The Green New Deal Is a Great Deal for the Outdoors — Outside Online #ActOnClimate

From Outside Online (Cameron Fenton):

The initiative, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is ambitious, but some in the outdoor industry argue it’s the only hope for saving wild places from climate change

When 27-year-old climate activist Evan Weber thinks about climate change, he thinks about his childhood in Hawaii. He spent those years in the mountains, on beaches, and in the ocean. “Now the beaches that I grew up on don’t exist anymore,” he says. “Sea-level rise has swallowed them into the ocean. The mountains are green for much less of the year. The coral reefs are dying from ocean acidification killing both marine life and surf breaks.”

That’s what brought him, on November 13, to march on soon-to-be House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office with around 150 other activists from a progressive group he cofounded called Sunrise Movement. They were demonstrating for a sweeping policy plan championed by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the Green New Deal. It is pitched as an economy-wide climate mobilization to connect environmental, social, and economic policies through legislation and would create everything from investment in federal green jobs for all who want them to a massive green-infrastructure program. The end result would be an overhauled national economy run on 100 percent renewable energy.

While these are lofty goals, and many are skeptical of the plan’s feasibility, advocates see it as setting the bar for a sufficient response to climate change that politicians can be held to. And the proposal is already gaining steam in Washington, D.C., as a platform to rally around heading into 2020: more than 40 lawmakers have endorsed Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a congressional select committee to map out the Green New Deal. Many in the outdoor industry are also paying attention to what could be the best hope to save our ski seasons and protect our public lands.

“It’s an approach that’s so comprehensive that it could be a way for the United States to lead in the direction of stabilizing the climate at two degrees Celsius,” says Mario Molina, executive director of the advocacy group Protect Our Winters. According to a climate assessment put out by the federal government last month, warming above that threshold (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit) could shorten ski seasons by half in some parts of the U.S. before 2050.

Climate change is already impacting snowpack, and ski resorts across America are scrambling to adapt. This past year, Aspen Snowmass launched a political campaign called Give a Flake to get its customers engaged in climate action, Squaw Valley spent $10 million on snowmaking equipment in 2017, and Vail is pursuing a sweeping program to weatherproof its operations. But, Molina explains, there’s a long way to go to address the ski industry’s fossil-fuel-intensive operations. He believes that something like the economy-wide transition to renewable energy proposed in the Green New Deal is the best way ski resorts will be able to significantly lower their carbon footprints. It would allow them, for example, to hook their resorts up to a central power grid that would spin their lifts with renewable energy and create more sustainable transit options to and from the slopes.

Amy Roberts, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), also sees the opportunity to link this kind of large-scale climate action with the outdoor economy, especially when it comes to public lands. An economy powered on 100 percent renewables would obviously erase any incentive for fossil-fuel companies to drill in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Bears Ears National Monument. But the OIA is still watching to see how the politics around the Green New Deal shape up. The early support from lawmakers is encouraging, but they’re mostly Democrats. Roberts insists that policies to protect the climate and public lands need bipartisan support, but she thinks that the outdoor industry can help make that happen. “When you look at who takes part in our activities, whether it’s hiking, camping, hunting, or fishing, there are both Republicans and Democrats,” she says. “That’s an opportunity to unite and bring a compelling message that’s separate and apart from what the environmental community is doing.”

As proof, she points to the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act. In November, Peach State voters passed the measure, in which sales tax from sporting goods and outdoor equipment is used to fund parks and trails, with 83 percent support. In the same election, the governor’s race was so divided that it went to a recount.

Even with glimpses of bipartisan support for the environment, Molina worries that the main hurdle Green New Deal legislation will face is influence from the fossil-fuel industry. Its lobbyists donated more than $100 million to campaigns in the 2016 election, and in 2018 raised $30 million to defeat a Washington State ballot measure that would have added a modest carbon tax on emissions and used the revenue to fund environmental and social programs. Additionally, former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt was tapped to replace Ryan Zinke as interior secretary in December.

But activists like Weber are not giving up. As part of their push for a Green New Deal, they have called for members of the Democratic leadership to reject campaign contributions from fossil-fuel interests. And a few weeks after Weber was in Nancy Pelosi’s office, he and more than 1,000 young people were back in Washington, D.C., this time storming Capitol Hill in a daylong push to get lawmakers to endorse the Green New Deal, an effort that resulted in nearly 150 arrests. They remain unfazed by claims that the plan’s goals are too large. “A Green New Deal is the only proposal put forth by an American politician that’s in line with what the latest science says is necessary to prevent irreversible climate change,” Weber says. “It could mean the difference between whether future generations around the world get to have the same formative experiences in nature that I did—or not.”

From Grist (Justine Calma):

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Elizabeth Warren. Beto O’Rourke. Those are just a few of the high-profile names either leading the development of or jumping to endorse today’s environmental cause célèbre, the Green New Deal. Inside congressional halls, at street protests, and, of course, on climate Twitter — it’s hard to avoid the idea, which aims to re-package ambitious climate actions into a single, wide-ranging stimulus program.

