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Archive for the ‘Climate Change’ Category

Public Citizen Honors Tom “Smitty” Smith

 

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After more than three decades of extraordinary work running Public Citizen’s Texas office, “Smitty,” formally known as Thomas Smith, is hanging up his spurs. Smitty is a Texas institution and a national treasure, and on February 1st, we celebrated him right.

Over 200 people attended a retirement dinner for Smitty at the Barr Mansion in Austin, TX on Wednesday evening.  Friends and colleagues from around the state who had work with Smitty on issues over his career that included clean energy, ethics reform, pollution mitigation, nuclear waste disposal, etc came to pay homage to a man who had dedicated his life to fighting for a healthier and more equitable world by making government work for the people and by defending democracy from corporate greed.

Mayor Adler and Council members Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchens

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea and Smitty

Dallas County Commissioner Dr. Theresa Daniel and Smitty

During the evening, Austin Mayor – Steve Adler, Travis County Commissioner – Brigid Shea, and Dallas County Commissioner – Dr. Theresa Daniel presented Smitty with resolutions passed by the City of Austin, Travis County Commissioners Court and Dallas County Commissioners Court all of which acknowledge Smitty’s contributions to their communities and the state of Texas.

 

 

 

Adrian Shelley (front left) and Rob Weissman (front right) at Tom “Smitty” Smith’s retirement event.

Public Citizen’s President, Robert Weissman, thanked Smitty for his service to Public Citizen for the past 31 years and introduced the new director for the Texas office, Adrian Shelley, the current Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston.

Smitty’ impending departure fromPublic Citizen will leave a big hole in advocacy for progressive issues here in Texas, but both Smitty and Robert Weissman expressed confidence that Adrian would lead the Texas office forward into a new era of progressive advocacy.  Adrian is a native Texan from the City of Houston. He has served as the Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston since 2013. He first worked with Air Alliance Houston as a legal fellow in 2010, then as a Community Outreach Coordinator in 2012. In that time, Public Citizen has worked closely with Air Alliance Houston through the Healthy Port Communities Coalition (HPCC), a coalition of nonprofits and community groups which advocates policies to improve public health and safety while encouraging economic growth.

So be assured that Adrian and the Texas staff of Public Citizen are committed to carrying on the battle for justice, for democracy, for air clean and  energy and for clean politics. We can and will protect our children and the generations to come. For this, we can still use your help.  You can make a tax deductible donation to the Texas office of Public Citizen to help us continue his vital work on climate, transportation, civil justice, consumer protection, ethics, campaign finance reform and more

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rrc-who-are-we

UPDATE: By 10 am this morning, the Sunset Commission had already voted on the recommendations they were going to adopt for the report to the legislature. 

All the STAFF good enforcement recommendations were adopted, and the recommendation (proposed by the Public Member on the Commisson, Allen West) on induced seismicity was adopted.

The name change recommendation was dropped as we heard it would be, as were the transfer of contested cases to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH).  The new issue proposed by Rep. Raymond, calling for bonding for cleaning up abandoned wells at the last hearing fell by the wayside. Raymond did not even bring up his proposals.

The things we do support on enforcement will be in the bill when it’s introduced during the 85th Legislative session, but we expect that it may be a fight to keep them in.

Thursday, November 10th, the Texas Sunset Commission will meet to vote on recommendations to the 85th Legislature regarding the future of the Texas Railroad Commission.  Three times the Legislature has failed to pass a bill reauthorizing and making changes to this agency. 

We are asking that you contact the Sunset Commissioners and tell them to support staff recommendations plus Raymond and West’s new issues as outlined below.  For Sunset Commissioners’ contact information, click here. or contact your state rep and state senator to urge the Sunset Commission to support these recommendations. Find out who represents you here.

A coalition of environmental groups, including Public Citizen, have been following the Sunset review of the Railroad Commission and they are in agreement about supporting staff recommendations and new issues raised by Texas Sunset Commission Members – Representatives Dan Flynn,  Richard Peña Raymond, and public member LTC (Ret.) Allen B. West – to increase transparency, improve safeguards and protect the public.  It is time for more than a name change on failed agency! 

For a full version of the recommendations click here.

Issue 1 – Continue the Railroad Commission of Texas for 12 Years with a Name That Reflects the Agency’s Important Functions. (Page 11)

Change in Statute

Rec. 1.1 (Page 17) Change the name of the Railroad Commission of Texas to the Texas Energy Resources Commission and continue the agency for 12 years.

We support this change. On the eve of another election where most voters had no idea what the Railroad Commission does, and where industry supplied some 70 percent of the funding to those running, changing the name is a needed first step. We also believe that the Commission should only be continued for 6 years.

Issue 2 – Contested Hearings and Gas Utility Oversight Are Not Core Commission Functions and Should Be Transferred to Other Agencies to Promote Efficiency, Effectiveness, Transparency, and Fairness. (Page 19)

Representative Raymond Proposed Modification

Under this modification to Recommendations 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3, the Commission would contract with the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) to conduct the Commission’s hearings for contested permit and enforcement cases and Gas Utility Oversight would be transferred to the Public Utility Commission (PUC), with potential to contest the rates at SOAH. In conducting hearings, the PUC and SOAH would consider the Commission’s applicable substantive rules and policies.

We are in full support of Issue 2 and the transfer of these functions from RRC to SOAH and PUC, but do agree that the applicable rules and policies related to these issues should be considered in that transfer, as recommended by Representative Raymond.

