Sierra & Tierra: Richmond, CA: Exhibit A of Polluters’ Cruelty

June 04, 2015

By Javier Sierra

All too often, irony knows no shame, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable members of our society. Take Richmond, California, a mostly Latino and African-American low-income community that is subject to one of the country’s most intense fossil fuel pollution bombardments.

The toxic siege is relentless. Richmond —40 percent Latino and 5 percent white— is not only surrounded by petrochemical facilities, but also millions of tons of coal and petcoke —a refinery waste product— are exported from its port.

“They park the coal trains right next to the Richmond Amtrak station,” says Andrés Soto, an activist with Communities for a Better Environment. “Then they off-load the cars at the Levin-Richmond terminal, where huge piles of coal and petcoke accumulate to be exported to China and other countries.”

Petcoke 5
The Port of Richmond with the coal and petcoke stockpiles in the background (Photo: Sierra Club

Studies show that each car, from origin to destination, loses up to one ton of coal dust, a toxic agent containing poisons such as arsenic, lead, chromium and other heavy metals. This noxious cocktail can cause bronchitis, emphysema, cancer and even premature death.

On their way to the port terminal, coal trains pass by four overwhelmingly Latino and African-American elementary schools. And the name of one of them reminds us that irony, indeed, has no shame.

“It’s called Verde [green] Elementary School, which is 80 percent Latino. The dust from those trains lands on the playgrounds of these schools,” says Soto.

The coal and the petcoke are just an insult that keeps pouring on Richmond’s injury.

“Here, low-income communities, because of the high concentration of refineries, already suffer high rates of asthma, cancers and other auto-immune diseases,” says Soto. “And this has been going on for decades. With the coal trains and the petcoke stockpiles we can only expect for this situation to worsen.”

Petcoke is an extremely toxic refinery residue with a great content of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is exported mainly to Asia. One ton of petcoke generates 50 percent more CO2 than coal, and its great heavy metal and sulfur content makes it a dangerous threat to public health.

And one wonders what else the fossil fuel industry has in store to continue mortifying the residents of Richmond. Incredibly, it turns out this city is also the recipient of so-called rolling bombs, mile-long crude oil trains that have caused death and devastation in several parts of North America.

Big Coal’s focus on Richmond, however, betrays a desperate attempt by an industry in nose-diving decline to export a product that is being rejected here in the US. The coal recession is such that several of its main companies have either declared bankruptcy or are on the verge of failing.

And this decline is a worldwide phenomenon. In 2013, for the first time ever, more renewable energy than fossil fuel capacity was installed on the planet, and according to Bloomberg News, this pattern is irreversible, sending dirty energy on the same path as the dinosaurs it came from.

In the meantime, however, Richmond continues paying the consequences of a cruel industry that is oblivious to both economic and climate realities, and obsessed with the next quarter’s earnings.

“It’s unfortunate that these executives don’t love their children and their grandchildren the same way our community love their children and grandchildren,” says Soto. “Because if they did, they would not engage in this type of behavior that is destroying the planet that we all have to live on.”

And that includes the immediate wellbeing and health of Latino communities across the country, such as Richmond.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC

Sierra & Tierra. A No Brainer: Strengthen Air Quality Standards

May 11, 2015

By Javier Sierra  

Does your kid have learning problems? Does he have problems concentrating and he is easily distracted? Is he doing poorly in school?

There can be a host of reasons for these problems. But a recent study is confirming the notion that pollution coming from fossil fuels, such as gasoline and coal, can inflict lasting damage on the human brain development, especially in fetuses, babies and toddlers, and that we Latinos are disproportionally affected by it.

IStock_000011041894Coal-burning plant (Photo: Sierra Club)

The report —published by JAMA Psychiatry and originated by Columbia University— concludes that exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a residue of fossil fuel combustion, is correlated to the reduction of white matter in the brain.

“Those disturbances in brain growth are in turn proportionately associated with cognitive slowing and a host of behavioral disturbances,” says Dr. Bradley Peterson, the study’s lead scientist and director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.

These include attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity, typical symptoms of impulsive children and children with learning problems.

Latino and African-American families, two social groups disproportionally impacted by air pollution, participated in the study from 1997 to 2006. Researchers observed a key finding in children: the greater the exposure to PAHs in the womb was, the greater the reduction in white matter and the worse their behavioral and developmental problems later in life.

