Why We Can't Just Shut Up and Eat Our Cookies?

Fracking-rigGas drilling rig near Clearville, Pennsylvania. Photo by Mark Schmerling.

By Ivy Main, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter Chair

I grew up with brothers, so I knew from an early age that the easiest way to make friends with guys was to feed them chocolate chip cookies. I took this strategy with me to college, commandeering the tiny kitchen in our coed dorm. The aroma wafting down the hallways reliably drew a crowd.

One fan was so enthusiastic that he wanted to learn to make cookies himself. So the next time, he showed up at the start of the process. He watched me combine sugar and butter, eggs and white flour.

Instead of being enthusiastic, he was appalled. It had never occurred to him that anything as terrific as a cookie could be made of stuff so unhealthy. It's not that he thought they were created from sunshine and elf magic; he just hadn't thought about it at all. He left before the cookies even came out of the oven.

I felt so bad about it, I ate the whole batch.

But I can empathize with that guy when I'm told that as an environmentalist, I should love natural gas. Natural gas is the chocolate chip cookie of fossil fuels. At the point of consumption, everybody loves it. It's cheap, there's gobs of it, and it burns cleaner than coal, with only half the carbon dioxide emissions. Disillusionment sets in only when you look at the recipe. ("First, frack one well...") I realize we have only ourselves to blame. For years, environmentalists talked about gas as a "bridge fuel" that could carry us from a fossil fuel past to a future powered by renewable energy. No one would tarry on that bridge, we figured, because gas was expensive. We'd hurry along to the promised land of wind and solar.

But that was before hydrofracking and horizontal drilling hit the scene. Fracking opened up vast swaths of once-quiet forest and farmland to the constant grinding of truck traffic heading to drilling rigs that operate all day and night, poisoning the air with diesel fumes and sometimes spilling toxic drilling fluids onto fields and into streams. It was before studies documented well failures that let toxic chemicals and methane seep back up along the well borings and into aquifers, contaminating drinking water.

And it was before scientists sounded the alarm on "fugitive" methane emissions from wellheads: gas that escapes into the air unintentionally, sometimes at levels so high as to cancel out the climate advantage of burning natural gas instead of coal.

But just as environmentalists were thinking, "Whoa, natural gas turns out to be a bridge to nowhere," electric utilities were embracing fracked gas in a big way. Fracking has made gas so cheap that giving up coal is no sacrifice. It's so cheap they see no reason to get off the bridge and embrace renewable energy. At one conference I attended, a gas company executive gushed, "Natural gas is no longer a bridge fuel. It’s a destination fuel!"

All I could think was, "In that case, the destination must be Cleveland." Which was surely unfair to Cleveland.

Just to be clear: Environmentalists are not opposed to gas because we are spoil-sports, or purists, or hold stock in solar companies. The problem with natural gas is that it isn't made by Keebler elves, but extracted through a nasty process that is harming the planet in ways both local and global.

If the best anyone can say about natural gas is that it's not as bad as coal, then lingering on the bridge makes no sense. And anything we do that keeps us here -- opening up more lands to fracking, or building new pipelines to transport fracked gas -- is both foolish and dangerous. Foolish, because embracing cheap gas distracts us from the serious business of building wind and solar and using energy more efficiently; and dangerous, because the planet will not stop warming while we play shell games with carbon.

World Looks To OECD As High Level Commission Calls For Phasing Out Coal

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Today, the high powered Global Commission on the Climate and Economy released its flagship report on global coal use and the economy: The New Climate Economy.

The report pulls no punches when it comes to coal, including a call for a global coal phaseout involving an immediate end to investments in new unabated coal-fired power plants globally and the retirement of existing unabated coal-fired power plants in high income countries.

Perhaps most importantly, the report calls for governments to shift the “burden of proof” away from assuming that coal is the only solution to the world’s growing energy demands and instead takes into consideration the devastating social, environmental, and economic costs of coal.

In short, the Commission is demanding public policymakers move beyond coal.

To be clear, this is not simply the policy prescriptions of environmentalists. The Commission is chaired by the former president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, and is filled with former heads of state and current and former executives from Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and other major financial institutions.

Many multilateral development banks (MDBs) and a few governments have already taken steps to implement similar policies. President Obama called for an end to overseas financing of new coal-fired power plants in his Climate Action Plan, and since then the U.K., the Nordic countries, and the Netherlands have joined the pledge.  Meanwhile, the World Bank, the European Investment Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have also committed to end financing for new coal plants.

