Keep Good Companies

May 13, 2014

My current column in Sierra magazine ("Money Talks, Carbon Walks"), describes how each of us can help build the fossil-free economy by exercising our influence as consumers and investors. Most of us will do that because we believe it's right but, as I wrote in Sierra: "If environmental concerns aren't reason enough to divest from the dirty energy sector, do it out of selfishness, because companies that depend on their fossil fuel reserves for future earnings are simply a bad investment these days."
 
That gets to a bigger point. Some companies look at the future and prepare not only to adapt but also to thrive. Others can't shake their ties to the past, whether that's digging up fossil fuels or manufacturing buggy whips. Guess which ones have proven to be better long-term investments?
 
The Koch brothers won't be happy to hear it, but economic success in the future will require a commitment to sustainability -- whether you're talking about clean energy, clean water, or fair labor practices. Companies that haven't figured that out by now are already falling behind, whether they know it or not
 
We don't have to wonder which companies "get it." A new report from Ceres, a nonprofit organization that advocates for sustainability leadership, examines the sustainability record of 613 U.S. companies. Together, these companies account for almost 80 percent of the total market capitalization of all public companies in the country.
 
As the report's title ("Gaining Ground") suggests, the overall trend is positive. Companies are paying more attention to sustainability issues than they were two years ago. Seven out of ten, for instance, have at least some kind of strategy for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. What tempers that good news, though, is that progress is not happening anywhere near fast enough. We're already feeling the effects of climate disruption. The deadline for reducing emissions fast enough to avoid a climate catastrophe is, as they say, nonnegotiable.
 
It's not too surprising that many of the companies that are furthest ahead of the pack on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adopting renewable energy are from the high-tech sector. Some of these companies were prompted by direct advocacy by Greenpeace; others were motivated to respond to concerns of shareholders, and the values of their own employees. Each company knows well the importance of adapting to new paradigms. They also use a lot of energy. Increasingly, though, that energy is renewable.
 
Google has committed over $1 billion to renewable energy projects such as large-scale wind and rooftop solar. These projects will generate far more electricity than it uses for its own operations. Apple Computer recently announced that 94 percent of its corporate facilities and 100 percent of its data centers are powered by clean energy sources.
 
But the food and beverage sector is the one where the highest percentage of companies has set formal, time-bound emissions-reduction targets. The reason is obvious if you think about it: These companies can already see how climate disruption is affecting their operations. How will you sell coffee if there's no place to grow it? How will you manufacture soft drinks if you can't find the water? How will you serve guacamole if you can't get the avocados?

That's why Starbucks has set goals of reducing its energy consumption by 25 percent and of covering 100 percent of its electricity consumption with renewable energy by 2015. And just last week, Mars, Inc., the maker of Snickers and Uncle Ben's rice, announced that it will partner with Sumitomo Corporation of America on a wind farm in Texas that will generate more power than the company uses for all of its U.S. operations.
 
In the 21st century, it's already clear that investing in clean energy is essential for companies that want to flourish. But unlike any previous major economic shift, this time we don't have the luxury of letting things happen in their own good time. According to the International Energy Agency, our global clean energy investment needs to be about $36 trillion over the next 36 years if we want an 80 percent chance of limiting the climate warming to 3.6 degrees F.
 
Can we do it? We have to. And that means doing whatever we can to encourage not just our government (local and national) but the companies that we do business with (and that we invest in) to take action. When a company like GM, Nissan, or Tesla doubles down on electric cars, we need to support that decision, if we can, with our wallets.
 
The transition to a clean, renewable economy has already started. Our job now is to kick it into high gear.

Reject = Protect

April 24, 2014

On the day that President Obama finally rejects the Keystone XL pipeline, the connection between tar sands development and climate disruption should be only one of the reasons (although it's certainly reason enough). For someone like Obama, whose first real job was as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, the effect of the pipeline and its toxic payload on the people and communities in its path will surely also be a factor.

This week, the president will hear the voices of those people loud and clear, thanks to the Reject and Protect encampment and march on the National Mall. Reject and Protect is being led by  the "Cowboy Indian Alliance" -- a group of ranchers, farmers, and tribal communities from along the pipeline's route. I visited them this week and was both impressed by their determination and moved by how they placed this fight in the greater context of environmental injustice.