“It is logical to hypothesize that these disturbances contribute to poor academic and high school dropouts, but that hypothesis would need to be addressed specifically in a larger study that explicitly assessed academic performance and school dropout, which we did not do in our study,” says Dr. Peterson. “But I do agree that something serious must be done to tackle the problem of the effects that air pollution has on the developing brain.”

The study also revealed that the brain disturbances not only take place during the fetal period, but also that exposure to PAHs can aggravate the reduction of white matter in the early childhood.

Dr. Peterson is not optimistic about reversing the damage caused by fossil fuel pollution on the brain.

“At the present time we know of no interventions that can prevent or reverse the brain and behavioral effects of exposure to air pollution during fetal development and early childhood,” he says. “The only recommendation that can be made at this time is either to find ways of reducing exposure in pregnant women and young children to levels of air pollution that already exist or to reducing extant levels of air pollution.”

But that reduction, for us Latinos, is not materializing. In its recent 2015 State of the Air report, the American Lung Association again underscored that the vast majority of the country’s cities with the worst air quality are found in Southern and Central California, where tens of millions of Latinos live. In places like Los Angeles, Long Beach, Bakersfield and the San Joaquin Valley all too often breathing is dangerous to your health.

The EPA is currently considering improving the federal smog pollution standard from its current 75 parts per billion (ppb) to perhaps 65 ppb. But health experts insist that in order to truly protect public health, the standard should be no higher than 60 ppb.

Asked whether his study reinforces the notion that clean air standards must be stronger, Dr. Peterson is categorical: “Yes, our findings do reinforce that notion. And they reinforce it for the most vulnerable members of our society, young children.”

Clearly, this is a no brainer: the EPA has the moral obligation to truly strengthen the nation’s air quality standards.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC

Sierra & Tierra: “Our Lives Are More Important Than Their Profits”

March 12, 2015

By Javier Sierra

Lupita Pérez had just had it breathing dirty air during her young life. At 14, she has decided to join the fight for a clean air future for her baby sister, who will be born in the next few weeks.

“Babies are not born with asthma. They get it because of the bad air and they can die from that,” says Lupita, a freshman at Desert Mirage High School, in the Coachella Valley, one of the country’s regions with the worst air quality.

The Valley —especially its eastern part, where thousands of Latino families live— saw 40 days of air quality violations in 2014. Few places in California, or the US for that matter, suffer a more intense toxic bombardment than here. In fact, 10 percent of the Valley’s children suffer from asthma.

One of them is the younger brother of Elijah Martínez, a 17-year-old senior at Desert Mirage HS.

“He plays soccer very well. And he dreams of becoming a pro, but it saddens me that he can’t play as much as he wants because he has asthma,” he laments.

Thousands of young Latinos in the Valley have their own story about the suffering caused by air pollution, including Selene Hernández, whose grandmother recently died of lung cancer.

“During her last days she got very sick and could barely breathe because of the dirty air. I don’t want anyone else to go through something like that,” says Selene, who’s also a senior at Desert Mirage HS.

Kids photoSelene Hernández, Elijah Martínez and Lupita Pérez (l-r) (Photo Sierra Club)

Just like Lupita, Selene, Elijah and 100 other students at Desert Mirage HS said enough is enough, and in February, they all traveled for 9 hours to Sacramento to testify at the EPA hearings about the improvement of the federal smog standards. Smog, a toxic gas generated by the burning of fossil fuels, can have the same effects on lung tissue as sunburn on the skin.

Desert Mirage HS kids
The Desert Mirage HS kids outside the hearings in Sacramento (Photo: Chris Jordan-Bloch/EarthJustice)

The current standard is 75 parts per billion (ppb), but health experts, such as the American Lung Association, insist to really protect public health the standard must be reduced to 60 ppb. The EPA has proposed a standard as low as 65 ppb but is also accepting comments on a 60-ppb one.

“I demanded for them to bring the ppb down to 60 because it is a human right to have fresh air to breathe,” says Lupita.

“It got very emotional when we all shared our stories about how the air pollution is affecting us. And some representatives of the EPA were getting teary-eyed just by listening to us,” remembers Selene.