The Green New Deal is being promoted as a kind of progressive beacon of a greener America, promising jobs and social justice for all on top of a shift away from fossil fuels. It’s a proposal largely driven by newcomers to politics and environmental activism (and supported, however tentatively, by several potential presidential candidates and members of the Democratic political establishment). The plan aspires to bring together the needs of people and the environment, outlining “a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty.”

But within the broader environmental movement, not everyone was initially gung-ho on the Green New Deal — at least not without some stipulations.

To understand the debate surrounding the Green New Deal, you need to look beyond its recent prominence in Beltway political circles to the on-the-ground organizations that make up the environmental justice movement. Newcomers like Ocasio-Cortez may be leading the charge, but grassroots leaders who have spent years advocating for low-income families and neighborhoods of color most impacted by fossil fuels say their communities weren’t consulted when the idea first took shape.

For all the fanfare, there isn’t a package of policies that make up a Green New Deal just yet. And that’s why community-level activists are clamoring to get involved, help shape the effort, and ensure the deal leaves no one behind.

Something Old, Something New

Although the term “Green New Deal” has evolved over time, its current embodiment as a complete overhaul of U.S. energy infrastructure was spearheaded by two high profile entities: progressive darling and first-term Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Sunrise Movement, an organization formed in 2017 by young people hellbent on making climate change the “it” issue.

In November 2018, Ocasio-Cortez, with support from Sunrise, called for a House select committee to formulate the package of policies. More than 40 lawmakers signed on to support the draft text. Then shortly before the end of the year, Nancy Pelosi, now the speaker of the House, announced the formation instead of a “Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.”

It wasn’t exactly a win for the leaders of the new environmental vanguard. Sunrise tweeted its displeasure at the committee’s pared-down ambition, taking umbrage with its lack of power to subpoena (a condition for which Ocasio-Cortez had advocated) and the fact that politicians who take money from fossil fuel interests would not be excluded from sitting on it.

The fuss over who gets a say in the formation of the Green New Deal goes back further than Ocasio-Cortez’s or Sunrise’s friendly-ish feud with establishment Democrats. The Climate Justice Alliance, a network of groups representing indigenous peoples, workers, and frontline communities, says its gut reaction to the Green New Deal was that it had been crafted at the “grasstops” (as opposed to the grassroots).

Shortly after Ocasio-Cortez put out her proposal for a select committee, the alliance released a statement largely in support of the concept, but with a “word of caution”: “When we consulted with many of our own communities, they were neither aware of, nor had they been consulted about, the launch of the GND.”

Leaders at the alliance surveyed its member organizations — there are more than 60 across the U.S. — and put together a list of their concerns. Unless the Green New Deal addresses those key points, the alliance says, the plan won’t meet its proponents’ lofty goal of tackling poverty and injustice. Nor will the deal gain the grassroots support it will likely need to become a reality.

“What we want to do is strengthen and center the Green New Deal in environmental justice communities that have both experience and lived history of confronting the struggle against fossil fuel industries,” Angela Adrar, executive director of the alliance, told Grist.

Grist asked several indigenous and environmental justice leaders: If the Green New Deal is going to make good on its promises, what will it take? Here’s what they said.

A more inclusive and democratic process that respects tribal sovereignty

As details get hashed out on what a Green New Deal would actually include, longtime environmental justice organizers say their communities need to be the ones guiding the way forward. “The way that the plan was developed and shared is one of its greatest weaknesses,” Adrar says. “We want to be able to act quickly, but we also want to act democratically.”

She adds that involving the grassroots is especially important in the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, which ushered in many new congressional members pledging to focus on the underrepresented communities they come from. The Climate Justice Alliance is calling for town halls (with interpreters for several languages) to allow communities to help flesh out policies to include in the Green New Deal.

Some of the disconnect could be generational, says Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Many of the leaders espousing the Green New Deal are young people. He says that he and his colleagues were caught off-guard when they saw the plan on social media and that when his network reached out to its members, there was little familiarity or understanding of the Green New Deal.

“Maybe the way of communication of youth is different than what we’ve found in the environmental justice movement and our native movement around the value of human contact — face-to-face human contact,” he says. “We’re asking that leadership of the Green New Deal meet with us and have a discussion how we can strengthen this campaign with the participation of the communities most impacted.”

Any retooling of America’s energy infrastructure will undoubtedly venture into Native American tribes’ lands, where there are already long-standing battles over existing and proposed pipeline expansions, as well as fossil fuel facilities. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls for “free, prior, and informed consent” from tribes before developers begin any project on their land. So indigenous environmental groups say there needs to be respect for tribal sovereignty and buy-in from tribes for a Green New Deal to fulfill its promise of being just and equitable.

Green jobs should be great jobs

There has been a lot of talk in Green New Deal circles about uplifting poor and working-class communities. Advocates have floated ideas ranging from a job-guarantee program offering a living wage to anyone who wants one to explicitly ensuring the rights of workers to form a union.

But as workers’ rights organizations point out, energy and extractive industries have provided unionized, high-paying jobs for a long time — and they want to make sure workers can have the same or a better quality of life within green industries.

“There’s been a long history of workers that have been left hanging in transition in the past,” says Michael Leon Guerrero, executive director of the Labor Network for Sustainability, which has been working to bridge divides between labor and environmental issues. “For that reason, there’s quite a bit of skepticism in the labor sector.”

