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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!
The Sierra Club is thrilled to announce that Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Club's history-making Beyond Coal campaign, has been honored by SNL Energy as one of ten most influential people in 2013 for her pioneering work to move the nation off polluting 19th Century fuels and onto clean sources of energy like wind and solar.
Joining her on the list are Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy - plus a number of the fossil fuel industry executives that Mary Anne has been so effective in challenging. This recognition places the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign among the most significant forces shaping the energy sector in the US, along with the EPA, the U.S. Senate, and big energy companies of all stripes.
From the article: "the leaders who made the news in 2013 tended to be risk-takers unafraid of upsetting the status quo."
The Beyond Coal campaign has secured the retirement of 158 coal plants, and in other areas continues to demand that polluters be held accountable as the nation moves ever more quickly to wind, solar, and other renewables.
"I look forward to the day when this list is entirely leaders in the clean energy sector and not relics of a dirty-fueled past," said Mary Anne Hitt.
SNL Energy's 10 Most Influential People of 2013
Mary Anne Hitt, director, Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign
David Crane, president and CEO, NRG Energy Inc.
Lyndon Rive, co-founder and CEO, SolarCity Corp.
Lynn Good, president and CEO, Duke Energy Corp.
Bennett Hatfield, president and CEO, Patriot Coal Corp.
Doug Lawler, CEO, Chesapeake Energy Corp.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
Gina McCarthy, administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Norman Bay, director, FERC's Office of Enforcement
Donna Nelson, chairman, Public Utilities Commission of Texas
SNL Energy reporters and editors submitted nominations of people who impacted the U.S. electric power, natural gas, and coal sectors over the past year. The final list of people was selected by a committee of 10 veteran energy journalists at SNL Energy.
About SNL Energy
SNL Energy, a division of SNL Financial, redefines the energy information market by integrating news, data, and analytics in real time on a Web-based platform. Industry-leading access to comprehensive financials, breaking news, proprietary regulatory research, market pricing and fundamentals of supply and demand set the standard for intelligence on the power, natural gas, coal and renewable markets, driving critical energy investment decisions.
By Michael Marx, Beyond Oil Campaign Director
I've never been superstitious, but looking back on 2013 it's likely that oil company executives will be. In 2013 the Sierra Club's Beyond Oil campaign made huge strides in blocking some of the most polluting and carbon-intensive sources of oil. I’m especially proud of our successes when I compare the size of our campaign to the industry we’re taking on. Big Oil counts their profits in billions. They have an all-star bench of power brokers -– from lobbyists and PR firms to former administration officials, members of Congress, and the Prime Minister of Canada. Very impressive. But in 2013 a ragtag group of citizens, community groups, and environmental organizations have changed the calculus on Alberta tar sands and fired up a national climate movement. This will go down as the year that oil executives reached for their rabbit's feet and wondered just where their luck went.
In 2013 Keystone XL took center stage as the test of our commitment to address climate disruption. We kicked off Lucky '13 with Forward on Climate, the largest climate rally in U.S. history. Fifty thousand people joined us on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for a new kind of environmental action. Forward on Climate was an invitation to the president to match the strong words in his second inaugural address with decisive action on coal, fracking, protecting the arctic, and stopping the tar sands pipeline. It was a cold day, but we sent a burning message that Americans are ready to act on climate.
The Keystone XL fight will continue into 2014, and maybe even beyond. But in the five years since Keystone XL was first proposed, we've fought the project to a standstill and kept at least 200 million metric tons of carbon pollution out of the atmosphere. We’ve turned a rubber stamp from the State Department into a new climate test for this and ultimately all new oil projects.
As the president laid out in his historic climate speech this summer, he will not approve this pipeline if it "significantly exacerbates carbon pollution." And certainly it would. That's why people are speaking up against this pipeline like never before. In the spring we and our partners gathered 1.2 million comments from American citizens taking the State Department to task for its faulty environmental review. We joined hundreds of citizens in Grand Island, Nebraska, for the State Department public hearing -- and hundreds met the president, vice president, and secretary of state as they traveled to more than 40 events around the nation. At one of these events in North Carolina, Vice President Joe Biden reached out to our great volunteer Elaine Cooper and told her, "I'm with you, but I'm in the minority."
Our report, FAIL: How Keystone XL Flunks the Climate Test, lays out the evidence that tar sands expansion is not inevitable (as the State Department contended in its draft environmental review), and that Keystone XL is a climate disaster in the making. It turns out that people who know the truth about tar sands, and know the risks of this pipeline, are quick to join us in the minority. And like all causes on the just side of history, we won't remain the minority for long.
Keystone XL may take the year's the top billing, but we also made great progress fighting for stronger regulations for railroad transportation of tar sands and other dangerous crude oil. We challenged tar sands refinery expansions in Delaware and export terminals in the Pacific Northwest. And we set a new standard for tar sands pipelines, so all proposals to move dangerous crude will now face the same level of scrutiny that Keystone XL faces.
