Category Archives: Environment

More Fires

NASA image of the smoke from the fires in Southern California on Dec. 5, 2017. (Image: NASA twitter feed)

Ventura County is battling fast moving fires

by Brian Leubitz

While Sonoma and Napa Counties are just beginning to recover from the fires there, a new rash of powerful fires are burning in Southern California. Thousands have been forced to evacuate already, and strong winds are pushing the fires forward at up to 80 miles per hour.

As of earlier this afternoon, the Ventura County Thomas Fire has burned 50,000 acres, destroyed at least 150 structures and forced 27,000 people to evacuate,  click here for an LA Times list of the road closures and evacuation orders.

Meanwhile, a fire in Sylmar has burned over 10,000 acres. An evacuation order for the eastern part of the city is in place, but with the winds, all nearby residents should be ready to leave quickly.

This fire season has already been a hard one, with 43 dying in the North Bay fires. Yet there are some who still argue that climate change isn’t real. Yes, there are cyclical climate patterns, and the heavy rain last year added fuel to burn all across the state. And it is hard to point at any individual fire and say that this is the doing of climate change.

But in aggregate, the worsening of wildfires is due to climate change. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists points out some of these changes:

Wildfire seasons (seasons with higher wildfire potential) in the United States are projected to lengthen, with the southwest’s season of fire potential lengthening from seven months to all year long. Additionally, wildfires themselves are likely to be more severe.

Researchers and modelers project that moist, forested areas are the most likely to face greater threats from wildfires as conditions grow drier and hotter.

Surprisingly, some dry grassland areas may be less at risk, but not because they would be flourishing—the intense aridity is likely to prevent these grasses from growing at all, leaving these areas so barren that they are likely to lack even the fodder for wildfire.  

The governor has already declared a disaster in Ventura County. Be safe out there.

Californians Want Action on Environment

New poll shows Californians want to lead on responding to climate change

by Brian Leubitz

In a PPIC poll just released this evening, Californians said that they want action on the environment. As you can see from the graph, Californians think the time to act is now.

About two-thirds of Californians (68%) support the state law, AB 32, which requires California to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Strong majorities have favored this law since the survey first asked about it in July 2006, but a partisan divide has emerged on the question. While most Democrats, Republicans, and independents favored the law in 2006, support since then has increased 14 points among Democrats (from 67% to 81% today) and dropped 26 points among Republicans (from 65% to 39% today). Support has dipped slightly among independents (from 68% to 62% today). A strong majority of Californians (65%) favor the state making its own policies to address global warming.

Why the big drop in Republican support? Ah, that would be the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is gone. AB 32 was as much his doing as the sponsors of the bill, current Sen. Pavley or former Speaker Fabian Nunez or anybody else. Now that he’s out of office, there just isn’t that big name Republican support and so the cratering should be no surprise.

Many see the drought and long-term warming trends as serious challenges for the state:  

Majorities of Californians are at least somewhat concerned about four possible impacts of global warming in the state. More than six in 10 adults are very concerned about droughts (64%) and wildfires (61%) that are more severe. Fewer Californians express this level of concern for heat waves that are more severe (44%) or rising sea levels (32%). The share saying they are very concerned about droughts that are more severe is up 15 points since last July (49%) and is at a new high (previously 60% in July 2007). Concern about more-severe wildfires was similar in the past.

There is a lot more environmental data here for those that care to look through the cross-tabs, they can be found at PPIC’s website. You’ll find questions on the carbon tax (58% support), more detailed questions on cap and trade(51 %support), KeystoneXL (53% support) and a whole lot more.

Now, as for elected officials, don’t expect any big changes come November. Gov. Brown has a 53% approval rating, with just 28% disapproving. And he holds a 52-33 lead over Republican Neel Kashkari. The Legislature isn’t fairing quite so well, with a 38% approval rating, but that is slightly up from May’s 36%. And President Obama has a 50% approval rate here in California.

Has the California Fracking Debate Been Mooted?

South Belridge Oil Fields, Highway 33Federal government decreases recoverable Monterey Shale oil estimates by 96%

by Brian Leubitz

Many in government were expecting there to be something of a North Dakota style oil boom in California. Perhaps we best not rely on that for all of our future revenues:

Federal energy authorities have slashed by 96% the estimated amount of recoverable oil buried in California’s vast Monterey Shale deposits, deflating its potential as a national “black gold mine” of petroleum.

