Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: Margot Roosevelt

California's carbon market: Will cap-and-trade work?

Nine months before California is set to finalize a trading system aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, participants have the jitters.

Litigation threatens to delay the start of the multibillion-dollar program, and industry executives worry that its regulations will fall short of guaranteeing a smoothly operating market. Fear is growing that it could be susceptible to the fraud that has plagued a similar European system.

“It feels as though the sun has risen in the West,” Henry Derwent, head of the Geneva-based International Emissions Trading Assn., told traders, bankers, entrepreneurs and oil and utility executives in Los Angeles last week.

“But however tempting it may be … to celebrate getting out ahead of the rest of the United States,” he cautioned, California’s trading system must show “real momentum.... If the program goes poorly, if the regulations don’t allow for a functioning market, there may be little market for California to lead,” Derwent said.

Scientists say that carbon dioxide and other gases, mainly from fossil-fuel burning, are trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. leading to dangerous climate change, including rising sea levels, longer droughts, floods and melting glaciers.

In 2006, California passed the nation’s most comprehensive climate law, mandating a cut in carbon pollution to 1990 levels by 2020 — about 10% below today’s emissions. Although Congress balked at similar legislation in 2009, California has moved forward. Its plan to cap greenhouse gases at 600 industrial plants and allow companies to buy and sell emissions permits is modeled on Europe’s 6-year-old cap-and-trade system.

The 700 executives who signed up for the Navigating the American Carbon World conference last week included officials from Alcoa, Chevron, General Electric, Shell, Southern California Edison and other major companies. They were joined by financiers from Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley, Barclay’s Capital and other large Wall Street firms.

Engineers and entrepreneurs manned booths and handed out shiny brochures to promote companies that verify carbon emissions, manage greenhouse gas data, broker credits and develop offset projects such as systems to control methane from farm manure or increase forest carbon sequestration.

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Lake Tahoe logging plan ignites a court battle

Should the scorched forests around Lake Tahoe be logged and replanted, or should they be allowed to regenerate at nature's pace? That's the issue at the heart of a lawsuit filed recently in U.S. District Court in Sacramento by the environmental group Earth Island Institute and others against the U.S Forest Service.

In 2007, a wildfire destroyed 250 homes on the south shore of the cobalt-blue lake, a major tourist attraction on the California-Nevada border.

Chad Hanson, executive director of the Institute's John Muir Project, is among a growing number of scientists who argue that burned forests are ecologically significant and were a much more prevalent part of a healthy Western landscape before full-scale wildfire fighting took root in the 20th century.

But the idea advanced by Hanson and the lawsuit — that the blackened forest should be left to its own regeneration — is not an easy sell among many local residents who want their landscape to be green again as soon as possible. The Forest Service contends that logging and restoration is necessary to prevent a similar fire in the future.

According to the Institute, there's no threat the burned-over land will ignite again for at least a decade, long after the forest will be well on its way to regenerating naturally. In fact, tiny saplings started poking up through the brush within a year after the fire, and as of last fall the charred landscape was teeming with insects and birds.

“We have this... cultural prejudice that goes back to Smokey Bear and Bambi,” said Hanson, a fire ecology researcher at UC Davis. “We've been taught in our culture to think this is destroyed. But ecologically speaking, nothing could be further from the truth.”

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California farmers, ecologists square off over drinking water pollution

Central valley farm Anne Cusack LAT fotog weedpatch ca

Should farmers in the Central Valley, California's richest agricultural region, be required to monitor and clean up groundwater pollution from their operations? The issue will be taken up by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board at a three-day meeting in Rancho Cordova beginning June 8.

Under the proposed regulations, farmland would be classified based on the contamination risk. Farms considered most likely to pollute groundwater would have to take certain steps to reduce fertilizer and other agricultural runoff. If passed, the new rules would affect 35,000 growers who work about 7 million acres of irrigated land.

Environmentalists faced off against farm groups in an all-day public hearing Thursday in Rancho Cordova. Farmers said that the regulations would be expensive and burdensome.  Environmental and community groups said that current rules don't protect drinking water from pesticides, fertilizers and other agricultural runoff.

"Runoff from irrigated agriculture is the largest source of pollution to Central Valley waterways and the Delta," said the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and more than 70 other state and local groups in a joint statement. "This pollution is one of the principal causes of the collapse of Central Valley fisheries.

"Inexplicably, irrigated agriculture remains exempt from requirements to monitor discharges and identify measure to reduce pollution," the groups said, adding that such rules have "long been applicable to every other segment of society, from municipalities to industry to mom and pop businesses."

However, more than a dozen growers of rice, hay, grain and other crops in the Sacramento Valley
watershed, submitted a letter saying they were "adamantly opposed" to a requirement for electronic reports on their discharges. "Being a small diversified farmer has become increasingly difficult with regulatory burdens exploding over these last few years," the letter said.

