Money Out, Voters In: Unity at the Supreme Court and Nationwide against McCutcheon’s Assault on Democracy

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Protesting the McCutcheon decision outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday

Just hours after the Supreme Court declared aggregate campaign contribution limits unconstitutional, opening the floodgates to even more corrupting corporate money in politics, Sierra Club members joined our allies from the Democracy Initiative and other organizations at rallies across the country to express outrage and unity.

At a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington D.C., George Kohl, Senior Director of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) eloquently expressed what everyone was thinking.

“It sucks, and our members are pissed off about it!”

This ruling will only directly affect about 1,200 people who had hit the previous limit of giving a total $120,000 directly to candidates and parties - an amount out-of-reach for almost every other American. Now, they’ll be legally allowed to dump upwards of $3.6 million every election. But though just a handful are directly impacted by the change, Nick Nyhart, President and CEO of Public Campaign, made it clear the impact on the rest of the country would be hard to ignore.

“This is a political gift for millionaires and billionaires,” Nyhart said, declaring that the ruling amounted to “Government of, by, and for the campaign contributors.”

These 1,200 people will be sure to take advantage of the new ruling. Courtney Hight, Director of the Sierra Club’s Democracy Program, pointed out that after the Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case allowed unlimited outside spending, the Koch Brothers alone spent more in 2012 than the entire McCain campaign did in 2008.  

That’s of particular concern to those of us fighting for healthy communities and a healthy planet, as these decisions allow oil barons like the Kochs to pour even more money into elections.

“The same people who are doing the polluting are fighting to overturn our democracy,” Hight said. IMG_20140402_121859655

An outspoken champion for protecting the public interest, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) joined the rally in Washington and told of the dangers of the Supreme Court’s flawed decision.

“What the Supreme Court has said today is that big money should be the dominant factor in the U.S. political process,” the Senator shouted. “This is not what people fought and died for.”

But amid all the anger and frustration with the conservative justices of the Roberts Court, faith was not lost. The parade of speakers had a message of hope.

Jotaka Eaddy, NAACP's Senior Advisor to the President and CEO and Senior Director for Voting Rights (right), was one of many who exclaimed, “Organized people always beat organized money.”

Miles Rapoport, President of Common Cause, proposed several needed changes to the system, including increasing the power of small dollar donations, fighting for stronger contribution disclosure laws, and halting assaults on voter rights across the country.

Representative Keith Ellison (MN-05) reminded those gathered that terrible decisions that came out of the Supreme Court in the past, such as Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, were resolved through legislative action. In particular, Ellison referred to the Government By the People Act, a bill to lift up small-dollar donors that he cosponsored and the Sierra Club supports.

Drew Courtney, Director of Communications at People for the American Way, called the day “a step forward, because we are together.” He went on to say that “we have a powerful coalition right here, but there are a hundred rallies going on today across the country.”

20140402_172817Sierra Club Activists in Massachusetts Stand With Allies Against Corruption

In fact, about 130 rallies across the country gave concerned citizens—including Sierra Club members—a chance to speak out about the disastrous McCutcheon decision.

In Massachusetts, Sierra Club activists stood with our friends from Common Cause and other advocacy groups against corruption. In San Francisco, Sierra Club Deputy Executive Director Bruce Hamilton spoke out about why environmentalists care about getting big corporate money out of politics.

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Sierra Club Deputy Executive Director Bruce Hamilton Speaks at a Rally Opposing the Decision in San Francisco

"Environmentalists are standing shoulder to shoulder with civil rights champions, organized workers, good government advocates, and concerned citizens who are sick and tired of our democracy being bought and sold to the highest bidder,” Hamilton said.

Going forward, we are united and motivated, nationwide.  

As George Kohl from CWA said, “We are more than them, and we will win.”

-David Shadburn, Sierra Club Intern

Time for Congress to Act and Save Clean Energy Jobs

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Today, the US Senate is casting a vote critical to the future of the U.S. wind industry. Wind power has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, and the wind industry now employs more than 80,000 Americans and generates enough electricity to power 15 million homes. Wind is providing affordable, reliable electricity from coast to coast - in 2013 Iowa got 27 percent of its electricity from wind power, while South Dakota got 26 percent. Despite this momentum, wind power's full potential continues to rest in the hands of members of Congress, including some with close ties to fossil fuel industries.

