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The world of international energy financing has become a bit stranger lately. While the World Bank came out with a new energy strategy that will end funding for coal plants except in rare circumstances, the draft language for a new energy strategy at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) would allow retrofits to dirty, existing facilities, which could allow some of the most deadly plants to continue operating for decades to come. You might imagine, then, that the World Bank is actively supporting sustainable energy in Kosovo while EBRD pushes fossil fuels, but in fact the reverse is true.
Despite its new energy strategy and President Dr. Jim Yong Kim's urgent calls for the world to act on climate change, the World Bank continues to press forward with a new coal-fired power plant in Kosovo, even though there is strong grassroots opposition to the project and studies have shown the county's energy needs can be meet through clean technology that will cost less and create more jobs. Meanwhile, although it may still consider supporting coal in Kosovo, the EBRD announced new sustainable energy investments in the country last week, the exact type of initiative the World Bank should promote under its more robust energy strategy.
The World Bank argues that the new plant will be cleaner than existing coal-fired power plants, which kill 835 people in Kosovo every year, but even this is a distortion of the truth. Unfortunately, it's not the statistic about the number of deaths that is being distorted, but rather the idea that the proposed plant will be "clean." In fact, the new plant will not even employ the best available technology to reduce deadly pollution.
The tide is turning against coal. As health effects are more widely known and as grassroots opposition grows, as clean technology becomes cheaper and the forecast for coal in international markets becomes bleaker, large financial institutions are turning away from the dirty fuel in droves. In June, President Obama announced an end to financing for coal plants overseas with public funds, a move that has already spurred the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) to reject a dirty coal plant in Vietnam, possibly signaling an end to the institution's fossil fuel binge. The Nordic countries then endorsed the plan, putting further pressure on Export Credit Agencies to follow Ex-Im's lead and cutoff support for coal. And the private sector is taking notice too. HSBC, Citi, and Goldman Sachs have all sounded the alarm on the dwindling prospects for coal and fossil fuels.
In this environment, there is no excuse for the World Bank or EBRD to leave loopholes open or make half promises. Both institutions must commit to strong policies that end support for dirty coal projects, and then they must fully implement these policies to protect public health and ensure that funding goes to clean energy projects that power local communities without the deadly pollution that accompanies coal.
-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International and Trade Representative
India's current account deficit (CAD) crisis is generating high level calls to unleash solar as a solution. (CADs cccur when a country's total imports of goods, services and transfers is greater than the country's total export of goods, services and transfers.) This situation makes a country a net debtor to the rest of the world.While the National Solar Missions goal of 20 gigawatts of solar by 2022 grabs all the headlines, a lesser known target holds the real impact.
The mission has a goal of deploying 20 million systems to serve 100 million people by 2022 – roughly one-third of all un-electrified people in India. This off-grid market already accounts for roughly one-third of solar manufacturing demand in India but is held back by another drain on the country's resources - kerosene subsidies. As India looks for solutions to the CAD crisis, including reducing foreign oil imports, kerosene subsidies should be on the chopping block.
To look for a good reason why India should deal with these subsidies, it need look no further than neighboring Bangladesh. The country is an off-grid solar pioneer that is rapidly redefining energy access.
When the Bangladesh solar program was instituted in 2003, its original goal was 50,000 systems by 2008. They reached that target three years ahead of schedule with $2 million less than they projected. Now after easily surpassing one million solar home system deployments last year the country is projected to ramp up to 4.2 million by 2014 (as of January 2013 they were halfway there). That's 25percent of all off-grid households, that's scale, and that's why small is big.
The same excellent Lighting Asia report where this data can be found paints a very different picture for India. By 2011 India had only installed one million solar home systems. This in a country with a population eight times the size of Bangladesh means it had only reached roughly four percent of the off-grid population. Even Nepal has reached 10 percent of its off-grid population with solar.
So what gives? Why is India doing such a poor job compared to its neighbors?
There are a lot of answers to this question but the most timely for Indian policy makers is the subsidies it doles out to kerosene. Bangladesh (and Nepal) doesn't subsidize kerosene; India does - obscenely. As a result it is the dominant fossil fuel in rural India and the poor pay a huge amount to use it - $2.2 billion annually according to Lighting Asia.
But it's not just people who pay dearly for this dirty fossil fuel - the Indian government pays $4 billion every year to support kerosene, half of which subsidizes lighting services. That's a giant albatross on the increasingly shaky finances of the Indian government.
The good news is there are ways to end kerosene subsidies that won't harm the poor. From Michael Liebreich's sunset credits to direct cash transfers, smart people have been looking at tackling this problem for a while.
Now the Indian government looks to be moving forward on the latter with a trial run under way in Mysore as we speak. A move that is followed closely by the Parikh commission, which although delayed, is set to lower subsidies in a month's time (and in so doing save 10 percent of the entire subsidy bill the government incurred last year).
Once these subsidies are removed, or redirected, the economics of solar will be unleashed for a much deeper strata of the population. It also means the poor will have the choice to spend their money on far superior and cleaner lighting products that aren't forced to compete with a heavily subsidized, and heavily polluting, alternative. It's cliché but it's really win-win.
The best part is that removing these subsidies does not imply simply shifting subsidies to solar. In Bangladesh they have steadily ratcheted down the end-user subsidy (with the invaluable help of consumer finance) while growth has skyrocketed. In fact, they now believe they could remove the subsidy entirely and not affect market growth. It's worth saying that again: off-grid solar in Bangladesh no longer requires subsidies to maintain dramatic growth rates.
Of course, any number of other things is needed in addition to dealing with kerosene subsidies to move India's off-grid solar policy towards a place where it actually drives deployment rather than scares entrepreneurs off. From avoiding technology specifications, to providing consumer finance, to streamlining processes for distributing subsidies, the solar mission has a ways to go (For an excellent set of ground truthed suggestions check out SELCO's policy paper on the National Solar Mission here).