In addition to calling on high income countries to stop building new, unabated coal-fired power plants immediately and accelerate the retirement of their existing plants, the report also calls on middle income countries to limit new coal-fired power plants and begin retiring their existing fleet by 2025. Ultimately, the Commission is seeking a global phase-out of unabated fossil fuel power generation by 2050.

And it’s pretty clear why: in addition to driving dangerous climate disruption, these coal plants are having enormous effects on human health. In fact, recent reports estimate up to 100,000 people in India and 250,000 people in China die each year as a result of coal pollution.

With this cost to human life in mind, along with instability in the international coal markets and the looming threat of climate disaster, the Commission has come out with a series of recommendations to move away from coal while simultaneously supporting strong economic growth and promoting energy access for developing countries.

The first dominoes have fallen. Now it is time for the rest of the world’s richest countries to commit to end financing for coal and instead use their investments to support clean energy. All eyes are on the next big opportunity to put the Commission’s call to action into practice: countries must agree to narrowly limit their support of export credits to overseas coal projects through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Some of the world’s biggest heavy hitters are calling for action. It’s time for the OECD to deliver.

-- Justin Guay, Associate Director, Sierra Club International Climate Program, and Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

400 more reasons to march on Sept. 21

Climate poster

The facts are in: global carbon emissions are putting us over the edge.

The World Meteorological Organization’s newly-released annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin has confirmed that greenhouse gasses (GHGs)   have reached their highest level ever -- and humans are to blame.

This year’s report shows that in 2013, Carbon Dioxide (CO2) -- one of the most potent GHGs -- reached 396 parts per million (ppm). To put that into perspective, that’s almost 3 ppm higher than 2012 and represents the largest increase from one year to the next that we’ve ever seen. That was, of course, until April of this year. Then, CO2 reached a record 400 ppm, a 4 ppm jump in the first four months of 2014 alone.

If this trend continues, we can undoubtedly expect to break this record anew every year that passes.

But this isn’t an Olympic Track and Field event. Breaking these records comes with dangerous new threats to the health of our families and our communities -- not an endorsement deal.

Experts warn that we must limit our CO2 emissions at around 400 ppm if we have any hope of keeping our global temperature rise below 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit -- and protect the planet from all but certain climate catastrophe. That catastrophe would mean cementing extreme storms, extreme temperatures, and extreme droughts as the new norm, destabilizing migration and immigration patterns, imperiling wildlife and communities, and sending sea levels rising...among numerous other threats.

Princeton University geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer told the Washington Post that reaching 400 ppm is “ the level that climate scientists have identified as the beginning of the danger zone. It means we’re probably getting to the point where we’re looking at the ‘safe zone’ in the rearview mirror, even as we’re stepping on the gas.”

With the climate facts continuing to pour in, our world leaders must be doing everything they can to protect our planet for future generations, right?

Unfortunately -- to what should be the dismay of every person, plant, and animal on the planet -- this isn’t the case. In fact, it’s not even close.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) just released their annual Low Carbon Index which shows that, globally, we’ve been consistently missing our carbon emissions reduction target each year. By how much? While we should be reducing by at least 6.2 percent each year, we’ve only been seeing a 0.9 percent decrease on average.

In fact, the Index concludes that if we continue emitting at the same rate we are today, we’re on track to see a 7.2 degree Fahrenheit temperature increase by 2100. If we do reach those temperatures, we’ll be well past the point of no return.

This could spell disaster for not only our climate, but our shorelines, our wildlife -- including hundreds of bird species -- and our future.

Luckily, there’s still time to make sure this doesn’t happen. What better way to do that than to join with tens of thousands of your fellow activists to let our world leaders know we want climate action now?

That’s exactly what’s happening in New York City on Sept. 21, and you can be a part of it. The People’s Climate March is bringing together environmental, labor, faith, and social justice activists from more than 1,000 organizations and businesses to collectively raise our voices and call for real climate action around the world.

If our leaders won’t act, we have to. And that’s exactly what we are doing in New York on Sept. 21. Join us.  

RSVP for the People’s Climate March today!

 --Sierra Club Media Team

Even polling from Koch-backed group finds support for clean energy

The American Energy Alliance (AEA), a group with deep ties to the Koch brothers, has released a new national poll they claim shows voters are wary of the federal government’s involvement in energy policy. But two of their primary conclusions -- that “many Americans are skeptical of [the] EPA’s proposed power plant rule” and “voters are pretty skeptical of all facets of the wind production tax credits” – are inconsistent with nearly every other national poll I’ve seen recently. In June, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that two-in-three Americans supported new EPA rules limiting carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. And a USA Today poll released in December found 73 percent of Americans favored extending tax reductions for wind companies and other sources of renewable energy. Sure, the samples and questions are not identical to the AEA poll, but the spread between these numbers is stark.