Issue 3 – Oil and Gas Monitoring and Enforcement Need Improvements to Effectively Ensure Public Safety and Environmental Protection.

Rep. Flynn Modification: Also direct the agency to provide oil and gas production information on its website in a format that is easier for royalty owners to use and understand.

We Support these Sunset Staff recommendations on Enforcement, as well as Rep. Flynn’s proposed modification.

Issue 4 – Insufficient and Inequitable Statutory Bonding Requirements Contribute to the Large Backlog of Abandoned Wells. (Page 43)

We support this change to assure that oil and gas wells pay their fair share in upfront bonding costs.

Issue 5 – Improved Oversight of Texas’ Pipeline Infrastructure Would Help Further Ensure Public Safety. (Page 51)

We support these proposed statutory and appropriations modifications.

Issue 6 – The Railroad Commission’s Contracting Procedures Are Improving, but Continued Attention Is Needed. (Page 55)

We support these proposed management actions.

Issue 7 – The Railroad Commission’s Statute Does Not Reflect Standard Elements of Sunset Reviews. (Page 59)

We support these proposed changes.

Proposed New Issues

Vice Chair Taylor Proposed New Issue 1

Direct the Railroad Commission to study, develop, and implement ways to clean up and revive old oil fields for secondary and tertiary recovery using either the unitization method or other legal means which the Commission may develop or recommend. As part of this recommendation, the Railroad Commission shall consult with the Bureau of Economic Geology. (Management action — nonstatutory)

We have not taken a position on this recommendation.

Colonel West Proposed New Issue 2

Direct the Railroad Commission to incorporate findings from the TexNet Seismic Monitoring Program at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology as they become available into its oil and gas disposal well rules or guidance, as applicable. The rules should seek to prevent any induced seismicity caused by disposal wells. (Management action — nonstatutory)

We are in full support. Utilizing the information that is being collected to develop more protective rules and procedures makes sense.

Representative Raymond Proposed New Issue 3

Amend RRC’s statute to require the agency to publish comprehensive oil and gas enforcement data (complaints, inspections, violations, enforcement actions taken, and penalties levied/collected) online, in a publicly accessible, searchable, trackable format. Make data available by operator and on a well-by-well basis and by bulk download.

We are in full support of this recommendation. We would note this could also be accomplished as a management action by direction of the Director to publish this information on-line.

Representative Raymond Proposed New Issue 4

Management recommendation to direct RRC to: review all relevant rules on spill reporting and response, and make changes to increase environmental protection and cleanup during flooding, such as specifying time frames for responding to spills; clarify its rules, so that both oil and gas spills and other spills like brine, produced water, or fracking fluid are also reported, tracked, and cleaned up; and report these spills and the results of any cleanup effort in an accessible way, either directly on its website or by sharing the information with TCEQ as part of its joint work on spills. (Management action — nonstatutory)

We are in full support. This is considerable confusion about reporting and clean-up requirements, particularly in the event of floods.

Representative Raymond Proposed New Issue 5

Amend Chapter 26 of the Texas Water Code to require operators that treat “domestic wastewater” or “mobile drinking water treatment system wastewater” at oil and gas well drill sites to obtain a permit from TCEQ instead of RRC.

We are in support. TCEQ is the appropriate agency to assure water is cleaned up to the appropriate level.

Representative Raymond Proposed New Issue 6

Improve inspection, regulation, and reporting of injection wells by: either removing the specific permit fee amount in Chapter 27, allowing the Commission to set a more reasonable amount, or raising it to $1,000 (Change in statute); requiring RRC to require monthly reporting of liquid injection in all disposal wells and make the information publicly accessible (Change in statute); and directing RRC to conduct a comprehensive review of its rules and programs regarding oil and gas disposal wells, and consider changes related to casing and cementing, aquifer exemptions, notice and public participation, seismic activity, and wastewater reporting and tracking. (Management action — nonstatutory)

We are in support of both the management and statutory changes. Permit fees for disposal wells are too low and the rules should be reexamined to assure proper notice, and proper safeguards.

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A rate case is fundamentally about determining how much money an electric utility needs to collect from ratepayers to pay for expenses (and make some return on investment), how those expenses will be divided among the different customer classes (residential, commercial, industrial), and how customers in those different rate classes will be billed.  It’s probably obvious that these decisions can impact affordability and equity among customers.  Rate cases can also have significant environmental impacts though.

The Austin Energy rate case is an opportunity to make changes that can allow the utility to transition away from fossil fuels and towards greater reliance on clean energy solutions, including solar energy at homes and businesses, energy efficiency, energy storage and demand response (temporarily reducing usage when energy demand and prices spike).  What the utility spends money on, what programs are offered, and how rates are designed have profound impacts on climate change, air quality, water pollution, water use, land use – all of which impact society in a variety of ways, including public health and vulnerability to natural disasters.  So, it might sound boring at first, but if you care about the environment or social equity, you should care about how your electric utility is doing business.

What we’re advocating for:

  • 2009-08-21-fayette

    Fayette Power Project

    Budget to allow Austin Energy’s portion of the coal-fired Fayette Power Project to retire.  It is responsible for 80% of Austin Energy’s greenhouse gas emissions (and over 28% of Austin’s greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors).  It’s also a major source of other air pollution that causes and worsens respiratory diseases (sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides – which contributes to ground level ozone formation) and cause neurological disorders mercury.  And it requires over 5 billion gallons of water to operate.  The latest adopted plan for Austin Energy calls for the retirement of the utility’s portion of Fayette by 2023, and Austin Energy staff say its remaining debt associated with the plant must be paid off before it can be retired.  The plan calls for that money to be collected in a dedicated fund through annual budgeting, but that isn’t happening, putting the retirement plan at risk.  Please use our action page to email City Council about budgeting to retire Fayette.