But a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. It's time to use the CAD crisis as an opportunity to move beyond kerosene subsidies. It would be a first, and much needed step, towards letting the sun shine on rural India.
-- Justin Guay, Sierra Club International
Just one week after a report from Oil Change International revealed how the World Bank Group's International Finance Corporation (IFC) is circumventing the prohibitions on funding for coal plants in the new energy strategy by using development policy loans and financial intermediaries to finance over 40 coal projects in Indonesia, Japan's Electric Power Development Co. (J-Power) announced new delays in securing the $4 billion it needs to construct the IFC-supported 2,000-megawatt Central Java coal-fired power plant. The Central Java plant exemplifies almost everything that is wrong with massive coal projects, and the fact that these issues are forcing repeated delays puts new pressure on the World Bank to close the loopholes that allowed the IFC to provide a $33.9 million guarantee for the project.
Aside from forcing people from their homes, massive coal-fired power plants like Central Java pose an immediate threat to nearby communities that will be forced to live with contaminated air and water. It is for this reason that more than 7,000 local residents are strongly opposed to the project, with many citing the environmental impact of the plant as their reason for refusing to sell their land. And despite the massive financial interests behind the project, activists are winning very real victories. Construction was supposed to begin in October of 2012, but with 2014 just around the corner, J-Power's inability to secure land and issues around environmental assessments have effectively stopped the project in its tracks.
Perhaps most vexing, though, is that the IFC not only continues to support projects like Central Java over protests from impacted communities and clear impacts on public health and the environment, but they continue to claim these projects will help address the very real problem of access to electricity. But the International Energy Agency has shown that over half of energy services must be provided by clean, off-grid renewables if we are ever going to reach 100 percent energy access. Too often local communities are forced to contend with all of the devastating effects of coal-fired power plants, while transmission lines carry the energy to industries that can afford to pay more for electricity.
The Sierra Club celebrated the directive to end funding for coal plants in the World Bank's energy strategy as a testament both to President Dr. Jim Yong Kim's leadership as a public health advocate and in the fight against climate disruption, as well as President Obama's commitment enforce his Climate Action Plan, which calls for an end to financing for oversees coal with public funds. However, without strong implementation, the energy strategy and the Climate Action Plan are just words. Now is the time to close the loopholes and end support for dangerous and financially risky projects like the Central Java coal plant.
-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International and Trade Representative
Of all the avoidable consequences of the government shutdown -- a ruined wedding, a stranded T-Rex, and so many more -- this one might be the most absurd. On Wednesday, as the government moved into its second day of shutdown, Republican Representative Randy Neugebauer (TX) - who was among those in Congress who refused to vote for routine legislation that would keep our government open -- publicly demanded a Park Ranger apologize for the impossible circumstances of the shutdown as she tried to do her job at the World War II memorial. You read that right -- a Republican Congressman who voted for the shutdown demanded a Park Ranger apologize for it.
You can see the video captured by NBC Washington and reported by Gawker here.
The memorial, along with all other memorials and national parks, was closed to the public because of the government shutdown that House Republicans like Neugebauer forced. After they refused to pass routine legislation to fund the government without toxic political riders, government functions deemed “non-essential” shut down Tuesday.
Even though the memorial is officially closed to the public, Park Service rangers have been allowing World War II vets to enter the memorial. But the rangers haven’t allowed the rest of the public to enter the space. And even though he is part of the reason the facility is closed in the first place, Neugebauer decided to open his mouth and make a scene about the situation.
Its a shameful example of politics at its worst: one of the legislators who forced the shutdown to occur trying to pass the blame onto the people who his actions directly impacted. And Neugebauer admitted in an interview on Tuesday that he wants to continue the shutdown “as long as it takes” to extract toxic political concessions.
It’s easy for him to say.Neugebauer is one of the few who can still collect a paycheck from the federal government - unlike hundreds of thousands of Americans who have been furloughed, sent home from their jobs without pay - including 9 out of 10 employees at the Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, everything from Head Start programs to critical research facilities to firefighting capacity to our parks, forests, and refuges are crippled by his inaction.
When Neugebauer starts looking around for people who need to apologize, the first place he should go is to a mirror.
--Athan Manuel, Director, Sierra Club Lands Protection Program
Last month, historic flooding slammed Colorado, and the effects and loss are still being felt. The unprecedented disaster has displaced thousands of families, and several people have been killed or remain missing. It has triggered over a dozen oil and fracking spills throughout the state. And some places will remain "unlivable" for months.
As communities continue to pick up the pieces, several groups, including the Sierra Club, will be hosting "Colorado Flood Recovery Weekend" this weekend across the state, marking an opportunity for volunteers and communities to offer a hand during this time of crisis.
Colorado Flood Recovery Weekend events will be taking place in Boulder, Longmont, Lyons, and Greely, among some of the hardest hit places. Volunteers will be asked to assist with clean-up efforts in homes and parks Saturday and Sunday morning. The weekend will then close with a volunteer appreciation event featuring music, food, and speakers. Featured speakers will discuss the importance of taking direct action both locally to help our neighbors and nationally with supporting measures to combat climate disruption, such as the new Environmental Protection Agency's recently announced carbon pollution regulations. Click here to RSVP.
The coalition includes Mudslingers, Boulder Flood Relief, Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan's Purse, Rocky Mountain Christian Church, and the cities of Boulder and Longmont. We are proud to be a part of this effort. Click here to get involved and support the flood recovery effort.
-- Bryce Carter, Sierra Club Associate Organizing Representative for Beyond Coal, Colorado
If you're like me, you're looking for some positive news as the government shutdown and stalemate continues to affect millions of Americans. Let me help - check out the inspiring students of the University of North Carolina Beyond Coal team.
Recently, after two years of pressure, the UNC Board of Trustees' Finance and Infrastructure Committee agreed to meet with these hard-working students to discuss moving the school's $2.1 billion endowment out of the coal industry and into clean energy (that's them at the meeting above).
By the time October 25th arrived, the buzz around this meeting had reached a peak online, in the media and on campus. That day's edition of the on campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, featured UNC Beyond Coal in three separate places.
