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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released its 2013 Annual Climate Report, which found that the United States experienced seven weather- and climate-related disasters that resulted in more than $1 billion in damages. (See infographic below.) Specific dollar amounts for each event will be released later this year.
The report contains numerous maps, charts, and graphics such as the one below, highlighting some of last year's significant weather and climate events.
2013 was both warmer and wetter than average for the contiguous United States. The report includes a summary of national and regional temperatures and precipitation, including drought, wildfires, hurricanes and tropical storms, snow and ice, tornadoes, and -- for the more technically minded -- a "Synoptic Discussion describing recent weather events and climate anomalies in relation to the phenomena that cause the weather."
After his stop in Los Angeles, everyone’s favorite cartoon clownfish, Nemo, continued his tour of the U.S., stepping out in sub-freezing temperatures in Washington, D.C. to ask Americans to help him save his home, the Great Barrier Reef.
What’s Nemo doing touring the U.S.? Is he lost again?
While the Australian Embassy and Alliance 21 – a partnership that includes large corporations and big polluters like DOW Chemical, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, GE, NewsCorp, Morgan Stanley and Raytheon – hosted a dialogue on energy and Asia as part of “G’Day USA,” a month-long promotion of Australian business interests, Nemo hit the streets to protest possible U.S. involvement in plans that could destroy the reef.
Not one–but two–companies, GVK and Adani, want to open new enormous coal mines in Australia’s Galilee Basin, and then dredge (the destructive operation of scooping up and moving sediment from waterways) within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Site to expand shipping channels to take theNemo at the White House
coal to Asia. But that’s not all. Media reports have linked the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) to the projects, which means U.S. tax dollars could help finance the scheme – something Ex-Im Chairman Fred Hochberg has failed to deny, despite going against the spirit of President Obama’s pledge to end financing for coal plants overseas in his Climate Action Plan.
Dredging in the Great Barrier Reef will put clownfish like Nemo, as well as sea turtles, dugongs, dolphins, and many other amazing coral reef creatures in grave danger. Sustainability agency UNESCO has even warned the Australian government that dredging could endanger the Reef’s World Heritage status. Meanwhile, numerous reports have shown the projects are a financial boondoggle, and investors continue to drop out of dredging projects.
You can help Nemo save his home by tweeting at the G’Day USA event organizers and the U.S. Export-Import Bank and telling them to #SaveTheReef:
Hey @GDAYUSAofficial @EximBankUS: #SaveTheReef for clownfish like Nemo. Say no to dredging for #coal exports http://sc.org/1mH2ZZx
--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program
By Javier Sierra
A gale of good news is hitting both the wind industry and the future of the planet.
The new year started out with two world records. Spain became the first country ever to get more energy from wind than any other source during a complete year in 2013, with a 21.1-percent share at 55 gigawatts (GW). According to Spain’s Wind Energy Association, at the end of 2013, this clean energy was able to bring the price of electricity from $150 per megawatt (MW)/hour down to $7 per MV/hour.
Wind farm in Southern Spain (Photo: J. Sierra)
And in December, Denmark became the first country ever to generate more than half of its energy from wind, a total of 54.8%. Specifically, on December 21, wind fulfilled that country’s entire energy demand, and over the course of the year, it produced one third of the consumed total.
The good news also abounds here at home. In Texas, during the extreme cold spell that gripped almost the entire country during the first week of the year, wind energy saved the day for a grid that was overwhelmed by demand. On January 7, when several power plants shut down, wind energy from Western Texas avoided dangerous blackouts throughout the state. This is the logical result of Texas having added more wind energy to the grid than any other state.
And throughout the US, the breeze of good news has become a veritable gale. In 2012, the country’s wind energy capacity surpassed 60 GV (enough to power 15 million homes), no other country installed more wind energy than the US, and wind added more power to the national grid than any other source, including natural gas.
It’s no wonder then that the price of wind power is hitting record lows: 4 cents per KW/hour, 50 percent less than in 2009. It’s no wonder also that the utility owned by Warren Buffett has invested $1 billion to purchase enough wind turbines in Iowa to generate 1,000 MW.
The price of the alternative to clean energy, on the other hand, is simply unacceptable. According to a Harvard University study, every year the costs of coal pollution —also known as externalities— hit $500 billion (one 5 followed by 11 zeros), in premature deaths, asthma, emphysema, heart disease, cancer and other factors. Big Coal pays nothing out of this huge price tag. They instead dump it on you, me and the rest of the country.
Considering these arguments, it’s simply astonishing that Congress still is to renew the Production Tax Credit (PTC), one of the several tax incentives that invest in job creation in the clean energy industry. Just wind supports 80,000 jobs in the US, and 72% of the equipment needed to build wind turbines is manufactured in our country.
The fossil fuel industry, on the other hand, calls the US Capitol home. Each year, oil, coal and gas companies receive up to $52 billion in subsidies; that is, a gift from the taxpayer, you, me and everyone else.
Tell Congress that renewing the PTC is crucial for the wind industry to continue its smooth sailing.
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC
As a West Virginian, this has been a sad, frustrating, and infuriating time for me, though I do not live in the area affected by last week's coal chemical spill. More than 300,000 people in the WV capital of Charleston and downstream counties have been without water for eight days and counting.
The chemical that spilled is used to process coal after it's mined, to separate the coal from other substances before it's carried away on trains or river barges. A tank of this chemical, located immediately above the largest drinking water intake in WV, leaked. Very little is known about the chemical and its health effects - and WV officials are saying they also don't know where else in the state this chemical is stored.
Some residents have been told they can start flushing out their water systems while others are still using bottled water for drinking, cooking and bathing. Even where the water is back on, it’s undrinkable, forcing residents to continue their reliance on bottled and shipped in water -- an especially heavy burden on the areas poorest residents. In fact, "do not use" orders are being reissued in some places.
Now the CDC is saying the test it used to determine "safe" levels of the leaked chemical humans can drink focused on the wrong chemical!