The Senate Finance Committee is voting today on legislation that includes an extension of critical clean energy tax incentives, namely the Production Tax Credit (PTC) and Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for renewable energy, as well as key energy efficiency tax credits. This is a critical step in ultimately renewing these provisions.

These clean energy incentives support tens of thousands of American jobs -- jobs that are at risk if Congress does not act immediately.  

Despite all the economic and environmental benefits the wind industry provides nationwide, Congress allowed the wind Production Tax Credit to expire at the end of 2013. The resulting uncertainty has slowed new investments in wind generation and hampered the massive growth the industry saw in 2012.

It’s incredibly frustrating to see some Members of Congress turn a blind eye to the benefits of wind power - from jobs and local economic growth, to clean air and water. While the Senate Finance Committee is moving proactively, the House of Representatives hasn’t yet moved off the dime, leaving tens of thousands of wind jobs hanging in the balance. Unfortunately, some of those Members of Congress are dragging their feet at the behest of fossil fuel interests, and blocking American innovation in the process.

Americans across party lines want the U.S. to be a clean energy leader, and the economic benefits of wind power are flowing to red and blue states. In fact, more than 80 percent of our nation's installed wind capacity is in US Congressional districts represented by Republicans. Last week, Texas set a wind power generation record - topping 10,000 megawatts, enough to power five million homes.

Clean energy is here to stay, and its future is even brighter. For the economy and for our environment, we need Congress to renew the Production Tax Credit, and ensure America continues to lead the way in developing the technologies that will power the world in the twenty-first century. TAKE ACTION: Tell Congress to protect American clean energy jobs!

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign.

New Business Model for Non-Profits Brings Solar Into Hostile Territory

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Fourteen solar panels crown the entrance to the First Congregational Christian United Church of Christ in Chesterfield, Virginia. The small array generates 10 percent or so of the church's electricity, but the project is notable for a different reason: it was the first solar system installed anywhere under a new kind of contract called a Customer Self-Generation Agreement. The agreement allowed the church go solar with no money down, and without increasing its electricity costs.
 
The Customer Self-Generation Agreement (CSGA) is the brainchild of Tony Smith, founder and CEO of Secure Futures LLC, a solar developer based in Staunton, Virginia. Under its agreement with the church, Secure Futures owns the solar panels and reaps the federal tax benefits that make solar affordable. The church gets the electrical output of the system over the twenty-year life of the contract. Neither a lease (which would bar the church from getting the tax benefits) nor a third-party power purchase agreement (which the incumbent utility would have opposed), the CSGA occupies a financing niche all of its own.
 
For Secure Futures, the CSGA was born of necessity. In 2011, the company was blocked from completing a solar array at Washington and Lee University when Dominion Virginia Power sent "cease and desist" letters claiming the parties' use of a third-party power purchase agreement (PPA) violated the utility's monopoly on the sale of electricity. Although convinced it had the law on its side, Secure Futures backed down in the face of expensive litigation. The solar installation was only completed by turning the PPA into a lease and losing some of the tax benefits.  
 

Continue reading "New Business Model for Non-Profits Brings Solar Into Hostile Territory" »

Activists to Pepsi: Tar Sands and Water Don't Mix

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Have you heard this one before?  A PepsiCo representative walks out of an industry conference...and his buddy tells him that they’re going to hand him over to the Sierra Club tar sands protesters.  

Actually, it's no joke - that's exactly what happened last week at the Food and Beverage Environmental Conference in Napa, California.  

The Sierra Club's Future Fleet campaign, is targeting corporations to slash oil consumption and to stop using tar sands in their gigantic vehicle fleets. Nineteen companies have already made a tar sands commitment, but PepsiCo has been lagging behind its peers.

Last week, we got creative. PepsiCo was sponsoring an industry event called the Food & Beverage Environmental Conference, which was themed around water. Tar sands, of course, spell disaster for clean water and everyone who drinks it, so the Sierra Club and our friends at ForestEthics turned out in Napa to make sure PepsiCo and its peers know that tar sands and water don't mix.

Continue reading "Activists to Pepsi: Tar Sands and Water Don't Mix" »

Dirty Fuels: Bad for Public Health, the Environment, and Your Investments

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As if fossil fuel's massive climate impacts weren't enough, there is another powerful reason we should leave them in the ground: they're a bad investment.