Selene testifying EJ photoSelene Hernández during her testimony (Photo: Chris Jordan-Bloch/EarthJustice)

The benefits of fighting air pollution can be enormous. A recent University of Southern California study found that a substantial improvement of the air quality allows children to develop bigger, stronger lungs. From 1999 to 2011, a period during which air quality in California improved exponentially thanks to the Clean Air Act, researchers observed that among the 2,000 participants in the study, there was a 10-percent increase in lung capacity on average. Also, premature deaths were greatly reduced.

Polluters, on the other hand, insist improving the current smog standard would undermine the growth and profits of their industries. This is what the students have to say to the polluters:

“Come down to the Valley and see for yourselves any children who have asthma and see how hard it is for them to breathe and play,” says Elijah.

“There are people’s lives on the line. And also there are clean alternatives, such as solar and wind,” responds Selene.

“If they think they could be losing money, we out here could be losing our lives. By refusing to lower the ppb, they are putting our lives in danger. Asthma can come just like that, especially for little babies. Our lives are more important that their profits,” concludes Lupita, who dreams of attending Harvard or Stanford to become an environmental lawyer and “fight polluters in the courts.”

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC

Sierra & Tierra: 62 Senators for the Climate’s Hall of Infamy

February 03, 2015

By Javier Sierra

If there were a Climate’s Hall of Infamy, the 62 senators who voted to force the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline (KXL) would have a place of honor there.

On January 29, 53 Republicans and nine Democrats voted in favor of forcing the construction of this monument to Big Oil’s greed by overstepping the constitutional separation of powers and denying President Obama’s legitimate jurisdiction over this project.

The president had already warned that he would veto any attempts to change the rules arbitrarily. Even so, the new Republican majority, with their heads firmly stuck in the sand, turned KXL —which would run along 1,200 miles from Alberta, Canada, to Texas ports— into their number one priority.

Why spend so much political credit over a single public works boondoggle? Since 1999, these senators have received some $43 million in campaign contributions from the dirty energy industry, according to Oil Change International. The Koch Brothers alone donated $125 million to candidates in the past election cycle and stand to make $100 billion in profits if KXL is finally built, a 1,600-percent return on investment. It’s no wonder they are now planning to spend close to $1 billion in the upcoming 2016 campaign.

12. Ruptured-Enbridge-Pipeline-from-Kalamazoo-Spill-credit-NTSBThis tar-sand oil pipeline burst and spilled 1 million gallons of crude in the Kalamazoo River in 2010 (Photo: NTSB)

The Kochs and the rest of the dirty energy industry believe they can buy our democracy. But what they can’t buy is the facts. So here’s what KXL would mean for the American people:

  • Each year, this project of tar-sand oil —the most toxic, carbon-intensive crude on the planet— would be responsible for the emissions of 181 million tons of climate-change gases, the equivalent to 50 coal-burning plants.
  • The crude would be transported to Texas refineries with one fundamental purpose: to be exported overseas. Its impact on gas prices in the US would be insignificant.
  • The KXL would transport the planet’s densest crude, requiring heating up the pipeline and pumping the oil at enormous pressure so it can flow along hundreds of miles. In its first year of operation, the KXL sections already built burst 33 times.
  • In 2010, the rupturing of a similar tar-sands pipeline leaked a million gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River, at a cost of $1 billion in cleaning efforts, which still continue.
  • The pipeline would run on top of North America’s largest aquifer, which provides irrigation water for the country’s breadbasket, the source of 30 percent of our food.

Senators, if creating jobs is what you are after, then take a hard look at the astonishing growth of the clean energy industry, a sector that employs thousands of Latinos.

In 2014, the solar industry created 50 percent more jobs than oil and gas extraction combined. These 31,000 jobs brought up the industry’s total to 173,000, at a rate 20 times faster than the national average. In the last five years, the solar industry has increased its labor force by almost 90 percent. By next year, solar power will be as cheap or cheaper than coal, oil or gas in almost every single state.

And the wind industry last year quadrupled is generating capacity by installing close to 4,900 megawatts, increasing its national total to 65 gigawatts. Senators, do you really wish to create jobs? Then indefinitely extend the wind industry’s production tax credit (PTC) and end once and for all the obsolete dirty energy subsidies.

Until then, your candidacy to the Climate’s Hall of Infamy is more than deserved.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on @javier_SC

Sierra & Tierra: Your Present from Power Utilities: a Lump of Coal

December 18, 2014

By Javier Sierra

‘Tis the season to give and share and not to receive, to show our generosity with the less fortunate.