And at a large rally before the meeting organized by UNC Beyond Coal and other student organizations, thanks to live tweeting and facebook posts all morning by UNC Beyond Coal members, the Mayor of Carrboro (which borders Chapel Hill) showed up and spoke about the importance of coal divestment.
During the Finance and Infrastructure committee meeting, the board members said they were open to further discussions about divestment. "We can be committed with the University to not table this and continue the discussion," said Steve Lerner, chair of the Finance and Infrastructure committee.
That's a big move for the board, which had for two years refused to meet with students about this issue. Some members of the Board have seen and heard from UNC Beyond Coal Students have held rallies and meetings calling for the campus to move beyond coal and divest, and a remarkable 77 percent of the student body voted in favor of coal divestment at the end of last year.
"This meeting marks a pivotal moment for our campaign and for the University," said Jasmine Ruddy, grassroots coordinator of the Sierra Student Coalition's UNC Beyond Coal campaign. "The Board is finally considering student voices and laying the groundwork for the University to become a leader in smart investments that create a clean, safe future for me and my fellow graduates."
The continued tenacity and strategic organizing of UNC Beyond Coal is an inspiration - UNC-Chapel Hill was one of the first colleges to launch the divestment movement in 2011 after student-led organizing secured a retirement date for the on campus coal boiler. Now there are more than 300 campuses calling for divestment nationwide, and students aren't waiting around to be led:
"This movement is happening whether UNC wants it or not," said UNC student Jasmine Ruddy. "The question is not 'if,' but 'when' do we want to be a leader."
Young people like those at UNC are at the forefront of ensuring campuses and communities are sustainable, reducing our carbon footprint, and divesting from fossil fuels. On October 18 - 21, thousands of young people from all across the country, will join together at the annual Power Shift conference to call on campuses, communities, elected officials and corporations to take action on climate. Click here for more information on Power Shift.
With student support, the Administration at UNC Chapel Hill has made tremendous strides on the issue of coal on campus, and I look forward to UNC leading yet again for schools in the south and state institutions nationwide by divesting from coal.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
A child swings with a fracking rig in sight.
This week, an electronic copy of a quietly filed lawsuit was unearthed, exposing the fact that oil and gas company Lone Pine Resources is moving forward with a $250-million North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) lawsuit against Canada. Why is Lone Pine suing Canada? For the “arbitrary, capricious, and illegal revocation of the Enterprise’s valuable right to mine for oil and gas under [Quebec’s] Saint Lawrence River.” Lone Pine is suing Canada over Quebec’s timeout on fracking. (I wrote about this when Lone Pine filed its intent-to-sue notice last year.)
It sounds impossible to believe, but it’s true. NAFTA’s chapter on investment gives foreign corporations the right to sue a government over laws and policies that corporations allege reduce their profits or, in Lone Pine’s words, reduce the “expectation of a stable business and legal environment.” When a new policy or regulation is put in place that a corporation doesn’t like, it can bring the government to a private trade tribunal where the case will get heard by three private sector attorneys, behind closed doors, for taxpayer compensation.
Lone Pine is suing the government of Canada for $250 million dollars, claiming that the moratorium on fracking, put in place by Quebec’s provincial government, was a violation of its “right to mine.” As if a quarter of a billion dollars wasn’t enough, Lone Pine is also asking to be paid for the full costs associated with any arbitration proceedings, including all professional and legal fees and disbursements; interest at a rate to be fixed by the tribunal; and – why not? – “further relief as an arbitral tribunal may deem just and appropriate.” This is all so that Lone Pine can be compensated for a policy put in place to protect communities and the environment.
Let’s take a look at what Lone Pine is claiming, specifically, in its notice of arbitration.
1. Lone Pine “submits this arbitration on behalf of the Enterprise…for the arbitrary, capricious, and illegal revocation of the Enterprise’s valuable right to mine for oil and gas under the St. Lawrence River by the Government of Quebec without due process, without compensation, and with no cognizable public purposes.” (I never knew there was a right to mine!)
2. Lone Pine is upset that “suddenly, and without any prior consultation or notice, the Government of Quebec introduced Bill 18 into the Quebec National Assembly on May 12th, 2011 to revoke all permits pertaining to oil and gas resources beneath the St. Lawrence River without a penny of compensation.” (How dare a government do its job!)
3. Lone Pine claims that enacting the legislation constituted an expropriation of its right to mine for oil and gas, which is unlawful because “there no valid public purpose to the moratorium” (umm?) and the Bill was introduced “without any notice or consultation with Lone Pine or the Enterprise,” and was supposedly “rushed through the parliamentary process. . . without any meaningful consultation with Lone Pine.”
4. Finally, Lone Pine claims, the moratorium on fracking violated the provision of NAFTA’s investment chapter that offers investors a “minimum standard of treatment” and “fair and equitable treatment.” To Lone Pine, fair and equitable treatment means that a government can never pass a new law or policy, since it is claiming that “the Act violated Lone Pine’s legitimate expectation of a stable business and legal environment.” (What about my legitimate expectation that my air and water won’t be contaminated?)
If all this isn’t crazy enough, here is the real kicker. Cases like this one are proliferating under free trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties. In fact, Exxon Mobil, Dow Chemical, Chevron, and others have filed more than 500 cases against more than 90 governments. And that pattern is likely to continue. Governments—including the US government—are actively engaged in expanding the very rules that led to this harmful case. Investment rules very similar to the ones in NAFTA are set to be included in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, and may also be included in the U.S.-EU trade pact.
Enough is enough. It’s time that governments stop signing trade and investment pacts that put the rights of corporations above the rights of communities and the environment. My right to clean water, clean air, and a healthy planet for my family and community has to come before Lone Pine’s right to mine and profit. Doesn’t it?
