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opposition to trade deals that the Obama administration is pushing and to so-called fast-track trade authority, an outdated mechanism that would limit Congressional and public oversight over trade negotiations.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" »

September 10: Slowing Down for Net Neutrality

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It’s estimated that nearly two billion people use the internet each day. In the past two decades alone, it has not only become one our main sources of news, but our social hub, our answer-giver, and our forum to speak up about some of today’s biggest issues.

But what would you do if one day the internet as we know it became impossible to use?

That’s exactly what will happen if big cable companies get their way as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) nears the deadline on its net neutrality decision.

But what is net neutrality?

Essentially, it’s exactly what it sounds like. A policy of net neutrality ensures that all governments and internet service providers treat all information on the web equally. So all those cat videos you love to watch in your spare time take the same amount of time to load as, let’s say, your favorite websites and news outlets. The petitions you sign to keep dirty fuels in the ground, support efforts to get kids outdoors, or curb carbon pollution are treated the same as the websites of the biggest fossil fuel companies in the world. Basically, you’re able to access all the information you want equally. Sounds pretty common sense, right?

That’s not what big cable providers think. If companies like Comcast succeed in influencing the FCC’s decision, the internet could suddenly be divided into slow and fast loading “lanes.” These big businesses will have the freedom to allow certain websites to load faster than others, encouraging users to only visit certain sites -- sites that internet providers just so happen to make a profit from.

Suddenly, our freedom on the internet is limited at the discretion of big business, which means the throttle on what we search, the sites we visit, and things we post are no longer in our power.

So, why is the Sierra Club getting involved?

For one thing, we’re a grassroots organization of 2.4. million members and supporters that goes toe-to-toe with some of the biggest polluters -- and largest companies -- on the planet on a daily basis. We know how important it is to ensure that the playing fields are level where we stand up for our issues -- whether in the courtroom, the voting booth, or on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Continue reading "September 10: Slowing Down for Net Neutrality" »

Money Out, Voters In!

Sen. Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar points to the boxes of 3 million signatures in support of overturning Citizens United.

For Members of Congress, today is Day One back on the job after summer recess. And while the 113th Congress has been labeled “do-nothing,” several members of the U.S. House and Senate did something big on their first day back -- they rallied for democracy.

Under ominously grey skies, Senators Tom Udall, Bernie Sanders, Sheldon Whitehouse, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Representatives Ted Deutch and Jim McGovern joined dozens of citizens in front of the U.S. Capitol to send the message to the rest of Congress: We need to get money out and voters in.

The members and citizens were rallying in support of SJ Res 19, the “Democracy for All” bill, which the Senate will vote on tonight. The bill mandates that Congress pass legislation to address the undue influence of money in politics -- money that is drowning out the voices of average citizens who can’t match huge campaign contributions from billionaires. It would help to overturn bad Supreme Court decisions that have given corporate polluters more power and influence in politics.

Senator Udall of New Mexico introduced the bill, and set the stage Monday.

“We are here today to overturn Citizens United,” he said.

Continue reading "Money Out, Voters In!" »

New EPA safeguard would close major Clean Air Act loophole

SmogIn case you missed it, late Friday the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a fix to a Clean Air Act loophole which currently allows facilities in 36 states to dump massive amounts of pollution onto nearby communities. Right now this loophole enables facilities in these states, during periods when the facility is coming online, shutting down, or experiences a malfunction (SSM), to emit huge amounts of pollution that they aren't held accountable for.

What's more, these facilities doing these massive pollution dumps are often located in low income and communities of color -- communities that have already shouldered the burden of excessive hazardous air and water pollution.

Polluters should never get a free pass at the expense of the public health of their neighbors.

"Fixing the SSM loophole in the Clean Air Act is the right move for EPA," said Leslie Fields, director of the Sierra Club's Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships program. "Communities on the fenceline of polluting industries deserve relief from facilities claiming SSM events. The health and economic effects from these SSM are severe and continous. Environmental Justice communities have demanded these actions for a long time. EPA's closure of the SSM loophole is welcomed and will help protect the most affected communities and all other communities."

The next step is an EPA public hearing on October 7 in Washington, D.C. A final rule is expected before June 2015.

No Greenlight for Expansion of IFC-Funded Tata Mundra Coal Plant

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Photo of Tata Mundra, courtesy of Joe Athialy.

India’s king coal is well on its way to being dethroned.

First, the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) refused to finance an expansion of the dirty, destructive Tata Mundra coal-fired power plant back in May. Now it seems Indian courts  have agreed that the wide-reaching effects of this coal project are too controversial to move forward with the proposed expansion.

Last week, the Indian Supreme Court delivered a one-two punch to the Indian coal industry in a series of landmark rulings that further call into question the viability of the nation’s faltering coal industry. In particular, the Tata Group received a major setback when the Supreme Court stayed a planned rate hike for its economically struggling 4,000-megawatt Tata Mundra Ultra-Mega Power Plant.

This week didn’t start off any better for Tata or its Mundra coal plant.