It's hard not to be inspired by people like Texas rancher Julia Trigg Crawford, who was there to lend support even though she has already lost her own battle to stop TransCanada from routing part of Keystone XL through her property: "Basically they came in and said a foreign corporation building a for-profit pipeline had more of a right to my land than I did."  

That was echoed by Ihanktonwan Oyate spiritual leader and elder Faith Spotted Eagle, who said, "We stand here as Mother Bears to defend our land, our farms, our ranches, our treaty territory. They are violating our treaty land and our treaty water."

The more time goes by, the more evidence we're seeing of just how toxic tar sands oil really is -- and what its effects would be on those unfortunate enough to live near a spill or a refinery. Of course, if a major spill were to happen on the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, the disaster would be both unparalleled and irreversible for millions of Americans.

Already, the Obama administration has heard from more than 2,000,000 people who believe the pipeline would not be in our national interest -- an unprecedented number. Just as important, though, are the individual voices being heard this week -- the voices of Americans who see the health and welfare of their communities under attack. Many of these communities already bear an unfair share of the consequences from fossil fuel pollution. Can we really ask them to suffer even more for the sake of oil industry profits?

There's still time to join the Reject and Protect march in D.C. this Saturday. You can sign up here. Can't make it to the capital? Then join the thousands of people from the around the country who will be simultaneously posting messages of solidarity.

 

The One Thing to Remember on Earth Day

April 22, 2014

Note: This piece first appeared on Huffington Post as part of its Earth Day celebration.

People sometimes ask me these days why the Sierra Club spends so much time taking on the fossil fuel industries and encouraging wind, solar, and other clean energy sources. Shouldn't we concentrate on saving wild places and, you know, taking more hikes?

To answer that, I like to bring up John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892. Although he died almost 100 years ago -- long before the first Earth Day -- Muir would have loved the idea of a day dedicated to celebrating (and protecting) our amazing planet. He is often remembered for opposing the destruction of wilderness, but Muir, first and foremost, was a celebrant of wilderness. Just pick up one of his books. His enthusiasm explodes off the page. His campaigns to protect the places he loved were fueled by this inexhaustible passion -- and by his conviction that experiencing the natural world could lift any human spirit as it had his own.

At the Sierra Club, we've never stopped believing in the importance of protecting those wild places, and we've spent more than 100 years continuing the mission John Muir started. I've seen wilderness work its healing power on the lives of everyone from returning veterans to city  kids who have never before seen the stars. I can guarantee you that, today, hundreds if not thousands of our 2.4 million members and supporters are not just hiking, they are scrambling up Rocky Mountain peaks, rafting through the Grand Canyon, trekking across the desert, and listening to Steller's jays argue in the boughs of giant sequoias.

But as the Club entered the 21st century, we realized that simply saving the places we loved wouldn't be enough. If we fail to address the threat of climate destruction, we could see much of the progress we have achieved -- John Muir's legacy -- undone.

So we did what John Muir did when he learned that his beloved Yosemite National Park was threatened: We organized. And, over the past decade, thanks to countless volunteers and the support of millions of Americans, we've succeeded in stopping many dirty, climate-polluting fossil fuel projects. We're proud of that work. But it's still not enough.

Here is where we can really learn from John Muir -- a man who loved wilderness so much that he took presidents camping and hiking to share his passion (and win their support). We cannot succeed if we define ourselves solely by the things that we're against. We must be just as effective, creative, and tenacious at identifying and establishing the positive solutions we do want to see. In other words, before we tell a policymaker what they should not do, we need to be sure we have a counterproposal for what they can do instead. I'll go even further. We need to show everyone in America what we can do instead.

That is what the Sierra Club is dedicated to doing today. We want to do for clean energy what John Muir did for wilderness 120 years ago. We want to show Americans -- show the entire world -- what clean, renewable energy can do for this planet we love so much.

There's no shortage of good news about renewable energy -- I see something exciting practically every day -- and each new development is another reason for optimism. That's what we should be shouting from the rooftops this Earth Day. Because if we don't get the message out there that we can turn away from fossil fuels and embrace clean energy on a larger scale, then who are the optimists? Think about it. If the only news that people ever hear is that carbon emissions are rising at an alarming rate, or that the effects of climate destruction are visible sooner than we thought, or that our leaders don't seem able to summon the political will to respond, well, then why should anybody have hope? In that situation, the only optimists will be the denialists. If we don't articulate a vision for a prosperous society powered by clean energy, then the only "optimistic" perspective is to deny reality and bury one's head in the sand. And that's a dangerous thing to do when the seas are rising.