DC Divest's Matt Grason and graphic designer Stephanie Lenorovitz have put together this infographic based on research from eight financial firms, and major media and financial media outlets. It challenges the conventional wisdom that fossil fuels are "safe" investments, giving seven compelling "reasons to sell your stocks now."

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune recently said "We should be exporting clean energy innovation, not the dirty fuels of the 19th century." That logic applies to investments too, and this graphic suggests that investors should view fossil fuels with the same wariness as horse and buggy enterprises.

Click through to see the whole thing!

Continue reading "Dirty Fuels: Bad for Public Health, the Environment, and Your Investments" »

Supreme Court Sides with Polluters, Not The People

Oil moneyThe 112th Congress was saturated by more than $34 million in direct campaign contributions from oil, gas, and coal interests. In addition, dirty fuel interests spent $270 million on television ads in just the last two months of the 2012 electoral cycle. And, on top of all that, the Koch Brothers reportedly spent $400 million in 2012. That's a pair of oil barons spending more in one cycle than John McCain's entire Presidential campaign spent in all of the 2008 cycle. It's an unbelievable state of affairs. And, today, with their ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court made a terrible situation much, much worse.

Four years ago, the court opened the floodgates to unlimited outside money in politics with its decision in Citizens United, letting a handful of big money campaign donors spend whatever they wanted to push their agenda and their allies into government. Today's decision in McCutcheon does the same thing for inside money, upping the amount of money these donors can give directly to candidates. The current limit is around $120,000. The McCutcheon decision will increase that to around $3.6 million. As you can guess, that doesn't affect a lot of everyday Americans.

It's as if the majority on the Supreme Court has had its eyes shut ever since Citizens United. Since that ruling, any progress in our government has ground to a dead stop, as obstructionists supported by big polluter dollars have distorted our government’s priorities and halted any effort to change the status quo. If Citizens United were a movie, no one but big money campaign donors would want a sequel - but the Supreme Court has delivered them just that today with McCutcheon.

Are you wondering who exactly will benefit and who will they be donating to? Take a look at who the case is named after: Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama Republican activist who made his fortune in - what else? - the coal industry. It's McCutcheon and other dirty fuel executives like him who wanted to pump even more money into the system - and the Supreme Court has rolled over and let them.

At the Sierra Club, we know that protecting our environment and our democracy go hand in hand - and when those who view contaminating our air, our water, and our climate as collateral damage are free to flood our government with millions more in unlimited cash, it drowns out the voice of everyone else.

Fortunately, big money campaign donors aren’t getting away with this corruption of our democracy without the American people putting up a fight - and the situation is far from hopeless. In a recent poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, results showed 91 percent of respondents want elected officials to "reduce the influence of money in political elections." Grassroots movements are emerging calling for public financing that levels the playing field and lifts up the voices of small donors. More and more Americans are demanding initiatives that pull back the curtain on political spending.

And, today, in dozens of locations across the country, Sierra Club activists are standing with labor union members, civil rights champions, and good government advocates at rallies demonstrating against the McCutcheon decision. We're showing that the people are more powerful than the polluters, no matter how much they want to pour into our elections. And we're demonstrating we’re ready to fight back. All told, the call for a democracy that is of, by, and for the people is growing louder and louder as more and more money pours in.

That is why we refuse to see the McCutcheon decision as a loss. Dozens of groups representing tens of millions of Americans opposing unlimited corporate money in politics will not just use this moment as a chance to speak out, but as an opportunity to organize together to make this a turning point in the fight to get money out of politics and get voters in.
 
The Supreme Court and the big polluters have made it clear what side they are on -- now, it's time we made it clear that its the wrong side.

-- Courtney Hight, director of the Sierra Club's Democracy Program

The Risks of Climate Disruption

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When we imagine what the future will look like in books and movies, we see flying cars, teleportation, and computer superintelligence. But what if in reality our future instead involves food shortages, extreme weather, and sea level rise?

If we continue on our current climate disruption path, scientists say that's exactly what will happen.

Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s Working Group II released a report that examines the impacts climate change has on our current and future environment, where we are most vulnerable, and the adaptation that must take place to deal with a changing climate.

"Managing the risks of climate change involves adaptation and mitigation decisions with implications for future generations, economies, and environments," the IPCC summary states.

What they found is that climate disruption is already occurring on every continent and in every ocean, and it disproportionately affects some communities. They also found that while adaptation can reduce the impacts of climate change, "greater rates and magnitude of climate change increase the likelihood of exceeding adaptation limits."