  • Maintain residential rates that encourage energy conservation and allow thrifty customers to keep their bills low.  Austin Energy has proposed to increase electric rates for those who use the least energy and reduce them for those who use the most.  For those trying to reduce their electric usage for environmental reasons or because their household budgets are strained, Austin Energy’s proposal will increase bills.  Austin Energy’s proposal will also make it more difficult to project from year to year how higher much summer rates will be from winter rates.  Both of these changes would reduce the incentive to conserve energy and invest in energy efficiency upgrade.  And these changes were proposed despite a study that Austin Energy commissioned that said that the existing rate structure is succeeding in encouraging conservation.  These proposed changes to how residential customers are billed would be a step backwards.
  • LegalZoom Austin Solar Installation - Meridian Solar

    LegalZoom Austin Solar Installation – Meridian Solar

    Adopt a policy to fairly compensate businesses for energy they produce from solar energy systems.  The City Council has adopted goals solar energy on homes and businesses, but Austin Energy’s current policy doesn’t include any way for most commercial customers to receive compensation for the energy they provide to the utility.  Incentives have temporarily filled that gap, but they are coming to an end.  The value of solar (VoS) rate is used to provide bill credits to residential customers, based on the calculated value of local distributed solar energy.  The same method should be used to compensate commercial customers.  Making this policy change will help grow solar adoption, while shifting away from incentives.

  • Ensure that enough money is collected to fully fund energy efficiency, solar energy and demand response programs.  Helping customers reduce their electric bills by making energy efficiency improvement or install solar energy systems doesn’t just benefit those customers who participate in those programs, it benefits all customers by allowing the utility to avoid purchasing expensive power that would drive all of our bills up.  The Energy Efficiency Services fee is used to collect money for this purpose.  With more people moving to Austin all the time, Austin Energy needs to ensure that budgets are set to match the need for local energy improvements.

Public Citizen and Sierra Club jointly participated in the Austin Energy rate case over the past several months, in an effort to push the utility to make environmentally sound decisions about both spending and billing customers.  That was just a warm-up for the real decision-making process though.  Because Austin Energy is owned by the city of Austin, the Austin City Council will make the final decisions about the rate case.  That’s where you come in.  City Council members, including Mayor Adler, need to hear from Austin Energy customers.  There will be a public hearing on Thursday, August 25th at 4:00 p.m. at City Hall.  Meet at 3:00 p.m. for a rally to support fair rates that meet Austin’s environmental goals.

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photo by Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

photo by Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

During the last week of June, President Obama, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met for the North American Leaders Summit (known as the Three Amigos Summit) in Ottawa to focus primarily on climate-related issues. These climate accords are essential not only in combating climate change, but also in seeing how countries can forge multi-lateral partnerships in addressing environmental issues.

This summit was the first in two and a half years. The trilateral summit last year was postponed due to disputes over the Keystone oil pipeline between President Obama, who saw the pipeline as a threat to the environment, and Canada’s former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was a strong advocate of it. Now, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, head of the Liberal Party, and President Enrique Peña Nieto, a close ally of President Obama’s, US, Canada, and Mexico are unifying their energy policies more than ever.

The new agreement calls for 50 percent of North America’s electricity to come from clean power sources by 2025. According to the agreement, clean power sources include renewable energy, efficiency, nuclear power and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage technology. Currently, 37% of North America’s electricity is powered by non-carbon-emitting power plants, mostly nuclear and hydro. Among the three countries, Canada is leading in carbon-free energy with 81 percent (if nuclear energy is included), coming from clean energy sources. United States and Mexico lag behind. In Mexico, only 22 percent of its energy is carbon-free. The statistics for the United States are not much better given that only 33 percent of electric power (including 20 percent nuclear) comes from carbon-free energy sources. Another 33 percent of our electricity is fueled by coal which is primarily composed of carbon.

The trilateral agreement opens up new avenues for carbon-dependent states to replace their energy sources through the transmission of power from Canada’s electricity grid. Another way the countries are looking to decrease carbon emissions is by boosting deployment of clean vehicles in government fleets, as well as cutting emissions from the shipping and airline sectors.

The agreement’s main targets are methane and carbon dioxide (CO2), along with other greenhouse gas pollutants. Cutting down on methane emissions should be a priority for North America given that it produces 20% of the world’s methane emissions.  The pollutant traps 25 times more heat over a 100 year period and 87 times more over a 20 year period, compared to CO2. The pressure of being accountable to your neighbor will hopefully bring all three of the North American states to significantly reduce their methane emissions.

A part of the accord that U.S. and Canada had previously decided on before the summit, promises to reduce methane, black carbon, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are used in refrigerators, by 40 to 45 percent. During the Three Amigos Summit, the Mexican President agreed to the terms as well.

Finally, the Three Amigos also agreed on protecting biodiversity, particularly preserving migratory birds and butterflies that fly every year between the three countries, but are losing their habitat due to environmental threats.

The climate change goals of the North America Leaders Summit are aligned with the Paris Agreements of 2015, in which U.S. committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025.
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Today is the first day of summer, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality offers these tips with the arrival of hot weather.