We also fought for solutions. In 2013 we launched our Future Fleet campaign to push some of the nation's largest oil consumers -- including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo -- to slash their use of oil, and to stop using fuel refined from toxic tar sands altogether. Our work as part of the Clean Cars Coalition convinced eight governors to make a joint commitment to get 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles like electric cars onto the road in their states by 2025. We co-organized events to promote electric vehicles in nearly 100 cities with more than 36,000 people attending, and conducted thousands of test rides on the third annual National Plug In Day. The EPA released its Fuel Economy Trends Report in December, showing the second-largest annual increase in fuel efficiency in the last 30 years, reaching an all-time high of 23.6 mpg. Since President Obama took office, fuel economy has increased 12 percent, thanks to the vehicle standards he has put in place after years of advocacy work by the Sierra Club and our allies.
I've never been one to knock on wood, avoid a sidewalk crack, or hang a horseshoe. There's nothing magical about the success of the beyond oil campaign in 2013. It's the result of a hardworking, determined team of staff and volunteers who are standing toe to toe with the biggest, most powerful industry in the world -- a team of people in every state, who represent every imaginable cross-section of America, but who share an unfailing belief that we must move our nation beyond oil. That's bad news for Big Oil, because we are a movement that's only just begun our fight. And as I look forward to 2014, I don't need a four-leaf clover to know that we can expect more success ahead.
This coming Sunday, Dec. 22, marks five years since the Kingston Coal Plant’s ash dam in Tennessee ruptured, sending more than a billion gallons of toxic sludge into homes, onto farmland, and into the Emory and Clinch Rivers in Roane County - one of the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Five years later, we're still waiting - and pushing - for the Environmental Protection Agency to put in place long-overdue protections to prevent more coal ash disasters.
We saw the photos of huge "ash-bergs" in the rivers, of homes decked out with Christmas wreaths buried in toxic coal ash up to their eaves, and of trees and farmland covered in disgusting, dangerous sludge.
In the disaster, Americans saw first-hand the consequences of allowing state regulators that lack the will and ability to protect communities, to handle the complex issue of ensuring coal ash pollution is kept in check. We thought this tragedy would be the final straw and that national safeguards to protect Americans from this coal ash would surely follow.
Sadly, we were mistaken. The coal industry has done everything in its power to block long-overdue safeguards that could prevent another Kingston from happening somewhere else. Since the Kingston spill, the coal industry has lobbied hard to block the Environmental Protection Agency from establishing strong new protections. Because, for the polluters, all that matters is keeping operating costs as low as possible.
Now, EPA has two important pending actions to finalize that would give our communities the much needed and long overdue protections from coal ash pollution that they need and deserve. Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA can stop coal plant pollution, like coal ash, from being mixed with water. This mixture, or slurry, creates the dangerous coal ash ponds, like the one that failed at the Kingston Coal Plant, and allows lead, mercury and other toxic metals in the waste to move into our waterways much more easily.
EPA has repeatedly acknowledged that their existing guidelines have not kept pace with developments in the industry and have failed to address the worst pollutants in our waterways. Thankfully, they proposed new toxic water pollution standards for coal plants earlier this year. But the standards aren't yet final, and industry is fighting them every step of the way, with political interference going all the way up to the White House, as we uncovered in a report we released earlier this year.
Just as importantly, under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) EPA can ensure that the disposal of coal ash requires adequate monitoring and lining of these coal ash dumps while ensuring that massive earthen dams are maintained safely to prevent another disaster like the 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston. These separate, but equally important, protections are needed to fully protect communities living in the shadows of coal plants. EPA proposed these draft coal ash standards way back in 2010, but the safeguards have languished in red tape ever since and still haven't been finalized.
Coal-fired power plants are the nation's biggest water polluters, spewing millions of pounds of toxic metals and other pollutants like arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, and selenium into surface waters each year. Need an example of how close to home this contamination can be? Duke Energy's coal ash pollution is contaminating North Carolina's Mountain Island Lake - a drinking water source for more than 750,000 people in the greater Charlotte area.
Just recently we saw how Duke Energy's coal ash pollution from one coal plant in North Carolina kills 900,000 fish every year in Sutton Lake -- and that's just how it affects the fish!
Furthermore, dangerous byproducts from the burning of coal leech into groundwater and get blown around in the air we breathe. Many of these toxic pollutants pose serious health and environmental risks even in very low concentrations. For one example, just look at the ongoing battle between Louisville residents and the LG&E coal ash dump located right in one of the city's neighborhoods. The pollution is blowing onto their homes and into their lungs.
In order to protect public health and the environment from water and waste pollution from coal-burning power plants, EPA must quickly finalize both the Power Plant Toxic Water Rule and the Coal Ash Rule. These standards are long overdue - the EPA must protect our air and water now. Americans have waited long enough for these basic protections.