Joseph Uehlein, who founded the Labor Network for Sustainability, adds that there needs to be more than just the promise of jobs to entice labor to support a Green New Deal. “Every presidential candidate in my lifetime talks about job creation as their top priority,” he says. “Over the last 40 years, those jobs have gotten worse and worse. A lot of jobs are not so good, requiring two or three breadwinners to do what one used to be able to do.”

Uehlein hopes an eventual Green New Deal will ensure not just jobs that guarantee a living wage, but will go one step further. “We always talk about family-supporting jobs,” he says. “It’s not just about living, it’s about supporting families.”

Do No Harm

Any version of a Green New Deal would likely ensure that the U.S. transitions away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy — with Ocasio-Cortez setting the bold target of the nation getting 100 percent of its energy from renewables within 10 years.

But defining what exactly counts as “renewable energy” has been tricky. There are plenty of sources of energy that aren’t in danger of running out and don’t put out as many greenhouse gases as coal or oil, but are still disruptive to frontline communities. Garbage incineration is considered a renewable energy in some states, but it still emits harmful pollutants. And when it comes to nuclear energy or large-scale hydropower, the associated uranium extraction and dam construction have destroyed indigenous peoples’ homes and flooded their lands.

The Climate Justice Alliance is also pushing to exclude global warming interventions like geoengineering and carbon capture and sequestration, which they believe don’t do enough to address the root causes of global warming. Both technologies have to do with re-trapping or curbing the effects of greenhouse gases after they’ve been produced. “Carbon capture and sequestration, it’s a false solution from our analysis,” Goldtooth says. The focus needs to be on stopping greenhouse gases from getting into the atmosphere in the first place, he and other critics argue.

As the alliance sees it, a future in which the planet survives requires a complete transition away from fossil fuels and an extractive economy, and toward a regenerative economy with less consumption and more ecological resilience.

Goldtooth and his colleagues are calling for solutions that rein in damaging co-pollutants on top of greenhouse gases. And they support scalable solutions — like community solar projects — that are are popping up in some of the neighborhoods that are most affected by climate change.

A good start

Even though the Green New Deal faces many political obstacles, its proponents are still pushing forward at full speed. “We are calling for a wartime-level, just economic mobilization plan to get to 100% renewable energy ASAP,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on New Year’s Day.

Scientists recently estimated that the world has only 12 years to keep average global temperatures from increasing beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — the upper limit which many agree we can’t surpass if we want to avoid a climate crisis. The urgency around the latest climate change timeline has brought a lot of new advocates to the table.

According to John Harrity, chair of the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs and a board member at the Labor Network for Sustainability, the labor movement is becoming more willing to engage on ways to address climate change. “I think the Green New Deal becomes a really good way to put all of that together in a package,” he says. “That evokes for a lot of people the image of a time when people did all pull together for the common good.”

Elizabeth Yeampierre, steering committee co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance and executive director of the Brooklyn-based grassroots organization, UPROSE, which works on issues cutting across climate change and racial justice, calls the Green New Deal “a good beginning for developing something that could really have lasting impacts and transformation in local communities and nationwide.”

Since the alliance put out its recommendations, Yeampierre says she’s been in regular contact with both the Sunrise Movement and Ocasio-Cortez’s office. “To their credit they were responsive and have made themselves available to figure out how we move forward in a way that doesn’t really step over the people,” she explains.

The language in Ocasio-Cortez’ draft proposal has already changed — it now includes clauses to “protect and enforce sovereign rights and land rights of tribal nations” and “recognize the rights of workers to organize and unionize.” The document has doubled in length since it was put out in November (at time of publication, it is 11 pages long) and will likely include new edits in the coming days.

Varshini Prakash, a founding member of the Sunrise Movement (and a 2018 Grist 50 Fixer), says she agrees with the Climate Justice Alliance’s recommendation that a Green New Deal prioritize the needs of workers, frontline communities, communities of color, and low-income communities. “Their critiques,” Prakash tells Grist, “are fully valid, and I appreciate what they’re bringing.”

The broad overview of a Green New Deal in Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a select committee, Prakash says, was hashed out quickly after the representative’s team approached Sunrise late last year. (Ocasio-Cortez did not immediately respond to Grist’s inquiry). “This was very rapid fire, it happened on an extremely tight timescale,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of time to do the broad consultation we wanted.”

But Prakash, Yeampierre, and other leaders in the movements for environmental and climate justice are working to make sure there are more folks on board moving forward.

“Climate change isn’t just going to threaten our communities — it’s also going to test our solidarity, it’s going to test how we build relationships with each other,” Yeampierre says. “So I think the Green New Deal can be used as an opportunity to show that we can pass that test.”

When a huge utility company pledges to go carbon free — @HighCountryNews #ActOnClimate #CarbonFree

In early December, Xcel Energy, a sprawling utility that provides electricity to customers in eight states, including Colorado and New Mexico, announced that it planned to go carbon-free by 2050. In what has been a rough year for climate hawks, this was welcome news. After all, here was a large corporation pledging to go where no utility of its scale has gone before, regardless of the technical hurdles in its path, and under an administration that is doing all it can to encourage continuing use of fossil fuels.