Has public opinion really shifted so dramatically?

For answers, I turned to the AEA’s poll questionnaire (which you can read here). While I found several instances where the question wording and ordering appeared to be biased, I honed in on the questions pertaining to the new carbon pollution standards and wind energy tax credits.

 

After being told that “the Obama Administration recently proposed rules which would require States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within their borders,” survey respondents were asked whether they thought it was a “good” or “bad” thing that “as a practical matter, the rule would require States to impose mandates on their citizens to buy certain amounts of renewable energy, whether or not it is cost-effective.” Given this phrasing and its vague – if not scary – implications, it is not surprising that 60% of respondents said this was “mostly a bad thing”. The description of "mandates" (itself a loaded term) could be interpreted in a variety of ways. The respondent could take this to mean that the state government will force them to buy renewable energy themselves (as opposed to through their utility) or even to purchase more energy than they need. Furthermore, there is no benchmark or context given about the price issue, so a respondent could assume that renewable energy costs are much higher than they actually are. With biased language likely skewing responses from those polled, it is not surprising that AEA got the results they were looking for. But, as a result, this poll does not prove that Americans are skeptical of the EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standards themselves.

Some of the poll’s other findings actually seem to go against the anti-wind energy agenda the Koch Brothers have been pushing. While AEA’s press release claims that “the majority of voters are skeptical of preferential subsidies like the two-decades old wind PTC [production tax credit]”, even their own data does not support this.

In a rather ironic twist, their poll actually found majority support for tax breaks for wind energy companies, which help expand and create jobs in this sector. Before being asked for their opinions of wind tax credits, respondents heard a series of questions that framed tax credits in a negative light. One being “Do you think foreign companies should get tax breaks from American taxpayers?” and another being “Do you think that companies that are already making a profit on a new technology should get tax breaks for using or producing that technology?” Even after hearing such questions -- which hardly define the reality of the American wind energy manufacturing across the country -- 51 percent of respondents said still they thought it was a “good thing” that “companies that generate electricity using wind power get a tax credit from the federal government which is paid for by taxpayers.” This level of support is surely lower than the ones found in other national polls (another example), but it is comforting to know that most voters are not easily swayed away from their support for renewable energy -- even when some of the technology’s biggest opponents offer up what they believe are their strongest arguments.

If this American Energy Alliance poll tells me anything, it is that it is tough to hide the overwhelming public support for renewable energy.

--- Grace McRae, Polling and Research Director, Sierra Club

The Voice of Bart Simpson Wants You to Check Out Electric Cars Next Week

Drive-electric
I knew the fourth annual National Drive Electric Week would be big, but I didn't realize it would be this big! We're having free events in 135+ cities September 15-21 to share the fuel cost-saving, clean-air, and fun-driving benefits of electric vehicles (EVs); there is probably an event near you. The Sierra Club, Plug In America, and the Electric Auto Association -- the three national organizers of Drive Electric Week -- are pleased to announce this week that we've hit the quarter million mark of EVs on the road in the U.S. EVs are turning the corner -- and fast.

Even (the voice of) Bart Simpson is excited. "I bought a Nissan Leaf about two years ago," said The Simpsons actor Nancy Cartwright. "I shaved nearly an hour off my driving to The Simpsons set and back because I can drive in the carpool lane. Got lots of thumbs up on the freeway. That said, I am a HUGE fan of Tesla and can't wait to 'fly' with my 'falcon-doored' bird, the Tesla Model X…Aesthetic, functional and sets a great example for safeguarding our environment."  

Chevy-Volt-EV

Ever wonder what it's like to drive an electric car? Have questions about where and how to charge them, whether they're reliable, and whether they are actually better for the environment than conventional cars? EV drivers will be on-hand to offer test drives, provide honest information, and -- in many cases -- feed and entertain you, too. Check out the web site and register for an event near you.

In Scottsdale and Tucson, AZ, Las Vegas, and other cities there will be solar-powered public EV charging stations. In Los Angeles, actor Ed Begley, Jr. will talk about charging his EV with rooftop solar at his home. In Worcester, MA, event go-ers will be able to check out an all-electric transit bus that takes people to work cleanly and quietly. In Cupertino, CA, a group will attempt to set the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest parade of electric vehicles ever held. In Hartford, CT, the state's Commissioner of Energy & Environmental Protection Rob Klee and other leaders will offer test rides and present an award to the state's dealership that has sold the most plug-in cars.

