Campaign Director
This weekend the third annual National Plug in Day celebrates surging electric car sales at more than 90 events. Today, less than three years after electric vehicles arrived on the mass market, more than 130,000 Americans are driving EVs. With more than a dozen models now on the road, EV sales have been rising by about 200 percent a year.
Ever wondered what it's like to drive an electric car? Ever wanted to talk to someone who is not a car dealer about how these cars are charged, and which cars are the most reliable or lowest in emissions? Want to hear how 130,000 Americans like the electric cars they are already driving daily? National Plug In Day events will take place Saturday, September 28 and Sunday, September 29 across the United States, plus Amsterdam and Mexico City. The fact is, people who are already driving electric cars love them and want to show them off. More than 1,700 EV drivers have already signed up to participate at these events nationwide, and thousands more of the EV-curious will attend, too. You can register for an event near you here.
The events will vary. In Philadelphia, U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah will speak to the crowd and test drive an electric car for himself. In Las Vegas, event participants will be treated to a solar EV charging canopy. In Seattle, speed enthusiasts will drag race their EVs. In Long Beach, CA, upwards of 200 electric vehicles are expected to be available for viewing and test drives, and the mayor will issue a proclamation in honor of the day and local EV leaders. In Amsterdam, the E-Challenge will roll out more than 250 EVs through its city center.
Heard buzz about BMW's i3 electric car scheduled to go on the market next spring? Organizers of the Tucson, Arizona, Plug In Day event have been selected to feature one of only a handful of these pre-production beauties at their event. The organizers of the Baltimore event will get to share information about EVs and raffle off an EV charger cord at a booth at Camden Yards during an Orioles-Red Sox game.
The Sierra Club has teamed up with Plug In America, the Electric Auto Association, and dozens of local groups to organize National Plug In Day. In addition to biking, public transit, and other greener transportation alternatives, the Sierra Club is committed to promoting a shift to electric vehicles as one important way to reduce emissions, slash our dependence on oil, and save families money at the fuel pump. The Sierra Club's new interactive online EV Guide allows visitors to type in their zip code and find how the EV of their choice compares in emissions to a comparable conventional vehicle (based on the region's electricity sources), what EV incentives exist in their state, how much money they will save in fuel, and what EVs are for sale in their area. It also includes regular newsy blog posts.
We hope to see you this weekend at a National Plug In Day event. Sooner than later, you may be showing off your electric car, too.
This summer the United States and the European Union launched talks to establish a massive new free trade agreement. The second round of talks will take place in early October in Brussels, Belgium. Negotiators will cover many sensitive topics, from whether the European Union should start to import genetically modified crops to whether corporations will have the right to sue governments over regulations that corporations allege reduce their bottom line. Another important topic, often overlooked, is the pact’s effect on the efficiency of new passenger cars and trucks.
Less than a year removed from adoption of U.S. vehicle standards of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, which will reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent, it is critical that any U.S.-EU trade deal not open automaker loopholes that could slow down progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
When it comes to climate disruption, passenger cars and trucks (also known as light-duty vehicles) are a big deal. In the United States, light-duty vehicles emit roughly 20 percent of the nation’s climate-disrupting carbon pollution. Similarly, in the European Union, passenger cars and trucks account for roughly 12 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
The auto industry is also big business, and North America and Europe are two of the biggest auto markets in the world. Nearly 82 million vehicles were sold worldwide in 2012, with 14.5 million vehicles sold in the United States and 12.5 million vehicles sold in Europe.
U.S.-EU trade negotiations may disrupt the path to a clean-car future. In a leaked draft negotiating text, European Union negotiators expressed a desire to “promote regulatory compatibility” of vehicle standards, including those laws designed to reduce emissions from cars and trucks, in order to increase vehicle trade. This could either be accomplished through “mutual recognition,” in which the U.S. would recognize vehicles certified by EU standards as equal to U.S. standards and vice-versa, or through “harmonization,” in which the U.S. and EU each change its regulations to be more similar. While harmonizing standards and promoting compatibility may sound like a generally good idea, the devil is in the details.
Both the United States and the European Union have standards in place that will reduce greenhouse gas pollution from vehicles over time. Last year, the Obama administration finalized historic standards that will reduce emissions from the average passenger vehicle to 163 grams of carbon dioxide per mile by 2025, equivalent to 109 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer. The European Union has more stringent standards that will lower emissions from the average vehicle to 130 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer by 2015, with a proposal to lower them to 95 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer by 2020.
Although both sides have increasingly stringent vehicle standards, for the purposes of complying with these laws, both the U.S. and the EU have terribly outdated vehicle-testing procedures. As I detailed in Sierra Club’s “The Truth Behind the Testing” report, the U.S. procedures used to test whether vehicles are meeting the fuel efficiency standard were set by a 1975 law and make arcane assumptions that, for example, the driver will average 48 miles per hour on the highway and never drive with the air conditioning on. As a result, fuel efficiency values used for complying with the law are about 25 percent greater than what vehicles actually achieve on the road. In emissions terms, an automaker gets credit for emitting roughly 20 percent less greenhouse gas than the car actually will on the road. On the bright side, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to check automaker’s test results and make sure they are being conducted appropriately.