In Texas, cooling and heating accounts for as much as 40 percent of annual home energy expenses. Take Care of Texas offers the following easy ways to keep your home cooler, helping you to save money and keep our air clean.

  • Use a programmable thermostat. Or adjust your thermostat during overnight hours or when no one is home. Try setting it to 78 degrees or warmer in the summer. Setting it to 7-10 degrees higher than you normally would for 8 hours a day can reduce energy consumption as much as 10 percent.
  • Maintain your air conditioner. A properly functioning air conditioner is an efficient one. Replace filters every month or two during the cooling season. And that big hunk of metal outside? That’s the evaporator coil. It needs plenty of airflow, so clean it once a year. Remove debris and trim foliage too, leaving at least two feet of space around it.

You can also take the burden off your air conditioner by using other methods to keep the heat down in your home:

  • Use ceiling fans. They circulate the air in the house and allow you to raise the thermostat setting about 4 degrees without discomfort.
  • Limit the heat from your appliances. Cook outdoors on the grill, and try not to use the dishwasher, washer, and dryer during the heat of the day.
  • Move lamps, TVs, and other appliances away from the thermostat. The extra heat they produce can cause the air conditioner to run longer.
  • Install efficient lighting. It runs cooler. Only about 10 percent of the electricity that incandescent lights consume results in light — the rest is turned into heat.
  • Plant shade trees and install window blinds. With less sunlight shining on your house, the internal temperature can decrease by three to six degrees in the summer and save up to 25 percent in cooling costs. Use energy-efficient window treatments and close them during the day to block direct sunlight.
  • Weatherize your home. Find air leaks and seal them with caulk and weather stripping.
  • Seal your heating and cooling ducts. Leaky ducts can reduce your system’s efficiency by as much as 20 percent. Start by sealing ducts that run through the attic, crawlspace, or garage using duct sealant or foil tape. Then wrap the ducts in insulation to keep them from getting hot.

Visit TakeCareofTexas.org for more ways to conserve energy and water, reduce waste, keep the air and water clean, and save money.

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This Sept. 29, 2009 photo shows Albert Naquin, the chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha indians, answering a question on Isle de Jean Charles, La. Holdouts in the hurricane-damaged Indian village refuse to give in to urges from a tribal chief, scientists and public officials to relocate inland, despite frequent floods and disappearing marshland that brings the Gulf of Mexico closer every year.  (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

Albert Naquin, chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha (Sept. 29, 2009, AP Photo/Bill Haber)

The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians are not strangers to the idea of forced migration. As a consequence of the Indian Removal Act of the 1830s, the tribe’s ancestors moved to the Isle de Jean Charles.  Almost two hundred years after, they are being forced to move again as a result of climate change.

To address this issue, the federal government has provided 48 million dollars in order to move a majority of the island’s population of 85 people. Although the federal government has provided grants totaling one billion dollars for thirteen states, funding for “climate change refugees” is unprecedented.

The results of this program are fundamental in providing a potential blueprint for future resettlements resulting from climate change.  It is estimated that 13.1 million Americans living seaside might face flooding as a result of rising sea levels. The issue of resettlement is complicated in itself. The issue in Isle de Jean Charles, however, is particularly complex because of the need to preserve what remains of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indian community.

Isle DeJean Charles - photo by Karen Apricot

Isle DeJean Charles – photo by Karen Apricot

The story of the Isle de Jean Charles is particularly intriguing because of just how severe the ramifications of climate change combined with the increased rate of natural land loss due to the construction of dams and oil drilling. Isle de Jean Charles has lost 98% of its territory. Furthermore, frequent flooding and hurricanes have made farming impossible, contributing to the outward migration that has been occurring since 1955. The ones that have stayed behind despite worsening conditions, however, are strongly attached to their land, raising the broader question of how resettlement be carried out if the population in peril, refuses to move.

The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians have voted twice before against resettlement. The issue of resettlement came up in 2002 when the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE), which had originally planned to include the Isle de Jean Charles in Gulf Hurricane Protection System, decided the cost and benefit did not add up. Because of the Isle’s remote location and relatively low economic value, ACE did not see the benefit. Instead, they offered the locals a plan of resettlement which, lacking unanimous support from the locals, were not implemented.

The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians certainly won’t be the last U.S. climate refugees. In Alaska, more than 180 villages are currently directly affected by melting ice glaciers. A village called Newtok, according to Army Corps of Engineers is expected to be under water by next year. The locals, Eskimos, have been noticing the sinking for twenty years now and have been slowly rebuilding their community further inland. However, just as can be seen with the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, the effect displacement will have on a community so intimately connected to its land, given that they live off of it, is yet to be seen. Newtok, Alaska is one of many locations under the danger of going underwater. Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay and Quinault Indian Nation on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula are undergoing a similar catastrophe.

As part of the legacy he wants to leave on the issue of climate change, President Obama should ask Congress to set aside special funding for the next wave of climate refugees.

 

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Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a final rule to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

Today’s announcement of a regulation designed to monitor and capture methane emissions from not-yet-built oil and gas operations is an important step for the U.S. to combat climate change in the decades to come. But under this rule, methane emissions from existing oil and gas operations will remain unmonitored and uncontrolled.

The EPA’s March announcement of an Information Collection Request to poll the industry as to the feasibility of monitoring and controlling emissions from existing operations will take years, and it could be years before a final rule that applies to existing operations is developed. The climate simply can’t wait that long. The EPA can and should start working on a rule to cover existing methane emissions now.