"Observed impacts of climate change have already affected agriculture, human health, ecosystems on land and in the oceans, water supplies, and some people's livelihoods," the IPCC press release states. "The striking feature of observed impacts is that they are occurring from the tropics to the poles, from small islands to large continents, and from the wealthiest countries to the poorest."

Areas around the globe are experiencing phenomena such as extreme hurricanes, severe drought, and exceptionally hot and cold weather. One of the most drastically affected locations is the Arctic. The sea ice has already reached its maximum extent and is beginning to shrink at an alarming rate. If this trend continues, the Arctic conditions will continue to be warmer than average, causing potentially irreparable damage to the planet.

Continue reading "The Risks of Climate Disruption" »

All Risk, No Reward

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By Michael Marx, Beyond Oil Campaign Director

Proposed Upper Midwest Tar Sands Pipeline Expansion Threatens Great Lakes and Climate

Last week the BP Whiting tar sands refinery in Indiana dumped more than fifteen hundred gallons of crude oil into Lake Michigan. BP isn’t saying exactly how much they spilled or whether it was tar sands or conventional crude oil. But we know that Lake Michigan was poisoned by the nation’s largest tar sands refinery. Tar sands are the dirtiest source of oil on Earth. They're more toxic, more corrosive, and more polluting than conventional sources of oil. And once again BP has proven that it can’t be relied on to prioritize safety, or tell the truth about oil spills.

The Sierra Club has fought the Keystone XL pipeline because tar sands pipelines are unsafe for the people in their path. From the mining operations along pipeline routes to refinery fence-line communities, these pipelines are disastrous. This week the Beyond Oil campaign and 13 other groups are releasing All Risk No Reward, a new report on the proposed Alberta Clipper tar sands pipeline expansion.

The Alberta Clipper, also known as Line 67, is an existing pipeline that currently pumps up to 450,000 barrels per day of tar sands crude from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin. From the Canadian border, the pipeline traverses 327 miles of North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, passing through tribal lands, forests, and farms, rivers, and lakes, before terminating at Lake Superior. Enbridge, the company that owns the pipeline, is asking the State Department for an amended Presidential Permit to almost double the pipeline’s capacity to 800,000 barrels per day and to construct two new tar sands storage tanks on the shores of Lake Superior.

Expanding the Alberta Clipper tar sands pipeline to move more dirty, dangerous tar sands crude through the Upper Midwest would greatly increase the risk to American and tribal lands and waters, including the Great Lakes, of devastating tar sands spills. Like exploding crude oil rail cars, earth-scraping mining operations, and the heavily polluting tar sands refineries, these pipelines are not safe. And higher capacity means more crude pumped at higher pressure, raising the risk of accidents and exposing communities to tar sands’ full complement of disturbing climate, safety, and environmental implications.

Enbridge, the company behind the Alberta Clipper proposal, has a dismal safety record. From 1999 to 2010, Enbridge was responsible for more than 800 spills that released 6.8 million gallons of hydrocarbons. Canada’s National Energy Board and the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) have repeatedly cited the company for safety violations, including a record $2.4 million fine in connection with an explosion that killed two workers in Minnesota. Enbridge is also responsible for the worst onshore oil spill in U.S. history, the 2010 Kalamazoo River disaster, in which a ruptured Enbridge pipeline poured nearly a million gallons of tar sands crude into Michigan's Talmadge Creek and Kalamazoo River. Four years and a billion dollars later, oil is still being found and parts of the Kalamazoo remain poisoned by tar sands crude.

That tragedy in Michigan, like the more recent one in Arkansas that sent tar sands crude flowing across lawns and driveways, is a grim illustration of the threat tar sands pipelines pose to families, homes, and waterways. The Alberta Clipper route crosses the Mississippi River, the drinking water source for 15 million people, twice. And a rupture anywhere in the Great Lakes region could be devastating. The Great Lakes provide drinking water for more than 40 million people and support tourism, recreation, a $7 billion fishery industry, and a $16 billion boating industry. But even those numbers don’t begin to reflect the cultural and environmental importance of protecting the Great Lakes from toxic tar sands pollution. And as with the Keystone XL pipeline, the Sierra Club is prepared to fight the Alberta Clipper expansion proposal to the end.