What's more, on Wednesday, six days post-spill and after the water had been deemed "safe" in some areas, officials issued an advisory urging pregnant women to drink only bottled water. As the mom of a three-year-old, I can only imagine what a scary time this must be for all the new and expecting moms in the middle of this crisis.
Earlier this week, I appeared on NPR's Diane Rehm Show to talk about the spill, along with the head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a Washington Post reporter, and a staffer from an anti-regulatory think tank. A few people have told me that they were shocked and even brought to tears by the program, which you can listen to here.
The Sierra Club has a long-time organizer in Charleston -- Bill Price -- and, in the immediate aftermath of the spill, he has been working closely with allies on relief efforts to provide people with water. In some rural communities, volunteer water distribution has been the only relief for residents, believe it or not. Earlier this week we profiled one West Virginian who is part of that effort, Dustin White, to underscore that this crisis is a long way from over, and frankly highlight the continuing failure of the state to safeguard the health of its people.
If you want to make a donation to help support the volunteer water distribution efforts still under way, you can donate to the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and make a note that your gift is for the WV water crisis.
As I described on the Diane Rehm Show, this tragedy is a direct product of a regulatory system held hostage by the coal industry for decades. The site where the tank leaked hadn't been inspected by the state since 1991! In the state of the state address just days before the accident, the governor vowed to "never back down from the Environmental Protection Agency because of its misguided policies on coal." In the immediate wake of the disaster, the governor has repeatedly asserted that the coal industry had nothing to do with this spill - which is like saying the tobacco industry has nothing to do with lung cancer.
This spill pulls the curtain back on water problems that people in the Appalachian coalfields have been pleading for decades to have addressed. Each year, after this chemical and others are used to "wash" coal, billions of gallons of leftover slurry - a witches brew of chemicals and water - are typically either injected into old underground mines (which leaches into groundwater) or stored behind earthen dams, some of which are larger than the Hoover Dam.
You can read more about the coal industry’s threat to water in this article and others in the Charleston Gazette, whose reporter Ken Ward Jr. has been doing Pulitzer-caliber reporting on the spill, in my estimation. And I urge you to support the West Virginia-based organizations fighting this battle for clean water -- Keeper of the Mountains, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and Sierra Club West Virginia.
It's time to hold these polluters and decision-makers accountable, and to work to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again. A candlelight vigil is being planned for next Tuesday in Charleston, and allies around the country are planning their own events in solidarity.
Finally, you can take action now to tell President Obama that West Virginia leaders cannot be trusted to regulate the coal industry.
This spill only underscores the coal industry's widespread use of dangerous chemicals, and the cost to Appalachian communities and mountains. If the WV Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) continues to turn a blind eye to polluters, President Obama should direct federal agencies to do the job the DEP will not do.
Tell President Obama to step in and stand up for the health of West Virginia communities.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
In 1998, seven years after the last inspection of the Freedom Industries chemical storage site on the Elk River, Jen-Osha Buysee founded Aurora Lights. Her non-profit has dedicated itself to restoring a sense of balance between communities and the land around them. Jen-Osha, her staff and a band of volunteers spend their time raising awareness about the dangers of mountaintop removal coal mining, promoting local arts and engaging in educational programs for youth in West Virginia.
Now, she and her dedicated group of citizens spend their time trucking load after load of clean water from their base in Morgantown two and a half hours down Highway 79 to the small towns around Charleston that are still without clean water more than a week after the water crisis began.
Jen-Osha is acting on an urge many of us feel but never quite seem to act on when all is well. Uncommon in normal times, the impulse to reach out and help those in need, has turned into the driving passion for many in West Virginia.
As they look upon community members in need, folks from across the state and, truly, the nation have turned out their pockets and given their time to ensure people in the hills and hollows of rural West Virginia have clean water.
It's something many of us take for granted. Water, clean and pure from the tap, seems to be an undeniable truth.
Sadly, the Freedom Industries disaster pulled back the curtain on a silent crisis that has been poisoning West Virginians water for years.
Clean water, safe and available for all, is a right we should all expect without interruption and certainly without fear of harm or danger. But this is not the case in Appalachia. Here, the coal and chemical industries have done their level best in the last few decades to stunt reasonable clean water protections; and they’ve succeeded. The current crisis is just the most visible of the tragedies that these miners, farmers, teachers and community members face every day.
That’s what makes Jen-Osha, and those who share her passion, so extraordinary; her years of advocacy and educational efforts and her strong links to the community have turned into real action. During the crisis she has worked tirelessly to get donations for bottled water and then moved to get it to those in need. She and her team have loaded up everything from large flatbed trucks to personal vehicles in order to truck water on a 6 to 8 hour round trip into some of the hardest hit parts of the state. Taking water to places like Boone County, Pennsboro, West Union and Moorehead where she’ll be today.
It is amazing to see such an outpouring of support by so many in times of crisis. Lax clean water protections, years of government indifference and industries who care more about their own bottom line than they do about the wellbeing of the communities where they exist brought this crisis about. But it’s the people, with a love for their community, working to ensure the right to clean water for everyone, even when the government is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens that is the real story right now.
Soon, we’ll all ask how it is we can ensure this never happens again. But right now, across West Virginia people are showing just how strong our communities truly are.
The veil has finally been lifted from the controversial environment chapter of what could be the largest free trade pact in history, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Thanks to WikiLeaks, who posted a draft of the chapter today, we can finally see the text that has been kept from the public for nearly four years.
And sadly, what we're seeing is not pretty.
The environment chapter is one of 29 TPP chapters, and the third one to be leaked to the public. The leaked environment chapter is markedly different from the leaked investment and intellectual property chapters in important ways. The previous two leaks—both designed to protect corporate interests—are full of strong, binding, and legally enforceable language that undoubtedly protects big business. The leaked environment chapter is unenforceable and rife with weak language, according to an analysis of the leaked text by the Sierra Club, WWF, and NRDC.