--Ilana Solomon, Director, Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program
It's finally fall in Delaware, the air feels fresh and crisp and we have left behind the bad air quality days of summer. Thankfully, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) is moving forward with clean car standards that can help us make code red days a thing of the past. Last week, at a public hearing in Dover, Sierra Club delivered the message that DNREC must finalize these clean car standards as soon as possible.
Cars and trucks remain the leading source of smog-forming pollution in Delaware, contributing to health-threatening high ozone days. In a recent report, the American Lung Association awarded air quality in Delaware's three counties two F's (New Castle and Sussex) and one D (Kent) due to the frequency of high ozone days. The proposed standards will reduce smog-forming pollution from our passenger cars and trucks by 75%, preventing premature death, reducing asthma attacks, and giving Delawareans cleaner air to breathe.
At the same time, DNREC is proposing to move forward with an incentive program to increase the number of electric vehicles within the state. While this is a strong step forward, DNREC must work with stakeholders to ensure that the public has a voice in how such an incentive program is structured.
To put a serious dent in our dependence on oil and significantly reduce tailpipe pollution, Delaware must move forward with the process of adopting the state-level Zero Emission Vehicle program as soon as possible. This program would set a clear goal for the adoption of plug-in electric vehicles within the state and ensure that Delaware consumers have cleaner choices at the showroom.
DNREC is accepting public comments on its proposal to reduce air pollution with clean car standards. I urge you to send the department a quick email and tell them to finalize clean car standards as soon as possible. With your help, we can put bad air quality days in the past.
-- Stephanie Herron, Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator, Sierra Club Delaware
Last week, thousands of Bangladeshis completed a nearly 250-mile, 5-day march from the capital city, Dhaka, to Rampal, in the Sundarbans area of southwest Bangladesh and home to the world’s largest mangrove forest. The participants -- men and women, students and professionals -- joined this massive undertaking with one unifying goal: to stop the 1,320-megawatt Rampal coal-fired power plant backed by the Indian state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and the Bangladesh state-owned Power Development Board (PDB).
Home to rich biodiversity, including the planet’s largest mangrove forest, the endangered royal Bengal tigers, and nearly extinct Irrawaddy dolphins, the Sundarbans was a finalist for the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and remains a UNESCO World Heritage site. But it is also so much more. The marchers know that toxic pollution from the plant will not only endanger this rich biodiversity, but also people who breathe the same air and drink the same water. The destruction of mangrove forests will devastate the local economy, costing nearly $7 billion (5.4 trillion taka), according to Professor Anu Muhammad, Secretary Chair of National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports.
Moreover, Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable nations to climate disruption in the world, and the mangrove forests are one of the only protections people have against powerful storms and rising sea levels. As Professor Muhammad explains, “no people can replicate the power that the Sundarbans possess. Sunderban has played a powerful role over the years to protect Bangladeshi people during cyclones like Sidr and Aila. There are many alternatives for producing electricity but there are no alternatives to the Sundarbans. We can produce more and cheaper electricity using renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar power. But instead we have arranged for the destruction of the Sundarbans for the sake of only 1,320 megawatts of energy.”
In fact, the very idea that people must choose between electricity and the environment is a false dichotomy. Centralized coal projects are actually very bad at reaching rural communities without electricity, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that if we are ever going to reach 100-percent energy access, more than half of services must be provided by clean, off-grid power. And the march in Bangladesh is not happening in a vacuum. People across the world are joining together to fight deadly coal projects and demand the clean energy alternatives they need to power the future.
The people of Bangladesh know that their health and well-being is intrinsically linked to the environment, and if the Rampal coal plant goes forward, it will not only poison the Sundarbans, it will poison the people and put their country’s future in danger. When clean renewable alternatives are readily available, it’s time to get on the right track.
--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program Representative
Were you one of the more than 35,000 people who attended electric vehicle (EV) promotion events in 98 cities this past weekend? Thanks to the third annual National Plug In Day, organized by the Sierra Club, Plug In America, the Electric Auto Association, and many local groups, the EV-curious got to learn what all the fuss is about when it comes to electric vehicles.
The future is here is what folks got to see up close: EVs are more fun to drive, cheaper to fuel, and cleaner to operate than conventional gas guzzlers.
California Governor Jerry Brown proclaimed Saturday Plug In Day and signed several EV bills into law, including those which:
- Fund programs supporting cleaner vehicle purchases (SB 359)
- Extend programs aimed at reducing state auto emissions (AB 8)
- Renew both the white and green sticker programs--which enabled plug in vehicles to drive in HOV lanes (AB 266)(SB 286)
- Established the Electric Vehicle Charging Stations Open Access Act, which seeks to make plug-in charging stations more accessible (SB 454)
- Requires the California Building Standards Commission and the Department of Housing and Community Development to establish standards for plug-in charging infrastructure in both multi-family housing and non-residential developments (AB 1092).
Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee proclaimed it Plug In weekend and celebrated the 50 recent installations of public EV chargers in his small state alone. At the Burlington event, the Vermont state government announced new financial incentives for EV charging infrastructure.
Getting "butts in cars" is what many EV advocates say is the best way to get people excited about switching to electric. According to reports by local organizers, more than 2,000 test-drives took place at events Plug In Day events nationwide, including 300 at the Sacramento event alone. In Diamond Bar, CA, the EV drivers who came to show off their plug-in vehicles added up 448, 893 "oil-free miles" among them, and the Herdon, VA event participants beat them with their combined 528,699 oil-free miles and counting.
There were Plug In Day proclamations in many cities, including Madison, WI, Carmel, IN, Huntsville, AL, Waldorf, MD, San Rafael and San Diego, CA, Putnam, CT, and Sarasota, FL. Speed enthusiasts got to see stock car racer Leilani Münter showcase her Tesla Model S at Charlotte, NC’s Plug In Day event held in conjunction with Octoberfest.
People aren't waiting until next year’s Plug In Day to continue EV test drives and purchases. This week alone, individuals, businesses, and government agencies are test driving EVs and other alternative fuel vehicles at the Plug In 2013 conference in San Diego and at the Green Fleets conference in Phoenix –where I got a chance to drive for the first time the Chevy Spark EV, the Hyundai Tucson hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, and the Ford Fusion plug-in hybrid. I was pleased to see the all-electric Zenith electric cargo and shuttle vans as well.