In an even more lax system, EU test procedures were also constructed some 30 years ago. A great report from our European colleagues Transport & Environment, Mind the Gap, details how automakers can rig their cars to perform perfectly for the test, even going so far as to disconnect the alternator,
tape over cracks between doors, and effectively disable the brakes. Further, automakers are somehow allowed to report emissions that are up to 4 percent less than what they measured in the laboratory. Independent tests have found that emissions from normal vehicles are roughly 23% greater than the emissions reported by automakers, with some individual models showing real-world emissions of 50% greater than what automakers report. Thankfully, the European Union may adopt more realistic test procedures that can’t be as easily manipulated by automakers, possibly as early as 2015.
So what does this mean for U.S.-EU trade negotiations? As negotiators look to make vehicle regulations as similar as possible between the two sides, it is possible that “mutual recognition” or “harmonization” could lead to more pollution and oil consumption. For example, under a “mutual recognition” scenario, one could easily imagine American auto companies being allowed to export cars to Europe that don’t meet European emissions standards. Under a “harmonization” scenario where the U.S. and EU would each change its regulations to become more alike, one could imagine some pushing to pair Europe’s more lax testing procedures with the United States’ less stringent emissions standards.
The bottom line: the United States and Europe have made historic strides in reducing emissions from passenger vehicles. It is critical that a potential free trade pact between the U.S. and European Union doesn’t take us backward, where it would allow cars to spew more pollution and guzzle more gas. So as U.S.-EU trade talks progress, keep an eye out for the effects on cars. We cannot let landmark vehicle standards be weakened by a trade pact.
--Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Sierra Club's Beyond Oil Campaign
Today Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune today sent a letter to the White House rejecting the notion that the Canadian government could do anything to mitigate the carbon pollution from the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, amid reports that the Harper Government was proposing a deal to the Obama administration.
Here's the text of the letter:
September 24, 2013
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President,
I applaud your commitment to fighting climate change. Your administration's new carbon pollution limits for power plants are a giant step in the right direction and demonstrate that America is ready to move forward on climate. In a year of record-breaking wildfires, floods, and other symptoms of a disrupted climate, your leadership on climate change is exactly what our country needs.
I am concerned that this progress may be undermined by a backdoor bilateral agreement on the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that would commit us to transporting the dirtiest of fossil fuels for decades to come. Several weeks ago, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly sent you a letter declaring his willingness to take any climate actions necessary to get a presidential approval of Keystone XL, the $7-billion pipeline that would pump Alberta tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries. While this may seem like a generous offer, Canada simply cannot mitigate the carbon pollution from the pipeline; those emissions would simply be too big. Keystone XL would be directly responsible for the equivalent annual emissions of 51 coal-fired power plants or 37.7 million cars. As a point of comparison, Canada has about 26 million cars on the road.
Along with the pipeline's direct emissions, the pipeline would be responsible for decades of future emissions from tar sands. The Pembina Institute estimates that Keystone XL would increase tar sands development by 36 percent. The State Department estimates that tar sands oil could be 22 percent more carbon intensive than conventional crude used in the United States. And when the lost carbon sequestration potential of Canada's 1.2 billion acre boreal forest is also taken into consideration, the climate implications of the pipeline become staggering. The best way to "mitigate" tar sands development is to keep tar sands in the ground.
Promises by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government to reduce the emissions from Canada’s tar sands should be judged against its failure to live up to its climate commitments to date. The government of Canada has consistently missed its own targets to regulate its oil and gas sector and reduce national emissions, and has a history of weakening environmental regulations at the request of the pipeline industry. The Canadian government eliminated the budget for its National Roundtable on Energy and the Environment after it advocated a carbon tax. In addition, the government of Canada is silencing its scientists, as highlighted in last weekend's New York Times when the paper noted, "There was trouble of this kind here in the George W. Bush years....But nothing came close to what is being done in Canada." Even if mitigating carbon pollution from the tar sands pipeline were possible, the Harper administration has shown no signs that it would be willing to do it.
The fact is, tar sands are Canada's fastest-growing source of carbon pollution. In 2011, the Canadian government's own peer-reviewed reports forecasted that emissions from tar sands would be triple 2005 levels by 2030. The Canadian government’s promises to offset tar sands carbon pollution are nothing more than a rubber check written against an empty account. That check would bounce, just like all of the Harper government's other climate promises. The one thing climate scientists and energy experts say we can be sure of, is that the Keystone XL pipeline would deliver a massive new source of carbon pollution.
Mr. President, a national interest determination decision on the Keystone XL pipeline must not be premised on the government of Canada's mitigation promises. We urge you to reject the pipeline and continue to help build a clean energy future.
Tar sands—the world’s dirtiest oil—are one of the most climate-disrupting fuels that exist and have extreme consequences for water sources, animals, and human health. Recognizing the threat that tar sands pose to communities and the environment, the European Union (EU) is currently negotiating a new policy that would discourage use of the dirty fuel. The policy however, has come under attack by Big Oil and the Canadian and U.S. governments, which claim that the policy amounts to an "unfair trade barrier" that discriminates against those looking to export tar sands or diesel that contain fuel from tar sands.
The policy at hand—the European Union Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) —requires countries in the EU to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of transportation fuels by 6 percent by 2020. Fuel companies are expected to meet their pollution-reduction target by shifting toward low-carbon fuels. In order to measure progress toward the target, the European Commission (EC) has drafted a detailed set of rules that assigns a set of greenhouse gas “default values,” or estimates of the amounts of greenhouse gas emissions released during the life cycle (extraction, refinement, transportation, combustion) of different fuels. Based on the default values, suppliers looking to cut emissions in order to meet the target are encouraged to move away from fuel types with high greenhouse gas values.