So here's what I want everyone to remember this Earth Day: The world is a wonderful place. In just 90 minutes, enough sunlight strikes this planet to provide our planet's entire energy needs for one year. The contiguous United States has enough potential wind energy to provide all of our nation's electricity -- nine times over. Renewable energy has become economically competitive faster than anyone imagined just a few years ago -- in many places it is already beating all fossil fuels and nuclear power on price alone. Our progress toward a prosperous society powered by 100 percent safe, secure, and sustainable energy is unstoppable. We will get there -- the only question is how soon. The answer? The sooner the better.

Got it? Now, make like Muir and spread the word!

Choose Wisely…

April 15, 2014

We all make choices, and some turn out better than others do. But the choices we end up regretting the most are usually the ones we make against our better judgment. Both individually and collectively, we humans seem uniquely capable of acting as our own worst enemy.

We also are capable of wonderful, positive, and inspiring actions. That makes it all the worse when the consequences of a single bad decision overshadow our best intentions. And that, I'm afraid, is what the Obama administration risks by recklessly expanding fossil fuel production on public lands.

The Climate Action Plan that President Obama announced last year is full of good ideas, and his administration has already done more to address carbon pollution than any other has. New fuel-economy standards will double the efficiency of our cars and trucks. The energy efficiency of our appliances and buildings will dramatically improve. Stimulus spending has helped boost clean, renewable energy, and the president has directed the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards to curb both toxic emissions and carbon pollution from coal plants.

Unfortunately, a hard look at the numbers shows that all this progress could be undermined by one bad choice -- expanding fossil fuel production. Using publicly available data already gathered by federal agencies, the Sierra Club has calculated the potential carbon dioxide emissions from dirty-fuel development proposals in a new report, Dirty Fuels, Clean Futures. Such calculations send a clear message: To protect our climate, we must keep these dirty fuels in the ground.

Extracting and burning these coal, oil, gas, oil shale, and tar sands resources would release hundreds of billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and negate carbon-reducing actions. If we develop just one of these "climate disrupters" -- the Arctic Ocean, for example -- we'll release two-and-a-half times more pollution than we are saving through stronger fuel-economy standards.

Of course, that carbon pollution would be in addition to the already high toll from destructive mining, drilling, and fracking: polluted drinking water, destroyed wildlife habitat, and air that is dangerous to breathe. No matter where it happens, dirty fuel development leaves a trail of destruction. Throughout Dirty Fuels, Clean Futures, you'll find profiles of activist heroes around the country who are working to stop that destruction.

The world's best climate scientists have made it clear: To have even a two-thirds chance of keeping global temperature rise to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, we cannot exceed more than 469 billion additional tons of carbon dioxide pollution, yet burning existing worldwide reserves oil, gas, and coal would release 2.8 trillion tons of new carbon dioxide. That's why the Obama administration (and future leaders) will need to complement policies that reduce fossil-fuel consumption (and promote clean energy) with similar measures that limit dirty fuel extraction on U.S. public lands. It would be a mistake to see that as self-denial. In fact, committing to a future powered by clean, renewable energy will mean a healthier America with cleaner air and water, pristine coasts, and protected natural areas. As fossil fuels leave the picture, ours will be a wealthier, more just, and more productive nation.

For all these reasons, we urge that President Obama reject these dirty fossil-fuel projects and choose instead to maintain our national momentum toward a 100 percent clean energy future. The data in Dirty Fuels, Clean Futures leaves no excuse for saying we didn't know better.

Finding Common Ground Outdoors

March 24, 2014

Someone once said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Blogging about getting outdoors feels a bit like that. Part of me thinks that rather than writing 850 words about getting outdoors, I'd much rather be outdoors. And then part of me thinks that, rather than reading those 850 words, you might feel the same way!

But since we're here, together, united by this glowing screen, let me share a few thoughts about Sierra Club Outdoors -- which, every year, helps more than 250,000 people get their nature fix.