The leaked environment chapter text falls flat on the standard for environment chapters from the past seven years. Since the May 2007 bipartisan consensus on trade by the Bush administration and Congress, the environment chapters of all U.S. free trade agreements have been legally enforceable and included a list of environmental treaties that countries committed to uphold. Today's leaked text—which is both unenforceable and does not include obligations to uphold commitments made under environmental treaties—does not meet the standard set by Congress.
As Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club stated, “If the environment chapter is finalized as written in this leaked document, President Obama’s environmental trade record would be worse than George W. Bush’s. This draft chapter falls flat on every single one of our issues - oceans, fish, wildlife, and forest protections - and in fact, rolls back on the progress made in past free trade pacts.”
Last fall, 24 environmental organizations sent a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Froman calling for a strong and legally enforceable environment chapter that includes the elimination of harmful fisheries subsidies; a ban on trade in illegally harvested timber, wildlife, and fish; and obligations to uphold domestic environmental laws and commitments under multilateral environmental agreements. The draft environment chapter fails to deliver on the demands of civil society.
The text does confirm that the U.S. has been pushing to strengthen the chapter, but they face strong resistance from other TPP countries.
So let’s take a look at what is actually included in the text.
Multilateral Environmental Agreements
Multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) are agreements between a set of governments designed to protect the environment. Since the May 2007 bipartisan agreement on trade, all trade pacts have obligated that countries uphold their commitments made under MEAs. This is critical, as it helps ensure that countries don't waive or weaken their obligations under MEAs in order to attract trade or investment, and ensures that a country faces consequences if it does.
However, the leaked text takes a significant step back from the May 2007 agreement. Instead of committing countries to uphold their obligations under MEAs, each TPP country is merely asked to “affirm its commitment” to implement the MEAs to which it is a Party. That's like affirming that you made New Year's Resolutions rather than actually being held accountable for keeping them.
The leaked environment chapter text represents an enormous rollback from the dispute resolution process laid out in the May 2007 agreement and recent trade pacts. The agreement stipulated that “all of our [free trade agreement] environmental obligations will be enforced on the same basis as the commercial provisions of our agreements—same remedies, procedures, and sanctions. Previously, our environmental dispute settlement procedures focused on the use of fines, as opposed to trade sanctions, and were limited to the obligation to effectively enforce environmental laws.”
The leaked text of the TPP environment chapter, however, sends us back to a pre-2007 world. If a country violates one of its obligations in the environment chapter, the country will receive an action plan, presumably laying out how to come into compliance with the chapter. If the action plan is ignored or not implemented adequately, there is no recourse. This vastly insufficient process is an unacceptable rollback of previous commitments and makes the obligations in this chapter meaningless.
The leaked text recognizes the role of TPP countries as major consumers, producers, and traders of fisheries products and the global problem of overfishing. The text includes actions and commitments to address the problems of overfishing and the unsustainable use of fisheries resources, but the actions in many cases are weak and, thanks to the insufficient dispute process described above, basically meaningless.
As just one example, the text does not contain any clear requirements for a ban on shark finning, even though TPP countries are notorious shark fishing nations and traders in shark fins, and U.S. law requires that the U.S. seeks such bans from other countries.
The text also includes weak language on trade in illegally harvested timber, wildlife, and fish —one of the most important issues to the Sierra Club. For example, the text requires that countries take appropriate measures that “allow it to take action” to prohibit trade of illegally taken timber, wildlife, and fish. The provision, however, stops short of requiring countries to take action to stop illegal trade that threatens communities and ecosystems.
The current state of the environment chapter is completely unacceptable. It's unbelievable to think that TPP countries have agreed to allow foreign corporations to attack public interest policies in private trade tribunals, but they can't agree to a binding environment chapter with strong commitments to help protect natural resources.
This text proves why so many Members of Congress don’t want to give the president “fast-track” authority that could help rush the TPP over the finish line with almost no Congressional input. Tell Congress to reject fast track—legislation that would strip Congress of its own ability to ensure that the TPP, including the environment chapter, actually protects communities and the environment. And the TPP governments must stop pandering to the interest of big corporations and get serious about protecting families and the environment.
--Ilana Solomon, Director of Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program
"Saying this chemical spill has nothing to do with coal is like saying the tobacco industry has nothing to do with lung cancer."
Those are the words from Beyond Coal Director Mary Anne Hitt on this morning's Diane Rehm Show. Mary Anne was on to discuss last week's Freedom Industries coal chemical spill in West Virginia, which has left more than 300,000 people without water. You can listen to the whole interview here.
While WV Governor Tomblin is trying to act as if this coal chemical spill has nothing to do with the coal industry, but West Virginians know better:
While some areas are being allowed to flush their home and business water systems now and start using their water again, a huge amount of people still do not have access to water. And, we have reports from folks in Charleston that they’re not ready to trust the tap water yet.
But for those being allowed to drink and bathe in their water again Ken Ward, Jr., of the Charleston Gazette, and many others are asking, "how do they know it's safe?" From Ward's article:
Stories are also coming out about parents coping with the lack of clean water for special needs kids and babies. Others are wondering how long the spill had really been going on before it was discovered.
Even Erin Brockovich was in West Virginia for a meeting with affected residents Monday night. Watch her discuss the crisis in this Democracy Now interview.
The long-term effects on the environment from this chemical are uncertain as well.
Authorities are ordering Freedom Industries to preserve all evidence on site as the investigation continues, and the state Department of Environmental Protection officials who first arrived on the scene of the spill (which, by the way, Freedom Industries did not report until after state investigators showed up) last week say the site was not well contained:Freedom Industries had set up one cinder block and used one 50-pound bag of some sort of safety absorbent powder to try to block the chemical flow, state Department of Environmental Protection inspectors say. "This was a Band-Aid approach," said DEP air quality inspector Mike Kolb. "It was apparent that this was not an event that had just happened."