What is so exciting about Plug In Day is that it generates just the right kind of action that will boost the EV market: media attention (we got A LOT this year), government attention and investment in EV programs, business opportunities to show off cutting-edge technologies, and the chance for individual consumers to see up close these exciting vehicles driven by their friends and neighbors.
(Top Albany photo by Patrick Brisson; middle photo from Huntsville, TN, courtesy of Tennessee Valley EV Drivers; bottom photo of Frenchtown, NJ, Mayor Warren Cooper taken by J. Isaacs/Bucks County Renewables.)
-- Gina Coplon-Newfield is the Sierra Club's Director of Future Fleet & Electric Vehicles Initiative
Big polluters are high-fiving today as Ron Binz announced he is withdrawing his name for consideration to chair the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The coal industry and their pals in Congress launched a tremendous smear campaign against Binz's nomination because of his legacy in supporting clean energy when he was head of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. Today, Binz told Politico that his experience should be a warning: "I think the implications of this fight are something worth pondering. If this kind of handling of a nomination becomes…the new normal, that's going to make it a lot more difficult for good energy policy to grow," he said.
The career energy regulator and consultant said his record was "spun and respun" in an effort to show he was biased against coal and unfairly in favor of renewable power sources.
"The caricature that they created had nothing to do with who I am and nothing to do with what I might've brought to FERC. It was just a blood sport," he said.
In September, Binz appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee where he was slammed by Congressional friends of big polluters for his "anti-coal" clean energy policies. Binz's record shows innovative achievement in boosting job-creating cleanenergy usage while saving consumers money on their electric bills.
"Let's be honest. Big polluters and their allies in the Senate would not be satisfied unless we had a coal or oil executive leading FERC. That's not going to happen," said Michael Brune, Sierra Club Executive Director. "He is the kind of leader Americans need -- and, by consequence, he is exactly the kind of FERC Chairman big polluters don't want."
And so the gridlock in Congress continues, again in the form of blocking champions for clean energy, public health, and the environment. Of course, this isn't the first time this has happened. Gina McCarthy worked for both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, but still faced never-before-seen delays in her confirmation to be EPA Administrator. Our federal courthouses have vacancies on the bench as judges - like those for DC's Circuit court - are being blocked for purely political reasons. Key officials at the EPA have even been blocked for years on end.
The fact is that polluters and their political allies have resorted to unprecedented obstruction, abusing the rules of the Senate to stop any progress on the clean energy programs and jobs that they oppose tooth and nail. Until we fix the Senate and its outdated rules, big polluters and the politicians who blindly push their agenda will do everything possible to cling to their old way of fossil fuel pollution. These tactics have not only derailed the Senate and disgusted American voters -- they've also demonstrate that too many of our elected officials in Congress put special interests groups' priorities over the business of American families.
--Courtney Hight, Director of Sierra Club Democracy Programs
Beginning October 4, PBS will air a special conversation between two of the people I admire most in the world - Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry, and journalist Bill Moyers. Among many other topics, these two giants of American culture will discuss issues very close to my heart: coal, climate change, and the future of Appalachia and the planet. I can't wait to tune in to Wendell Berry: Poet & Prophet. I hope you will, too.
I've been a reader of Wendell Berry since I was a young woman, because he was a beloved author of two of my most important teachers and mentors - Jack Reese, a former chancellor who took me under his wing when I was an undergraduate in his Southern literature course at the University of Tennessee, and my high school English teacher Dale Gilmore, who was the kind of Dead-Poets-Society teacher that every smart kid in a small town wishes they had, and who helped set me on a path of living a life that matters, a path I still walk today.
Wendell Berry spoke to us, and so many others, because his essays, poems, and novels told a deep, clear truth about the place where we lived, about Appalachia and the South, with some of the most beautiful language I've ever encountered. That included telling the truth about coal, and the legacy of social, environmental, and economic unraveling it created across Appalachia, which stills plagues the region today. Wendell Berry brings this same lucidity and power to the topic of climate change, and the urgency to act now, before it's too late.
Another amazing thing about Wendell Berry is that he matches his words with action. He has protested and risked arrest in opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining, and to call for action on climate change. For those of us who have been working for many years to end mountaintop removal coal mining, Wendell Berry has been a prophet, a sage, and an inspiration.
In 2011, he joined Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in occupying the office of Kentucky governor to call for an end to mountaintop removal. The protesters expected they would be arrested after a couple of hours, but Berry is a revered figure in Kentucky - awarded the prestigious National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2011 - and so instead of arresting him, they let him stay. Berry and his fellow protesters occupied the Governor's office in what became a four-day sit in. Berry tells that story in this clip from the special.
Berry described mountaintop removal this way, in a 2005 essay: "Coal is undoubtedly something of value. And it is, at present, something we need - though we must hope we will not always need it, for we will not always have it. But coal, like the other fossil fuels, is a peculiar commodity. It is valuable to us only if we burn it. Once burned, it is no longer a commodity but only a problem, a source of energy that has become a source of pollution. And the source of the coal itself is not renewable. When the coal is gone, it will be gone forever, and the coal economy will be gone with it."
In the PBS special, Berry tells Moyers, "We don't have a right to ask whether we're going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is 'what's the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?'"
The combination of Wendell Berry and Bill Moyers, perhaps the wisest voice in American journalism today, is sure to yield profound insights about the fate of our planet and the obligation each of us has to help build a better world. I hope you’ll tune in - it's sure to be moving, inspiring, and unforgettable.
Wendell Berry: Poet & Prophet airs on "Moyers & Company" beginning October 4. For more information, go to billmoyers.com.
Today, is Yosemite National Park’s 123rd birthday -- an important occasion for one of our nation’s oldest National Parks. Yosemite is among our country’s crown jewels, and voices all across the nation are wishing the park a happy birthday. Even Google updated its homepage for the special day.