Getting outside has always been a big part of the Sierra Club, of course. The Club was started, after all, by a group of mostly city dwellers who wanted to explore and enjoy the great outdoors. Back in the 1890s, mind you, this was still a somewhat novel idea. Not so long before, most people still saw the great outdoors as something to escape from or stoically endure.

What those first Sierra Club members instinctively realized (with a little help from nature's greatest evangelist, John Muir) was that in "escaping" the outdoors, people were also cutting themselves off from a key nutrient -- like being deprived of an essential vitamin.

Today, of course, "nature deficit syndrome" is widely recognized for how it affects kids who grow up without access to outdoor experiences. We know that direct nature experiences shape the lives of young people, improve their self-esteem, raise their test scores, and help them lead healthier lives. That's why one volunteer-run SC Outdoors program is specifically aimed at helping thousands of urban youth -- kids who may have grown up 10 miles from the ocean without ever walking on a beach, for instance -- experience the outdoors.

The lack of nature doesn't affect only kids, though, and its benefits can help others, too.

Our Military Outdoors program, for instance, ensures that those who served our country, as well as their families, can enjoy the splendor of the land for which they've sacrificed. What Thoreau once called "the tonic of wildness" can do powerful things. At a minimum, outdoor experiences can provide military service members and their families with adventure, camaraderie, as sense of mission, or just a chance to relax and reconnect with one another.

Although we're proud of our programs that serve some of the people who stand to benefit the most from getting outdoors, the Sierra Club was founded on the premise that everyone deserves the opportunity to experience wildness, regardless of where they live or what their economic circumstances might be. We make that happen in two ways. One is by working to ensure that we don't focus only on iconic national parks or remote wilderness areas. Wonderful as those are, there's also a need for local places that individuals or families can easily visit for a picnic or an hour-long stroll. We call such places "nearby nature," and they are where many of our local outings happen.

The other way we make that happen is by having lots of outings in lots of places. Our volunteers lead more than 13,000 outings a year -- and they happen in every state and U.S. territory. Every one of these events -- whether it's a short day hike or a backpacking trip through the High Sierra -- happens because of a volunteer leader who loves the outdoors and wants to share that with other people.

As a result, no matter where you live, there's probably a Sierra Club outing happening near you soon. Find out right now by visiting the SC Outdoors page on our website.

OK, now that you've found your next outing, I want to leave you with just a couple of more thoughts before you lace up your boots and hit the trail: I'm convinced that the programs that make up SC Outdoors are more than just an important part of the Sierra Club's work -- they are an essential part. How many great conservation victories have been achieved without the hard work of ordinary folks who didn't want to see a place they loved destroyed? I can't think of a single one. The strongest passion for protection springs from love. No wonder throughout our history so many of our greatest leaders, from John Muir onward, have found their way to the Club through their love of the natural world.

It goes even deeper than that, though. Spending time outdoors can be personally healing, but it's also something that can bring people together, regardless of differing backgrounds, political beliefs, or experience. In nature, we have an opportunity to connect with people on a different level -- and to find common ground at a time when so many other forces are working to push us apart. Nature helps us restore our funds of hope, cooperation, and optimism -- and we can't have too much of any of those, whether we're fighting to save an Arctic wilderness or working to replace a dirty power plant with clean, renewable energy.

So come outdoors with us. You won't be sorry you did.

It's Not About the Pipe

March 11, 2014

Soon, President Obama will announce his decision on the permit for TransCanada's Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Since being proposed five years ago, this one pipeline has galvanized protests across the U.S. and gained a notoriety that no one could have predicted a couple of years ago. It's also brought renewed national attention to the urgency of reducing carbon pollution, as evidenced by the all-night session that the Senate Climate Action Task Force organized yesterday (the Sierra Club brought coffee for more than two-dozen senators who stayed up to talk about climate disruption).

I'll also be testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations  on whether the pipline is in the national interest this Thursday, March 13, at 11:15 A.M. ET. The hearing is scheduled to be webcast live -- look for details here.

Without a doubt, in this first-ever national debate over a pipeline, the arguments are getting heated. So maybe it's a good time to take a couple of steps back to remind ourselves why we care. Just why is this pipeline such a big deal?

That question has several answers, but they start with this: It's not about the pipe. It's about what the pipe would carry.