Naturally, there are “winners” and “losers” in the EU’s greenhouse gas ranking system. Estimates show that the production of tar sands oil and its byproducts produces 22 percent more carbon emissions than average crude oils used in the U.S, making oil derived from tar sands one of the dirtiest fuel sources on the FQD list.
The FQD’s requirement to reduce greenhouse gas intensity of transport fuels combined with its classification of dirty fuels—including tar sands—is exactly the type of policy needed to discourage use of climate-disrupting fuels. However, instead of recognizing the climate imperative of moving away from dirty fuels, U.S. industry and the office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) are beginning to fight back.
The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), American Petroleum Institute (API), National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 21st Century Energy Institute (EI) are among the groups expressing strong opposition to the FQD on the basis that it would “discriminate against crudes and fuels derived from oil sands and oil shale.” In a joint statement, the companies stated that should this proposal be adopted in its current form, they “will give serious thought to requesting that the U.S. Government seek redress at the WTO.”
Moreover, in July 2013, during the first round of negotiations for the recently launched US-EU free trade agreement, the AFPM requested that the USTR include the fuel quality directive as a topic to be addressed in the negotiations.
The Office of the USTR seems to be listening to industry’s concerns. Last week, Inside US Trade reported that USTR Ambassador Michael Froman, addressing concerns of Members of Congress, stated that he shares the objections on the proposed amendments to the FQD and has raised them “repeatedly” with European Commissions officials, including in the context of the U.S.-EU free trade agreement negotiations.
Importantly, U.S. industry and the USTR aren’t the only ones displeased with the EU Directive. The government of Canada – one of the largest producers of oil-sands crude – has reacted strongly to the EU’s classification of oil-sands crude as a high polluter, and it has also hinted at the possibility of bringing a WTO lawsuit against the FQD. Canada is concerned that labeling tar sands as a high-polluting fuel will harm its exports of the dirty fuel.
While the future of the FQD and tar sands may be up in the air, one thing is clear. Our current model of free trade is once again interfering with sound climate policy. The Fuel Quality Directive is an important policy that could play a role in limiting use of tar sands in the EU and more broadly. The concerns of Canada, which produces tar sands; U.S. businesses, which refine tar sands; and the U.S. Trade Representative, whose mandate is to expand free trade, must not threaten this important policy. The expansion of trade must take a back seat to the need to address climate chaos, and governments must not be stripped of their ability to protect us and our planet.-Ilana Solomon, Director, Sierra Club Responsible Trade Program. Research by Quentin Karpilow
This summer's grassroots effort in Eliot, Maine, against a nearby coal plant isn't a new local concern, says Sierra Club activist Kim Richards, who has been leading the fight.
"I have been living in Eliot almost my entire life," she says, "and people here in town have been concerned about the potential negatives effects of living so close to the plant essentially ever since it began operations in 1949."
Eliot is on the downwind receiving end of pollution from the Schiller coal plant just over the state line in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. So two years ago, Kim and other Sierra Club volunteers and organizers decided to bring the fight back to Big Coal. Earlier this summer, Eliot activists organized their neighbors to get the town's Board of Selectmen to lead public hearings and hold a town vote on sending a Good Neighbor petition to the EPA. Despite the coal plant's public relations efforts, more than 60 percent of the town's citizens recently voted in favor of petitioning the EPA.
Kim's leadership proved key in getting the petition passed. "It's worth pausing to note that this story is yet another example of the true power of local, grassroots organizing to overcome wealthy private interests," says Sierra Club Maine Chapter Director Glen Brand.
Kim's activism was spurred on by the "black sooty film" that builds up on homes and cars in south Eliot -- something locals have endured for decades. Schiller at one point even paid for certain homes to be re-painted. But it wasn't until Kim began researching the impacts of coal two years ago that she took action.
"I was trying to see if there was any connection between Schiller and the alarming number of cancer cases in our areas, particularly from my parents' generation," she says. "That's when I found an article about the air modeling report that was commissioned by the Sierra Club's New Hampshire Chapter that described the activities of Schiller as being the cause of our polluted air -- namely high emissions of sulfur dioxide."
Kim contacted the Sierra Club's New Hampshire office, "and from there a rather powerful alliance was formed," she recalls. Kim and other volunteers and organizers gathered petition signatures, coordinated a town forum, and cultivated engagement among families and community members who supported a petition.
"For the next year-and-a-half or so, we attended many Board of Selectmen meetings, where we would frequently go head-to-head with Schiller representatives who would attend these meetings in the hopes of dissuading the board from submitting the petition -- to the point of slightly veiled threats of legal action," she says. "The Maine Attorney General reassured us there was no reason to fear a lawsuit simply by asking the EPA to investigate. People who were not already familiar with the topic were suddenly taking a keen interest, wondering, 'If Schiller's operating like they claim they are, what are they so afraid of?'"
With the vote to petition the EPA passing by a two-to-one margin, the federal agency now has until the end of October to respond.