On top of that, the West Virginia officials admitted Tuesday that they had no plan in place for a spill of this nature:West Virginia emergency planners never put together any strategy for dealing with spills of a toxic chemical from the Freedom Industries' tank farm, despite the facility's location just 1.5 miles upstream from a drinking water intake serving 300,000 people, officials acknowledged this morning. Local emergency official likewise didn't act to prepare for such an incident, even though they had been warned for years about storage of toxic chemicals so close to the West Virginia American Water plant serving the Kanawha Valley and surrounding region.
Others note that this lack of planning is yet another example of loopholes in current federal protections regarding chemicals. In fact, the Freedom Industries site hadn't been inspected since 1991.
What's more, as Beyond Coal Director Mary Anne Hitt again pointed out on the Diane Rehm Show this morning, this lack of protections and inspections are simply "pulling the curtain back on something people in West Virginia have been dealing with for a long time."
In this powerful piece from Al-Jazeera, West Virginians discuss the on-going legacy of coal's water pollution in the state. Some residents will lose their well water due to coal pollution and get connected to city water:
Meanwhile, The New Republic digs even more into coal's pollution history in West Virginia. Know why so many people relied on the Elk River for their water? Because industry has polluted the rest of the rivers in West Virginia.
Activists across, and beyond, the state point to an anti-water protection atmosphere in West Virginia as one major reason the Elk River spill and others like it are not prevented. One anti-regulatory industry front-group, Americans for Prosperity even solicited water donations for West Virginians, which prompted this response from Beyond Coal Director Mary Anne Hitt:
I'll close with these clips from the Daily Show, which always does an amazing and eloquent job saying "WTF?" when these disasters happen.
-- Heather Moyer, Sierra Club Media Team
Running alongside the Little Coal River in Boone County, West Virginia is the sleepy town of Van. Technically an unincorporated census-designated place, this small residential area calls itself home to around 200 people -- all of whom, since last Thursday's spill, have been without water.
While state and federal agencies have focused on getting water to the big towns in the region, like Charleston, only dedicated volunteers have made the journey to Van, and innumerable other places like it in the sparsely populated valleys and hollows that make up much of the region left without running water by the Freedom Industries chemical spill.
Thankfully, a corps of community-minded citizens has risen to moment, delivering water to underserved areas throughout the region, calling in to let folks know when water has been delivered to local stores and acting as a rapid response team for folks in need in central and southern West Virginia.
One of the people deeply involved in this effort is Boone County resident Dustin White. Dustin, the son of a coal miner, grew up at the foot of Cook Mountain, named for an ancestor of his, in a place called James Creek Hollow. It is quintessentially Appalachian and as Dustin puts it, "I never had a lot of fancy toys and gadgets - none of the luxuries of the modern-day kid, but I never knew I went without. The hillsides and all they had to offer were my playground. The rocks, the sticks, the wildlife - they were my best friends. I spent most of my childhood in the mountain stream that flowed in front of my home catching crawdads and salamanders, seeing what could be found, or just simply how far I could go."
Now, Dustin is going as far as he can for his neighbors; donating his time to make sure that communities across the Coal River Valley have the water they need. On Sunday Dustin, along with a team of volunteers, drove down from Charleston to the Pond Fork area in Boone County to deliver water to people in Van and other communities along the Little Coal River.
Sadly, this isn't the first time chemicals related to coal mining have been dumped into the Little Coal River. In fact, it’s not even the first time in the last six months. Last September, the Wharton coal prep plant, owned by a subsidiary of Patriot Coal, dumped 2,000 gallons of a chemical called DT-50-D into a tributary of the river, turning the water white for miles downstream.
People in mountaintop removal mining communities across the Appalachian region are faced with these spills, and the health implications that come with them, far more frequently than anyone else in the nation. Lax oversight from the state government and inaction on federal protections means these sorts of events are likely to continue into the future.
There is a dual tragedy here. First, the inability of anyone in power to do anything about the underlying problem: proper protection of our communities and our water from coal pollution. But, in some ways, what’s worse is that the responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of Appalachians in crisis has to fall on the shoulders of people like Dustin. But, thankfully for the people of Van, he and others like him are there when the state government can't be.
Top photo courtesy of EarthJustice. Bottom photo by Shawn Poynter.
Indian development is at a pivotal moment. From stagnant economic growth to a raging Current Account Deficit (CAD) Crisis, to widespread anger over corruption in politics, the inevitability of India's ascent no longer seems assured. The last of which explains why voters overwhelmingly supported the Aam Admi Party (AAP) ('common man' party) in recent elections. This newly minted party (formed out of the Anna Hazare anti corruption movement) has the people's support to clean up Indian politics starting in Delhi. The question now is whether the party of the people will focus on the element common to all three challenges facing India: energy.
The Indian government is going bankrupt paying foreign countries for fossil fuels (mostly oil but increasingly coal) that are powering a broken system that fails the poor but rewards widespread corruption.
Whether it's the $34 billion coal-gate scandal that rocked the Congress government or the financially broke state discoms, the system is a mess. Right now it is propping up a massive coal bubble that has left 300 million people without power while simultaneously killing around 100,000 people every year.
But how will the AAP's popular mandate make a people's energy system out of this morass? The answer is governance and accountability in the power grid.
Already the AAP is demanding accountability and governance from the Delhi state discom under investigation over allegations that they've hidden profit in order to justify rate hikes. Cleaning up the discoms is a first step in cleaning up a rot that runs deep in the centralized grid.
That also means a reversal of the culture of fast-tracking industrial projects over the protests of the people. To understand just how deeply entrenched that culture is consider this - at the very same time the AAP began investigating state discoms, the Environment Secretary, Jayanthi Natarajan, stepped down amongst rumors she has not approved coal and industrial projects quickly enough despite the fact that she did not deny approval to a single thermal power project last year. Worse, she was replaced with, of all people, the petroleum minister, and not five days later a committee chaired by Prime Minister Singh himself cleared nine new coal projects.