The Keystone XL's purpose would be to move Canadian tar sands oil through more than a thousand miles of American farms and ranches all the way to the Gulf, where much of it would be shipped to China and other countries. Tar sands oil is not normal crude oil. It's heavier and more toxic, with on average 11 times more sulfur, 11 times more nickel, and 5 times more lead, as well as plenty of other carcinogens. When it spills in a waterway, it sinks. Just one tar sands oil spill in Michigan fouled more than 35 miles of river. After three and a half years and more than a billion dollars, that spill still has not been cleaned up.

Because tar sands oil is thicker and, indeed, more tar-like, it can't be transported like conventional oil. Pipelines pumping tar sands crude can run at over 1,000 pounds per square inch (compared with about 30 psi for your average car tire) and reach temperatures of over 100 degrees. This high pressure and the corrosive nature of tar sands oil combine to increase the likelihood of spills.

Keystone XL would also produce a significant increase in the production of petcoke, a filthy byproduct of tar sands production that is hazardous to communities and has its own major climate implications.

It's true that all fossil fuels come with risks, of course. But extreme fossil fuel sources, such as oil from the Arctic Sea or tar sands from Canada, come with extreme risks. Risks that are too often brushed aside -- right up until the inevitable.

But even if Canada's vast tar sands reserves could be extracted and transported without a single spill, generations to come would still pay a terrible price in climate disruption. If we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, the world's leading scientists have made it clear that we must leave at least two-thirds of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Isn't it reasonable to assume that tar sands, some of the riskiest, most toxic and most carbon-intensive sources of oil in the world, should be among the first reserves that we leave alone?

The State Department's Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on Keystone XL, which came out earlier this year, has several problems, which isn't too surprising when you consider that a member of the American Petroleum Institute helped draft it. The report's most wrong-headed assertion, though, was that the tar sands will be fully developed regardless of whether Keystone is built. Frankly, if that were true, the oil industry would not be so anxious to see the pipeline approved. Just last month,TransCanada CEO Russ Girling told an audience that a pipeline cancellation would mean a lost opportunity for "decades and decades to come."

If the Keystone XL is canceled, does that mean Canada will immediately renounce all tar sands development? Of course not. But losing the Keystone battle would be an enormous setback for tar sands development, and the oil industry and its allies in government know it. Canada's natural resources minister put it bluntly: "In order for crude oil production to grow, the North American pipeline network must be expanded through initiatives such as the Keystone XL pipeline project."  

And yet Canada cannot even get its own people to accept new tar sands pipelines within their borders. Two pipelines proposed to the west through British Columbia are stalled due to popular opposition. Two more pipelines going to the east are also heavily criticized. Thus, this proposal to use the United States as a shipping route -- which means that U.S. farmers and ranchers get all the risk, while oil companies will reap all the rewards.

The argument that Keystone XL is a pipeline that would benefit oil consumers in the U.S. ignores mountains of evidence that the product is intended for export. Keystone XL would deliver tar sands to refineries in the Gulf, which already export most of their refined product. In fact, 76 percent of Keystone XL's capacity is already committed to six oil-shipping companies that hope to access international markets.

Here in the U.S., President Obama has said he cannot consider the pipeline to be in our national interest if it would "significantly increase" emissions of greenhouse gases. Clearly, the Keystone XL fails this "climate test" because the tar sands fail it. The State Department's own report makes it clear that, compared with other crude oil sources, the tar sands oil from the Keystone pipeline would create up to an additional 27.4 million metric tons of carbon pollution annually. That's equivalent (says the report) to the yearly carbon pollution from 5,708,333 passenger vehicles or 1,368,631 homes. This extra pollution would happen because tar sands are not only dirtier and riskier than other types of crude oil, they also are significantly more carbon-intensive to extract. At a time when we should be doing everything possible to cut carbon emissions, why would we choose to rely on the one kind of oil that results in higher emissions than all others?

Really, it's not just Keystone XL that faces a climate test, but the president himself. With a single decision, he could undermine much of the substantial progress his administration has already made on curbing climate-disrupting carbon pollution and advancing clean energy solutions. Trying to fight carbon pollution while expanding development of the tar sands is like deciding to eat more healthfully and then signing up for a weekly shipment of Krispy Kremes.

Fortunately, we are hardly desperate for oil. Oil demand in the U.S. actually peaked in 2007 and has declined since then from about 22 million barrels per day (mpd) to less than 19. With the fuel-economy policies that are already in place (or coming very soon), we'll reduce our oil use to as low as 14 mbd. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the many risks of tar sands is that they're unnecessary.