Meanwhile, the people of Eliot can feel good knowing that their grassroots efforts have put the wheels in motion toward cleaning up their air. It is because of activists like Kim that dirty coal plants are held accountable. Kim's speech at a rally earlier this summer said it best:
"When I began my quest for answers, I was often met with the attitude of, 'You know, people tried to address this in the past, but they didn’t get anywhere.' You see, there was a snag: Since our town is located in Maine, and Schiller is in New Hampshire, no one really owned up to jurisdictional responsibility. However, one of the important lessons my mum taught me about life is that when you’re asking the important questions and someone tells you, 'I'm sorry, I can't help you,' well, that's not a good enough answer. Please direct me to someone who can."
-- Brian Foley
Energy efficiency, not the falling price of solar, has done the heavy lifting when it comes to unlocking the economics of distributed clean energy for the poor. The reduced demand from LEDs brings the size, and therefore cost, of everything down from solar panel to battery. Imagine if we took this lesson - energy efficiency unlocks distributed energy for the poor - and applied it to rural electrification as a whole? What you might come up with is a novel new approach to mini-grids dubbed by my colleague Stewart Craine of Village Infrastructure Angels 'Skinny Grids.'
The concept begins with a lesson I need to tack on to the four we learned from Solar Crowdfunding: Energy Efficiency leads to 'Skinnier' Grids that cost less. Let's start on the demand side.
Two of the most pressing basic needs the poor have are for lighting and mobile phone charging (the latter coming from an unprecedented number of unelectrified mobile phone users - an enormous market opportunity. Serving those needs with yesterday's technology (the incandescent bulb and even CFLs) is very tough. So tough it has basically meant the economics to serve these markets with clean energy didn't work.
Enter the LED. Advances in LED white lighting have revolutionized the amount of power poor households now need. That changes everything from component to system size, which has cut costs dramatically. For example, the light supplied by 100W of incandescent bulbs can now be met with just 5W of well designed LED lighting. Since a phone charger takes similar power, we can now provide basic services with 90% less power.
That's a story many may know. What is far less explored is the impact beyond the individual solar home system. That's because the drop in demand lowers the current in the "poles and wires" that connect households in conventional grids. This enables companies to use much thinner and cheaper wiring. Combined with smaller poles and longer spans, or locally dug underground trenches, the cost-per-household for reticulated wiring can be vastly reduced via thin-cable designs not previously imagined - our aptly named Skinny Grids.
Combine this with innovative 1-2kV transformers that take this lower power and current as core to their design (like those used in Andhi Khola in Nepal, or those promoted by Micro Former) and Skinny Grids could reach households 5-10km from power sources quite cost-effectively. That means they could service many hundreds of households if we ran them from existing off-grid sources of power (think Tower Power) or from the edge of the grid.
In some countries, over 95% of all households are within 5-10km of an off-grid telecom tower or the edge of the grid, and these towers are often grossly under loaded compared to the power demand for the tower (eg. 3kW load compared to 15kW installed capacity). That means the power generation to connect 10-20W of load per household may already exist for the majority of the unelectrified population. Even better, the only investment needed is $1/m of Skinny Grid connections.
Think about that for a minute. All the hand-wringing about the massive energy investments and grid expansion that are needed to electrify the world (a big driver in the Power Africa initiative and the related fight over the Overseas Private Investment Corporation's greenhouse gas emissions cap) may be obviated (at least in part) by existing power sources that just haven't been tapped. All of that thanks to the LED light bulb (Michelle Bachman eat your heart out).
At the end of the day Skinny Grids are just one of the many innovations coming from the off-grid sector. Many of the entrepreneurs believe that their innovations will boomerang to traditional grids in developed and developing country markets. Skinny grids seem closest to fitting that prediction given that fact that the LED is to the off grid market what the CFL is to those in the on-grid market. It looks like Par Almqvist of OMC may be right: the future for highly innovative clean energy deployment is off the grid.
-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International
The toll coal takes on communities across India is staggering: 100,000 premature deaths annually, a $33 billion "coal-gate" scandal, and financial collapse that is pushing plants to the brink of bankruptcy, but only after families have been forcibly evicted to make way for deadly projects. From the outside, Reliance Energy's 4,000 MW coal-fired power plant, under construction in Singrauli, appears no different than any other risky coal project in the country. But Sasan received over $900 million in financing from the U.S. government through the U.S. Export-Import Bank, despite opposition from grassroots groups in India and the U.S.
Now, reports are emerging that a local labor leader, Sati Prasad Razak, was dragged out of his home on the night of September 18 and arrested -- without a warrant -- less than 48 hours before a mass protest against Sasan was set to take place. The police continue to hold him and two others in custody, but refuse to give any information on charges against the three. On September 19, a group of villagers marched to Sasan, where police had barricaded the main gate. Despite being unarmed, they were warned that they could be arrested under section 144 of Indian Penal Code, which allows for the arrest of members of an "unlawful assembly" if they possess a deadly weapon or object that could be used as a deadly weapon.
Local activist and President of Srijan Lokhit Samiti, Awadhesh Kumar, condemned the arrest, saying: "This is an attempt to suppress the voices of the local communities. Reliance cannot use suppression as a tactic for long. They have to address the pertinent issues raised by the people, about jobs, compensation and health impacts. It's a shame that the local administration is hand in glove with the company."