TAKE ACTION: Tell the EPA to protect our water by enacting coal ash safeguards!
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
"This is not quite the vision Mandela had for the future of South Africa."
When I traveled to South Africa for the Sierra Club in the fall of 2010, I hoped to gain a better understanding of the lay of the land there on energy issues by meeting with some partner organizations to learn about their work fighting coal and creating access to clean energy in South Africa. We wanted to explore how - if at all - the Sierra Club could be an ally in their work around common goals of addressing climate change, protecting human health, and developing clean energy rather than coal.
We had been working hard with U.S. communities to stop new coal-fired power plants from being built, and with great success – we have prevented the construction of more than 150 new coal-fired power plants. We were then embarking on a new phase of our work to transition out the existing U.S. coal fleet starting with the country's oldest and dirtiest plants.
Circumstances in South Africa created a new lens to our work on coal in the U.S. The World Bank and the U.S. Export - Import Bank would be using U.S. taxpayer dollars to help finance the construction of the Medupi power plant - a colossal power station intended to be 4,800 megawatts in the Limpopo Province of South Africa - the largest operating coal-fired power plant in the world.
For some perspective, the largest coal plant in the U.S. is around 3,500 megawatts but most are more in the range of 400 to 500 megawatts. All of our work in the U.S. to stop proposed coal plants and to retire existing coal-fired power could be moot if we are funding projects like Medupi. But that’s just if we consider the amount of carbon pollution going into the atmosphere from coal. The Medupi power station is much bigger than an issue of climate change, and our dollars would be responsible for contributing to other problems. It is an example of the gross inequities and challenges that remain in post-apartheid South Africa.
South Africa is a country that is building some of the largest power stations in the world through Eskom, the state-owned utility that was developing coal-to-liquid-petroleum as a solution to the fuel shortage because of the international sanctions against the apartheid government. It is one of the greatest exporters of coal to other countries for electricity production. Yet despite that, a quarter of the population does not have access to electricity, much less electricity from sources that don't poison people.
Medupi will have no modern but only paltry pollution controls, spewing mercury soot, and smog into an agricultural community. This power station is not going to provide access to electricity for people, it's going to power other large industry in the region that is not necessarily going to make the vast majority of South Africans increase their quality of life or solve poverty. Even if it were going to be available to families, it would likely be far too unaffordable, leaving many still in the shadow of wealthy white homes, businesses, and sparkling tourist attractions.
This is not quite the vision Mandela had for the future of South Africa. Medupi is not necessarily contributing to creating long term jobs for local people either, much less ones that are safe and well paying in a country in which finding work is a central issue. The Medupi power station would be pulling water from a region that is an ecological wonder and already water scarce, affecting both subsistence and large scale farmers.
The complexities of this power station and the myriad ways to trace historic and present tension are vast. However, at risk of oversimplifying, one aspect that is worth noting is that the situation with the resistance to building Medupi is also one in which we see some of the successes of post-apartheid South Africa. It’s a place where white Afrikaner farmers have been working with social and environmental justice groups like "groundWork" South Africa.
"groundWork" South Africa is an organization which primarily works on toxics issues affecting black South Africans, to challenge the South African government on Medupi and draw attention to the huge problems Medupi poses for their community and for the country as a whole. Their organizing successfully drew a World Bank Inspection panel to Medupi based on the lack of pollution controls and failure to address concerns around climate change. Despite U.S. and World Bank support for the project, its construction has been delayed and with shaky finances, it has become among the most expensive coal projects in the world. The project has been also been delayed in part also because union construction workers on the plant went on strike over pay.
Organizing in South Africa is alive and well. Traveling to see Medupi and talk with some of the community members and document what exactly U.S. taxpayer dollars are funding, and to find out what small piece of this puzzle we could help with was a reflective journey across hundreds of miles North of Johannesburg past farm fields, savannas, game reserves, and small communities of people trying to build a more sustainable future. I was traveling with a recent law school graduate who had interned with groundWork and who was gracious enough to go as my guide because a foreigner like me would been lost in a heartbeat trying to find my way to and through such a rural area.
Two young women - black South African, white American -marveling together at spotting giraffes and warthogs from the road, talking about the differences in our countries’ regulatory structures, talking about how racism manifests in our respective communities, talking about our favorite music, and wondering what more can be done to address the problems we both care about. I couldn't help wondering what our conversation would have been like if we were around 40 years ago, and if Mandela and other South African leaders had not changed the course of history, if the two of us would have even ever had the opportunity to meet. It also impressed upon me the great responsibility we have to continue to unravel the problems that exist as vestiges of apartheid.
We must honor the work of those before us with a renewed commitment to carry that work forward and address the suffering and inequity that keeps us apart. It's the best respect we can pay to Mandela.