Its not hard to understand why so many Americans are passionate about Yosemite. The Park covers more than 760,000 acres -- about 95 percent of which is wilderness --and draws more than 3.7 million visitors a year. Sierra Club founder John Muir described his first experiences seeing Yosemite as “a window opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator.”
Yosemite’s big day is reason to celebrate --but, unfortunately, no one will be attending it’s birthday party. In fact, any visitors already there are being ushered out of the park. Why? Because Yosemite’s birthday falls on the very first day of the first government shutdown in seventeen years.
When the clock struck midnight last night, the federal government officially ran out of funding -- and the story of how we got to this point is an example of the Washington dysfunction that is affecting Americans all across the country. Effectively, House Republicans refused to pass routine legislation to fund the government without toxic political riders. As a result, they failed to fulfill the most basic aspect of their job: keeping the government open and working for American families.
The cost falls on everyone else. Hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country will be temporarily out of work. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will furlough 9 out of every 10 employees, leaving vulnerable Americans with almost no one to monitor pollution that could make them sick. And, our national parks and monuments are closed -- to everyone but oil and gas drillers.
American families deserve better. Yosemite deserves better. 123 years is a milestone of a birthday, marking 123 years of hikes, climbs, picnics, and camping trips. This marks 123 years of visitors experiencing spectacular granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, and Giant Sequoia groves.
But, today, visitors won’t be able to see that opening into heaven. We won’t be able to celebrate this birthday in person. Because of these political games Yosemite and other national parks and monuments are shuttered -- and the communities that surround them are bracing for impact. Each day visitors can’t experience Yosemite has a financial cost, too, as Yosemite tourism creates upwards of $379 million in economic activity each year. The National Parks Conservation Association estimates that communities around our parks could lose business adding up to about $30 million for every day of the shutdown. That’s real people losing real money because of a Washington political crisis that didn’t need to happen.
Rather than make the American people pay the cost, House Republicans need to stop the political posturing and get back to work. In the meantime, the Sierra Club’s 2.1 million members and supporters are proud to wish Yosemite a happy birthday. This year, the milestone is bittersweet, as the park will have to celebrate alone.
--Athan Manuel, Director, Lands Protection Program, Sierra Club
There is no question about it -- a government shutdown would be a debacle for American families. But, Congressional Republicans are refusing to do even the most basic and routine aspect of their jobs -- namely, keeping the government operational -- without extreme political grandstanding that has brought us to the eve of the first government shutdown since 1996. This past weekend, all eyes were on Speaker John Boehner, with questions lingering as to whether he could carve out a deal with his own Republican colleagues to pass routine funding legislation without toxic political riders added on.
But, with the clock ticking and every minute a precious opportunity to negotiate, John Boehner wasn’t in Washington working on a deal to prevent a shutdown -- instead, he was at the Greenbrier, a fancy hotel in West Virginia, dining with coal executives.
How’s that for priorities?
Let’s be clear about what the shutdown means. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, not just in Washington, D.C. but across the country, will be temporarily out of work. Our national parks will close -- to everyone but oil and gas drillers. The Environmental Protection Agency will effectively be shuttered, with 9 out of 10 employees furloughed, taking our clean air cops off the beat and leaving vulnerable Americans with almost no one to monitor pollution that could make them sick.
Maybe that’s why the coal industry was happy to host Boehner at a time when he could have been working to cut a deal: a government shutdown could mean that the floodgates will open for air pollution with few on the job to enforce critical public health and environmental safeguards.
On the eve of a government shutdown that would rattle the lives of millions of Americans, John Boehner wasn't working to corral his reckless caucus -- he was dining with coal executives. If you needed any more evidence that House Republicans put polluters before people, this is conclusive.--Melinda Pierce, Deputy Director of Federal Policy, Sierra Club
Starting with President Obama's announcement of an end to overseas coal financing in his Climate Action Plan, and quickly followed by new energy strategies at the World Bank and European Investment Bank that also reject coal, large international financial institutions are finally wising up to the fact that coal is a financially risky investment that causes massive suffering in local communities while doing little to alleviate energy poverty. But investigations by our partners at Oil Change International reveal that the World Bank continues to fund development policy loans and financial intermediaries that then use the money to fund coal projects, a clear violation of the coal ban that must end now or risk calling into question World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim's commitment to protect public health and fight climate disruption.
So how exactly does this work? In their report, Oil Change International shows how the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) created and financially backed the Indonesia Infrastructure Guarantee Fund, which then provided a $33.9 million guarantee for the Central Java coal-fired power station, for which the IFC served as a transitional advisor. In what Oil Change calls a “coal industry wish list,” the World Bank’s infrastructure program in Indonesia includes policies and government subsidies to promote over 40 coal projects, promoting dirty and deadly coal over renewable alternatives.
The danger posed by massive coal-fired power plants like Central Java cannot be understated. More than 7,000 local residents are strongly opposed to the project, and they have successfully stalled the $4 billion project by refusing to sell their land over the environmental impact of the plant. This is a story we've seen repeated time and time again across the globe, as local communities band together to save their land, their water, and their health from deadly coal.
The truth is that coal-fired power does little to reduce energy poverty. While industry likes to claim coal can provide power to those without access, the truth is that local communities are forced to contend with all of the devastating effects while transmission lines carry the energy to industries that can afford to pay more for electricity. In fact, the International Energy Agency found that over half of energy services must be provided by clean, off-grid renewables if we are ever going to reach 100 percent energy access.
Programs like the Indonesia Infrastructure Guarantee Fund provide a backdoor to funnel money towards dirty coal projects and undermine both the World Bank's energy strategy and President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. As the Bank’s largest shareholder, the U.S. has an obligation to oppose these loopholes, and as a longtime public health advocate, Dr. Kim must recognize the danger posed by coal and support local communities striving for safer alternatives. But there is good news. Project finance for Central Java will not go forward until October 6, which means the World Bank still has one week to reverse course and stop this deadly project.