I first met Awadhesh in 2011, when he invited the Sierra Club to visit Singrauli and see for ourselves the devastation wreaked by Sasan and the other massive coal projects sandwiched in the region. Nothing could have prepared us for what we witnessed. We met a tribal family that survived by "harvesting" the toxic ash from a coal ash disposal pond and drew their water from a small hand pump that went under the waste site. We met an employee of the state owned coal company, who told us about the illegal coal block allotments Reliance received long before the revelation of such deals rocked the country. We met a village with a school and running water that was going to be forcibly displaced to make way pond to hold Sasan's toxic coal ash waste. And we met Sati Prasad, who told us how Reliance refuses to hire local workers, despite this being part of their agreement, due to fears that laborers will organize. And he told us about his friend, Sudarshan Rajak, whose house was bulldozed after he protested against Sasan and the forced removals. Sudarshan Rajak was never seen again, and Sati Prasad believed he was inside his home when it was destroyed.
Perhaps most troubling of all, projects like Sasan are advertised as a means to address the over 400 million people in India without access to electricity, but the truth is that they service the wealthy and industrial sector, while leaving the people who need power the most in the dark. As we traveled around Singrauli, despite the tens of thousands of megawatts being generated all around them, local residents mostly lived in small dwellings without access to electricity. It was more profitable to send the power over huge distances, despite grid losses, to industrial centers. The truth is large, centralized coal projects like Sasan are terrible at addressing energy access. The International Energy Agency (IEA) found that in order to reach 100 percent energy access, half of all energy services must be provided by off-grid clean energy. In fact, when the 2012 blackouts left over 600 million people in India without power, those with access to solar were able to keep the lights on.
While the people of Singrauli are forced to contend with the deadly health and economic consequences of these massive power projects, they see none of the benefits. They don't have access to the electricity generated, and they don't have access to good jobs. Sati Prasad Razak and the Sasan Ultra Mega Power Vistaphit Avam Mazdoor Sangh (Union Sasan Ultra Mega Power Affected and Labourers) are not making unreasonable demands. They are asking for documentation of the people who have been affected by Sasan, for permanent jobs for project affected people working on a contract basis, for the payment of back wages owed to local contract workers, and for a halt to construction of a boundary wall until displaced people are adequately compensated. For this, they were put in jail, and we do not know when or if they will be released.
-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club's International Campaign
In the words of our Vice-President, this is a BFD. On Friday, September 20, the Environmental Protection Agency released draft carbon pollution standards for new power plants. If finalized as written, the draft will make it impossible to build a new, conventional, climate-destroying coal plant in the U.S. With climate-related disasters already landing on the doorsteps of millions of Americans, from Western wildfires to Superstorm Sandy, this new protection comes as welcome news.
As I wrote earlier this week, despite much whining by the coal industry, the simple fact is that no one is building new coal plants anymore. A decade-long struggle by over 100 organizations and thousands of volunteers successfully blocked the construction of 179 proposed coal plants that, had they been built, would have truly meant game over for our climate - not to mention creating more dangerous air and water pollution, plus slamming the door on future market opportunities for clean energy like wind and solar.
But those 179 new coal plants weren't built, thanks to leadership and hard work by conservatives and liberals, experts and everyday Americans, young and old alike. And now the EPA is putting a common sense standard in place, which says any new power plant built in the U.S. has to deal with its carbon pollution.
In short, this could be the end of the coal rush. As I wrote earlier this week, these new standards "confirm something investors, governors, community leaders, and everyday Americans have been saying for a decade - in the 21st century, it just doesn't make sense to build new coal-fired power plants. To be specific, we've said it 179 times." Regular Americans held back the tidal wave of new coal plants for a decade, and now we're a big step closer to ensuring that America's modern energy sources won't push our climate - and the life support systems of this planet - over the brink.
What does the standard do specifically, and what does it mean for the future of energy? Let's break it down:
- New coal-fired power plants will have to meet a standard of 1,100 lbs of carbon per megawatt hour of energy produced. Conventional coal plants release at least 1,700 lbs/MWh. So meeting the new standard will require coal plants to capture their carbon and sequester it underground. That technology is being developed at a couple of power plants around the country, but it's far more costly than clean energy like wind and solar, which are becoming so affordable they’re actually starting to out-compete natural gas, even with gas at record low prices.
- New natural gas power plants will have to meet a carbon standard of 1,000 lbs/MWh. In our view, this is not nearly strong enough, as many modern-day natural gas plants are already beating this standard, releasing as little as 800 lbs/MWh. We plan to push hard to strengthen the gas standard, since we don't want to incentivize switching from one polluting, fossil fuel energy source to another.
President Obama put power plants at the center of his climate strategy for a simple reason - coal plants are our biggest source of carbon pollution. As the President put it in his June speech outlining his climate plan, "As a President, as a father, and as an American, I'm here to say we need to act. I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing." Unfortunately, the coal barons are going to fight this every step of the way. Given the fierce coal industry opposition this standard has already generated, we need everyone to weigh in.
Now, it's your turn. The EPA will hold a 60-day public comment period on these standards that will include public hearings. You can weigh in right away to support strong carbon standards by taking action here. EPA released a first draft of this standard in April 2012 that received a record three million public comments, so this second draft will give us an opportunity to add even more voices to the overwhelming call for strong protections.