Research into one of America’s two major oil fracking sites found that the Bakken Shale is leaking 275,000 tons of methane annually. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 87 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. The oil and gas industry has a responsibility to begin monitoring and reducing emissions from existing sources immediately – and the public has the right to expect the EPA to do as much.

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As we’re all aware, weather is never static. Weather conditions and patterns are always changing and are difficult to predict. One very recent example of this is the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). ENSO is a cycle of warming and cooling events in the equatorial Pacific Ocean and the atmosphere above it. These periodic events take place over roughly 2-7 year intervals. The resulting variability in oceanic and atmospheric temperatures has a range of effects on seasonal precipitation and temperature patterns across the world.

With ENSO, the cycle can shift form its neutral or normal state, to a warm phase – El Niño, or a cool phase – La Niña. We’ve been in one of the strongest El Niño phases on record for the last 2 years. During El Niño, the typical East-to-West winds weaken in the equatorial Pacific, which drives warm waters from the western Pacific to the eastern Pacific. This causes warm ocean surface temperatures and heavy precipitation in northern South America, and dry conditions in Australia and Indonesia.

El Nino

With the El Niño phase we’re currently in, there have been a lot of extreme weather phenomena. The monsoon rains weakened in India, resulting in food shortages, West Africa has been in a drought, Australia experienced record heat, Brazil experienced excessive rains, and the northern hemisphere winters were warmer than usual. For Texas specifically, there’s been increased precipitation events, making 2015 Texas’ wettest year on record.

Winter Comparison - NOAA Climate.govThis month though, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have issued an official “La Niña Watch.” They predict that El Niño will phase out in late spring or early summer, and will shift to La Niña for the fall and winter. So we can soon expect to see generally opposite conditions than we have been experiencing with El Niño.

La Niña results when cool ocean water intensifies the East-to-West winds across the equatorial Pacific Ocean. This causes warm oceanic temperatures in the western Pacific, which means heavy rainfall for Australia and Indonesia. Conversely, it causes cool oceanic temperatures in the eastern Pacific, resulting in dry conditions in South America.

Nina Winter - Weather NetworkDuring La Niña winters, the U.S. experiences dry and warm conditions in the southern states, but wet and cool conditions in the Pacific Northwest and northern plains. We can expect there to be a lot of snow in the Pacific Northwest while there’s drought in California and Texas. In previous La Niña periods, the lack of rainfall negatively impacted Texas water supplies and crops. With La Niña, there’s also an increased chance of Atlantic hurricanes since the temperature and moisture flow associated with it creates ideal conditions for hurricane formation.

Even worse, research indicates that because of global climate change, El Niño and La Niña may hit twice as often as they did before. Climate models indicate that an extreme La Niña may hit every 13 years now instead of every 23 years, and an extreme El Niño may hit every 10 years now instead of every 20 years. Since a warmer atmosphere can hold more water and moisture, rainstorms can increase in intensity. For example, during a future El Niño, the West Coast may experience heavier downpours than usual. During a future La Niña, the added moisture in the air may make northeast snowstorms much stronger.

If the weather is always undergoing different cycles and is constantly changing, then why does an upcoming La Niña matter? Shifts in precipitation and temperature patterns alter crop production abilities, which will impact the prices of goods all over the world. Various commodities will be affected by the upcoming La Niña:
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ntulogoTexas is a beautiful state – full of unique landscapes from the rocky desert of Big Bend to the colorful, rolling Hill Country. With that said, it is essential we remember that before settlers staked claim to this region of America, it was already sacred land to the Native Nations. It can be seen that modern industry has exploited this bountiful and revered land for its natural resources to build the current civilization. Few are guiltier of this than the coal industry whose mines completely decimate the land they are built upon.

For this reason and more, members of the Native People of the Americas and community allies have united in opposition against the Dos Republicas coal mine in the area near Eagle Pass, Texas. Since being proposed in 2012, the Dos Republicas coal mine has faced continuous criticism by concerned citizens of Eagle Pass and outcry in on the southern side of the border in Mexico.  Despite united and continued opposition from local residents and local governments, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Railroad Commission (RRC) granted Dos Republicas the permits needed to move forward with the mine.

Not only will this mine bring tremendous environmental damage on this sacred land, but it will also be used as the supplier of coal to be burned at plants in Mexico instead of the local energy grid. This is because the coal in this area is of such low quality that it can’t be burned in the United States. So this dirtiest of dirty coal will be shipped across the border and burned in plants with little or no air pollution controls. The subsequent pollution will harm local communities and blow across the border to impact Texans as well.

Projects such as these are last ditch efforts by the coal industry to remain profitable in an adapting energy market, and these attempts corner rural and native communities who will bear the burden of their desperation. Profit and energy aside, the extraction and production of coal puts neighboring communities at risk. The silt, pollution, and waste of such a mine all present toxic impacts to the region, which are especially relevant considering the rise of flooding in recent years.

With the climate crisis looming over us, as well as our right to live in a healthy and safe environment, it is entirely necessary to confront new coal mines head on.

A Native led rally and march to the Dos Republicas Coal Mine will be taking place this Saturday, April 16, 2016. For updates, go to the event page. Public Citizen stands in solidarity with their action and will continue to work towards a cleaner, more just Texas.