Unless, of course, it comes to the dozens of power utilities across the country that want to turn off the lights of the bright future of clean and renewable energy.

The threat for these energy monopolies powered by dirty fossil fuels lies in the explosive growth of solar energy in our country. In the last decade, this clean source of power has grown by 140,000 percent, and since 2010 by more than 400 percent. By 2016, solar energy will be as cheap or cheaper than conventional power in all but three states. And we owe more than half of this expansion to rooftop solar panels in homes and business.

NREL 3Solar energy has grown by almost 140,000% in ten years (Photo: Sierra Club)

In California alone, two thirds of these installations took place in low- and middle-income homes, which has created more than 47,000 jobs, 20 percent of them among Latinos. To thousands of our families, this blessing has saved up to half of what they used to pay for conventional electricity.

On the contrary, for public utilities, this is a curse. In more than a dozen states, including California and Florida, they have launched a legal offensive against solar power to protect their dirty monopoly.

The great incentive for the installation of rooftop solar panels lies in the capacity to export excess power to the grid in exchange for credits to the electric bill. The utilities, however, are plotting to end this popular incentive alleging that solar power generators take advantage of the grid without paying for the service or maintenance.

California’s three major utilities, for example, want to charge all customers an extra $10 per month, which will discourage homeowners from going solar or making their homes more energy efficient. Additionally, the utilities want to flatten rates, which will ultimately lower the bills of those who consume the most power. According to The Utility Reform Network, these changes would increase the electric bill of 70 percent of the state’s residential consumers.

In Florida, thanks to the utilities’ undue influence, the Public Service Commission a few weeks ago passed a proposal that completely dismantles the state’s energy efficiency goals and eliminates all of the state’s rooftop solar panel programs. The new, retrograde regulations will remain in place for a decade in a state whose southern half is economically more at risk of sea level rise due to climate change than any other part of the world.

The utilities’ arguments indeed sound like a spoiled brat’s tantrum. Generating energy through rooftop solar panels actually reduces the wear and tear of the electric grid. Also, it saves billions of dollars in construction of new conventional power plants and reduces dependency on existing sources of dirty energy.

What the utilities propose would smear with soot the face of future generations, especially for us Latinos who already have the misfortune to live disproportionately in the parts of the country with the worst air quality. Southern California, for instance, includes the cities with the dirtiest air in America —a daily punishment for the health of millions of Latinos, especially our children.

During the Christmas holidays, a star called sun is leading the way toward a clean energy future that will save us from the worst consequences of the climate crisis. The alternative of the energy monopolies? A huge lump of coal.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him of Twitter @javier_SC

Why COP 20 Lima Matters to South American Countries

December 08, 2014

The Conference of Parties (COP20) currently being held in Lima is critically important for South American countries given their exposure to climate change impacts. Land surface changes, fossil fuel extraction, and sea level rise are key concerns for these countries.

I used to take exotic trips when I was a small boy in my native country of Ecuador. Sometimes we went to the top of the Andes, sometimes to the jungle, sometimes to the mangrove islands. I remember the lush forests along the roads, interminable green. Our boat ride to my grandfather’s hacienda meandered through thick mangroves that felt like caves.

When I visited some of these sites years later I saw only humanity’s footprint. Mangroves gave way to shrimp farms. The jungle, once grand in scale, had given way to farms and shrubs. The Andean mountain tops, so starkly white in my childhood, were grayer.

Ecuador is part of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), with oil reserves in the country’s eastern rain forest, part of the Amazon basin. It has the third largest oil reserves in South America, behind Venezuela and Brazil.

The government of Ecuador has been quite clear about its intentions as far as fossil fuel extraction. In the wake of being unable to secure $3.6 billion to leave oil in the Amazon Basin, Ecuador officials decided to move on with the extraction of heavy crude.

Oil blocks in Ecuador’s Amazon. Image: Openl, PubMed Central

An interesting precedent would have been set if the Yasuni ITT payment had gone through: Would payments be made to other large oil-producing countries to keep fossil fuels in the ground?

Ecuador’s decision has come at great cost to Yasuni National Park, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, and to the natives in the region. But it has also riled up local and international activists and represents important subject matter for COP20 talks.