This fall, as EPA works to finalize this standard for new power plants, they will simultaneously begin work on the even more contentious standard for existing power plants, due next summer. In addition to hearings on the new plant standard, EPA will be holding listening sessions and stakeholder events around the country on the existing power plant rule throughout the fall. I hope you'll join us in the coming weeks to fight hard for strong carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants. We are in a race against time to save our climate and communities, facing powerful opponents with deep pockets, and we need your help.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
The Kiewit coal company placed an extremely low bid of just 21 cents a ton to mine publicly-owned coal in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, the biggest coal-mining region in North America. "We submitted a bid to the BLM that we believe accurately reflects the fair market value for this lease," said Kiewit spokesman Tom Janssen. At 21 cents a ton, apparently they don’t think that coal is worth much. Most of us have more than 21 cents floating around between the seat cushions of our couch at home, and we usually don’t expect to receive a metric ton of taxpayer-owned coal for it. To its credit, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) turned down the offer.
Beneath this incredibly low auction-offer is a basic truth: coal is on the way out. Overall coal prices are down, as demand has decreased and aging coal plants in the U.S. have been retired. Earlier this week, the Gillette News Record reported that three of the largest coal companies operating in the Powder River Basin had lost $25 billion in value since April 2011.The last Wyoming lease sale received no bidders for the first time ever, and yesterday's auction is the second time in as many months that a Powder River Basin coal auction did not result in any coal sales.
The lack of interest in Powder River Basin coal is partly due to reduced interest in exporting coal overseas. As coal demand has continued its decline across the U.S. in recent years, big coal companies have told their investors that exporting coal abroad to countries like China could form a possible escape hatch. But recent developments have shown that exit may be closing.
Financial analysts like Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Bernstein Research have said they expect demand for coal in China to begin declining within the next few years. Amid environmental and health concerns, including a recent report that showed that coal pollution reduces life expectancy by five years for people living in southern China, the Chinese government has forbidden building new coal plants near major industrial areas and has begun looking for alternatives. And the coal industry's plans to build coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest -- a critical piece of infrastructure needed in order to cost-effectively ship coal to markets in Asia -- have run into unexpected roadblocks as thousands of people have organized in opposition across the region. Polls show solid majorities in both Washington and Oregon are now against the coal export terminals, state governments are calling for comprehensive environmental reviews (including examining impacts to climate change), and as investors begin to back out, three out of the original six proposed terminals have been canceled.
Coal companies are starting to get squeezed from the supply side as well. Yesterday's record-low bid on Powder River Basin coal, and its subsequent rejection by the Bureau of Land Management, shows that changes may finally be coming to the seriously flawed coal leasing program, and the days of coal companies getting coal from the U.S. taxpayer for next to nothing may be over.
A recent report by the Department of Interior's Inspector General's Office found numerous flaws with the Bureau of Land Management's leasing program, including non-competitive bidding and substantial under-valuation of coal that allowed coal companies to walk away with winning bids that were insultingly low to the U.S. taxpayer. As a result, American taxpayers have been fleeced out of $30 billion by coal companies. This financial pain is further compounded by the high costs incurred to our health, environment, and climate once the coal is burned.
While the BLM's rejection of Kiewit's lowball bid is a positive step toward ensuring the coal industry pays a fair price for public resources, a thorough evaluation and revamping of the leasing program is still needed. With markets in flux and BLM leasing procedures still under examination, the best way for the BLM to fix the problem is to impose a moratorium on coal leasing on public lands until the leasing program is revised.
-- Nathan Landers, Beyond Coal Campaign
Yesterday, Safe Climate Caucus members held a forum with Americans from across the country who have had their lives changed by climate disruption: a farmer from Iowa, a Texas rancher, a Californian who has seen wildfires harm her community, a New Yorker whose home flooded during Hurricane Irene, and a Louisianan who said that Katrina woke him up to the realities of climate change. Each was offering first-hand testimony of the tragedies that extreme weather have already brought to American families - and each was unfortunately ignored by Congressional Republicans.
Congressman Henry Waxman arranged this event the day before Republicans on the Energy and Power Subcommittee were planning to attack the Obama Administration’s climate proposals during a hearing with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. It was an opportunity for those members of Congress to not just hear about climate policy, but to hear about climate disasters from the people who’ve faced them. That’s why Congressman Waxman invited every Republican from the subcommittee to attend. Why every single one of them was absent is an open question, as they missed the striking testimonies of Americans who have dealt with the reality of climate disruption.
“Even members representing areas hit by floods, droughts, and storms vote like nothing is happening,” Waxman said at the beginning of the hearing, expressing frustration at the disconnect embodied by many of those absent members.
Republicans didn’t hear Matt Russell’s call to action. Russell, a fifth-generation farmer, called on Congress and farmers to act on climate, because droughts and floods are making it impossible to grow the amount of food that he used to.
"I speak for a lot of farmers when I say we need to stop wasting our time debating whether climate change exists,” Russell said.
They didn’t bother to hear from Emily Dondero, a California resident affected by the rim fire that has led to evacuations and the closing of schools and business, while degrading air quality and threatening water quality.
While Dondero’s community is on fire, other communities are flooding or experiencing drought - extreme weather that impacts the economy in the long-term and threatens the opportunities families in the area could otherwise enjoy in the future.
She quoted Sierra Club founder John Muir: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."
Hugh Fitzsimons, a bison farmer and rancher from Texas who has felt the costs of drought and the fracking industry's abuse of the limited water supply, was also ignored by House Republicans.
