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Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: Margot Roosevelt

California air chief blasts auto trade group over clean cars

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California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary D. Nichols on Monday wrote to seven major automobile manufacturers, accusing their trade group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, of misrepresenting the state's efforts to cooperate with federal officials on rules to curb greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks.

She asked the companies to "distance" themselves from the Washington-based group's efforts to "undermine ... standards that will provide American consumers with cleaner and more efficient vehicles."

"For the Alliance to suggest we are no longer committed to a cooperative effort is disingenuous at best, and incorrect," she wrote in a letter to the automaker CEOs, which was copied to the leaders of the congressional committees that oversee auto regulations.

Nichols' forceful rebuke comes as California, which has the right under the federal Clean Air Act to develop its own car emission standards, has pledged to coordinate its regulations for post-2016 car models with a parallel federal effort to hike fuel-efficiency standards.

But the issue has become more highly politicized than ever in the wake of the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, with GOP members of Congress raising doubts about climate science and questioning the need for stricter curbs on carbon dioxide (C02) emissions from automobiles.

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Native Americans wary of Lake Tahoe bike path

Cave rock
Planning for a 30-mile bike path along the Nevada shore of Lake Tahoe is moving into high gear, but may be slowed by concerns over Cave Rock, considered to be a sacred site by the Washoe Tribe.

The Native American tribe doesn't want people traveling around either side of the rock, which has been the target of past lawsuits over rock climbing. Proponents have looked into a route that would take the bikeway down the Old Lincoln Highway route, which roughly detours around Cave Rock on the lake side.

“The tribe is not interested in us using the Old Lincoln Highway,” project manager Karen Mullen told the Carson County Board of Supervisors earlier this week. “They are also not interested in us using the trail system around the other way.”

Project leaders told the board they want to keep the cycling route off U.S. Highway 50 as much as possible for the good of bikers and motorists alike. The path would connect Stateline on the south shore to Crystal Bay in the north.

The highway passes through Cave Rock with a pair of narrow tunnels just north of Zephyr Cove. And some officials don't like the idea of closing a lane in one of the tunnels either.

The Nevada Stateline-to-Stateline Bikeway Project involves local, state and federal agencies, including Carson, Douglas and Washoe counties. But before the project is built, managers must address safety issues, private property concerns and environmental effects, officials said.
 
The project will be funded from a state ballot measure voters approved in 2002 funding conservation and preservation grants. It included a $5-million bond for the three counties for a bike path. “We want to get people out of cars and onto bikes,” Mullen said.

RELATED: Judge strikes down plans for Lake Tahoe piers

                Invasive mussels plague Lake Tahoe

                Long Beach: the most bike-friendly city in America?

-- Margot Roosevelt, with the Associated Press

Photo: Washoe Tribe members have fought rock climbers over Cave Rock, on Lake Tahoe's eastern shore, considered a sacred site. They are concerned that a bike path may now skirt the rock. Credit: Kevin M. Cannon/For The Los Angeles Times

Renewable energy: Labor coalition's tactics draw heat

Blythe solar

Do California construction unions raise concerns about building massive solar plants in the Mojave Desert because they care about wildlife, water shortages and delicate vegetation? Or is it, as some fellow labor unions charge, a way to extort expensive contracts from renewable-energy builders?

In the last decade, a coalition calling itself California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE), organized by the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, has filed more than 1,300 requests for information about endangered species, air pollution and groundwater effects as a part of government permit proceedings for all 12 renewable energy projects planned for the Southern California desert.

But when the developers of eight of those projects -- one geothermal plant and seven solar plants -- agreed to sign expensive contracts with the building trades unions to supply workers, CURE dropped its objections to those plants.

The contracts give CURE unions -- which represent plumbers, pipe-fitters, electrical workers and boilermakers -- control over work rules, including hiring. CURE also taps developers for payments as high as $400,000 to a CURE fund promoting the industry.

Three California unions that represent carpenters, laborers and operating engineers -- and are not CURE members -- say the coalition's threats of lawsuits against renewable-energy projects are "shameful" tactics that could drive projects out-of-state at a time when California unemployment is more than 12%.