Just 600 million barrels of oil can be extracted with existing technology, far below the 13.7 billion barrels once thought recoverable from the jumbled layers of subterranean rock spread across much of Central California, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said. The new estimate, expected to be released publicly next month, is a blow to the nation’s oil future and to projections that an oil boom would bring as many as 2.8 million new jobs to California and boost tax revenue by $24.6 billion annually. (LA Times)

Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t billions of barrels of oil under California, but it is simply too difficult to access, even using the latest technologies. Some will certainly continue to explore here, and maybe with future technologies more will be unlocked. However, for the time being, the boom won’t be coming.

I suppose my headline is a bit provocative, because there will still be fracking in the state to access some of that 600 million barrels. And we still need to learn more about the fracking process before we go gung-ho on our shale with a bunch of questionable chemicals and our increasingly precious water. But the incentive for large scale fracking operations has just been drastically diminished.

Butte County Considers Fracking Ban

County concerned about water and seismic risk

by Brian Leubitz

Butte County doesn’t actually have any fracking operations right now, and isn’t likely to become a hotbed of fracking anytime soon. But the Board of Supervisors is making a preemptive statement this week:

Tuesday the Board of Supervisors voted to have county staff prepare an ordinance that bans fracking.

Documents prepared by county staff for Tuesday’s meeting described fracking as “a common term for hydraulic fracturing that is a technique of well stimulation used to increase petroleum production,”

At request from the county’s Water Commission, the supervisors were asked to adopt and ordinance that would require a conditional use permit before a fracking operation could take place within county jurisdiction. (Chico ER)

Even if there weren’t any fracking operations around the corner, at the very least this local action could send a statement to other areas and perhaps be a model.

Massive El Niño Could End Drought, Bring Floods to California

Predictions of a huge El Niño event bring concerns across the globe

by Brian Leubitz

One of the interesting things about El Niño is that is somewhat predictable months ahead of time. April traditionally is one of the worst months for such predictions, but a very large pocket of warm water in the Pacific is bringing warnings of dire impacts.

The warm water just below the ocean’s surface is on par with that of the biggest El Niño ever recorded, in 1997-98. That event caused $35 billion in damages and was blamed for around 23,000 deaths worldwide, according to the University of New South Wales. The 1997-98 El Niño is also the only other time since records begin in 1980 that sub-surface Pacific Ocean water has been this warm in April.

*** **** ***

As I wrote last fall, the coming El Niño could be enough to make 2014 the hottest year in recorded history, and 2015 could be even warmer than that. … And people in drought-stricken California could be forgiven if they’re crossing their fingers for a strong El Niño, which is linked to some of the wettest years in state history. Still, it’s certainly no slam dunk that an El Niño would be enough to end the crippling drought there or even bring above normal rainfall. And if the El Niño ends up being as strong as current predictions indicate, there’s a chance it may even tip the scales from drought to deluge across the state, spurring damaging mudslides amid bursts of heavy rain. The two strongest El Niños in the last 30 years-1982-83 and 1997-98-both caused widespread damage from flooding in California. (Slate / Eric Holthaus)

Given that we still haven’t hit 50% of our average seasonal weather for the winter/fall wet season, the rain would certainly be welcome and would ease a lot of the very tensions in the Central Valley. That being said, we can no longer ignore the long range planning issues for climate change even if we get a very wet winter next year. The drought cycles aren’t going to get any better, and we need to clearly prioritize our plans for water so that we aren’t fighting each time water allowances are cut.

About that “Carbon Tax”

darrell steinbergSteinberg proposal would throw monkey wrench into cap and trade

by Brian Leubitz

Cap and trade is far from perfect. And if you ask many economists, you’d find a carbon tax as a solid alternative. However, a muddy mix of the two? Well, that raises more questions than it answers.

And, so we have Sen. Steinberg’s proposal:

Next year for the first time, transportation fuels will come under the program: oil companies will have to account for the emissions from Californians’ cars and trucks. The cost of buying additional pollution permits is one that companies are almost certain to pass along to consumers.

Steinberg’s plan would make it more direct, as a tax that we pay at the pump. His reasoning is that while drivers will pay more for gas either way, with a tax the increase is more predictable and transparent.

“What people in California also need is pollution cuts,” said Tim O’Connor, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s California Climate Initiative. He said that while he supports some of the ideas behind Steinberg’s proposal, he’s concerned it could undermine California’s efforts to charge for the right to pollute, and to reduce greenhouse emissions overall. (KQED / Molly Samuel)

The bill seems far from complete, and will likely get a lot of revisions. But, today is the deadline for bills to be filed, and so here we have something. Now, generally when the Western States Petroleum Association is happy, as they have said they are eager to listen to these changes, it should draw attention.

Whether these changes would go anywhere involves a lot of questions for a system that was just about to start in earnest next year. This will surely change, but environmentalists will want to keep a keen eye on this bill.