"Fracking in the Eagle Ford Shale has brought more change in two years than in the past one hundred," Fitzsimmons said, speaking on behalf of those in drought-ridden Texas. "We have a new, man-made water crisis etched atop the man-made problem of climate change that produced drought."
Rev. Tyrone Edwards spoke on behalf of Louisiana residents who hail from a state that has been hit by both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Irene.
"Climate change is nonpartisan, it is not based on race or religion,” he said. “It is a cause all humans must be involved in."
Dr. Noah Diffenbaugh, an Assistant Professor at Stanford, taught about climate change and sits on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. His fact-based testimony connected the dots between climate and extreme weather, but not one Republican climate denier was there to make the same connections.
Each story was personal and thoughtful. Stefanie Kravitz, a resident of Long Beach, New York told her story about a town decimated by Hurricane Sandy, and Reverend Tyrone Edwards, a native Louisianian, gave a sermon about the problems climate change poses for Louisiana.
After each person told their story, they all had the same call to action: We must act on climate.
"We can't choose whether or not to deal with the consequences, but we can be part of the solution,” Russell said.
But none of the invited Republicans came to the hearing. None of them heard these stories or their cries for action. Instead, today, they held a hearing stocked with those denying climate science and attacking climate policy, ultimately ignoring the problems climate disruption is causing by focusing on the elevating the arguments of big polluters. It’s akin to setting a building on fire and then voting to defund the fire department.
But ignoring the problem and attacking the solutions won’t help people like those who these same members of Congress ignored just the day before.
Looking forward, Reverend Edwards wants our future leaders to act on this important issue. He started a program to connect young children to the environment so they can understand climate better than Congress does.
However, as Representative Waxman has said, “Members of Congress say there is no cost to climate change. They should hear from you. Tomorrow, the EPA is going to hear from people questioning the costs. The cost of doing nothing is unbearable.”
--Sierra Club Media Intern Lauren Lantry
At last week’s AFL-CIO convention, the quadrennial gathering of representatives of 55 unions representing some 11 million members, delegates passed several resolutions that could benefit people and the planet by strengthening both the labor and environmental movements. Are these initiatives just words on paper, or do they reflect the power of a growing partnership to build both movements by bringing together young workers and climate activists, building stronger grass roots coalitions, and working together to reclaim our democracy?
The Convention Resolutions include
o A pledge to build stronger partnerships with community allies such as the “environmental community” and the “student and young worker community,” with an emphasis on building these relationships at the state and local levels.
o A commitment to Rebuild our Democracy.
o Support for youth-oriented strategic initiatives and partnerships to help build a just economy for all generations.
Sounds great, but what does this mean in practice? Here are just a few examples.
Labor/Climate Youth Partnership-- PowerShift ’13:
We all want to leave a sustainable world to our children and grandchildren, yet many young workers see bleak futures for themselves, not only because of massive debt and insecure work or no jobs at all, but because the burning of fossil fuels is pouring climate-disrupting carbon pollution into the atmosphere at a rate that threatens life on this planet. The Sierra Club is a partner in a conference called PowerShift, an annual gathering of more than 10,000 youth climate activists which will be held in Pittsburgh from October 18-21. This year, organizers have joined with the labor movement to expand the agenda to feature issues impacting young workers, and will welcome a sizeable young worker contingent. Organizers hope that working together in this way will lead young activists to a deeper understanding of both climate and worker issues, with the potential to create a shared vision for an economy that is good for workers and the planet they inhabit.
Washington State Waterfront Partnership:
A growing labor/environmental coalition in Washington state is showing how working together more closely benefits both movements. Labor and environmental activists in Bellingham have come together as the Blue Green Waterfront Coalition. Coalition members, which include the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, Bellingham Jobs with Justice, Resources and Futurewise, are advocating together for sustainable redevelopment of the downtown Bellingham waterfront development, which is an EPA Superfund site. The coalition is pushing for 1) a high level cleanup that includes not just industrial sites but surrounding land and water, and 2) development of a sustainable working waterfront. The Coalition’s demands include living-wage jobs, the right to unionize, habitat protections, and accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Reclaiming our Democracy—the Democracy Initiative:
The AFL-CIO and other labor, racial justice, immigrant rights, and voting rights organizations have joined with the Sierra Club, the Communications Workers of America, the NAACP, and Greenpeace to build the Democracy Initiative. As Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune recently said, “our seemingly separate problems are linked -- and so are their solutions.”
The Democracy Initiative was formed in response to a political climate where, owing to the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United decision, wealthy corporate polluters and union-busters like the Koch brothers wield unprecedented and corrosive influence in the corridors of power. DI’s immediate goals include supporting voters' rights, combating voter ID laws, and curbing aggressive use of the filibuster in the United States Senate. Its real purpose, though, is to restore fairness to our democracy.
Although we may never be able to outspend the union-busting corporate polluters, we do outnumber them. Through the Democracy Initiative, the labor and environmental movements are showing our awareness that, to build a fair economy and end climate disruption, we must use our people power to reclaim our democracy.