CURE is "here for one reason, which is to extract or shoehorn this company, this industry, into a project labor agreement that is ... costly and restrictive," Daniel Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters, told the California Energy Commission last year.

The struggle over labor costs and permits for solar plants comes at a time when Gov. Jerry Brown has vowed to streamline the licensing of renewable-energy facilities. A law to require utilities to buy a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020 is expected to be adopted in the Legislature this year.

Read more in Marc Lifsher's story about the intra-labor dispute over renewable-energy plants.

RELATED:

Jerry Brown: a new direction on eco-issues?

Feds agree to pay up to 30% of solar plant costs

SoCal Edison: nation's largest solar energy provider

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: Site of a solar plant near Blythe, Calif. CURE, a labor union coalition, dropped its environmental objections to the plant after its developers signed an agreement with building trades unions to oversee the project. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

L.A. air officials to vote on pollution trading [UPDATED]

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A decade-long battle between Los Angeles regional air quality officials, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California public health groups over the integrity of the area's pollution trading system will be rejoined Friday, as air district officials vote on new rules governing pollution offsets.

[UPDATE Friday, Feb. 4: Southern California air quality officials adopted a plan Friday to allow industry to expand in the Los Angeles region by tapping into a public fund of free pollution credits. The vote was 10-1. Read more  here about the South Coast pollution trading program decision.]

Environmentalists contend that a proposal by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), known as Rule 1315, will lock in a phony accounting system that will count years-old pollution reductions as offsets, thus allowing businesses to build new facilities that pollute.

"The district is creating tons of credits for companies to emit soot," said Angela Johnson Meszaros, an attorney for several environmental justice and health groups. "They are creating way more than they need for essential public services. Then they will give them to big business and new power plants."

The fight over the trading system has ricocheted through state and federal courts for years. In the waning hours of its 2009 session, the California Legislature enacted two laws to circumvent a state court ruling that had suspended the region's trading system. One of those laws explicitly authorized a proposed power plant in Palm Desert to use AQMD offsets that had been banked for use by hospitals and other public facilities.

The Los Angeles region has some of the worst air pollution in the U.S., with soot and smog that cause  thousands of premature deaths, according to scientists.

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Disputed power plant for San Joaquin Valley clears hurdle

Valley transmission

Should all new power plants install the "best available technology" to control pollution? Not necessarily, the Obama administration said on Tuesday, reversing a long-held policy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, battling an industry lawsuit, told a U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia that it would allow a controversial gas-fired plant to be built in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the nation's most polluted regions.

The $530-million plant, in Avenal, would be allowed to proceed because it had been in the pipeline for several years, having received a preliminary permit from the California Energy Commission in 2009, before new federal air pollution standards were issued, the EPA said. The plant's Texas-based builder, Macquarie Energy, had sued the agency for delaying approval.

Ten to 20 other proposed power plants across the nation could also be eligible to be "grandfathered" under the new policy, an EPA spokesman said. That would mean they could be built without the newest equipment even if they cause a region to violate new pollution limits on sulfur dioxide (S02), nitrogen oxides (NO2), or carbon dioxide (CO2), the planet-heating gas that is held to be most responsible for climate change.

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Toxic chemical rules are on Brown's agenda

Cadmium jewelry
As Congress struggles to reform the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, California in the next few months is expected to issue comprehensive rules curbing chemicals in consumer products such as toys, cosmetics and plastics.

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) will hold a hearing in Washington on the federal law with public health and industry witnesses, but the Republican takeover of the U.S. House makes it less likely that environmentalists will manage to toughen existing federal rules.

Under current law, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required testing on just 200 of the nearly 80,000 existing chemicals, and restricted only five.

Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families - a coalition of nearly 300 health groups - is urging federal restrictions on substances already known to be dangerous, including persistent and bio-accumulative chemicals. It wants the government to require that industry provide health and safety information for all chemicals in order for them to enter or remain on the market. And it wants a guarantee that peer-reviewed science - including the latest recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences - is used to assess risks.

Chemicals are more strictly regulated in Europe than in the U.S. and many international companies have  changed their products to conform to European Union rules. But the chemical industry is mounting ferocious opposition to stricter regulation in the U.S.