Increased knowledge and respect of the environment is a growing sentiment for many in Ecuador. This was evident with the Yasuni case. It is also evident in the reduction in deforestation in Brazil.

It is unfortunate that the deforestation rate has slowed in pace mostly in Brazil. Yetadvocacy in countries such as Ecuador is a growing trend. Hopefully, the message from the population will be loud enough to hear in Lima.

Roberto Mera is a climate scientist, Kendall Science Fellow in climate attribution and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

California Appeals Court Rejects Transportation Plan for Ignoring 2050 Climate Targets

November 25, 2014

Southern-California-trafficPhoto by Daniel R. Blume, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 2005, former Governor Schwarzenegger issued an Executive Order setting a target for California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. At the time it was issued, the Executive Order tracked scientific consensus on the emissions reduction trajectory needed to avoid significant disruption of the climate. The Legislature subsequently enacted AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, to require the Air Resources Board to develop a plan and take sufficient action for the state to meet the 2020 target. While the Executive Order's 2020 target was enacted into law though AB 32, the force of the 2050 target and its effect on agency decisionmaking remained a source of debate until yesterday. 

In a sweeping victory for the climate and clean air, the California Court of Appeal agreed with the Sierra Club and its allies that a $200 billion auto-centric Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for failing to disclose and mitigate the Plan's inconsistency with the Executive Order's 2050 targets.1 The Court's decision is both a victory for clean air and sustainable land use and transportation in San Diego, and for all Californians, as public agencies throughout the state can no longer avoid consideration of the long-term climate impacts of their decisionmaking.

SANDAG's RTP was the first in the state to contain the Sustainable Communities Strategy required by Senate Bill 375, a state law intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through smarter land-use and transportation planning. Unfortunately, far from functioning to reduce emissions, SANDAG's plan front-loaded the expansion and extension of freeways at the expense of public transit, inducing sprawl and reinforcing the region's dependence on car-oriented transportation. As a result, as shown in the graph below, SANDAG's Plan would increase greenhouse gas pollution from development and transportation through mid-century, at precisely the time when dramatic reductions are necessary to avoid dangerous climate disruption. 

In its environmental review for the RTP, SANDAG refused to analyze or mitigate the project's inconsistency with the Executive Order emissions reduction trajectory on the grounds that an Executive Order is non-binding policy without the force of law. The Court of Appeals rejected SANDAG's arguments, finding that "[b]y disregarding the Executive Order's overarching goal of ongoing emissions reductions, the EIR's analysis of the transportation plan's greenhouse gas emissions makes it falsely appear as if the transportation plan is furthering state climate policy, when, in fact, the trajectory of the transportation plan's post-2020 emissions directly contravenes it."

The investment choices we make today, such as whether to widen a highway instead of building light rail or to construct a new gas plant instead of renewables and energy storage, have profound impacts on our ability to achieve the continued reductions needed to meet long-term climate goals. Instead of being swept under the rug, yesterday's Court of Appeals decision helps ensure the consequences of these choices are now fully disclosed and minimized.

1The Sierra Club was represented by Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP and brought this case with Center for Biological Diversity and Cleveland National Forest Foundation.  Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a separate action challenging SANDAG's RTP.

- Matt Vespa is an attorney with the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program

Green Victories On a Blue Day

November 07, 2014


As we look at the November 4 election results throughout the country and especially in the U.S. Senate, many environmentalists may be feeling a bit defeated, and worried about the trajectory of recent federal progress setting unprecedented fuel economy standards and significantly reducing carbon pollution in the electric sector.

However, if you look closely at this week's election results, there are bright spots where the environmental agenda carried the day. It turns out that in California and Texas -- yes, Texas --the oil industry took a harder hit.

In Richmond, California, population 107,000 and home to a Chevron refinery that exploded in 1999 and again in 2012, the oil giant spent $3 million on the mayoral and city council races. The corporation's goals were to elect local officials who would not stand up to the corporation's egregious inspection and oversight practices that led to those devastating events. However, instead of falling prey to Chevron's overbearing advertising tactics and its election website purporting to provide the objective view, Richmond voters stood up to the oil giant and defeated all of Chevron's candidates. The victorious mayoral candidate had a campaign budget of about $50,000.