The recently released minutes from the July 31-Aug. 1 meeting of the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ (MoEF) Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) reveal that the EAC refused to greenlight an expansion of Tata Mundra, citing the company’s failure to meet the conditions set in the existing Environmental Clearance (EC) for the project. This includes  providing for mangrove preservation and the establishment of a greenbelt. Instead, the EAC tabled the decision, pending the development of a detailed action plan to bring the coal plant into compliance with the EC, the creation of an action plan with budgetary information for public hearings, and a recommended site visit by an EAC subcommittee.

It’s clear that Tata Mundra has become the poster child for poorly thought out coal projects. Tata initially low-balled its bid for construction costs  in order to win the contract for the project, using estimates for imported coal that allowed no room for increase. That rate increase is exactly what happened when Indonesia decided to link the price of its exported coal to the price on the international market. This led to the Tata CEO calling the Mundra project “financially unviable” and the company asking the Indian government for a bailout in the form of higher rates, which would have allowed Tata to pass on the cost of its mistakes to consumers.

Continue reading "No Greenlight for Expansion of IFC-Funded Tata Mundra Coal Plant" »

Dominion, Dump ALEC! Sierra Club Virginia Leads Rally for Climate and Democracy

Dominion
Oceana volunteer Priscilla Lin and Sierra Club Virginia Chapter director Glen Besa in front of ALEC headquarters.

On a sunny, hot September afternoon, 80 protesters turned out alongside a busy highway at the Arlington, Virginia headquarters of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). They were demanding that Dominion Resources, Inc. withdraw from ALEC, the right-wing legislation factory behind stand-your-ground laws, attacks on voting rights, and anti-climate laws. Among those joining the protest and speaking to the crowd were Bill Euille, mayor of Alexandria—one of the largest cities in Virginia—and the influential blogger and climate science expert Joseph Romm of Climate Progress.

Richmond-based Dominion, a Fortune-300 company, owns Virginia’s largest electric utility, as well as a huge multi-state natural gas storage and pipeline business. The company is Virginia’s largest carbon polluter and has plans to build a large liquefied natural gas export facility in Maryland and a huge pipeline across Virginia. Both gas projects, if built, would expand markets for fracked natural gas, meaning more dangerous and destructive fracking across the U.S. -- near our schools, hospitals, and backyards.

image from http://s3.amazonaws.com/hires.aviary.com/k/mr6i2hifk4wxt1dp/14090517/c2e925f3-c61e-4b3f-9fa9-5bc34116f63f.pngDominion is an ALEC member. Documents posted online by Common Cause, a public advocacy organization, show that Dominion executives sit on ALEC’s energy, environment, and agriculture task force, along with Joseph Bast of the climate-denying Heartland Foundation and representatives of major carbon polluters and fossil-fuel interests including Koch Industries-related entities and Exxon-Mobil.

ALEC has been described as a “corporate bill mill.” It brings large polluters like Dominion together with state legislators to work on proposed laws that favor corporate interests. Some have mockingly described ALEC’s initials as standing for “A Legislator for Every Corporation.” The organization’s controversial lobbying has included work against measures to address climate disruption and support for voter-suppression efforts and stand-your-ground gun laws, to name just a few. This has caused some 85 companies, including Walmart, Coca-Cola, and most recently Microsoft, to cut ties with ALEC.

Continue reading "Dominion, Dump ALEC! Sierra Club Virginia Leads Rally for Climate and Democracy" »

Are Mini-Grids The Next Big Opportunity Beyond The Grid?

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Photo courtesy of Devergy

Beyond the grid solar start-up Devergy believes the time has come for the next evolution in clean energy access markets: mini-grids.

The mini-grid systems Devergy deploys are essentially many solar home systems connected to a battery back-up and charge controllers distributed to individual homes throughout a village. Each of those individual units are connected to the system via old fashioned wires as well as smart, Devergy-developed machine-to-machine (M2M) technology which allows Devergy to balance the energy load, remotely monitor usage and outages, and, most importantly, collect lots and lots of really useful data.

With a highly conservative estimate of a $5 billion market opportunity and the $1 billion Beyond the Grid Power Africa Initiative launched earlier this summer, many investors have waited with baited breath to see if mini-grid operators like Devergy will succeed. Meanwhile exciting mini-grid operators like Mera Gao and OMC Power have pioneered innovative models like ‘Tower Power’, but overall the market is still very nascent. In the meantime, high-profile investors like Solar City and Bloomberg Philanthropies have started investing money in fast-growing pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar lanterns and solar home system companies.

But that may be about to change.

To better understand the current state of play for the burgeoning mini-grid market, we caught up with Fabio de Pascale and Gianluca Cescon, respectively the ‘Chief Energising Officer’ and ‘the Chief Operations One’ at Devergy, a company at the cutting edge of mini-grid deployment in Tanzania. 