At the Dec. 4 announcement in Denver, Xcel CEO Bob Fowkes said that he and his team were motivated in part by the dire projections in recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment. “When I looked at that and my team looked at that, we thought to ourselves, ‘What else can we do?’ ” Fowkes said. “And the reality is, we knew we could step up and do more at little or no extra cost.”

Xcel committed to 100 percent carbon-free power generation by 2050 through solar, wind, nuclear and hydropower plants like Shoshone Generating Station (middle left of photo). Fossil fuel burning may still be part of the mix if they use carbon capture and sequestration technology. Shoshone Falls, Idaho. By Frank Schulenburg – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71359770

It was a big step, and apparently inspiring. A couple of days later, the Platte River Power Authority, which powers four municipalities on Colorado’s Front Range, pledged to go carbon-free by 2030. Here are seven things to keep in mind about Xcel’s pledge:

  1. Xcel is going 100-percent carbon-free, not 100 percent renewable. There’s a big difference between the two, with the former being far easier to accomplish, because it allows the utility to use not only wind and solar power, but also nuclear and large hydropower. It can also burn some fossil fuels if plants are equipped with carbon capture and sequestration technology.
  2. No current power source is truly clean. Solar, wind, nuclear and hydropower plants have zero emissions from the electricity generation stage. However, other phases of their life cycles do result in greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants — think uranium mining, solar panel manufacturing and wind turbine transportation. Even the decay of organic material in reservoirs emits methane. But even when their full life cycles are considered, nuclear, wind, solar and hydropower all still emit at least 100 times less carbon than coal.
  3. Carbon capture and sequestration techniques don’t do a lot for the big picture. Even if all of the carbon emitted from a natural gas- or coal-fired power plant is captured and successfully sequestered without any leakage — and that remains a big “if” — huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, are released during the coal mining and natural gas extraction, processing and transportation phases.
  4. Even though carbon sequestration qualifies as “clean energy,” Xcel is unlikely to utilize the technology on any large scale with coal because of the cost. Even without carbon capture, coal is more expensive than other power sources, so why spend all that money just to keep burning expensive fuel? On the other hand, natural gas is relatively cheap, so it makes more sense for Xcel to continue burning the fossil fuel with carbon capture.
  5. Economics play as much a role in this decision as environmentalism. Even as Xcel was making its announcement, executives from PacifiCorp, one of the West’s largest utilities, were telling stakeholders that more than half of its coal fleet was uneconomical, and that cleaner power options were cheaper. So even without the zero carbon pledge, Xcel likely would have abandoned coal in the next couple of decades, regardless of how many regulations the Trump administration rolls back. Meanwhile, renewable power continues to get cheaper, making it competitive with natural gas. And without some kind of big gesture, Xcel risked losing major customers. (The city of Boulder, Colorado, defected from Xcel, a process that has been going on for the last several years, because the utility wasn’t decarbonizing quickly enough.)
  6. Xcel’s move, and others like it, will pressure grid operators to work toward a more integrated Western electrical grid. A better-designed grid would allow a utility like Xcel to purchase surplus power from California solar installations, for example, or the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona, and to sell its wind power back in that direction when it’s needed.
  7. Xcel needs better technology to meet its goal. Xcel admits that “achieving the long-term vision of zero-carbon electricity requires technologies that are not cost-effective or commercially available today.” It is banking on the development of commercially viable utility-scale batteries and other storage technologies to smooth out the ups and downs of renewable energy sources. If Xcel is serious about its goal, though, it will need to embrace approaches that don’t necessarily boost the bottom line. That could mean incentivizing efficient energy use, promoting rooftop solar, and implementing rate schedules that discourage electricity use during times of peak demand. It will also need to get comfortable with paying big customers not to use electricity during certain times.

Xcel’s pledge is a big step in the right direction, and it has the potential of becoming a giant leap if other major utilities follow suit. But it also underscores a sad fact: While our elected officials twiddle their thumbs and play golf with oil and gas oligarchs, the very corporations that helped get us into this mess are the ones who are left to take the lead on getting us out.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at jonathan@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

In the West, #climate action falters on the ballot — @HighCountryNews

Directional drilling from one well site via the National Science Foundation

From The High Country News (Kate Schimel):

In an upstairs ballroom of downtown Seattle’s Arctic Club, where polar bears and maps of the Arctic decorate the walls, volunteers and activists who campaigned for Washington’s first carbon fee waited cheerfully for election results on Tuesday night. Just after 8 p.m., a first wash of returns that had the initiative on track to pass sent ripples through the room. But as more counties reported in, the likelihood dropped. By 9 p.m., the mood turned, and clusters of supporters retreated to bars across downtown to mourn. On Wednesday morning, 56 percent of Washington voters had rejected the state’s second attempt to tax carbon emissions.

As the U.S. has stepped back from federal commitments to limit carbon pollution, activists have called on states and local governments to fill the void. It’s an approach that could prove effective, according to a report released in September by Data-Driven Yale: Existing state, local and corporate commitments could take the U.S. halfway to meeting its Paris Agreement goals, designed to limit global warming to 2 degrees and avoid the most catastrophic effects.