But how exactly can this culture be reversed? Empowering the National Green Tribunal where the people take their grievances and letting them actually be heard would be a start. That, along with empowering the Ministry of Environment and Forests to force coal plants to clean up their toxic pollution by improving India's abysmal air quality standards (which are four to 20 times worse than China's) would go a long way towards ensuring the poor are no longer forced to bear the brunt of the countries development. Already the AAP is using its popular mandate to take steps in this direction by aligning its energy policy with grassroots movements and popular resistance.
But to truly create a people's energy plan there must be solutions for the 300 million people currently failed by the centralized grid. That means powering the rural poor (and the hundreds of millions of urban residents who suffer from prolonged power outages) with the fastest, cheapest, most effective solution available - decentralized clean energy. Whether its mini-grids anchored by off-grid cell phone towers, or pay-as-you-go rooftop solar, decentralized clean energy will bring power to the people.
India need look no further than neighboring Bangladesh to see how effective such a people-centric policy can be. Already the country has installed 1.9 million solar home systems, putting it on track to reach 25 percent of all off-grid households with clean energy by the end of 2014. This off-grid clean energy powerhouse is at the forefront of the world's next wireless revolution - electricity. A revolution that will overwhelmingly benefit the poor.
With national elections looming the AAP has opened up important space in Indian politics. It now has an incredible opportunity to broaden its anti-corruption platform by creating truly people-centric policies from energy to health to education. India finally has a people's party. Perhaps now it will also have a people's energy plan.
-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International
On Thursday night, a chemical spill on the Elk River in West Virginia, just two miles above the Elk River water treatment plant near Charleston, contaminated drinking water for more than 300,000 residents in central and southern West Virginia. Residents in nine counties have been advised not to use the water for any purpose other than flushing.
The spill, which occurred at a Freedom Industries storage facility, involved a 48,000 gallon tank of a chemical used to treat coal before it's sent off to be burned at coal-fired power plants. The chemical, called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, may seriously impact the health and safety of local residents with symptoms including vomiting, skin blistering and burns in the throat.
Our thoughts are with the more than 300,000 people in West Virginia affected by this toxic chemical spill, upstream from the largest drinking water source in West Virginia.
Officials have no timeline for when the water will be back to normal, and federal authorities announced Friday afternoon that they would be investigating what caused the leak.
According to Appalachian Voices, Freedom Industries did not self-report the spill, and we encourage everyone to follow the local news media and local grassroots organizations in the area for the best updates.
We recommended supporting and following these local groups as this tragedy unfolds: the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC on Twitter), the West Virginia Rivers Coalition (WVRC on Facebook), Coal River Mountain Watch, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and Sierra Club West Virginia. For news and technical updates, both West Virginia Public Broadcasting (on Twitter here) and Downstream Strategies are excellent resources.
Coal mining communities are faced with the dangers of water pollution from coal mining and pollution every day. This spill pulls the curtain back on the coal industry's widespread and risky use of dangerous chemicals, and is an important reminder that coal-related pollution poses a serious danger to nearby communities. Americans, and the people of West Virginia, deserve greater accountability and transparency about coal industry practices.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
One of the largest investment banks in the world has backed away from the Cherry Point coal export proposal in Washington.
Earlier this week, financial giant Goldman Sachs sold off its stake in the parent company of SSA Marine, the developer of the dirty and dangerous coal export terminal at Cherry Point.
This is the latest in a series of setbacks for the proposal, which aims to export 50 million tons of Western coal to Asia every year. If built, it would be the largest coal export terminal in North America. Cherry Point is one of six coal export terminals proposed in recent years, and three of those have already been abandoned after years of robust local opposition.
The decision by Goldman Sachs to walk away from the Cherry Point coal export terminal is one more strike against this polluting, climate-disrupting, highly controversial project. From Montana where the coal would be mined, all the way to Cherry Point, community members have opposed this project every step of the way.
Our groundswell of public opposition has shown that no one wants dirty coal exports in their community. From polluting communities with toxic coal dust to threatening our climate, thousands of Northwest residents have made it clear that coal exports pose too much harm for our communities.
While another investor (a businessman from Mexico named Fernando Chico Pardo) bought Goldman Sach's stake, this decision is one more big dark cloud on the coal industry's economic horizon. Goldman Sachs signaled their concern with coal investments in a report last July entitled "The window for thermal coal investment is closing." The report forecasts long-term economic headwinds for the coal industry and stated that "the potential for profitable investments in new thermal coal mining capacity is becoming increasingly limited."
This move by Goldman Sachs underscores the continued market uncertainty and doubt regarding coal, but of course grassroots activists in the affected communities are still up against a lot of money. Peabody and SSA can cycle through investors all they want, but communities across the Northwest will continue fight them every step of the way.
I'm inspired by the thousands of people - tribal members, parents, doctors, nurses, business owners, faith leaders, teachers, public officials, and more - who have spoken out against coal exports at all the recent hearings in Washington. More than 13,000 people attended public hearings over the past two years to express overwhelming opposition to these projects.
This news comes on the heels of another victory by Northwest residents who are holding companies accountable for their pollution. On January 2, a judge ruled against BNSF Railway Company's motion to dismiss and said that a lawsuit over water pollution from their train cars can go forward.
In the summer of 2013, the Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, Spokane Riverkeeper, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Friends of the Columbia Gorge filed the lawsuit against BNSF after finding substantial amounts of coal in and along several Washington waterways near BNSF rail lines. A similar case is also pending before the Western District of Washington in Seattle.
Across the U.S., people from all backgrounds are demanding accountability from polluters and calling for clean energy instead of dirty fuels.