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Dylan Petrohilos - Gov Census

2014 and 2015 were back-to-back years that both earned the title for hottest year on record. and February 2016 was the warmest month, globally, ever recorded. And yet U.S. lawmakers continue to deny the facts.  Earlier this month, the Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) released an analysis of climate change denial in U.S. Congress called “The 2016 Anti-Science Climate Denier Caucus.” Their research found that more than 63% of Americans are represented by someone in Congress who denies that climate change exists.

Dylan Petrohilos - CAP182 members of Congress don’t believe the science behind climate change: 144 members in the House of Representatives and 38 members in the Senate. 67% of Americans want the U.S. to take action on climate change, but 202 million citizens are represented in Congress by a climate change denier. Since the Republican Party’s platform on environmental policy never mentions climate change, it’s no surprise that every single denier is a member of the Republican Party.

A recent poll revealed that 76% of Americans believe global climate change is occurring, including 59% of Republicans. According to a poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 67% of Americans support President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The results of these polls don’t correlate with the fact that that the number of Congressional climate deniers has increased from previous years. From severe weather, wildfires, drought, and flooding, climate change is impacting Americans every day, and it’s evident that human activity is the dominant cause. Despite this evidence, 70% of the Senate GOP still denies climate change.

Dylan Petrohilos - Open SecretsIn the analysis, CAPAF also looked into dirty energy money’s influence over Congress members. They found that climate deniers in Congress received more than $73 million in contributions from coal, oil, and gas companies. This is an increase of nearly $10 million from last year. When asked about their views on climate change, many deniers dodge the question by saying “they aren’t scientists”.

According to Sondre Båtstrand, a Norwegian researcher, the U.S. Republican Party is the only conservative party in the world which denies the reality of climate change. Båtstrand believes the GOP’s denial is due to three factors: the fossil fuel industry’s political spending, a commitment to free-market ideology, and the intense political polarization that punishes moderate-minded party members.

In February 2016, over 200 lawmakers in U.S. Congress signed onto a court brief opposing the president’s Clean Power Plan. At the end of 2015, the House of Representatives passed two resolutions to kill the Clean Power Plan. The Plan would regulate power plants’ carbon emissions and 67% of Americans support it. So it’s clear that Congress isn’t working the way it’s intended to. Members of the House and Senate are elected to represent the interests of American citizens, not their own fat wallets and the interests of dirty energy companies.

Regarding the state of Texas specifically, the 2016 Anti-Science Climate Denier Caucus found that 17 out of 38 Texas Congressional members are climate change deniers. In 2016, this is not only unacceptable, but is dangerous for Texas families who depend on their elected leaders to protect their futures. When the impacts of climate change become more and more apparent each year – more severe storms, deadly wildfires, crippling drought, and rising sea level – it’s clear there’s no time to waste. Climate change deniers in Congress, like Ted Cruz, stand in the way of these common sense safeguards. Texans and Americans across the country deserve leaders who will stand up to face this threat head on – not those following the playbook of their largest campaign donors.

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As a global industry, aviation produces 2% of the planet’s total carbon dioxide emissions. Its outlook isn’t good either, because it’s projected to grow by 3-4% each year as the industry expands. While air travel has become 70% more efficient per seat-mile than when jets first began operating in the 1960s, the industry’s growth has resulted in higher overall CO2 emissions.NASA Armstrong

NASA’s project LeapTech is in the process of testing a new approach to powering flight. The concept is called distributed propulsion, and it’s the future of low-carbon aviation. Paul J Willett - We Love The Stars Too Fondly (with truck)The project features a 30-foot airplane wing – the kind found on a small plane. The new wing design has 18 electric motors with small propellers along its leading edge.

Engineers attached the wing to steel supports on a Peterbilt truck, and have been simulating takeoff and landings at the Edwards Air Force Base in California. They have driven the wing-truck contraption down the runway at more than 70 miles-per-hour.

The idea behind distributed propulsion is to take the engines from their usual position hanging below the wings and put them elsewhere. Because jet engines are complex, heavy devices, distributed propulsion designs almost always involve simpler and smaller electric motors.

Paul J Willett - We Love The Stars Too Fondly (close-up)Distributing the motors around the plane (instead of in just one spot) has aerodynamic advantages. The position of the motors on the leading (front) edge of the LeapTech wing results in accelerated airflow over it, which increases lift at takeoff and landing. Because of this, the wing can be made narrower, which reduces drag and improves efficiency at cruising speeds.

In terms of reducing an airplane’s carbon footprint, the key is cutting down on the plane’s weight and drag, and reducing the engine’s excess fuel burn. Some planes have been partly redesigned. In the coming years, Boeing will introduce the 777x, a variant of their 777 model. However, the new design of the 777x features composite wings and more efficient engines than the traditional 777. But the basic design of airplanes still remains the same – a tube and wings.

Besides NASA’s LeapTech project, there have been other innovations in airplane technology. Engineers have made planes lighter by using composite materials, jet engines have become more efficient, and alternative biofuels are increasingly being used. Better management of airplane traffic at airports and in the air has also reduced emissions. Many of the aviation industry’s improvements involve changes to existing planes though – like replacing older engines with more efficient models, or adding winglets to wings to reduce drag and improve efficiency.

In the future, NASA thinks that planes could be powered by hybrid gas-electric systems or by batteries. Potential designs could have lighter wings that can quickly shape to handle turbulent air. Other concepts could eliminate the conventional tube and wing design for one that blends the two elements.