Tuesday night’s returns offered a mixed message on whether states have the momentum to regulate fossil fuels without federal backing. Candidates who support action on climate change won gubernatorial races in Colorado and Oregon, while in Washington, Democratic incumbent Sen. Maria Cantwell, who has backed climate initiatives in the Senate, held her seat by a comfortable margin. But ballot initiatives intended to regulate fossil fuel emissions and boost renewable energy sources fell flat.

The nation’s first carbon fee fails
Initiative 1631, which was crafted by a coalition of labor, social justice and environmental groups and tribal nations, would have taxed every metric ton of carbon produced by most of the state’s largest polluters at a rate of $15; some sectors were exempted, including fuel used in agricultural production and coal plants slated for closure. A prior initiative to tax carbon emissions while lowering other taxes and boosting low-income tax credits failed in 2016. The 2018 initiative, which would have used the funds raised by the tax to pay for climate mitigation and response, drew well-funded opposition from oil and gas interests.

The result: Projected to fail. Only three counties, Seattle’s King County, Port Townsend’s Jefferson County and the San Juan Islands, voted for passage.

Arizona’s push for renewables stalls
Proposition 127 would have required electric utilities to purchase 50 percent of their power from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. It excluded nuclear power as a renewable source, which stoked fears that its passage would lead to the closure of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. A lawsuit from the state’s largest utility muddied Proposition 127’s progress to the ballot, while out-of-state money helped make it the most expensive proposition in state history. A group backed by California-based billionaire Tom Steyer’s political action committee, NextGen Climate Action, poured $23.2 million into efforts to pass the initiative; Arizona utilities, as well as the Navajo Nation, spent nearly $30 million to oppose it.

The result: Failed. As of Wednesday morning, 70 percent of voters had rejected the measure.

Background reading: Dark money is re-shaping Arizona’s energy fights, Elizabeth Shogren

Colorado won’t tighten fracking restrictions
A pair of dueling initiatives, Proposition 112 and Amendment 74, dealt with regulating the state’s fracking boom, which has butted up against sprawling suburbs. Proposition 112 would have required new oil and gas wells and production facilities to be built at least 2,500 feet away from schools, drinking water sources and homes, a significant increase from current set-back requirements. Amendment 74 would have required payments for any lost property values due to government action, including regulations that affect mineral rights – like Proposition 112.

The result: Both initiatives failed, leaving the state where it started on oil and gas regulations.

Background reading: The rising risks of the West’s latest gas boom, Daniel Glick and Jason Plautz

Gov. Hickenlooper joins western governors in continued commitment to uphold standards of the Clean Air and Water Acts

Mount Rainier and Seattle Skyline July 22 2017.

Here’s the release from Governor Hickenlooper’s office:

Gov. John Hickenlooper today joined governors from California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington in signing a letter committing to upholding the standards set forth in the Clean Air and Water Acts, despite changes to federal standards in Washington D.C.

“We will not run from our responsibility to protect and improve clean air and water for future generations,” said Governor John Hickenlooper. “We know it will take collaboration just like this to make it happen. Changes at the federal level will not distract from our goals.”

Colorado continues efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as outlined by the state’s Colorado Climate Plan. Last week Colorado submitted comments pushing back on the Trump administration’s proposal to weaken federal auto standards. State agencies continue work on finalizing a low emissions vehicle plan by the end of the year.

In their letter, the governors wrote “Each of our states has a unique administrative and regulatory structure established to protect clean air and clean water, but we share a commitment to science-based standards that protect human health and the environment. As governors, we pledge to be diligent environmental stewards of our natural resources to ensure that current and future generations can enjoy the bounty of clean air, clean water and the highest quality of life.”

View the full letter here.

How air pollution is destroying our health — the World Health Organization @WHO

Click here to go to the website. Here’s an excerpt:

As the world gets hotter and more crowded, our engines continue to pump out dirty emissions, and half the world has no access to clean fuels or technologies (e.g. stoves, lamps), the very air we breathe is growing dangerously polluted: nine out of ten people now breathe polluted air, which kills 7 million people every year. The health effects of air pollution are serious – one third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution. This is an equivalent effect to that of smoking tobacco, and much higher than, say, the effects of eating too much salt.

Air pollution is hard to escape, no matter how rich an area you live in. It is all around us. Microscopic pollutants in the air can slip past our body’s defences, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory system, damaging our lungs, heart and brain.

From The Guardian (Damian Carrington and Matthew Taylor):

Simple act of breathing is killing 7 million people a year and harming billions more, but ‘a smog of complacency pervades the planet’, says Dr Tedros Adhanom

Air pollution is the “new tobacco”, the head of the World Health Organization has warned, saying the simple act of breathing is killing 7 million people a year and harming billions more.

Over 90% of the world’s population suffers toxic air and research is increasingly revealing the profound impacts on the health of people, especially children.

“The world has turned the corner on tobacco. Now it must do the same for the ‘new tobacco’ – the toxic air that billions breathe every day,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general. “No one, rich or poor, can escape air pollution. It is a silent public health emergency.”

“The water around a Utah uranium mine is growing more polluted” — Salt Lake Tribune #ActOnClimate

White Mesa Mill. Photo credit: Energy Fuels

From The Salt Lake Tribune (Emma Penrod):

The following was researched and written by Emma Penrod for The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.