-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International and Trade Representative
On the heels of last week's release of carbon pollution safeguards from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which requires future power plants to deal with their climate-disrupting carbon pollution, news is rolling in from across the U.S. about massive new clean energy projects that are meeting America's energy demand – and giving dirty fossil fuels a run for their money in the marketplace.
This week Xcel Energy announced it will triple the amount of solar power it offers while also adding another 450 megawatts of wind power. Here’s the best part -- they're investing in clean energy because it's the most cost-effective option. Look at this quote from Xcel spokesperson Michelle Aguayo:
And this quote from Xcel CEO David Eves:"This is the first time that we've seen, purely on a price basis, that the solar projects made the cut - without considering carbon costs or the need to comply with a renewable energy standard - strictly on an economic basis."
The prices of clean energy sources have plummeted in recent years compared to coal. Wind prices, for example, are down 50 percent since 2009. The cost of solar panels is down 80 percent since 2008. This has helped spur more than 50,000 megawatts of clean energy coming online since 2010 -- just as roughly the same amount of coal-fired power has been retired across the country.
A recent study shows that the U.S. adds a new solar powered system every four minutes. As one example, news came out Tuesday that Detroit-area residents can install rooftop solar thanks to a solar financing deal with Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office.
On top of all that -- affordable clean energy is to out-competing coal. For example, wind energy in Montana is providing power cheaper than the state's existing coal plant, Colstrip.
Another added bonus: clean energy is a clear economic boost to customers, not just utilities. For Xcel, a study released this week showed that "solar power systems in Colorado Xcel Energy districts provide up to $11 million in benefits for customers," including those on the grid who haven’t yet gone solar.
Need more? Officials in Henry County, Illinois, just announced that a year with wind turbines had added more than $1 million to the county's coffers.
Earlier this summer we celebrated Georgia Power's announcement that the utility will add a whopping 525 megawatts of solar power to its grid, the biggest solar commitment yet in the Southeast.
This came about in part thanks to an unusual partnership between the Sierra Club and the Tea Party in Georgia, proof that the demand for clean energy crosses partisan divides and unites Americans of all stripes who want to ensure we have access to safe, affordable, clean energy.
Finally, in Massachusetts, the state's biggest utilities just signed long-term contracts for 565 MW of wind, because it was cheaper than other sources, including coal and nuclear. This is the largest procurement of renewable energy in New England history, according to the Boston Globe. And on top of all that, this new clean energy is going to save ratepayers money, an estimated 75 cents to $1 per month.
In short, the great clean energy news just keeps coming, and we're welcoming it with open arms. Clean energy is making an impact right now, providing power at a massive scale, boosting local economies, out-competing coal, and giving natural gas a run for its money, even with gas at record low prices. These are exciting times, and the good news is just getting started.
-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director
Red means stop. No wonder so many of the 1,000 people who showed in opposition to a proposed coal export terminal wore red t-shirts to a public hearing.
The grassroots effort helped coal-export opponents outnumber pro-coal attendees 3-to-1 at the public hearing in Longview, Washington. The proposal that has awakened the entire Pacific Northwest is a massive coal export terminal that would send 44 million tons of coal on 16-mile-long trains through Longview every year en route to the coast, from where the coal would be shipped to East Asia. A massive export terminal would do little to benefit the local economy while leaving behind toxic coal dust. Endless coal trains would clog railways, hampering first responders and snarling traffic.
Last week's hearing, which lasted six hours, was first in the latest round of hearings. The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign has been organizing opposition to proposed coal export terminalss in the Pacific Northwest for the last two-plus years. Columbia Riverkeeper, Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Climate Solutions, Earth Ministry, and Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility all had a hand in ensuring a huge turnout.
At the Longview hearing, activists set up a "Coal is poison" sign on a 12-foot-tall inflatable globe outside the venue to greet attendees as they entered. Inside, speakers were selected through a random drawing.
"Our testimony was solid," said Laura Stevens, an Oregon-based Beyond Coal organizer. Teachers, nurses, business leaders, city councilmembers, and a cattle rancher from Montana offered testimony opposing the plan. Campaign organizers "even got an Australian from Newcastle to testify via Skype about the risks of living near a coal terminal there."
"How much more does my neighborhood have to suffer?" asked Dawn Hansen, a nurse who lives about a mile from the proposed terminal site. "Justice, not expedience, needs to be the guiding light in this process."
Earlier this month, Native American community representatives expressed their opposition."We don't see anything good for us or for our future generations with the proposed coal terminals," said William Iyall, chairman of Longview-based Cowlitz Tribe, as reported by the local media.
Outside the hearing, Dan Carpitha, whose mother's tribe, the Lemhi Shoshone, is the same as Sacajawea's, played a Native American prayer song on his flute. Carpitha told The Columbian newspaper that he opposes the coal terminal and is concerned about generations to come. The promised coal jobs, he said, remind him of "a bartender who continues to serve an obviously intoxicated customer because he needs the money."
Congratulations to the fantastic organizers and activists who worked hard for such a huge turnout!
-- Brian Foley
By Michael Marx, Sierra Club Beyond Oil Campaign Director
This weekend the third annual National Plug in Day celebrates surging electric car sales at more than 90 events. Today, less than three years after electric vehicles arrived on the mass market, more than 130,000 Americans are driving EVs. With more than a dozen models now on the road, EV sales have been rising by about 200 percent a year.
Ever wondered what it's like to drive an electric car? Ever wanted to talk to someone who is not a car dealer about how these cars are charged, and which cars are the most reliable or lowest in emissions? Want to hear how 130,000 Americans like the electric cars they are already driving daily? National Plug In Day events will take place Saturday, September 28 and Sunday, September 29 across the United States, plus Amsterdam and Mexico City. The fact is, people who are already driving electric cars love them and want to show them off. More than 1,700 EV drivers have already signed up to participate at these events nationwide, and thousands more of the EV-curious will attend, too. You can register for an event near you here.