 In 2008, California enacted two groundbreaking laws to curb toxics in consumer products—one requiring the state to identify harmful substances and evaluate safer alternatives, and another to set up a database on the chemicals’ effects.

 That comprehensive approach was aimed at replacing the legislature's laborious and scattershot chemical-by-chemical legislation, which had become highly politicized.

But when the state issued regulations last June under the new laws, a coalition of chemical, automobile and other companies attacked them as too expensive, saying they would slow innovation. Car companies were particularly concerned about chemicals used to treat fabrics inside vehicles. Such chemicals off-gas that "new car smell"--which may not be healthy.

In November, California regulators withdrew their first proposed rules and published an industry-friendly version, narrowing the list of high-priority chemicals, lifting deadlines for action, diluting rules for independent verification, and exempting products with small amounts of toxics.

A coalition of 33 health and environmental groups cried foul and threatened to sue, whereupon the Schwarzenegger administration called a time-out, dropping the controversy into Brown’s lap.

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Caltech's Frances Arnold wins Draper Prize for biofuels-related research

736-arnold_medium Frances H. Arnold, a California Institute of Technology researcher, has won the 2011 Draper Prize, often described as the Nobel Prize for engineering, for her pioneering work on “directed evolution.”

The technique, a way to use evolution to engineer biology, has broad application in the fields of alternative energy and medicine.

Arnold, a professor of chemical engineering, is the first woman to win the prize.

The 2011 Draper is also being awarded to Willem P.C. Stemmer, founder and CEO of Amunix Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., pharmaceutical firm.  Amunix creates biopharmaceuticals that can be injected in monthly doses rather than daily doses, and improves on their delivery method--subcutaneous, rather than intravenous.

The prize was awarded for Arnold and Stemmer's “individual contributions to ‘directed evolution’…a milestone in biological research,” the academy said. The technique, it noted, “enables solutions in such areas as food ingredients, pharmaceuticals, toxicology, agricultural products, gene delivery systems, laundry aids and biofuels, among others.”

Biofuels research is a hot field, as scientists struggle to develop alternatives to oil. Many geologists believe that global oil production has peaked, and the U.S. is seeking to promote new fuels as a way to wean itself from imported oil. Oil combustion also emits carbon dioxide, a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes to climate change.

 The $500,000 prize is to be presented in Washington on Feb. 22, two days after Arnold gives one of two plenary speeches to the annual meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science.  “Her multi-disciplinary approach reveals insight into the way natural evolution might have occurred,” according to the AAAS.

The other plenary speech is to be given by John P. Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor.

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Californians to protest against Koch brothers in Rancho Mirage

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Environmentalists, labor union members and liberal activists across Southern California are mounting a protest Sunday in Rancho Mirage against billionaire "tea party" funders Charles and David Koch and their semiannual confab of conservative activists.

The brothers, who own oil refineries across the U.S., helped fund last November's Proposition 23, the failed ballot initiative to delay California's landmark global warming law, AB 32. They are major backers of groups that seek to refute scientific evidence of global climate change.

The Kochs' regular gatherings attract several hundred Republican officials and wealthy business executives to raise money for conservative causes. In the past, the Koch-sponsored conferences have attracted such luminaries as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas along with GOP members of Congress.

The counter-meeting, dubbed "Uncloaking the Kochs," will feature former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Oakland green energy activist Van Jones, and constitutional scholar Edwin Chemerinsky at a panel discussion at the Hilton Rancho Mirage, two blocks from where the Koch group is meeting. Protesters will rally afterward on the street.

"The Kochs will be able to see the protesters from their resort," said Derek Cressman, a spokesman for Common Cause, the nonprofit group that is organizing the event. More than 500 people have signed up so far to take buses leaving from Culver City, Los Angeles' Koreatown, the San Fernando Valley, Riverside, Whittier, San Bernardino and the San Diego area, organizers said.

In a conference call Thursday, Reich said the Koch brothers' financing of Citizens United, a group that led the Supreme Court to lift restrictions on corporate funding of political campaigns, has "opened the floodgates" to wealthy contributors, widened the gap between rich and poor and enabled "billionaires entering the political fray big time."