There once was a time when the children of White Mesa played outdoors without their parents fearing for their health.

But for as long as Yolanda Badback can remember, the remote town in southeastern Utah has worried about the smell emanating from the plant to the north and the trucks that signal the plant’s awakening after periods of dormancy.

“I see the trucks that go in and out every day now,” Badback said. “I don’t know what they’re hauling, but they go in and out.”

Badback is more familiar with the White Mesa uranium mill than many within her community. As a child, she tagged along with her uncle and longtime critic of the mill, Norman Begay, as he went to meetings in his quest to understand what the mill was doing and whether it was safe to live just over 5 miles downwind of such an operation. She later picked up where her uncle left off, searching for answers among confusing, and sometimes conflicting, information state, tribal and company officials have to offer.

“I’ve been going to these meetings for a long while,” she said. “I don’t trust them anymore.”

The mill’s current owners, Colorado-based Energy Fuels Resources, tout the plant as one of the last capable of milling ore into purified uranium. As such, they say, the mill is a critical national asset — an argument they’ve leveraged to garner political support for the shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument and for tariffs on imported uranium.

But the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe — White Mesa is a part of the reservation — watches the polluted groundwater beneath the mill with growing concern, though state officials insist the pollution comes from other sources.

The contaminated water appears to be moving toward the town, said Scott Clow, environmental programs director for the tribe, and concentrations of potentially harmful substances such as heavy metals are on the rise. The acidity of the groundwater has increased. And state regulators, Clow said, don’t appear to share the tribe’s interest in addressing the pollution.

At this point, Clow said, “I think it would be the tribe’s preference that the facility shut down. But that’s a big ask there.” So instead, the tribe has focused on persuading the mill’s owners to phase out some of its older waste facilities, which they believe are more prone to leaking.

There’s one problem: Records from a yearslong court battle indicate that the newer waste-holding facilities, which are not in use currently, may have been built improperly.

As of now, the town’s drinking water remains clean, but Clow worries unchecked pollution will jeopardize the tribe’s relationship to its ancestral home.

“The mill has been there for 38 years now, and that’s a pretty short window of time compared to how long the tribe was there before,” he said, “and how long the tribe is going to be there after the mill, and all of that contamination.”

‘Giant bathtub’

In fall 2009, second-generation mine excavator Mark Kerr scored a gig at the White Mesa mill. The job involved the construction of a 40-acre tailings cell, a sort of retention pond Kerr described as a “giant bathtub in the ground” in which the mill would store its waste product. At nearly $5 million, the contract was a midsize project for Kerr’s company, KGL Associates. But the company was in financial trouble and struggling to make payroll.

“It was a nice job,” Kerr said. “We wanted the job.”

They wanted the job badly enough, transcripts from a later lawsuit suggest, that Kerr likely shaved his bid to razor-thin margins to undercut competitors’ prices.

At first, the job seemed to go as planned. The mill’s engineering contractor, Geosyntec Consultants, had laid out what seemed to be a pretty straightforward process: Kerr’s company was to remove the topsoil for later applications, blast a 40-foot-deep hole in the ground, and then clear away the majority of the debris, leaving at least 3 feet of dirt to line and smooth the bottom of the cell.

About six months in, Kerr received notice from Geosyntec that all the loose debris from the blasting needed to be removed “at no cost to the [mill’s] owner,” according to a May 5 memo.

“And I refused,” Kerr said, estimating that the free rock removal could have cost his company somewhere between $400,000 and $800,000. “I said we’re following the specs. … That’s when further blowups started happening.”

Kerr continued to argue with the mill’s owners and consultants about compensation. The engineers, as Kerr and staff he had on site recall, repeatedly insisted that all loose rock must be removed. If not, Kerr said they told him, the gaps between the rocks could collapse under the weight of the cell when it was filled with water and eventually waste.

Two weeks later, Kerr received a second memo from Geosyntec. He could leave the loose rock in place, but, “to provide a firm and unyielding surface,” the memo states, Kerr’s employees must compact the rock by wetting it down and driving over it repeatedly with heavy machinery.

Again, this memo said the work should be done “at no additional cost.”

Kerr proceeded as directed, but his previous arguments with the engineers weighed on him. A cave-in beneath the cell could puncture the liner that, like a kitchen trash bag, prevents waste from leaking. But unlike a plastic trash bin, the excavated “bathtub” Kerr built would allow liquid waste to escape, potentially polluting the groundwater beneath the mill site. How could he be sure this rock compaction would prevent the mill’s “trash” from poking a hole in the liner?

He began peppering Geosyntec staff with questions via email and through the company’s standard request for information forms. Where is the documentation proving this methodology is safe and effective? Does this meet the requirements of the mill’s operating permits? Do state regulators know about these changes?

Instead of answers, Kerr received a letter from Geosyntec’s attorneys objecting to his use of the request for information process and asking him to “revise or rescind” his questions. “It is not our experience to be cross-examined on the grounds of an engineering determination by means of an [sic] request for information,” the letter states.

Kerr’s company walked off the job a few months after the dispute began, leaving at least 4 acres of the cell covered in loose rock. By August 2010, he said, KGL Associates was broke.