One of the best ways to predict the future is to look at the infrastructure investments we're making today. If we want a future that commits us to 830,000 barrels of dirty oil every day for decades and decades, then we should let TransCanada build this pipeline. Or, we could invest in a future where clean energy creates more jobs, makes our country more competitive, and protects our air, water, and climate. Unless you're the one selling the tar sands, the choice should be obvious.

Bad Reputation

March 07, 2014

The toxic industrial spills in West Virginia and North Carolina over the past weeks have delivered the first hard lesson of 2014: Never take safe drinking water for granted. And yet the natural gas industry has been asking us to do exactly that for years now.

No more. This year, the myth that natural gas is a "cleaner" fossil fuel will be dispelled for good. Natural gas drilling not only can contaminate water supplies -- it's clear that it already has. What's not so clear is why state and federal agencies that are responsible for protecting our water supply have been so slow to acknowledge and respond to that reality to the extent that fracking for gas remains exempt from parts of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. It's a problem that goes all the way to the top, as President Obama's insistence that natural gas should be viewed as a "bridge fuel" to a clean-energy future shows.

Late in December, the inspector general of the EPA released a report (at noon on Christmas Eve) that found the agency had been correct to issue an emergency order in 2010 after getting reports that natural gas fracking operations had caused methane contamination of water wells in Parker County, Texas. Texas fossil-fuel regulators and Range Resources (the company doing the fracking) pushed back, though, and the EPA ultimately backed down.

That was a mistake on the EPA's part, as has shown by multiple further tests that showed contamination. Results from the most recent tests, conducted last year by Robert Jackson, a professor at Duke University, are currently under peer review and will be released later this year. The professor did share the results with homeowners whose water was affected, though, who then shared them with the Associated Press (AP), which reported:

Jackson found higher levels of methane in some water wells -- sometimes five to 10 times higher -- than what Range Resources' tests showed. In some cases, the levels are five times higher than the 10 parts per million per liter set as a threshold limit by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Jackson himself told the AP: "We're seeing high methane concentrations and that result alone indicates to me that EPA closing the case was premature."

What happened to homeowners in Texas would be disturbing even if it were an isolated case, but it's not. In January, the AP reported that contamination from oil and gas wells has been reported in at least four states where fracking is booming, and that contamination has been "confirmed in a number of them, according to a review that casts doubt on industry suggestions that such problems rarely happen." In Pennsylvania alone, "more than 100 cases of pollution were confirmed over the past five years."

Across the U.S., utilities are preparing to replace old, polluting power plants that run on dirty fuels. The temptation, unfortunately, is to replace one dirty fuel (coal or oil) with another -- natural gas. We cannot afford to let that happen. Besides the obvious threat that fracking poses to our water, choosing to burn more natural gas inevitably means choosing to add more climate-polluting carbon to our atmosphere.

That's an especially poor choice because, thanks to lower costs, clean-energy alternatives have never been more competitive. When the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission recently asked a judge to evaluate competing energy proposals, he ruled that a plan based on solar arrays would be better for Minnesota's ratepayers than one based on natural gas. By "better," he didn't mean "cleaner" (although that would certainly be a bonus). He meant it would be a better deal for them financially.

If Minnesotans are better off with solar power, then why would sunny Southern California opt to replace the defunct San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station with dirty natural gas plants? Why would sunny Southwestern states or windy Midwestern states choose to shackle themselves to another fossil fuel for decades to come?

A growing movement is working to make sure that everyone knows exactly what a dirty and dangerous choice natural gas really is. But the other side of that coin is an even more important message. We have better choices -- choices that will deliver truly clean energy, that put more Americans to work, and that often will save money. Let's move beyond dirty fuels and build an economy powered by clean energy.

Let President Obama know he's got it wrong this time -- natural gas is dirty, dangerous, and anything but a clean energy solution.

Moving Cars in the Right Direction

March 03, 2014

Everybody knows that standing in front of a moving car is dangerous, but what about standing behind one? Currently, four out of ten Americans live in a place where the air is sometimes dangerous to breathe, thanks in part to smog from cars and trucks. Today, the Obama administration finalized cleaner tailpipe standards that will help us all breathe easier.