De Ann McEwan, co-president of the California Nurses Assn., said her union and others were joining the protest because of the Koch brothers' opposition to Social Security and Medicare, which they have cloaked behind "Astroturf front groups."

UPDATE: Streaming video of the “Uncloaking the Kochs” panel is available at www.commoncause.org/kochlivestream

RELATED: Billionaire Koch brothers back Prop 23

—Margot Roosevelt

UPDATED photo: Greenpeace flew an airship over Rancho Mirage Friday with a banner reading "Koch Brothers Dirty Money," as businessmen, politicians and conservative activists began to arrive for a semi-annual confab sponsored by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who own Koch Industries, the nation's second largest private company. Credit: Gus Ruelas/Greenpeace

Nevada's wild mustangs: Officials reject philanthropist's sanctuary

Horses 
A proposal from the wife of Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens to create a sanctuary in Nevada for wild horses removed from public rangeland around the West has been rejected, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said Friday.

Madeleine Pickens' plan wouldn't save taxpayers' money and doesn't include enough water and forage for the mustangs, agency Director Bob Abbey told The Associated Press. He said the BLM spent considerable time with Pickens on her proposal, and is committed to pursuing public-private partnerships to improve its management of the symbols of the West.

“However, despite numerous requests from the BLM, (her) foundation has not provided a formal and detailed proposal so that the BLM can properly analyze and determine its feasibility,” Abbey said.

Pickens said the BLM failed to clarify what details it wanted, but she was not giving up. She bought two ranches in northeastern Nevada last year to serve as a sanctuary for mustangs captured from the range, instead of in government-funded holding facilities.

“I'm going to keep working with the BLM,” she told the AP. “It's like your children. You just have to keep working with them until they get it right. To me, it's sad we don't have the leadership to fix the issue of these poor American mustangs.”

Pickens first proposed establishing the sanctuary in 2008 after the BLM said it was considering euthanasia as a way to stem escalating costs of keeping animals gathered from the open range.The BLM rejected her initial proposal, saying it involved the use of public land where wild horses did not exist when the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was enacted in 1971.

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The melting Arctic: a bigger-than-estimated impact on climate

Greenland ice AP
The dramatic shrinking of Arctic sea ice and the Northern Hemisphere's glaciers and snowfields has reduced the radiation of sunlight back into space more than scientists previously predicted, according to a new study in the journal Nature Geoscience.

As a result, the ocean and land mass exposed by the melting ice and snow have absorbed more heat, contributing to global warming.

The "albedo" effect, in which the blinding white cover reflects sunshine, has been calculated in numerous computer-generated climate models. But the new study goes beyond those theoretical calculations. Using field measurements and satellite observations, a team led by University of Michigan researcher Mark Flanner found that the warming effect of the loss of snow and ice is "substantially larger" than was predicted in the estimates of 18 climate models.

On average, Earth's temperature has risen about 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since the Industrial Revolution, driven by the increase in heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other gases released by the burning of coal and oil. But the warming effect is uneven, with polar regions heating up much more than the lower latitudes.

Global warming skeptics have often claimed that climate models exaggerate ongoing climate change. But the new study of Arctic sea ice and snow on land documented the opposite: Climate models, in this important area, underestimate the effects. The findings add urgency to demands that the U.S., China and other major greenhouse gas polluters curb their emissions and switch to cleaner fuels.

Flanner and his colleagues measured ice and snow between 1979 and 2008. They found that ice and snow in the Northern Hemisphere are now reflecting on average 3.3 watts of solar energy per square meter back to space, a reduction of 0.45 watts per square meter over three decades.

In snow- and ice-covered regions, Flanner said, "observations show a stronger response to recent warming than anticipated." But he noted that the Arctic melting is just one of the major factors that will influence the future climate. "Changes in atmospheric water and clouds are the two other big players," he said.

RELATED:

The World in 2050: The Arctic and everything below

Obama faces a tricky decision on the polar bear

Global Warming: A rise in river flows

--Margot Roosevelt

Photo: Icebergs float in a bay off Ammassalik Island, Greenland. Summer sea ice in Arctic regions has shrunk dramatically over the past decade. Credit: John McConnico /Associated Press 

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