Keystone XL Builder Has Explosive Problems

TransCanada, the company that would build and own the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada’s tar sand fields to the U.S. Gulf Coast, has dialed up its lobbying in Congress after a U.S. State Department report that favored the pipeline. The giant oil pipeline is perfectly clean and safe, say the lobbyists. TransCanada will be using the best, newest technology, monitoring and materials. The citizens of Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska and points south need not worry their little heads.

Then, BOOM! A TransCanada natural gas pipeline in Manitoba, Canada blew up in a spectacular fireball on January 25, reaching hundreds of feet into the air. It burned for 12 hours and only its rural location prevented a human catastrophe. (A nearly identical gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California killed eight people and burned a neighborhood in 2010). A TransCanada pipeline in Ontario exploded in a nearly identical manner in 2011. Another TransCanada pipe in Ontario blew up in 2009 as well.

TransCanada ExplosionA week after the Manitoba blast, TransCanada still didn’t know what caused it, or wouldn’t say.

Oil pipelines may fail without fireballs, but are no less dangerous to neighbors and the environment. No matter what a pipeline carries, maintenance and vigilance matter. But keeping a pipeline from exploding-or gushing a lake of flammable, toxic crude oil into local water supplies-isn’t a profit center. (What would pour out of Keystone XL is actually a slurry of corrosive tar and chemical-laced, highly flammable thinners.) To a corporation, safety spending is a dead loss. Only the lip service is free.

Ronald Reagan famously said of negotiating with the Soviet Union, “Trust, but verify.” The same goes for the promises of TransCanada, yet U.S. pipeline regulators are too strapped for staff and money to verify even existing pipeline safety, according to a New York Times story.

Another TransCanada pipeline explosion in 2009, in Ontario’s northern wilderness, was blamed on “95% corrosion” of the pipe. A Canadian government report said TransCanada’s inspection tools “failed to accurately assess” the level of corrosion.

The real question about the Keystone XL pipeline is why the United States should bear all of these risks, for no reward. A Consumer Watchdog study last year found that the pipeline, by sending Canadian oil overseas from the Gulf Coast, would actually raise gasoline prices in the U.S. The number of permanent jobs created would be paltry. Domestic oil production is rising and U.S. consumption is falling, so there is no economic rationale for more tar sands oil.

The XL pipeline, with all its attendant risks of spills, pollution–even deliberate vandalism or terrorism–is being built through America but not for America.

Canadians who understand the danger are turning down proposals for oil pipelines to their own Pacific coast.

Oh, and the U.S.State Department report that TransCanada’s lobbyists are waving so proudly? It was drafted by a subcontractor with financial ties to TransCanada. Chalk up one more reason why the U.S. should decline to be TransCanada’s beast of burden.

Posted by Judy Dugan, Research Director Emeritus of Consumer Watchdog.


Governor mulls official designation

by Brian Leubitz

It doesn’t take too long of a look around to see we are in a drought, but this picture of Millerton Lake on the San Joaquin River speaks volumes. Our extended run of pleasant weather is lovely to enjoy some outdoor activities, but not so great to fill up our reservoirs. Temperatures are expected to be in the upper 60s in San Francisco this week, and there just isn’t much sign of substantial rainfall anytime soon.

Gov. Brown hasn’t officially made any drought declarations, but he’s getting ready:

Gov. Jerry Brown said Monday his administration would soon declare that California is officially in the midst of a drought.

“It’s coming,” Brown said of a formal proclamation when asked during a press conference at Fresno City Hall. “Just be patient.”

A recent survey of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains found the state’s water reserves are at just 20% of normal levels. Other measures have declared 2013 to be the driest year in California history.

“It’s really serious,” Brown said. “In many ways it’s a mega-drought; it’s been going on for a number of years.”(LA Times / Anthony York

At this point, even if we get a few good systems in February and March, we will still be far behind where we need to be. There will be big fights over water this summer, so we might as well start conserving now. While the big water users are primarily agricultural, we can all do our own small part.

The Day the Sierra Club Opposed Funding Long-Term Carbon Emission Reductions

Originally posted at the California High Speed Rail Blog

You would think that California’s leading environmental organizations, who claim to be committed to fighting the climate crisis and reducing carbon emissions, would enthusiastically support Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to use 19% of annual cap-and-trade revenues to fund a major infrastructure project that reduces millions of tons of CO2 while also reducing other forms of air pollution. You would also think these organizations would be sure to do so when the climate denying right has targeted that project for destruction.

You would be wrong.