For NASA, the next step is modifying an actual aircraft to operate with batteries and wing motors. NASA’s LeapTech project uses batteries, but the modified aircraft will only be able to make short flights because of the current limitations of batteries. All-electric planes may never be a practical option, but a hybrid turbine-battery design could be a reality.

Despite these scientific advancements, emissions from the aviation industry are still growing at a rapid pace. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, projects that the worldwide commercial fleet will double to 40,000 airliners in the next 15 years. A recent report from the European Parliament revealed that international aviation could be responsible for more than 20% of global CO2 emissions in the near future. Aviation emissions impact cloud formation, ozone generation, and methane reduction, so the report’s projection isn’t a good sign.

In order to deal with the rising growth of the aviation industry, we must make drastic changes to airplane design to protect the environment. NASA’s LeapTech project is a step in the right direction towards making airplanes more eco-friendly, and more airplane engineering companies should take note.

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If you felt like 2015 was exceptionally warmer than usual, you weren’t alone. Last month, scientists declared 2015 the hottest year on record. Some of this heat can be attributed to the El Niño weather pattern releasing heat from the Pacific Ocean into the atmosphere, but most of the record-breaking heat is from climate changes caused by human-related greenhouse gas emissions.

NASA, the National Aeronautics Space Administration, and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, both collected data that showed that 2015 was between 0.23-0.29 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than 2014. This number may seem small and insignificant, but in terms of global temperature, it’s a big deal.  Thomas Karl, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information emphasized that point:

This record, we literally smashed. It was over a quarter of a degree Fahrenheit, and that’s a lot for the global temperature.

In comparison to average temperatures in the 20th century, and not just 2014, 2015 was 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit higher.

2015 Hottest Year

Heat StrokeThe severe heat last year was felt around the world. There were record-high temperatures in the triple digits across Europe in June and July in Spain, Portugal, France, the U.K., Germany, and Poland. In May, India experienced 120 degree days that melted the asphalt, killing 2,500 people. In June, 1,200 people died in Pakistan after temperatures reached 113 degrees. When the atmosphere is warmer, it can hold more water vapor, which can cause an increase in heavy rains. The recent catastrophic floods in the eastern U.S. are evidence of this. El Niño is also disturbing atmosphere circulation which is causing some worldwide weather extremes like the drought in southern Africa.

So how will Texas be affected by this global climate change? With its location and vast size, Texas has a wide range of vulnerabilities to the effects of climate change. A study done by the Risky Business Project found that Texas will be one of the states that is most negatively affected by climate change.

Texas by 2050:

  • Decrease in worker productivity and crop yields.
  • Sea level rise of 2 feet in Galveston.
  • The number of extremely hot days per year (temperatures exceeding 95 degrees) will more than double from 43 to 106 days per year.
  • About 4,500 additional heat-related deaths per year.
  • A $650 million per year increase in storm-related losses along the coast, bringing the state’s annual damages to more than $3.9 billion.

Texas Climate

The Risky Business Project’s mission is to convince business leaders in Texas that climate change is a true risk. This will not be easy since Texas lawmakers routinely dismiss climate change. Regarding the news that 2015 was the hottest year, NASA head Charles Bolden said, “This announcement is a key data point that should make policymakers stand up and take notice – now is the time to act.” That it is, Bolden.

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Porter Ranch - photo by Maya Sugarman KPCC

Porter Ranch – photo by Maya Sugarman KPCC

The massive natural gas leak in Porter Ranch, CA, just outside of Los Angeles, has been temporarily capped. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the leak isn’t yet permanently stopped and that it has already done incredible damage over the 111 days it spewed methane and toxic chemicals into the air.

The state of emergency called by Governor Jerry Brown is still in effect for what is being named the largest environmental disaster since the BP oil spill. Over 94,700 metric tons of methane has escaped since October 23, which is one of the largest leaks ever recorded. This incident has taken California two steps back in its progress towards greenhouse gas emissions reductions especially since methane is 87 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. For perspective, the amount of methane released so far from the natural gas leak will have the same impact on climate over the next twenty years as emissions from seven coal power plants. Despite these environmental crimes, not one person has been arrested, although this past week, the citizens of Los Angeles County have begun taking legal action.

Southern California Gas Co (SoCal Gas), a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, is the responsible company for the Aliso Canyon Methane Leak, and is finally facing charges for this disaster. District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced the criminal charges filed against SoCal Gas for failing to immediately report the gas leak at its Aliso Canyon facility to the proper state authorities. The site leaked for three days before SoCal Gas officials contacted the city’s fire department.

Major public health concerns are also leading to lawsuits. Residents across the county are reporting health issues such as nose bleeds, female health problems (excessive bleeding), rashes, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness, and have packed town hall meetings voicing their concerns. One Porter Rach resident, Christine Katz, stated, “Even though you can’t see the gas, it’s there. And that’s the saddest part — people don’t understand it. Because it’s not a mudslide, it’s not an earthquake. You just don’t see the devastation, but it’s there.”

SoCal Gas has yet to release a full listing of the chemicals being emitted from the leak, furthering distrust and anxiety from the community. Local law firms have organized a website (www.porterranchlawsuit.com) for citizens to reach out if they have been impacted. More than 25 lawsuits have been filed pursuing damages from the SoCal Gas and Sempra Energy. For example, a family of an elderly woman has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the gas company, claiming that the leaking chemicals led to the worsening of her health and untimely death this past January.