The proposal still needs to secure permits from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and an amended Presidential Permit from the Obama administration. We expect that President Obama will hold this proposal to the same climate test that he articulated for Keystone XL: the project will not be in the national interest if it would significantly exacerbate carbon pollution. We remain confident that Secretary Kerry and President Obama will recognize how Keystone XL flatly fails that test, and that the same will hold true for the proposed Alberta Clipper expansion. This proposal would accelerate tar sands industry growth, generating massive carbon pollution at a time when neither the U.S. nor Canada can waste any more time in our transition away from dirty fuels and toward renewable energy.

On Thursday, April 3, residents of the the Upper Midwest will have a chance to help stop this expansion from happening. Join us in St. Paul to stand against tar sands and Alberta Clipper!

The Daily Show Takes On Fracking

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has taken a look into fracking and has uncovered the “minor downsides” to natural gas extraction.

In a segment that aired March 27 on the satirical comedy show, correspondent Aasif Mandvi interviewed local residents of Bradford County, PA and - for a pro-industry point of view - Marita Noon, the executive director of the pro-fracking group Energy Makes America Great, Inc.

“Fracking has ruined our quality of life,” one Bradford County resident said.

“Our water contamination here is moving through all of Bradford County,” another added.

“I had rashes, neurological problems, sleep disruption,” a third continued.

Noon, who is self-described as “America’s voice for energy”, doesn’t see a problem with fracking and said the oil and gas companies are doing a good job of regulating themselves.

“Is there a way that oil and gas companies could be better than they are?” Mandvi asked.

“I would say no, actually,” she responded. “These oil and gas producers that are there care about the community.”

So what are the residents of Bradford County so angry about then? Their county only has 1,100 active wells and 696 violations, a small amount compared to the “teeny tiny snafus” such as earthquakes, well explosions, pipeline punctuations that have been happening all across the country.

When a well exploded in Greene County, PA killing one person, Chevron “came to the rescue with immediate compensation”: they offered 100 residents $12 gift certificates to a local pizzeria.

Taking a page out of Chevron’s book, when the residents seemed to be getting upset, Mandvi offered them a pizza.

“We want our water back. Period,” one resident demanded. “We want our life back. We don’t want your pizza.”

Take a look for yourself:

 

Smog Pollution Standards: Because Inhaling Ozone Is Like Getting a Sunburn On Your Lungs

Smog1I can only imagine the fear that must grip a parent when their child suffers an asthma attack, and I can only imagine how much time and energy they spend doing everything they can to avoid triggers for these potentially deadly attacks. A major trigger is smog pollution - also known as ground-level ozone. When smog is inhaled, the harm it does has been likened to getting a sunburn on your lungs, and these asthma attacks send tens of thousands of kids to the emergency room every year. Kids and seniors are especially at risk from smog pollution.
 
This is why the Sierra Club is so adamant in urging the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which provides independent advice to the Environmental Protection Agency, to recommend a strong, science-based standard to protect Americans from smog (you can read our comments right here - PDF) Right now the EPA is updating the country's smog pollution limits as required by the Clean Air Act.

Asthma is the number one health problem that causes American children to miss school, and it costs taxpayers tens of billions of dollars each year in missed work and health care costs. Research has shown that exposure to smog causes respiratory problems including asthma, may affect the nervous and cardiovascular systems, and can lead to premature death.
 
As the proud mom of a busy, active three-year-old, it's hard for me to imagine keeping her inside on a beautiful summer day. But that’s exactly what parents of kids with asthma must do, all too often. Those parents, kids, seniors and people with chronic respiratory ailments know what it's like to learn that your day will be cut short by an Orange, Red or even Purple Air Quality Alert.

When smog hits these levels, those people are stuck inside waiting for outdoor air quality to return to safe levels for them to breathe. One needs to look no further than the American Lung Association's annual "State of the Air" reports to see the cities where bad air days are most frequent -- days that air quality is so poor that being outdoors could kill them.

With the technology readily available to dramatically reduce smog, it would be unconscionable not to act. We need standards that reflect the latest science. For example, in Pittsburgh, coal plants are the single biggest contributor to smog pollution, but those facilities could cut that pollution by more than a third just by operating the pollution controls that the plants already have. They could cut it even further by installing modern controls!

The American people should not have to wait any longer for action to clean up dangerous smog pollution. It’s time to clean up our air and protect our families. Join us - tell the EPA to finalize strong protections on smog pollution.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director


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