Beginning in 2017, these cleaner tailpipe standards will require that refiners produce cleaner-burning, lower-sulfur gasoline, and that automakers use advanced pollution control technology on new cars. Although the impact of cleaner new cars will be felt over time, the cleaner gasoline will be used by all cars, old and new, and reduce pollution almost immediately. In the first year alone, smog-forming NOx emissions will be reduced by 260,000 tons. That's like taking 33 million cars off the road -- nearly two out of every ten cars in the U.S.

Cleaner tailpipe standards mean cleaner air, and cleaner air has real health benefits. Smog pollution, or ground-level ozone, can cause asthma attacks, respiratory disease, and even premature death. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that by 2030 these cleaner tailpipe standards will prevent roughly 2,000 premature deaths a year, along with reducing hospital admissions and asthma attacks.

That's good news for everyone, but it's especially important for families who live near a major road. According to the American Lung Association, living or working near a major roadway results in a greater risk of health problems, especially for children and teenagers.

Disappointingly, the oil industry did everything it could to derail or delay these health-protecting standards. They failed in part because the standards will dramatically clean our air for less than a penny a gallon, all while creating jobs. A study by Navigant Economics found that these standards would create almost 5,400 permanent jobs in the operation and maintenance of new refinery equipment, as well as more than 24,000 new jobs during the three years it takes to install that equipment.

The economic and employment benefits of the standards explain the strong support for them from automakers, auto parts manufacturers, and the United Auto Workers.

These cleaner tailpipe standards mark the third time that President Obama has acted to make our cars and trucks cleaner and more efficient. In 2012, finalizing historic vehicle standards of 54.5 miles per gallon was the biggest single step any country had ever taken to reduce climate-disrupting pollution. Then, just two weeks ago, the president directed his administration to move forward with the next round of fuel-economy standards for tractor-trailers and delivery trucks.

Eventually, cars and trucks that run on gas will be found in museums instead of garages, and the smog and health problems they caused will only be bad memories. Until that day, though, we can be thankful for these standards, which will eliminate so much pollution for so little cost. 

Protecting Those Who Protected Us

February 05, 2014

It's not hard to understand why the Sierra Club has had a long and proud relationship with the men and women who serve our country in the armed services. As our history shows, a passion for exploring and enjoying the outdoors is a natural complement of both the skills and the spirit of the military.

After all, it was our first executive director, David Brower, who used his mountaineering and outdoors skills to help found the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division during World War II, a unit that has since distinguished itself from the Dolomites of Italy to the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan. Brower isn't an isolated example -- thousands of veterans are Sierra Club members and supporters. That's because their commitment to protect our country doesn't stop when they take off their uniforms. And their sense of duty extends from protecting our freedoms overseas to protecting our air, water, and natural legacy here at home.

So it's more important than ever that those who have sacrificed for our nation be given every opportunity to succeed here at home and receive every benefit they have earned. Incredibly, though, not everyone in Congress or in Washington, D.C., seems to agree. In fact, the recent omnibus budget bill would deliver harsh cuts to veteran's benefits.

That would be a slap in the face to all of the men and women who have put their lives on the line for our country. No veteran should receive anything less than every benefit to which he or she is entitled. That is the least we can do for those who fought to preserve our democracy.

That's why the Sierra Club is standing shoulder to shoulder with our partners, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Blue Star Families, as well as with veterans, active duty service members, and their families nationwide, in opposing any cuts to veterans' pensions or benefits.

Our nation's budget should not be balanced on the backs of those who have fought to protect it. If we care about raising our voices to protect our nation's clean air, clean water, and wild places, we must stand with those who have sacrificed to ensure we have a strong nation. This is not an ideological issue or a partisan issue. It's common sense.

You can help fight for a full repeal of the cuts to military retirees' benefits here.

Keystone XL: Set to Reject

February 04, 2014

All across America, people are gathering to draw attention to the threat that the Keystone XL pipeline poses to clean air, clean water, public health, and the stability of our climate. Last night alone, thousands attended nearly 300 vigils in 49 states. This outpouring of hope and frustration came together in just a few days, in response to the release of a deeply flawed report by the State Department that underestimates the consequences of building this pipeline across the heart of the United States.