In California's San Benito and Mendocino counties, the voters also defeated more than $2 million of oil industry campaigning to pass measures that ban fracking within their borders. With only $140,000 of grassroots campaign money, ongoing advocacy among California communities demonstrated that the public is not buying the oil industry's deceptive claims that fracking is safe and will boost local economies. Instead, by exercising their right to vote, citizens spoke to protect homes, schools, public health, the environment, and scarce drinking water resources, and to boost investments in clean fuels.

And in Denton, Texas, at the heart of the state's energy boom, citizens resoundingly beat back the oil industry by banning fracking within city limits by a 59% to 41% margin. Again, the residents spoke out to say enough is enough.

Below, fracking in a residential neighborhood in Weld, Colorado, along the Rocky Mountain Front.


What's clear from these results is that the oil industry is dumping big bucks (relative to the opposition) into local politics to buy elections in an attempt to prolong our nation's dependence on dirty, dangerous fuels, and to undermine a transition to a clean fuel economy. But what's even clearer is that citizens aren't willing to be bought or duped by such dirty campaign tactics.

So in the midst of some of our post-election day woes, the citizens of Richmond, Denton, and San Benito and Mendocino Counties, provide a glimmer of hope that we can overcome dirty oil's pumping of money into campaign politics and beat back prolonged reliance on dangerous, climate-disruptive fuels.

In the upcoming weeks, California citizens have more opportunities to weigh in on extreme crude oil projects, including projects to expand rail transport of explosive, polluting crude oil through the San Francisco Bay Area and along California's treasured coastline. Please check back in the coming days for more information on how to take action.

- Devorah Ancel, Sierra Club Environmental Law Program

A Mixed Bag: Southern California Edison's Proposed Replacement for San Onofre Nuclear Plant

November 06, 2014


Yesterday Southern California Edison ("SCE") announced the resources it selected to replace capacity it received from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (above), a 2,200 MW nuclear facility, and once-through-cooling gas plants subject to retirement under State Water Board regulations. The Sierra Club invested a significant amount of time in the fight over how to replace San Onofre, organizing rallies, petition drives, and conducting intensive advocacy at the California Public Utilities Commission ("CPUC") to make sure that San Onofre was replaced with clean energy and not long term investments in fossil fuel plants.

The resources were solicited through an "all-source" request for offers (RFO), which allows all resources, including gas-fired generation, energy storage, demand response, renewables, and energy efficiency, to bid and compete in the same solicitation. The selected resources were also subject to parameters set by the CPUC, which required that new resources for the West L.A. Basin area be composed of at least 1000 MW of gas-fired generation, at least 600 MW of "preferred resources" (efficiency, demand response, and renewables) and/or energy storage and 300-500 MW of any resource.

What happened? Here is a breakdown of the resources SCE has selected from the RFO and will seek final procurement approval by the CPUC through a formal application:

Energy Efficiency:                            130 MW
Demand Response:                            75 MW
Renewables (Behind-the-Meter):          44 MW
Storage:                                        261 MW
Gas-Fired Generation:                    1,382 MW

Total:                                         1,892  MW

So, what do we make of this?

The good:

The All-Source RFO: SCE's all-source RFO, the first of its kind in California, allows for competition among a range of potential resource solutions to meet need. The response to SCE's RFO was extremely robust, with over 1,800 proposed offers. SCE's all-source RFO is a step forward in utility procurement practice and stands in stark contrast to SDG&E, the other utility impacted by San Onofre's retirement.

Rather than conduct an all-source RFO to meet 300-600 MW of any resource need authorized to SDG&E by the CPUC following the retirement of San Onfore, SDG&E is seeking CPUC approval of a bilateral contract for all of this capacity with the 600 MW Carlsbad gas plant. Bilateral contracting is a private negotiation that prejudices other potential resource providers who are kept from competing to fill authorized procurement amounts as well as advocates like the Sierra Club seeking optimal outcomes for customers and the environment. The Sierra Club is opposing approval of the Carlsbad contact before the CPUC.

A Precedent-Setting Showing by Energy Storage: The 261 MW of storage procurement is a significant boost for the industry and will result in storage deployment at a more accelerated pace than required under California's recent energy storage procurement decision.  SCE's proposed storage procurement is comprised of a range of applications, include a number of "behind the meter" storage application that will shift consumption from high to low demand hours and facilitate increased deployment of rooftop solar. SCE's proposed procurement also includes a 100 MW utility-owned battery storage provided by AES. The 100 MW battery storage project is significantly larger than existing battery-storage projects in the country and raises the bar for the size of storage projects utilities should be considering.