State, federal regulators weigh in

The mill’s current owners, Energy Fuels Resources, consider Kerr’s claims “completely unfounded” but did not answer specific questions.

“KGL is a disgruntled former contractor who walked off the job, owes us a lot of money, and simply appears to be harassing us,” the company’s spokesman, Curtis Moore, said in an email. Kerr, Curtis said, is expressing “sour grapes” after losing a $4 million lawsuit.

That series of court actions began when subcontractors sued the mill for nonpayment, causing the mill to sue Kerr’s KGL.

According to the mill’s complaint, Kerr’s company not only walked away from the project without paying its subcontractors, but also failed to comply with requested changes to the cell, which resulted in construction defects.

A court arbitrator ultimately concluded that Kerr owed the mill nearly $4 million in damages, plus attorney fees. And the arbitrator found that the mill’s decision to withhold payment from Kerr was justified, given his company’s poor performance, which forced Energy Fuels to hire a second contractor to complete and correct KGL’s work, including, Curtis said, the 4 acres Kerr claims remain unfinished.

However, the court laid the blame for any environmental contamination related to the cell’s poor construction at the feet of both parties. “The contamination issue is one of shared fault,” the arbitrator concluded.

Kerr repeatedly appealed until he ran out of money. The judgment against him stands, though his concerns about the excavation remain.

As his case wound through the courts, Kerr began contacting the state Division of Radiation Control. Division engineers, he hoped, would have documentation to prove that the mill had made significant changes to his original job specs. But, in a late 2011 letter, the division told him only that the mill’s engineers had not notified the state of changes in their excavation plan — probably because the changes weren’t considered significant.

Next, Kerr approached the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which conducted a brief investigation and determined his fears were partially substantiated: State regulators needed more stringent requirements when there were changes in construction specifications. The NRC reassured Kerr, however, that Utah had promised to tighten its reporting requirements.

The NRC concluded that the change did not appear to pose a safety concern. According to the agency, state regulators assured federal overseers that their review of the cell’s quality had taken the new excavation methods into account. To Kerr, this assertion flew in the face of the state’s written letter to him that the changes were not reported to the Division of Radiation Control.

A review of the state’s records shows a quality assurance report produced by Geosyntec that describes several changes to the cell’s design, but the change in excavation specifications is not mentioned. And current division leadership continues to hold the position originally stated to Kerr. Any changes were probably deemed by the on-site engineers — including a state engineer — to be insignificant.

“We haven’t seen any issues with the tailings cell since,” said Phil Goble, who oversees the radioactive materials section within the now-combined Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control.

Tribe isn’t convinced

That’s not necessarily the way environmental officials with the Ute Mountain Ute tribe see it. They point to state-collected data that show “a fair amount” of fluid escapes the new cells’ liners and enters a leakage containment system. The fluid has been pumped out and hasn’t entered the environment, but the leaks leave tribal authorities wary.

Even with superior liner technology, “it’s still releasing fluids,” Clow said. “So when we hear that the three legacy cells north of it, which have … inferior liners, that those can’t possibly be leaking, it doesn’t seem to make sense.”

The White Mesa mill sits atop several plumes of groundwater contaminated with heavy metals, including uranium and other concerning pollutants. The pollution predates the construction of the new tailings cells — including the cell Kerr excavated, which is not currently in use. But the contamination is spreading toward the White Mesa community, Clow said, and concentrations of some pollutants are increasing.

The state holds that the contaminants aren’t coming from the mill — or, at least, that there isn’t proof the tailings cells have leaked. The groundwater contains chloroform, which, if consumed, can cause damage to the brain, liver and kidneys, from a metals-testing operation that once operated on the mill site. Employees there used to put the chloroform down the drain, where it entered an unlined septic system that ultimately leaked into the groundwater, Goble said.

A separate plume of nitrates, a class of acidic salts that in certain circumstances may cause cancer, beneath the mill does appear to be a result of what Goble described as “poor housekeeping within the mill.” But it didn’t come from the tailings cells, he said.

And the overall increase of acidity in the water below White Mesa — that’s not coming from the waste cells, either, Goble said, because it occurs in groundwater both uphill and downhill from the cells.

But Clow remains concerned about the rising concentrations of heavy metals, especially those that don’t occur naturally in the White Mesa area.

One of the issues in trying to tie the pollution to the mill, Clow said, is that neither the state nor the tribe — which maintains its own test wells to monitor groundwater independently — has the historic data necessary to make the case that the metals do not occur naturally in the groundwater.

To their credit, Clow said, state scientists have conducted detailed studies and data reviews to try to determine what the area’s background levels may be. Baselines based on these analyses have been established. But when the amount of pollution exceeds the baselines, Clow said, the state has simply invalidated its own baselines and establishes new ones, rather than attempt to regulate the mill.

“The concentrations just go up, and then that’s what they call background,” Clow said, “and that’s where we tend to diverge from the state’s interpretation.”

Asked whether state regulators have revised background levels at White Mesa, Goble explained a legal process by which Energy Fuels could request to have the background information tied to the mill revised. He indicated Energy Fuels has initiated this process, but did not elaborate.