People are hopeful because the decision to reject the Keystone pipeline is in the hands of President Obama, who has stated his firm commitment to fight climate disruption. He will be advised by Secretary of State John Kerry, a long-standing champion in the effort to solve the climate crisis that is already upon us, already stirring extreme weather like Superstorm Sandy, the polar vortex, droughts, and wildfires. These leaders know that Americans have embraced clean energy and have no interest in retreating to dependence on the dirty fossil fuels of centuries past. So I'm cautiously confident that the president and secretary of state will do the right thing and stop this pipeline in its tracks.

People are frustrated, however, because the report released last Friday was largely written by a contractor that stands to profit if the pipeline is built. Not surprisingly, it gives the pipeline a passing grade, while virtually every credible expert has already given the project a big fat "Fail."

Biased as it is, though, the report sets the stage for President Obama to reject this dirty, dangerous manifestation of Big Oil's greed, by abandoning the contention in earlier drafts that KXL would have no significant impact on climate. Instead, it concludes that the pipeline would contribute the equivalent of an additional 6 million cars on the road to annual greenhouse gas emissions.

The president is on record that he will not allow Keystone XL to be built if it would "significantly exacerbate" carbon pollution. The pollution from six million cars is anything but insignificant. And a more credible independent analysis estimates that carbon pollution from the pipeline would be equivalent to more than 37 million gas-guzzling cars -- or 51 coal-fired power plants. How does that make sense at a moment when we are making progress against climate disruption by retiring dirty coal plants and building more and more wind turbines and solar panels to create the energy that is already powering Teslas, Leafs, and Smart cars?

There are plenty of reasons to reject Keystone. Here are a few reasons to reject last week's report:

  1. The report was too narrow in scope.  Federal law requires government agencies to consider the cumulative impact of proposed federal actions such as permits for pipelines that cross international boundaries. Last week, the Sierra Club and its coalition partners alerted the State Department that it had failed to consider the climate impacts of Keystone XL combined with other tar sands pipeline decisions, including the proposed Alberta Clipper pipeline expansion.

  2. The report has a serious conflict of interest. ERM -- a member organization of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry's lobbying group -- was handpicked for the job by TransCanada, the company seeking to build the KXL pipeline. The State Department's Inspector General is currently investigating this contract for mismanagement and bias.

  3. The contention that the pollution is inevitable is false: The review assumes that tar sands expansion will happen with or without Keystone XL. But that's not what industry experts, financial analysts, and Canadian government officials are saying. And if you follow the money, it's clear that the delay already caused by the campaign opposing Keystone XL has led to both reduced foreign investment in the tar sands and reduced projections of tar sands crude production. In short, this pipeline is the linchpin for tar sands development.

  4. The tar sands cannot economically or safely be carried by rail: The review also assumes that, without a pipeline, tar sands crude would be shipped by rail. But moving tar sands by rail is both difficult and expensive, and will become even more so once new federal safety requirements come into effect. Since last July, when an oil train disaster killed 47 in Quebec, we've seen oil train accidents in Edmonton (Oct.), Alabama (Nov.), North Dakota (Dec), and New Brunswick and Pennsylvania (Jan). Just last Friday, while all eyes were on the rollout of the State Department's report, yet another crude-oil rail train derailed and spilled in Mississippi.

The next step in the Keystone XL decision is for Secretary Kerry to make a recommendation to the president about whether the pipeline is in our "national interest." We welcome Secretary Kerry to the fray. Kerry said in October that "energy policy is the solution to global climate change." He realizes that  climate-driven extreme weather is making life perilous in all 50 states, weakening our economy, and threatening our national security. If we invest in tar sands pipelines, we can expect only poisoned air and water in return. Investing in clean energy, on the other hand, creates jobs, lowers energy costs, builds energy security, and reduces carbon pollution. It's time to go "all in" on clean energy.

Ultimately, though, this is President Obama's decision. Although he has struggled with the paradox of reducing carbon pollution while promoting a dirty "all of the above" energy policy, the president already has more than enough evidence to reject this pipeline based solely on its effect on climate disruption. But even though this debate has centered on climate, that is only part of what's at stake. When considering the "national interest," the president will also need to consider how this pipeline would affect the health and safety of American families, farmers and ranchers along the pipeline route, and fence-line refinery communities.

Finally, after weighing all the facts, the president must reject Keystone XL and send the world a clear message: Our nation is committed to clean energy and climate solutions.


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Michael Brune

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