The events will vary. In Philadelphia, U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah will speak to the crowd and test drive an electric car for himself. In Las Vegas, event participants will be treated to a solar EV charging canopy. In Seattle, speed enthusiasts will drag race their EVs. In Long Beach, CA, upwards of 200 electric vehicles are expected to be available for viewing and test drives, and the mayor will issue a proclamation in honor of the day and local EV leaders. In Amsterdam, the E-Challenge will roll out more than 250 EVs through its city center.
Heard buzz about BMW's i3 electric car scheduled to go on the market next spring? Organizers of the Tucson, Arizona, Plug In Day event have been selected to feature one of only a handful of these pre-production beauties at their event. The organizers of the Baltimore event will get to share information about EVs and raffle off an EV charger cord at a booth at Camden Yards during an Orioles-Red Sox game.
The Sierra Club has teamed up with Plug In America, the Electric Auto Association, and dozens of local groups to organize National Plug In Day. In addition to biking, public transit, and other greener transportation alternatives, the Sierra Club is committed to promoting a shift to electric vehicles as one important way to reduce emissions, slash our dependence on oil, and save families money at the fuel pump. The Sierra Club's new interactive online EV Guide allows visitors to type in their zip code and find how the EV of their choice compares in emissions to a comparable conventional vehicle (based on the region's electricity sources), what EV incentives exist in their state, how much money they will save in fuel, and what EVs are for sale in their area. It also includes regular newsy blog posts.
We hope to see you this weekend at a National Plug In Day event. Sooner than later, you may be showing off your electric car, too.
This summer the United States and the European Union launched talks to establish a massive new free trade agreement. The second round of talks will take place in early October in Brussels, Belgium. Negotiators will cover many sensitive topics, from whether the European Union should start to import genetically modified crops to whether corporations will have the right to sue governments over regulations that corporations allege reduce their bottom line. Another important topic, often overlooked, is the pact’s effect on the efficiency of new passenger cars and trucks.
Less than a year removed from adoption of U.S. vehicle standards of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, which will reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent, it is critical that any U.S.-EU trade deal not open automaker loopholes that could slow down progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
When it comes to climate disruption, passenger cars and trucks (also known as light-duty vehicles) are a big deal. In the United States, light-duty vehicles emit roughly 20 percent of the nation’s climate-disrupting carbon pollution. Similarly, in the European Union, passenger cars and trucks account for roughly 12 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
The auto industry is also big business, and North America and Europe are two of the biggest auto markets in the world. Nearly 82 million vehicles were sold worldwide in 2012, with 14.5 million vehicles sold in the United States and 12.5 million vehicles sold in Europe.
U.S.-EU trade negotiations may disrupt the path to a clean-car future. In a leaked draft negotiating text, European Union negotiators expressed a desire to “promote regulatory compatibility” of vehicle standards, including those laws designed to reduce emissions from cars and trucks, in order to increase vehicle trade. This could either be accomplished through “mutual recognition,” in which the U.S. would recognize vehicles certified by EU standards as equal to U.S. standards and vice-versa, or through “harmonization,” in which the U.S. and EU each change its regulations to be more similar. While harmonizing standards and promoting compatibility may sound like a generally good idea, the devil is in the details.
Both the United States and the European Union have standards in place that will reduce greenhouse gas pollution from vehicles over time. Last year, the Obama administration finalized historic standards that will reduce emissions from the average passenger vehicle to 163 grams of carbon dioxide per mile by 2025, equivalent to 109 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer. The European Union has more stringent standards that will lower emissions from the average vehicle to 130 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer by 2015, with a proposal to lower them to 95 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer by 2020.
Although both sides have increasingly stringent vehicle standards, for the purposes of complying with these laws, both the U.S. and the EU have terribly outdated vehicle-testing procedures. As I detailed in Sierra Club’s “The Truth Behind the Testing” report, the U.S. procedures used to test whether vehicles are meeting the fuel efficiency standard were set by a 1975 law and make arcane assumptions that, for example, the driver will average 48 miles per hour on the highway and never drive with the air conditioning on. As a result, fuel efficiency values used for complying with the law are about 25 percent greater than what vehicles actually achieve on the road. In emissions terms, an automaker gets credit for emitting roughly 20 percent less greenhouse gas than the car actually will on the road. On the bright side, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to check automaker’s test results and make sure they are being conducted appropriately.
In an even more lax system, EU test procedures were also constructed some 30 years ago. A great report from our European colleagues Transport & Environment, Mind the Gap, details how automakers can rig their cars to perform perfectly for the test, even going so far as to disconnect the alternator,
tape over cracks between doors, and effectively disable the brakes. Further, automakers are somehow allowed to report emissions that are up to 4 percent less than what they measured in the laboratory. Independent tests have found that emissions from normal vehicles are roughly 23% greater than the emissions reported by automakers, with some individual models showing real-world emissions of 50% greater than what automakers report. Thankfully, the European Union may adopt more realistic test procedures that can’t be as easily manipulated by automakers, possibly as early as 2015.
So what does this mean for U.S.-EU trade negotiations? As negotiators look to make vehicle regulations as similar as possible between the two sides, it is possible that “mutual recognition” or “harmonization” could lead to more pollution and oil consumption. For example, under a “mutual recognition” scenario, one could easily imagine American auto companies being allowed to export cars to Europe that don’t meet European emissions standards. Under a “harmonization” scenario where the U.S. and EU would each change its regulations to become more alike, one could imagine some pushing to pair Europe’s more lax testing procedures with the United States’ less stringent emissions standards.
The bottom line: the United States and Europe have made historic strides in reducing emissions from passenger vehicles. It is critical that a potential free trade pact between the U.S. and European Union doesn’t take us backward, where it would allow cars to spew more pollution and guzzle more gas. So as U.S.-EU trade talks progress, keep an eye out for the effects on cars. We cannot let landmark vehicle standards be weakened by a trade pact.
--Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Sierra Club's Beyond Oil Campaign