Goldman Sachs sees what so many business owners, doctors, environmental advocates, and local elected leaders are saying: coal exports are a bad bet for the Northwest.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
Today, Congress pulled a rusty, old tool out of bottom of their toolbox. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Representative Dave Camp (R-MI) introduced the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014, otherwise known as “fast track,” that could facilitate passage of deeply flawed trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact with limited public and Congressional input. If fast-track legislation were approved by Congress, the President would be able sign the TPP and then send it to Congress for straight up-or-down vote -- with no room for amendments and limited floor debate. If that sounds backwards, it’s because it is.
First, fast track is an outdated and inappropriate mechanism. It was first passed in 1974 when trade pacts focused on traditional trade issues, like tariffs and quotas. Today, trade pacts like the TPP cover a broad range of issues including the environment, investment, labor, government procurement, consumer protections, and many more things we face in our everyday lives. It is therefore critical that Congress maintain its constitutional authority to oversee trade policy and ensure that trade pacts protect communities, workers, and the environment before the pacts get finalized.
Second, fast track is undemocratic. If approved by Congress, the President could submit signed trade pacts to Congress for an up-or-down vote within 90 days with all amendments forbidden and a maximum of 20 hours of debate. Even more atrocious is that it would actually allow the President to write legislation that would change U.S. laws to make them conform to the terms of the secretly negotiated trade agreement.
In other words, fast-track authority eliminates a critical constitutional check-and-balance structure that aids most other democratic processes. By stripping Congress of its ability to fully debate and amend the language of today’s all-encompassing trade pacts, fast-track authority renders Congress unable to ensure that trade negotiations result in agreements that benefit communities and the environment.
Third, it's a risky endeavor that could help rubberstamp very harmful trade pacts such as the TPP. The TPP agreement could devastate communities, our climate, and our environment. It would elevate corporations to the level of nations, allowing foreign companies to directly sue governments in private trade tribunals over laws and policies that corporations alledge reduce their profits. It would also open the floodgates for the expansion of natural gas exports and, therefore, fracking across the United States.
And the real kicker is that--despite these any many other consequences--there has been virtually no opportunity for public discussion of the trade pact, as no draft text has been publicly revealed. So Congress is actually voting on whether to quickly pass trade agreements they’ve never even seen!
Now is the time we need a full discussion about the true costs of the TPP and other trade pacts -- not a process to haphazardly rush flawed deals through the finish line.
The bottom line is that fast track would set us up for failure. It's critical that Congress has the ability to effectively oversee trade negotiations and ensure that the contents of our trade agreements protect our workers, communities, and environment in the U.S. and abroad. The public and Members of Congress have effectively been left in the dark long enough. Now it's up to Congress to take the reins and oppose fast track. On behalf of the Sierra Club and our 2.1 million members and supports, I urge Members to oppose this fast-track bill and retain their right to ensure that the U.S. trades responsibly. You can urge your Member of Congress to oppose fast track, too.
--Ilana Solomon, Director, Sierra Club Responsible Trade Program
Clean energy continues to make the news nationwide as solar and wind power continue expanding at an exponential rate.
"Solar is a better deal."
That's the ruling from a judge in a case about whether Xcel should replace its Minnesota Black Dog coal plant with natural gas or solar. The solar plan is a 100-megawatt project from Geronimo Energy that would span 20 sites across the state. Minnesota's Public Utilities Commission must still approve the plan, but it's great news for clean energy and clean air and water.
This Minnesota news is the latest in the string of good clean energy stories. Earlier this week, when much of the U.S. was in the grips of a sub-zero "Polar Vortex" - wind energy kept the power on in Texas:
Coal and nuclear power plants couldn't handle the strain, so wind once again picked up the slack. This happened back in the summer of 2011, too, when the Texas grid was overloaded due to excessive heat.
Meanwhile, in Missouri, Kansas City Power & Light announced this week it will expand an energy efficiency program and "double its wind-generating capacity to serve 124,000 homes."
This new energy efficiency and wind expansion came after the Sierra Club threatened legal action when KCP&L didn't fulfill its legal agreement to expand its wind power capacity by the end of 2013.
We could go on and on with great clean energy news (Did you see all the wind manufacturing hiring? Or the Massachusetts town that's saving $2.5 million annually because of a solar array over a former landfill?) - but we'll leave it there for now.
Clean energy is right now.
-- Heather Moyer, Sierra Club Media Team
Solar crowdfunder Mosaic is the latest entrant into clean energy’s next big market – off-grid clean energy. Thanks to a top prize of $1 million from Verizon Powerful Answers, Mosaic will be developing a mobile app and expanding to international markets in possible locations ranging from Guatemala to India. With Machine to Machine (M2M) technology poised to unlock clean energy for hundreds of millions around the world, the move couldn’t be more timely.
Making solar work for people is a key part of Mosaic’s mission. Nearly half of its projects have focused on providing solar for underprivileged schools and community centers here in the U.S. Making solar work for the world’s poor is a logical extension.
“By providing reliable energy to these previously unserved parts of the world, students can study after dark, medical supplies can be refrigerated, appliances can enhance productivity, and access to information and financial services can be increased, improving lives and alleviating some of the harshest poverty on earth,” said Daniel Rosen, Mosaic’s CEO.
But make no mistake: This isn’t all butterflies and lollipops. The truth is, it’s a multi-billion dollar market and the world’s next wireless revolution. Mosaic, and other companies using crowdsourcing to make investments, stand to make billions if they position themselves well.
While some of the biggest names in solar from First Solar to SunEdison to SolarCity have created energy-access programs, the off-grid opportunity is still largely untapped. That leaves a wide open market for Mosaic to address. If the company is able to capture even a fraction of the retail investment market, it’s looking at a $90-billion opportunity (total crowdfunding in 2013 was somewhere near $5 billion). If even a portion of that is deployed in the estimated $40-billion off-grid lighting market, it will make a huge difference.
That’s because despite all the opportunity, the space is cash-starved. Large development institutions like the World Bank have simply failed to invest – largely because they’ve failed to realize that small is big. That’s not the only lesson they could learn from crowdsourcing investments. Crowdsourcing could be the fastest way to quickly and effectively jump-start the off-grid clean-energy market. Think of organizations like Mosaic as the speedboats that can help lead the supertankers (i.e., the World Bank) to finally invest in the sector and bring it to scale.