It added that complying would be "an impossibility" for roughly half of its 600 ranchers and farmers. Thirty percent of the farmers protesting do not have Internet access and do not own a computer, the letter said, adding that another 20% use dial-up access or must drive to a free Wi-Fi establishment.


Solar panels power Central Valley pistachio farm

Poisoned fish: An old mercury mine taints California waters

Erin Brokovich again takes up the cause of Hinkley's tainted water

-- Margot Roosevelt

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photo: Farm workers in Weedpatch, Ca., in the Central Valley, where agricultural runoff is polluting groundwater and poisoning fisheries. Credit: Anne Cusack \ Los Angeles Times

California clean energy: "No on 23" is back

Prop 23 BEST foto Wally Skalij
Former Secretary of State George Shultz and San Francisco hedge fund manager Thomas Steyer are resurrecting the successful alliance between clean-tech businesses and environmental groups that defeated Proposition 23 last November.

The new non-partisan group, calling itself “Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs,” will support the rollout of new regulations under the state’s ambitious global warming law, which survived the initiative that would have delayed its implementation.

And, with opposition growing to the renewal of California’s nuclear plant licenses, and gas prices surging higher, the group will seek to shore up Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to vastly expand the state’s reliance on solar and wind power.

“How many times can you be hit on the head with a two-by-four?” Shultz said at a Friday press conference. “I go back to the Arab oil embargo of 1973. Clean energy is going to protect our national security.”

The new organization has $1 million in the bank, left over from the initiative campaign, and is planning to raise more. Its partners include the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, with a membership of high-tech companies, and such environmental groups as the California League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Shultz, a Republican who helped rally corporate leaders during the ballot initiative, said the group would have a business focus, making sure that AB 32, the global warming law to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, “is not disrupting to the state’s economy.”

California can show Washington, where climate legislation has stalled, that “putting a price on carbon — you can go about it in a way that is gradual,” he said. “We are on the right track.”

A bill is currently moving through the Legislature to require a third of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources. Brown has placed a new emphasis on rooftop solar arrays, saying that 12,000 of 20,000 new megawatts of renewable energy could come from such locally generated sources.

Steyer said the new group would also promote energy efficiency by reaching out to owners of the state’s 9 billion square feet of commercial office space to educate them about energy auditsand gaining access to retrofit programs. “No one has sent out staff before to help them change their behavior,” he said. “Saving energy, not just building new renewables, is the killer app.”

A San Francisco Superior Court last week put the implementation of California's global warming law on hold after finding that the state had not given adequate consideration to alternatives to a cap-and-trade regulation, but legal analysts did not expect the decision to delay new rules under the act.


Judge places California's global warming law on hold

Jerry Brown: A new direction on eco-issues?

Proposition 21: Backers were outspent, out-organized

--Margot Roosevelt

Photo: In the fall of 2010, Los Angeles protesters against Proposition 23 marched on Tesoro's Wilmington refinery to protest against the company's backing for the initiative to suspend California's global warming law. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times

A major expansion of coal mining planned in Wyoming's Powder River Basin

Powder river BLM wyoming credit
Vast coal reserves in Wyoming will be auctioned over the next five months, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Tuesday, despite the Obama administration's push to transition the nation's energy supply to cleaner, renewable sources.

The U.S. relies on coal, the most polluting of all energy sources but one of the least expensive, for 45% of its electricity consumption. Environmentalists have fought the expansion of coal leasing, citing its heavy contribution to climate change, as well as the effect of coal dust and toxic air pollution on human health.

The four coal leases next to existing strip mines in the Powder River Basin -- the largest coal-producing region in the United States -- total 758 million tons and will take between 10 and 20 years to mine.

Coal from the Powder River Basin used in power plants accounts for nearly 14% of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Scientists say such carbon emissions are trapping heat in Earth's atmosphere.

The Obama administration remains committed to an "all of the above" energy policy that relies on both renewable and nonrenewable sources, Salazar said. "The president also knows that we need to embrace and encourage safe development of traditional energy -- coal, oil, gas and nuclear," he said.

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Judge places California's global warming program on hold

Valero's Wilmington refinery, near the Port of Long Beach.

A San Francisco superior court judge has put California's sweeping plan to curb greenhouse gas pollution on hold, saying the state did not adequately evaluate alternatives to its cap-and-trade program.

In a 35-page decision, Judge Ernest H. Goldsmith said the Air Resources Board had failed to consider public comments on the proposed measures before adopting the plan, which affects a broad swath of the state's economy. In particular, the judge noted, officials gave short shrift to analyzing a carbon fee, or carbon tax, devoting a “scant two paragraphs to this important alternative” to a market-based trading system in their December 2008 plan.

The air board said it would appeal the judge's decision, which was filed late Friday and released Monday.

The potential setback in California, the first state to enact a broad global warming law, comes amid heightened nationwide controversy over how to curb the gases that trap heat in Earth's atmosphere, and change climates. A cap-nd-trade bill passed the U.S. House in 2009, but failed in the Senate after intense opposition from the coal and oil industries. With the election of more business-oriented politicians last November, the measure is considered dead in the short term.