Sierra Club California, in an amazing and shocking move, has come out against the funding of long-term reductions in CO2 emissions. They plan to advocate against Governor Brown’s plan to fund HSR with cap-and-trade revenues, even though high speed rail is one of the best ways to reduce oil consumption and CO2 emissions – reasons why the California Air Resources Board has included HSR as part of its AB 32 scoping plans for over five years.

More in the extended…

Here’s the shocking quote:

“We still have an opportunity to make a difference on how bad climate change will be. And the way you do that will be to take all of the available resources, you spend them now on things that get you reductions now,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “If this had been a choice between the Golden Gate Bridge and you had the opportunity to stop typhoid at that very moment, I think the people of San Francisco would’ve stopped typhoid.”

Phillips is completely wrong here, displaying a line of thinking that will be fatal to the effort to address climate change if continued. The way we make a difference is to take all of the resources (subtract the word “available,” more on that in a moment) and spend them now on everything that can give you lasting, permanent reductions – especially those things that provide a permanently lower level of CO2 emissions.

Her analogy is absurd and displays the logic of austerity, a logic that makes it impossible to fight climate change. Austerity policies force people to choose between important priorities rather than funding everything by insisting you can only use the “available” resources rather than the total resources that exist in a society. Addressing climate change requires large sums of money to be spent, in the trillions, in order to avert a far more costly and deadly catastrophe. Anyone who plays into the logic of austerity, which says you can’t spend that money and have to pick and choose a few small things to do at the expense of other priorities, is espousing a logic that ensures we will not be able to do what is necessary to reduce CO2 emissions.

In the 1930s, if SF were facing a typhoid epidemic at the same time as construction were about to begin on the Golden Gate Bridge, the reaction would not have been to stop the bridge. Politicians would have said “well obviously we need to do both.”

But even that analogy is flawed. It suggests that Phillips does not see HSR as a tool in the fight against climate change. And that is very bad news. A more accurate analogy would be that SF is facing a typhoid epidemic and one of the leading public health advocates says “we only have so much available money, let’s spend it on addressing people’s symptoms now and not on finding a lasting cure.”

Despite Sierra Club California’s incredible argument, most others engaged in the fight to reduce CO2 emissions understands that we will lose unless we make major lifestyle changes that include the way we travel around the state of California. The California Air Resources Board, charged with implementing AB 32 and the cap-and-trade system, understands this quite well. In their investment plan for the cap-and-trade revenues, they make this very important statement when introducing the section that calls for spending part of those revenues on HSR:

Full implementation of existing State strategies will achieve the 2020 reduction target. However, extensive additional strategies are needed both to ensure ongoing maintenance of the 2020 limit – as population and related growth increase after 2020 – and to meet post-2020 goals.

Reaching the 2050 goal (80 percent below 1990 levels) will require far-reaching new approaches to how we plan our communities, how we move people and freight, how we power our State, how industries produce their products, how successful we are in treating waste as a source of energy, and how well we preserve California’s lands and natural resources that sequester carbon.

Sierra Club California is saying this is wrong, that you don’t have to do anything to ensure ongoing maintenance of the 2020 limit, and that we don’t need to worry about reaching the 2050 goal. They are displaying a stunning lack of foresight and a contempt of long-term planning that will undo all of the gains California is making when it comes to climate change.

To make matters worse, Phillips is playing into the hands of people who are determined to stop the fight against climate change. Republicans and Tea Party members in California and in Congress are looking for ways to stop the high speed rail project. You can bet they will pounce on her statements and use them to attack HSR across the country. “Even the Sierra Club doesn’t want this funded!” they’ll say.

Assemblymember Jeff Gorell, a Ventura Republican, is running against Congresswoman Julia Brownley this year. Brownley is a Democrat who voted for high speed rail in the summer of 2012. Republicans attacked her for that vote, but failed to keep her out of Congress. Gorell yesterday filed an initiative to overturn Prop 1A and stop the HSR project. It won’t go anywhere since it lacks funding to get onto the ballot. But it does suggest that Gorell plans to make an issue of HSR this year. Sierra Club California, by opposing Brown’s cap-and-trade funding plan, has just undermined Brownley and handed a big win to Gorell.

Another environmental group that should know better is the Greenlining Institute:

Likewise, the Greenlining Institute does not oppose the rail project but will push lawmakers to devote cap-and-trade money to transit operations, spokesman Bruce Mirken said. The organization sponsored successful legislation two years ago requiring that a quarter of the greenhouse gas revenue be targeted to low-income and minority communities most affected by pollution.

“High-speed rail would not have been on our priority list,” Mirken said.