Legal actions will certainly hurt these gas companies financially, but is this an effective way of enforcing the law? History says no. Time and time again, environmental crimes are punished with fines, and these disasters continue to happen putting the public at risk. New regulations, transparency, and stricter criminal enforcement on the individuals responsible very well could bring justice in these incidents.

Crimes committed under a corporate veil are still crimes and should be treated as such. No amount of money will ever reverse the harsh health and environmental effects the Aliso Canyon Methane Leak is having on the region. But we can put into place policies that make corporations take the environmental risks of their operations much more seriously. A proactive justice process would be exponentially more effective means of dealing with environmental crimes than merely reacting after the fact.

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Note: Late Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court halted implementation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan until legal challenges are resolved. Below are two statements from Public Citizen experts.

Statement of David Arkush, managing director, Public Citizen’s Climate Program:
We are extremely disappointed by the Supreme Court’s stay of the Clean Power Plan. The stay will delay progress on climate change at a time when we need much more assertive action. We urge states to continue writing their implementation plans under the rule while the litigation is pending, which they are free to do. State plans can benefit consumers tremendously by lowering electricity bills and boosting public health. Electric utilities are increasingly saying that the Clean Power Plan is workable. We cannot afford to lose any time working to stop climate change from devastating our economy and our planet.

Statement of Tom “Smitty” Smith, director, Public Citizen’s Texas office:
The Supreme Court yesterday stayed implementation of the EPA’s plan to control carbon pollution. But it can’t suspend the rules of nature, and nature will prevail.

A delay in implementing the EPA’s clean power plan will be very harmful to Texans.

Texas’ leadership has its head in the sand, but Texas will get burned because our state is likely to suffer devastating consequences from climate change – heat waves, drought, agricultural losses, dried-up lakes and rivers, higher utility and insurance bills, increased early deaths and increased spending on health care.

No state emits more carbon dioxide from its power plants than Texas, and Texas would benefit tremendously from a shift in energy sources because of our vast renewable resources and our potential to reduce energy use through efficiency, both of which are lower-cost options than retrofitting coal plants, and both of which would put money into Texans’ pockets. We could export our clean renewable resources to neighboring states. We could save the $1 billion we send to Wyoming to buy coal each year and reinvest it in homegrown Texas energy resources, reducing our bills and creating jobs.

The energy sector is changing. As Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said today, the changes in the energy sector will require planning. The challenge now shifts to the interim committees of the Texas Legislature to begin to develop plans to build new power lines and dispatch systems needed to meet the needs of the new energy sector that is developing, with or without new clean power rules.

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The Austin City Council will vote this Thursday (September 17) on a resolution to push Austin Energy one step closer to signing contracts for up to 600 megawatts of solar energy.  About 8,000 megawatts worth of proposals have been submitted, some at the lowest solar prices ever seen.

solar panels - photo from ShutterstockThese are exciting times for solar energy – in Texas and around the world.  Solar energy is finally cost competitive with fossil fuel-based energy.  Utilities that have shown little or no interest in “going green” or being socially responsible are investing in solar.  Luminant, Texas’ largest electric generating company, has traditionally invested in coal, but just last week, the company announced its first solar purchase.  And in Georgetown, Texas the electric utility has signed contracts for wind and solar energy that it will have a 100% renewable energy portfolio by 2017.  In the words of Georgetown Mayor Ross:

No, environmental zealots have not taken over our city council, and we’re not trying to make a statement about fracking or climate change. Our move to wind and solar is chiefly a business decision based on cost and price stability.

It is in this setting that the Austin Council will make its decision.  Despite the record low prices, Austin Energy has pushed back against contracting for the 600 megawatts of solar that the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025 calls for.  The plan set a goal of 600 megawatts by 2025, but also states that the utility should contract for up to that amount by 2017, if available and affordable.   Clearly it’s available.

The Electric Utility Commission (EUC), whose job it is to oversee Austin Energy, evaluated the impact on rates of contracting for 600 megawatts of solar.  The Commission found that it would reduce rates in all but the first couple years and recommended that Austin Energy present its best plan for achieving an additional 600 MW of solar by the end of 2017.  So, contracting for 600 megawatts of solar is also affordable.

Austin Energy executives have argued that prices could fall further, but how much they will fall and how fast are unknowns.  The 30% federal solar investment tax credit declines to 10% at the end of 2016, so we can count on a price bump after that.  As solar prices continue to decline, they will eventually make up for that lost tax credit, but will that be in 18 months, as Austin Energy claims, or longer.  Solar companies are especially eager to get contracts right now, so that they can build up their portfolios before the tax credit is reduced.  Austin Energy ratepayers could be the beneficiaries of that eagerness, if the Austin City Council decides to take action.  If solar is even cheaper in 2018, Austin Energy can contract for more then.  Either way, this 600 megawatts of solar, which would supply about 12% of the energy the utility sells, would be an affordable source of energy during times when electricity use, and therefor prices, are highest.

Affordable solar prices should make it easy for the Council to support a big solar buy, especially given that converting to renewable energy is a key strategy in achieving the city’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, or earlier.  Climate change is happening now.  For any entity (such as the City of Austin) that claims that addressing the problem of climate change is a priority, passing up opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emission while also saving money isn’t an acceptable option.

If you live in Austin and would like to help get this resolution passed, please sign up to attend the City Council meeting on Thursday (September 17).

We are asking everyone to wear green to make it easy for the Council members to see how many clean energy supporters are there.  We’ll be there starting at 5:30, and will have stickers and talking points for everyone.  Parking is free with validation in the garage under City Hall.

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