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NASA launch failure is a blow to climate science

NASA launch 
The crash of a NASA rocket  bearing a sophisticated observation satellite has dealt a major setback to scientific efforts aimed at understanding how humans are affecting Earth’s climate.

A nine-story Taurus XL rocket carrying the agency’s Glory satellite was launched early Friday from Vandenburg Air Force base. But it crashed into the Pacific Ocean without reaching orbit, after the satellite’s protective casing failed to open. The satellite carried equipment to help scientists understand how the sun and particles of matter in the atmosphere called aerosols affect Earth’s climate.

Scientists said the new instruments would have been able to distinguish more accurately than ever the difference between such natural particles as desert dust, and particles from human activities such as burning coal and using nitrate fertilizers.

"The loss of the Glory satellite is a serious setback to our capacity to continue observations critical to understanding and predicting the earth's climate," said Greg Holland, director of the Earth System Laboratory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, based in Boulder, Co.

The failure of the $424-million mission comes at a time of heightened controversy over the accuracy of climate predictions, with the oil and coal industries attacking the integrity of scientific research and seeking to halt government efforts to limit  the burning of fossil fuel.

An assessment of  thousands of climate-related research papers by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of more than 2500 scientists brought together by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations, concluded in 2007 that the warming of earth’s climate is “unequivocal.” The warming, they asserted with “more than 90% certainty,” is mostly due to the effect of greenhouse gases emitted by human activities.

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Feds halt roundup of wild mustangs in Nevada

Horses debra reid AP
A day after announcing it would scale back costly roundups of wild horses across the West, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management abruptly halted a controversial gather of mustangs in northeastern Nevada.

The roundup ended Friday with the removal of 1,368 horses from the range in the 1.3 million-acre Antelope Complex about 60 miles south of Wells, which was short of the agency's goal of gathering about 2,000 mustangs there, said BLM spokeswoman Heather Jasinski.

She said the halt to the roundup that began Jan. 23 had nothing to do with BLM Director Bob Abbey's announcement Thursday that the agency would reduce the number of wild horses removed from the range by about one-quarter — to 7,600 a year.

The action also didn't stem from a Feb. 16 House of Representatives vote in favor of an amendment to cut the agency's budget by $2 million to protest the roundups, she added.

It was called off because of high winds that frequently grounded a helicopter used to herd horses, Jasinski said, and the dispersal of mustangs into smaller groups that made them more difficult to gather.“That's all it was — a combination of those factors made it harder to gather horses in this area,” she said. “It's been a successful gather.”

But some horse activists say the roundup may have been called off because the BLM and a contractor were having difficulty locating horses in the complex, raising questions about the validity of census data upon which the agency bases its management decisions and the true number of mustangs on the range.

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Toxic metals: Ventura County Superfund site is expanding into wetlands

Contamination is spreading from an old coastal Oxnard metal recycling plant, which is now a federal Superfund site. The Environmental Protection Agency reported Thursday that lead, zinc and other pollutants are migrating from the 40-acre Halaco plant to the neighboring Ormond Beach wetlands, which is home to several rare and endangered species.

Superfund project manager Wayne Praskins told the Ventura County Star that the discovery complicates cleanup efforts and the EPA will likely need to expand the Superfund cleanup to include areas adjacent to the site.

However, the EPA, which regulates air, water and toxics contamination nationwide, is a target of massive budget cuts proposed by Republicans in Congress who say the agency's rules are burdensome for businesses.

Halaco shut down the plant years ago and filed for bankruptcy, leaving a massive waste heap laden with heavy metals and trace amounts of radioactive thorium.

-- Margot Roosevelt, with the Associated Press

Global warming: The United Nations courts Tinseltown

S-GEORGE-CLOONEY-largeThe United Nations has long courted celebrities for its peace-keeping and anti-poverty efforts, from Mia Farrow and Ricky Martin to George Clooney and Angelina Jolie.

It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Hollywood stars grasp at gravitas; the U.N. pushes for publicity.

Now the beleaguered multi-national agency, fresh from a disappointing round of climate negotiations in Cancun, wants something more concrete: actual story lines in movies, television and social media drawing attention to the dangers of global warming.

The push comes at a time when public concern over climate change has plummeted in the polls and Congress has rejected federal legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“Usually I speak to prime ministers and presidents, but that has its limits” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who arrived in Los Angeles on Monday for a high-profile outreach effort. “Movie producers, directors, actors — they have global reach.”

Ban will sit down for a conversation with actor Don Cheadle before several hundred entertainment industry invitees at a “Global Creative Forum” Tuesday at the Hammer Museum.

The day-long gathering will feature panels titled “The United Nations and Hollywood for a Greener and Better Planet,” “Making Global Warming a HOT Issue” and "Empowering Women and Protecting Children for a Safer World.”

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