Blue Green Alliance Initiatives:
The Sierra Club co-founded the Blue Green Alliance in 2006 with the United Steelworkers. Since then, the BGA has grown to include fourteen organizations representing some 15 million members. It is the nation’s leading institution for labor-environmental collaboration. Key BGA initiatives to help workers as we heal the planet include supporting the carbon reduction goals of the President’s climate action plan by building resilient communities to prepare, protect and prevent the impacts of extreme weather events related to climate disruption, andrepairing America’s crumbling infrastructure to reduce the carbon pollution driving climate disruption. For example, at last week’s AFL-CIO convention, BGA unions discussed an initiative for repairing our country’s aging natural gas pipeline distribution system. Repairing urban gas distribution pipes, without expanding capacity, could provide jobs, enhance safety and reduce fugitive methane emissions– a greenhouse gas that, pound for pound, is over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA.
Each of these initiatives reflects a growing recognition within both the labor and environmental movements that in order to help working families, protect our climate, and build a more sustainable and just society, we must act together strategically. As Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, recently said about the growing collaboration between the labor movement and other grassroots groups: "It takes all of us working together to get it done."--Dean Hubbard, Director, Sierra Club Labor Program
On September 20, the Environmental Protection Agency will release new safeguards against carbon pollution that, if expectations are on target, will confirm something investors, governors, community leaders, and everyday Americans have been saying for a decade -- in the 21st century, it just doesn't make sense to build new coal-fired power plants. To be specific, we've said that 179 times.
Since 2002, an unprecedented national network of more than 100 organizations and tens of thousands of volunteers has stopped the construction of 179 proposed coal-fired power plants across the U.S. This happened in red states and blue states, under the leadership of Republican and Democratic governors, in coalitions including doctors, teachers, mayors, ministers, dads, moms, young people, and pretty much everyone under the sun. As the director of the Beyond Coal Campaign at the Sierra Club, I've had the privilege of being part of many of these campaigns, alongside volunteer co-lead Verena Owen and senior campaign director Bruce Nilles.
As a result of that scrappy, tenacious effort, almost no one is trying to build a new coal plant in America today. Investors and decision-makers abandoned those projects because the proposed plants would have harmed the health of local residents, increased dangerous air and water pollution, crowded out markets for wind and solar, and pushed our climate over the brink. As time wore on, those proposed coal plants had an increasingly hard time competing with clean energy like wind and solar.
Today, it's painfully clear that, with Americans bearing the loss, suffering, and multi-billion dollar price tag of climate-related disasters like Western wildfires and Superstorm Sandy, it would have been sheer madness to lock our nation into another generation of reliance on coal, our most carbon-intensive energy source and the single biggest source of carbon pollution in the U.S.
Now the EPA is expected to release a draft carbon pollution standard for new power plants that would finally require the coal industry to deal with the climate-disrupting carbon emissions that, to date, it has been dumping into our shared atmosphere without any limits whatsoever. As President Obama put it in his June 25 climate speech at Georgetown, "Power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That's not right, that's not safe, and it needs to stop."
This standard covers all fossil fuel plants. Unfortunately, the standard for natural gas plants will likely not be as strong. We will push hard to strengthen that standard, so that we don't incentivize a new generation of natural gas plants and all the climate, water, and air pollution they would create.
Goodness knows we don't need to. Just last week, utility Xcel Energy announced it was making big new investments in wind and solar because -- get this -- they were actually cheaper than natural gas. Simply put, clean energy has been cleaning coal's clock for some time now, and it's now catching natural gas as well, even when gas is at record low prices. Rapid innovation and the real-time effects of climate disruption are turning energy markets on their heads, and there will be no return to the past for the coal industry.
But that isn't stopping the coal industry from trying to drag us backward. There has already been much whining about the new power plant standard from coal barons and their friends in high places, and the EPA is encountering fierce resistance. And that's just a warm-up to the fight over standards for existing power plants that will follow next summer.
It will be up to all of us to get strong standards across the finish line, and there will be lots of opportunities to get involved this fall, which I'll write about here in the coming weeks. The EPA must remain steadfast, and the agency should keep this in mind: Over the past decade, without the backing of the White House or a fraction of the resources of their fossil fuel opponents, regular Americans said no to new climate-destroying coal plants 179 times and instead chose a cleaner energy path for their communities. It's long overdue that we do the same as a nation.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
This week, the Solar Energy Industries Association released its Solar Market insight report for the second quarter of 2013. The report shows huge increases in solar energy across the United States -- in fact this was solar’s second best quarter yet.
Homes and businesses across the country are adding solar power to generate their energy, cutting the climate-disrupting carbon emissions that would result from conventional energy sources like oil, gas and coal.
The report showed that in recent months the U.S installed 832 megawatts of solar power, representing fifteen percent growth over the first quarter of the year. Solar is booming with a new solar project being installed every four minutes on average and our nation’s global share of solar has more than doubled since 2008
And there is more to come later this year: looking at the U.S. solar market on the whole, the report shows that cumulative solar PV capacity will surpass 10 gigawatts by the end of 2013. Due to a stronger-than-expected market in second quarter and ongoing expansion of the solar industry, expectations for 2013 remain high as installation are projected to grow while prices fall.
Is your state one of the top ten solar states in the country? Check the list: California, Arizona, New Jersey, Nevada, North Carolina, Colorado, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
The number one state, California, saw the strongest solar second quarter in their state’s history, with installations on homes up 78% and other installations up 26 percent.
The trends are encouraging and the opportunity for more growth is abundant. Learn more about how you can help keep the growth going by going solar here.--Lauren Lantry, Media Team Intern
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