It turns out Devergy’s entry into the mini-grid market started by posing a simple question: Do we need to follow the traditional approach and copy what utilities do to supply electricity? Given the abject failure of utilities to serve these off-grid, rural customers, it made little sense. Devergy realized that not paying attention to the customer’s needs was a big part of why utilities and past mini-grid operators had failed, and the reverse may help Devergy become a success.

But what exactly does that mean?

The Devergy approach has one important value proposition highly attuned to the realities of these energy markets -- the ability to start small. Because most of these communities can only afford a few initial energy services -- usually mobile phone charging and lighting -- companies that oversize these services are making them unnecessarily expensive. While oversizing is commonplace for traditional mini-grids to compensate for technological or operational constraints, this rule of thumb can hold true for individual solar home systems as well. Ultimately, if there are even a few spare watts of unused energy capacity created by these oversized services, that’s money that didn’t need to be spent.

Continue reading "Are Mini-Grids The Next Big Opportunity Beyond The Grid? " »

CES14: Clean Energy is a Good Bet in Vegas

I'm looking forward to attending the 2014 Clean Energy Summit (CES14) on Thursday, sponsored again by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  I'm not really a Vegas guy, but I'll brave the onslaught of flashing lights to listen to some of the nation's pre-eminent leaders in energy and politics talk about where we are and what's in store for renewable energy, energy efficiency, and the rapidly changing utility landscape.

This is a pivotal time to be having this conversation.  Prices for solar and wind power are falling fast while outdated coal and gas driven utilities are frantically pulling the wagons into a circle to address the threat that rooftop PV solar, demand response, grid storage, and other cutting-edge technologies pose to their 19th century business models.  Meanwhile, the oil rich Koch brothers and their petro-thugs are fiercely attacking federal and state clean energy laws in a desperate attempt to knock out competitors to natural gas and clear the field to dominate future electricity generation.

In fact, CES14 comes as decisions loom for Congress about whether to renew clean energy incentives like the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind and geothermal -- which expired last year, threatening tens of thousands of jobs -- as well as the Investment Tax Credit for solar energy (expires in 2016).  The Kochs have been pouring millions into the coffers of Congressional Republicans and pushing them to vote against wind power and the PTC, despite the fact that more than 75 percent of wind energy projects are located in GOP districts, creating jobs in for these politicians’ constituents and providing tax support for rural schools and infrastructure.

That’s why the supportive dialogue of the Clean Energy Summit can be so important. Its an opportunity to hear what some of the most innovative and creative people in the clean energy economy are doing to create new technologies and new jobs. And its a chance to hear why some of the highest profile leaders in the country are backing clean energy more strongly than ever.

The array of speakers at the Summit is definitely impressive. Senator Harry Reid continues to be a staunch believer in a transition to a clean energy economy that can stem the worst effects of climate disruption while creating jobs and broad economic benefit. In addition to hearing his latest take, I'll be all ears to see where former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants take the nation on energy and climate - if, for the sake of conversation, she were to run for President someday. The agenda also  features long-standing oracles Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and John Podesta, a strong voice for wind and solar now serving as one of the President’s key advisors. The slate also includes less predictable people like John Huntsman, who is likely to make a strong case for business leadership in addressing climate change with clean energy solutions and prove that not all Republicans have their heads in the sand. The growing calls for climate action among economic leaders are isolating the fossil fuel barons and creating space for entrepreneurs to step up and propose practical business solutions -- facts that will no doubt be highlighted at the Summit  Also speaking tomorrow are old friends like Billy Parish (Mosaic) and Alex Laskey (OPower) who have used their passion, wits, and creativity to innovate and provide some of those needed answers for the economy and environment.

The dialogue among these leaders and many others at the Summit is absolutely vital. And I’m looking forward to being a part of the fight to ensure its constructive in paving the way to clean energy solutions to the climate crisis. So, lets’s hope that this time around what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. 

Follow @SierraClub on Twitter and Instagram for more from CES14 
 
- Dave Hamilton, Director for Clean Energy, Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign

Solar Energy to Light Up Myanmar

 Myanmar is on its way to a brighter future.

In one of the largest U.S. investments in Myanmar since the U.S. government began to ease sanctions in 2012, ACO Investment Group signed an agreement with the Burmese Ministry of Electric Power to build a $480 million solar power project in the Mandalay region.

A first of its kind in the region, once the project is completed in 2016, the two 150-megawatt plants are expected to supply 10-12 percent of the country’s power. Members of the Obama Administration were present to witness the signing.

After decades of military dictatorship and subsequent sanctions, Myanmar, also known as Burma, became one of the poorest countries in Asia with one of the lowest rates of electrification. An estimated 70 percent of Burmese people currently do not have access to electricity. The proposed solar project will not only help address Myanmar’s growing power demand, it will also create an estimated 500 jobs.

Following the reforms in Myanmar that led to the reduction of U.S. sanctions and the election of Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament, many now have hope that many of the country’s long-standing needs will begin to be addressed. With the promise of job creation and a clean, reliable source of electricity on the way, it is clear that solar energy is a step in the right direction for the future of Myanmar.

--Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program


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