Several mayors, including those in Cupertino and Huntington Beach, CA, Storrs, CT, Charlotte, NC, and Melbourne, FL, are expected to speak and or issue Drive Electric Week proclamations and will talk up the benefits of EVs for their residents. Below, Oldsmar, FL, Mayor Doug Bevis (at right) presents a Drive Electric Week proclamation last week to the city's Sustainability Coordinator, Estevan Baza, with Helda Rodriguez of NovaCharge and Florida Sierra Club organizer Phil Compton. I wish I were closer and could take my kids to the street festival planned for this Oldsmar event.

Oldsmar-proclamation

I'll be attending events in my home state of Massachusetts next week. Then on September 21, I'll be joining an 'EV Bloc' at the People's Climate March. If you're planning to attend the People's Climate March, expected to be the largest climate rally ever, calling on world leaders gathered at the United Nations to take aggressive action on climate disruption, I hope you'll consider joining our EV Bloc; you can register here.

Fossil-free-with-EV

"Clean energy prosperity is on the way and there's no turning back," said Sierra Club director Michael Brune. "National Drive Electric Week and the dramatic increase in the number of plug-in electric vehicles on the road are just the latest examples of how American consumers are demanding 21st-century solutions to energy and the climate crisis, and given the choice would leave dirty fossil fuels in the ground."

Gina Coplon-Newfield is the Sierra Club's Director of Future Fleet & Electric Vehicles Initiative. You can learn more about electric cars at the Sierra Club's online EV Guide.

Top photo from Huntsville, AL, courtesy of Tennessee Valley EV Drivers; middle photo courtesy of the City of Oldsmar, FL; bottom photo courtesy of Christina Rohrbacher. Drive Electric logo courtesy of National Drive Electric Week.

EPA Takes Real Steps Toward Curbing Smog Pollution - Now We Need Your Voice

Smogblogpic




The Environmental Protection Agency recently found that we’ve been doing it wrong for years; our air is not as clean or as safe as we once supposed. The agency’s smog pollution policy assessment, released in late August, found that current “safe” levels of smog pollution are actually not strong enough to protect our communities, our kids, or the air we breathe.

Doris Toles could tell you that.The Baltimore resident struggles with serious respiratory issues which are only made worse by the poor air quality in the city.

“I had my first asthma attack when I was two. I’m now living with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD),” says Doris. “A person gets COPD like I have after years of asthma attacks permanently weaken the lungs, and there is no cure.”

Doctors told Doris that her asthma is triggered by pollution in the air where she lives. “I have to be very careful and keep my inhaler close at hand on days when smog levels are high.”

When smog is inhaled, the harm it does has been likened to getting a sunburn on your lungs. Thankfully, we’ve got a chance to put things right. This December, the EPA will propose new smog pollution protections that can get America’s air quality back on track.

 “Safe” smog pollution levels were first lowered in 2008 from 88 parts per billion (ppb) to 75 ppb, but it turns out those protections were not enough to ensure clean, safe air for children and vulnerable populations living near the sources of this pollution. New recommendations from scientists since the 2008 protections have found that we need to ratchet them down to 60 ppb, in order to guard against dangerous air. The recent smog pollution policy assessment echoed this sentiment, recommending that the levels be reduced to a range of 60 to 70 ppb.   

While we applaud the EPA’s assessment for acknowledging the need to strengthen the current safeguards, it’s important to note that the devil is in the details, which is why we need your help. Thousands of lives hang in the balance between 60 ppb and 70 ppb, and are pushing hard for the EPA to propose 60 ppb protections in December.

At Sierra Club, we have strongly advocated for a 60 ppb standard for years because the science is clear that it will better protect families from smog pollution from power plants and tailpipe emissions. Smog pollution can trigger respiratory problems like asthma attacks and cardiovascular problems. Over time, continued exposure can even lead to premature death.

Doris has lost friends and family to severe asthma attacks. For her and many others, it’s a matter of life and death. “Cleaning up this pollution helps people like me stay alive,” she says.

A 60 ppb standard would safeguard families, especially young children and the elderly, from these health hazards and save roughly $100 billion in health care costs. The EPA also estimates that cutting back to safer levels of smog pollution (60 ppb) would prevent 12,000 premature deaths, 21,000 hospitalizations and the stop the loss of 2.5 million work and school days each year. In view of this, the smog pollution policy assessment is an important step toward holding polluters accountable and lifting this huge burden off our communities.