For additional scrutiny:

Did SCE's Proposed Procurement Comply with State Policy Prioritizing Preferred Resources? SCE proposes to meet its 300-500 MW "any resource" authorization entirely with fossil-fuel generation. To comply with state law and a long-standing energy policy called the "Loading Order," SCE must procure all feasibly available and cost effective energy efficiency, demand response, and renewables prior to resorting to fossil fuels. Because they typically have 20-25 year contracts with a utility, new gas plants create long-term commitments to fossil fuels that interfere with California's ability to rapidly decarbonize its energy system.

As SCE moves forward in seeking approval for the resources it selected from its RFO process, the Sierra Club will be scrutinizing SCE's procurement to make sure SCE did not improperly disregard the Loading Order and all feasible and cost-effective clean energy options. Given the number and range of responses to SCE's RFO, one would expect that SCE had plenty of viable carbon-free solutions to choose from in meeting its "any resource" needs.

-- Matt Vespa. Sierra Club Environmental Law Program

Sierra & Tierra: Our Neighbors, the Rolling Bombs

November 04, 2014

By Javier Sierra

Juan Parras knows well what it means to live surrounded by rolling bombs, and the frequent sound of the whistling engines pulling more than 100-car trains loaded with oil crude into his community is a constant reminder.

Parras lives and works in Manchester, the Houston Latino barrio with some of the heaviest oil train traffic in the country.

“Here we have the largest concentration of railroad crossings in the land,” says Parras, founder and executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, which has been active in Manchester for many years. “When we drive around here, we have to stop and wait for the trains to pass three or four times per trip.”

After 9-11, a lot of trains with dangerous cargo were diverted from communities as a matter of precaution and safety. But that is not the case in Manchester.

“This is a big issue because of national security and because of the extreme danger that this brings to communities,” says Parras. “The train yards around us containing hundreds of cars are left unguarded and anyone willing to do some serious damage can walk up to them unimpeded.”

_DSC0203Train cars loaded with petrochemical products in Manchester, Houston (Photo: Juan Parras)

Since 2005, the oil train traffic in North America has increased 40 fold. At any given moment, some nine million barrels of crude oil are being transported around North America. Yet we haven’t seen any real improvements in the safety of these trains. The oil and railroad companies, however, seem to be whistling past the graveyard.

In 2013, a train loaded with crude from North Dakota derailed and exploded, killing 47 people and leveling a section of the town of Lac-Mégantic, in Quebec, Canada. Since then, there have been accidents in Alabama, Colorado, Minnesota, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

14395327079_56b6b00071_oAftermath of the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, oil train disaster (Photo: Elias Schewel)

Living close to these trains is like rolling the dice. And the ones who are most vulnerable to these rolling bombs are us, Latinos, and other communities of color. According to a study by ForestEthics, out of the 25 million people who live in the oil trains blast zone, 15 million (60 percent!) are members of minority communities, including Manchester.

“Fortunately, we haven’t had any derailments or explosions with serious consequences on the population,” says Parras. “But we’ve had close calls. In the past year there’ve been two train derailments in our community. In one instance, the train was carrying dangerous cargo, the cars leaked but did not explode.”

DapartRecent derailment in Manchester, Houston (Photo: Juan Parras)

These dismal safety conditions in too many oil trains intensify the danger for millions of people. In a document submitted to the US Department of Transportation, several groups, including ForestEthics and the Sierra Club, underlined several flaws that make this railroad traffic “an unacceptable public risk.”

Perhaps the most clear and present danger is the widespread use of obsolete DOT-111 rail cars, which lack reinforcement in their shells, making them much more fragile in case of derailment.  

The groups demand that the Obama administration immediately improve the safety and security of oil trains by adopting the following recommendations:
•    Immediately banning the use of DOT-111 rail cars and a quicker phase-out of other unsafe types.
•    Expanding the emergency response preparedness in the communities situated in the blast zone.
•    Imposing speed limits and requiring state-of-the-art breaking systems on oil trains.
•    And requiring liability coverage to cover the true costs of crude-by-rail disasters.

And while these demands are considered, Juan Parras and the rest of the Manchester residents keep looking over their shoulders every time they hear a train whistling into town. “Here comes another rolling bomb into our barrio,” they say.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC

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