If they’re successful, Mosaic will not only catalyze the sector, they’ll recapture the development narrative. No longer will we read cringe-worthy op-eds in the New York Times that argue in favor of saddling the poor with the world’s most toxic and outdated technologies. Instead, we’ll finally enter the 21st century where the world’s most sophisticated technologies are made available for the world’s poorest populations. It’s only appropriate we’ll need mobile phones and crowdfunders to make it happen.
--Justin Guay, Sierra Club’s International Climate Program
The new year is here, and the Environmental Protection Agency is sticking to its resolutions by kicking off 2014 with some major climate action.
Today, the Environmental Protection Agency has taken another step forward in protecting American families and environmental health by publishing its proposed standards to limit toxic carbon pollution from new power plants in The Federal Register, the government's official newspaper, starting off a 60-day period for public comment.
Power plants are responsible for much of our country's air pollution. In fact, coal- and gas-fired plants emit more than 2.3 billion metric tons of carbon emissions, approximately 40 percent of U.S. energy-related carbon pollution. These dangerous emissions make their way into our air, food, and bodies, threatening the health of our children and communities. As if that weren't bad enough, carbon pollution is also the main contributor to climate disruption.
By establishing strong carbon pollution protections, the EPA is acting on President Obama's pledge to take action on climate disruption. These protections will help us clean up and modernize the way we power our country -- a move that will make for healthier kids, families, and workers, while creating badly needed jobs, fighting climate disruption, and keeping America competitive in the global economy. Several states and foreign countries already have limits on carbon pollution from new power plants, including Oregon, Washington, California, Montana, Illinois, Maine, Australia, and the European Union. It's time for the first-ever national standards for coal-fired plants to be set in place.
These carbon pollution standards will be a powerful tool to keep our air clean, but they could be even better. These standards should control pollution from natural gas plants, just as we're doing for coal. If implemented, the current proposed standards would not require any reduction in carbon pollution from the majority of planned new gas plants. We cannot keep giving a free pass to natural gas -- more gas in the electricity sector means more fracking and pollution that contributes to rising global temperatures.
The EPA has taken some important first steps, but now it's your turn to take action. The fossil fuel industry and its political allies are doing everything they can to block the EPA's efforts, but you can push back and make your opinion count.
The official public comment period starts today and won't last long. Make your voice heard by submitting a comment here to the EPA in support of strong standards for reducing dangerous carbon pollution from toxic coal- and gas-fired power plants today. Together, we can make 2014 the cleanest year for energy yet!
-- Rudhdi Karnik, Beyond Coal Media Assistant
It’s not a moment too soon for climate action and clean energy in Florida. As global temperatures rise, so does sea level. And, with experts predicting a sea level rise of anywhere from two to six feet in the next century, the Sunshine State’s ample coastline is vulnerable to one the most devastating manifestations of climate disruption -- putting nearly two out of every five Floridians at risk.
Across the country, investors, entrepreneurs, activists, and elected leaders are recognizing that climate disruption doesn’t just create an obligation to act immediately, but also an opportunity for progress by pursuing climate solutions. Clean energy solutions that don’t emit the toxic carbon pollution fuelling the climate crisis are on the rise and spurring economic growth across the country. Electricity generation from wind and solar power has doubled over the last four years, sales of electric vehicles are up almost 450% in 2013, and tens of thousands of jobs have been created – all by pursuing clean energy that fights back against the climate crisis.
All of those eyes that see the promise of climate action should turn to Florida. The potential there is boundless - after all, they call it the Sunshine State for a reason. But, sadly, its been unrealized by recent leaders.
Right now, Florida is the number 10 producer of solar energy in the country – but it is also ranked third in the country for solar potential, according to recent reporting byPolitifact. Florida’s installed solar capacity is behind states considerably less-sunny, like North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Why the gap? One reason is that the state is one of just 13 that doesn’t have a renewable portfolio standard policy for clean energy solutions like solar.
Some in Florida are stepping up to try and change that. Former Governor Charlie Crist hit the nail on the head during a November 18 appearance on MSNBC’s the Ed Show when asked what’d he do to create jobs in Florida.
“Alternative energy, I mean I would start there. We’re the Sunshine State, and we’re hardly doing any solar energy production. And we should be the global leader in solar energy. Also in wind,” said Crist.
“Florida is a beautiful place to visit. A lot of people want to come here, and thank God they are. But the only way they keep coming is if we keep her beautiful and take care of her,” Crist added.
Crist has the right idea, taking an example from states across the nation that are amping up on solar and wind jobs and transitioning from dirty fuels that pump out carbon pollution and only make our climate crisis worse.
During his previous term as governor, Crist pushed hard to achieve a renewable portfolio standard -- only to be thwarted by the state legislature.
“To the extent that Florida has put solar capacity to use, most of it occurred when Crist was governor,” Politifact noted. “As it happens, when Crist was governor, he directed the Florida Public Service Commission to develop a state renewable portfolio standard policy, with a goal of 20 percent renewable energy production by 2020.”
Crist’s outspoken support is a good sign that policy may be back on the radar again soon -- - and it’s even better for those in Florida and across the country who know that climate action is needed now to protect a healthy future for our economy and our families.
--Cindy Carr and Lauren Lantry, Sierra Club Media Team
Ever wondered why we can't just stick solar panels on top of cars to fuel them even more cleanly and easily than today's plug-in electric cars? Engineers have actually been working on this challenge for a number of years. The main speed bump has been that the solar panels sized for the top of a car would not be sufficiently powerful, efficient, or large enough to actually power the vehicle. Also, cost has been prohibitive for commercial viability.
However, Ford has just come a lot closer to making this pie in the sky a reality.