In the months ahead, we work to secure the strongest possible protections for those who need them most. Let EPA know you support strong standards here.

--Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director

Should you attend the People's Climate March?

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China’s Coal Imports Drop For The First Time Since Country Became Net Coal Importer

All is not well with the Chinese coal industry.

A recently published analysis compiled by Lauri Myllyvirta and Greenpeace International showed the unthinkable -- Chinese coal consumption fell for the first time this century in the first half of this year. Even more striking is the fact that China’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth and coal consumption have decoupled, suggesting a structural shift in the Chinese economy.

Taken in sum, with potential policy shifts associated with the upcoming five year plan and China’s war on coal, these look like the first indications of an approaching peak in coal consumption.

Now, new statistics [source in Chinese] from August show another first: Chinese coal imports in the first eight months of 2014 dropped by 5.3 percent. This is the first time the import rate has dropped since the country became a net importer in 2009. More importantly, the industry forecast indicates an even steeper 8 percent drop by year’s end. So much for the Asian supercycle, Peabody Energy.

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But there is something far more important happening here than simply putting an end to the last remaining lifeline of the moribund U.S. coal industry. China has single handedly driven the growth in coal consumption we’ve seen over the past decade. But, it is increasingly clear that the time of unending coal growth is nearing an end.

Peak coal consumption is one thing, but avoiding the entrenched emissions of the enormous coal fleet China has already built is another. The crucial decisions to secure a peak in coal consumption -- and reduce that consumption in absolute terms -- will be made in China’s new five-year plan, currently under preparation and covering the years 2015-2020. That means all eyes are on China’s next moves in its war on air pollution.

For citizens struggling under the weight of ‘airpocalypse,’ those moves couldn’t come a moment too soon.

-- Justin Guay, Associate Director, International Climate Program, and Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace International

No to Fast-Tracking Harmful Trade Pacts; Yes to a New Model of Trade

There’s growing opposition to trade deals that the Obama administration is pushing and to so-called fast-track trade authority, an outdated mechanism that would limit Congressional and public oversight over trade negotiations. From national polls showing that a majority of Americans oppose putting the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the fast track to demonstrations across the country against fast tracking such deals, there’s no denying that the tides are turning.

The U.S. is negotiating what could be two of the world’s biggest trade deals -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Pacific Rim nations and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union. But the meat of these deals goes beyond traditional trade issues like tariffs -- they deal with important everyday things, like our jobs, the safety of our food, and our access to clean water and air. The dangers of these deals seem endless, yet they’re being rushed through in near complete secrecy.

What is TTIP?
Click image to download full infographic.

Trade negotiators are writing these deals behind closed doors, with little to no involvement of the public and our elected officials. Despite this, there is still a push in the U.S. administration and among some in Congress to even further limit public and Congressional oversight of these massive trade pacts. If fast track were to pass, for example, signed trade pacts like the TPP and TTIP could be rushed through Congress with a guaranteed vote in 90 days, a maximum of 20 hours debate, and no possibility for amendments. In other words, fast track makes it impossible for Congress to ensure that trade pacts actually deliver for workers, communities, and the environment.

That’s why today, nearly 600 national, regional, and local organizations are reiterating their opposition to fast track and calling for a new model of trade. The time is now to fix the flawed model of trade that has cost us jobs and degraded our environment.  

Continue reading "No to Fast-Tracking Harmful Trade Pacts; Yes to a New Model of Trade" »

David Keeps Winning: 10 Recent Victories That Will Give You Hope for the Planet

Indy beyond coal

Wow. That's the word I repeated over and over this summer, as news rolled in of one clean energy victory after another. These are David and Goliath campaigns, led by community groups fighting for the health of their families, for clean air and water, and for a safe climate. Over and over, against all odds, from the deep South to Oregon and everywhere in between, David keeps winning.
 
Each one of these campaigns represents a major victory for local families, who point to these coal projects as threats to the safety of their kids and communities. They also add up to a sea change in how we make electricity in America: 178 coal plants and 505 coal boilers, one-third of U.S. coal plants, are now retired or slated to retire. On top of that, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission just reported that 100 percent of new electricity on the U.S. grid in July was renewable, mostly wind and solar.
 
If you find yourself falling victim to despair or cynicism about the fate of our planet, look no further. These 10 recent clean energy victories will give you hope for the planet. These were made possible by the work of dozens of allies, big and small.

Continue reading "David Keeps Winning: 10 Recent Victories That Will Give You Hope for the Planet" »


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