Then Greenlining Institute has some seriously flawed priorities. One of the worst forms of greenlining in the state is the location of freeways near low-income communities and communities of color. This problem is especially bad in the Central Valley, where emissions from vehicles is one of the leading causes of asthma and air pollution. The Valley has some of the worst air pollution in the country. HSR will help reduce those emissions. How Greenlining Institute can say that’s not a priority is shocking.

I am all for transit operating funding. But that’s why Governor Brown is planning to use only 19% of the cap-and-trade funds for HSR. That leaves over $1 billion for other priorities, including transit funding. It is austerity logic to say we have to pick and choose between these priorities. Greenlining Institute should be leading the call for a hike in the statewide gas tax to fund transit operations. Instead they are calling for a de facto alliance with the Tea Party to kill HSR.

I don’t know if these groups even care about HSR. Their statements suggests they are happy to watch it die. Because that’s what may well happen if Brown’s proposal for using cap-and-trade funds for HSR is stopped. The state needs to show a Sacramento judge in the next few months that they have revenues sufficient to make a new financing plan work. There’s no time to come up with some other source of money in order to survive the lawsuit, and notably, neither Sierra Club California nor Greenlining Institute are proposing one.

These groups must keep in mind CARB’s point about the long term. We will never achieve the kind of reductions we need to avoid catastrophe just by small measures. I am a huge transit supporter and love electric cars. But those alone will not solve the climate crisis. We need to re-engineer how California operates. We need to eliminate all burning of fossil fuels as soon as possible, and should start with those alternatives that carry a lot of people. HSR is a godsend when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions, using renewable electric power to move people quickly between cities, getting them out of airplanes and cars. We should have built HSR thirty years ago. We’re building it now, and if climate change is as pressing as Phillips says it is, we have no time to lose in getting it funded and under construction.

The main reason I care about HSR, the reason I started this blog, was because I saw it as a crucial tool in the effort to reduce CO2 emissions. I am amazed and appalled that some California environmentalists are willing to oppose the funding of long-term CO2 emission reducers like HSR because they cannot understand the politics and cannot envision anything other than austerity.

Members of Sierra Club chapters in California need to rise up against this flawed, damaging, short-term thinking. Let the Sacramento office know how you feel. Tell them that it’s not acceptable to help the right destroy HSR and that funding long-term reduction of CO2 emissions must be a priority.

Solar’s Double Agent

In a column posted earlier this week on San José Inside, I looked back on the energy battles of 2013, as big utilities launched attacks on policies like net metering to stifle innovation and maintain their profit margins, only to be turned back at every turn by an organized coalition of solar companies.

Led by The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC), the top rooftop solar companies successfully preserved net metering in Idaho, Louisiana, Arizona, and California. And following TASC’s lead, the 40-year-old Solar Energy Industries Association (or SEIA) took on a stronger tone in its advocacy. The shift at SEIA coincided with the naming of Nat Kreamer, CEO of Clean Power Finance (CPF), as Vice Chairman of SEIA’s Board of Directors.

Kreamer’s typically aggressive tone toward big utilities behind the scenes contrasts with a relatively amicable public front. As reported in my earlier article, according to a CPF spokesperson, CPF works with TASC while not identifying as an official public member.  Publicly they have taken “a more measured approach with utilities” because of their unique business model as the confluence between supply and demand.

In my column, I referenced Kreamer’s military background and suggested that he may see himself and CPF as a “double agent” in the struggle for our energy future. CPF seemed to embrace this image by re-posting the column on their website.

As if to drive the point home, this week CPF announced a new partnership with midwest utility investor Integrys that creates “a residential solar finance fund through the CPF Market, an online platform that empowers electric power companies to invest in residential solar.” You can read more in this CPF press release.

Typically, CPF will allow their partners on the solar installation side to promote their own brand through the CPF Market. Indeed, in a note sent to those partners, CPF talks about how other vendors “put their brand first,” and goes on to say, “We support your brand by being ‘white-label’ to your customers.” Conversely, the deal with Integrys puts the utility company front and center, which Kreamer makes clear in the press release:

“CPF is currently the only residential solar finance company that allows a retail energy company such as Integrys Energy Services to set the parameters of its fund, promote its brand to consumers and own 100 percent of the asset.”

Perhaps influenced by Kreamer’s leadership, the SEIA called the development “very good news,” citing the boost that big utility investment can deliver to the residential distributed generation (DG) solar sector. Because recent energy battles are happening mostly in the public eye thanks to expanded press coverage, it’s hard to think of CPF as a double agent in the traditional, covert sense. Instead, it may be more accurate to label their tactics as a “carrot and stick” approach.

Regardless of what you call it, time will tell if the approach bears fruit in the long term. At the very least, it will be an interesting story to watch in the year ahead.