At this week's annual International CES technology convention in Las Vegas, Ford will unveil a concept car that is actually powered by solar panels on the roof of its C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (EV). In 2013, Ford sold about 7,000 units of the non-solar plug-in C-Max Energi, which I enjoyed test-driving last summer.
Mike Tinskey, Ford's global director of vehicle electrification, told me last week that Ford pursued this solar car roof idea because today's solar cells are many times more efficient than they were just a few years ago. Ford and SunPower, said Tinskey, jointly created a solar concentrator array for this concept vehicle that multiplies the solar energy eight times.
While EVs are already cleaner to drive than conventional vehicles -- even taking into account the pollution from the electricity used to power them -- EVs fueled by solar power are even cleaner. This makes sense to environmentalists. A 2012 survey found that more than a third of plug-in drivers in California have solar panels on the roofs of their houses. My March 2011 blog post, where I interviewed the creator of SolarChargedDriving.com, showed how EV+PV works and why it's so appealing.
In fact, later this month Ford and SunPower will announce a newer, less expensive version of their Green for Life solar EV charging system that works for today's EVs and house roofs.
Some vehicles, such as a high-end version of the Nissan Leaf, have used solar panels on top of the car to power certain functions, such as the computer system. But if Ford can find a way to commercialize this solar C-Max Energi, it would be the first EV to actually move from its own internal solar power system.
There are complications to overcome. Most notably, Ford's concept model needs to move autonomously several feet throughout the day while charging in order to best capture the sun's rays.
But Tinskey says he's optimistic that Ford will work out the engineering challenges and prove there is a viable business case for this type of vehicle in the near future. Let the heated debate on that begin!
-- Gina Coplon-Newfield is the Sierra Club's Director of Future Fleet & Electric Vehicles Initiative
As you reflect on your year, remember 2013 as a momentous year for clean energy. Solar and wind generation hit record highs, prices plummeted, and wind and solar took on increased market share from coal. Installation of renewable energy capacity outpaced coal, oil, and nuclear growth combined. The coal industry saw numerous setbacks, and nationwide thirty percent of existing coal plants in the United States are now announced to retire -- 158 plants, representing over 20 percent of the nation’s coal power. Not a single coal plant has broken ground over the past three years. Not bad for just 365 days.
This is great news for Americans: "Thanks to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, American citizens will breathe cleaner, healthier air this holiday season," said Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies which has committed $50 million to the campaign. "Coal use is down in almost every region of the country, and carbon pollution is at its lowest level in almost two decades. We have a lot to celebrate - and a lot more work still to do."
A growing movement
With an overarching goal to move America off coal and slash carbon pollution no later than 2030, an unprecedented coalition including Sierra Club and more than a hundred local, regional and national organizations has helped to secure a record number of coal plant retirements. The campaign now includes legal and grassroots fights to transition to cleaner and more modern sources of power in more than forty states and has grown to become one of the largest and broadest grassroots environmental campaigns in the nation's history. This year, more than 2,000 activists nationwide showed up to Environmental Protection Agency hearings to protect the public from carbon pollution, and more than 10,000 showed up to oppose coal exports out of the Pacific Northwest. And over 200,000 people submitted comments to curb coal pollution and invest in clean energy.
Moving beyond coal
The year saw 39 existing coal plants retired or announced to retire (total 22,164MW), an average of three coal plants per month. American Electric Power announced this year that it would add enough wind energy to power 200,000 homes in Oklahoma, having decided to increase its wind investment threefold after seeing how affordable wind power had become. AEP added that the increase in wind "would provide substantial savings to our customers."
Additionally, 2013 was the year that leading investors like Warren Buffett publicly announced that coal will decline in importance. Last week, his utility MidAmerican ordered $1 billion worth of wind turbines for Iowa, where wind is the cheapest source of power. MidAmerican's CEO Bill Fehrman announced at their launch event that "wind power provides a hedge for our customers going forward in an era of reduced coal generation."
In 2013, one of the biggest steps forward was the large-scale withdrawal of public support for new coal fired power plants overseas. First, President Obama's Climate Action Plan announced an end to financing new coal power plants abroad, which was echoed by five Nordic countries, the UK and large multilateral development banks like the World Bank, the European Investment Bank, the ERBD and the US Ex-Im Bank.
Beyond Coal 2013 - By The Numbers
- 2 proposals for new coal export facilities defeated in the Pacific Northwest and 3 defeated on the Gulf Coast
- 10 proposed coal plants abandoned or defeated
- 39 coal plants retired or announced to retire this year, with a grand total of 158 coal plants announced for retirement since January 2010
- 3 out of ten coal plants in the country now slated to retire, representing 19% of all coal capacity in operation in 2010
- 60% drop in the cost of solar panels over the past three years
- 30% drop in the cost of wind power over the past three years
- 2,485 megawatts of solar power installed as of September 2013 -- bringing the total amount of solar operating in the U.S. to 10,250 megawatts -- enough to power 1.6 million homes.
- 60.5% record-setting percentage of energy generation from wind in Colorado in May. In total there are now 60,000 megawatts of wind power operating in the U.S. -- enough to power 17.7 million homes.
- 19 million homes – can currently be powered by the amount of solar and wind generated in the U.S.
- 100,000 workers currently employed by the solar industry in 2012
- 39% of overall electricity generation provided by coal through September 2012, a historic decline from 50 percent less than five years ago
- 200,000 comments submitted to curb coal pollution and invest in clean energy.
- 13,000 people attended coal export hearings in Washington and Oregon over the past 18 months -- with a solid majority of them opposed to the new coal export terminals.
- Overseas, 7 countries and 4 international financial institution all adopted coal bans
So, as you sit down to make your new year resolutions, commit to helping make 2014 an even bigger year for clean energy. If 2013 has taught us anything, it's that people have the power to stand up to say no to dirty, dangerous fossil fuels and yes to powering their homes and lives with modern, clean technologies that also create hundreds of thousands of jobs. Together, let's make 2014 the year that America moved beyond coal -- cheers to that!