A 2013 letter to Energy Fuels shows the Division of Radiation Control agreed to revise several background levels for groundwater at the site, including the benchmark for uranium. According to the letter, the amount of uranium in the groundwater had increased gradually, but the division agreed with the company that the increase was the result of natural causes.

The tribe also diverges from Utah officials’ assessment of the health risk posed by the contamination. State officials have repeatedly argued that the contaminated water is not used by the tribe — that the community of White Mesa draws its drinking water from a deeper source that remains clean.

While it’s true that the town wells draw from the cleaner, deeper water, Clow said, the tribe worries the drinking water supply could, eventually, become contaminated. And tribal members do use springs fed by the shallow aquifer for traditional ceremonies.

“The statement that the tribe doesn’t use the water … is patently false,” he said. “The tribe was there for centuries before anyone else, and so they have traditionally used those springs and seeps, and collected plants for food and medicine on White Mesa, and harvested animals around White Mesa.”

Town’s troubles

Clow holds that the town of White Mesa, which predated the mill, will surely outlast the operation — and therefore that the mill should be more concerned about potential impacts for thousands of years to come. But the town may not be such a permanent fixture. Its 2010 population of 242 has decreased by half since that tally, according to U.S. Census data.

Despite being a lifelong resident, Badback said she sees no future there for her three sons.

“I encourage my kids to go forward, go out,” she said. “I don’t want them to be stuck in White Mesa.”

While environmental issues are part of her rationale, the town’s economic hardships and poor living conditions also factor in. According to 2016 U.S. Census figures, just 49 percent of the town’s adults are employed; Badback herself is without work. Her own living conditions are better than most, she said — she stays in a five-bedroom house with nine immediate and extended family members. At night, three people sleep in an outbuilding with electricity but no running water.

When the mill first arrived in White Mesa, company officials touted it as a job creator, Badback said. But the mill has only ever employed a handful of tribal members, she said, and the work is unsteady, with frequent layoffs.
Even if there were jobs, Badback said, she would never allow her sons to work at the mill. Her oldest recently moved to New Mexico to find work, and her middle child will soon join him.

Though she would have liked to leave the town as a youth, Badback said she stayed because her grandparents did not speak English and needed an interpreter. She became a caretaker for her mother, who had been the family breadwinner, and then she had children of her own.

These days she’s absorbed with trying to educate her neighbors about the mill. She holds community workshops and leads annual protests. But not everyone in town supports her, citing the civic facilities such as a community recreation center that the mill has donated and its unfulfilled promises about jobs.

Badback doesn’t buy it. Instead, she helps organize surveys to evaluate the health of White Mesa children.

“We only live one time; when we go, we’re not going to come back,” she said. “Our health is more important than a building. A building can stand for many years.”

Arizona’s #nuclearpower caught in crossfire — @HighCountryNews #ActOnClimate

From The High Country News (Elena Saavedra Buckley):

West of Phoenix, Arizona, where cooling towers billow steam into the air, the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station churns out more carbon-free energy than any other power producer in the country. But, in the light of a controversial ballot measure meant to steer Arizona towards renewable energy, Palo Verde’s fate has been caught in the crossfire of a battle between state utilities and environmentalists.

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, a committee backed by former Californian hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, drives the initiative. They submitted over twice the amount of signatures needed to get on the ballot. If successful, the measure would constitutionally require Arizona utilities to use 50 percent renewable resources by 2030, holding them accountable for certain percentages each year. But Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility, funded a lawsuit filed last week against the initiative. The political action group that filed the suit claims most of the signatures are fraudulent, which the initiative denies. The utility has bigger worries than the signatures, though — they’re worried the measure would force Palo Verde to close in six years. An oversupply of solar, they say, would render the plant useless.

“A clean energy future is something we support,” the utility’s spokesperson Jenna Rowell said, “but you get there through a flexible plan.” The utility owns about a third of the plant, which they licensed to operate until the 2040s.

Palo Verde is the nation’s largest power-producing plant. A new ballot initiative could threaten its longevity. Photo credit: By Cuhlik – Own work, Public Domain, ttps://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11039169

In Nevada, an identical, Steyer-backed measure is already on the ballot. If the measures pass in November, the two states will join California as the West’s most ambitious examples of renewable commitment. Whether the measure succeeds will determine a step in the West’s path towards cleaner energy — and whether nuclear power, the country’s stronghold of carbon-free power, will be along for the ride.

On its face, the fight between the Clean Energy initiative and utilities is about the price tag. The Arizona utility claims that customers would see a $1,200 average annual uptick in their bills were the initiative to pass. That prediction is based on estimates done by the utility for solar infrastructure and maintenance costs between now and 2030, Rowell said. The Navajo Nation, whose coal generating plant is on shaky ground, also opposes the initiative because of its rumored rate hikes.

The Clean Energy committee disputes the $1,200 figure, saying solar would be cheaper for customers. Wesley Herche, an energy researcher at Arizona State University, released a study that found no correlation between renewable standards and rate increases in U.S. states. He said that solar prices have dropped more than four times what they were in 2006, when Arizona first committed to a renewable standard of 15 percent by 2025.

The two sides agree on little about the measure’s possible effects. Herche said that it’s difficult to convince old-guard utilities, especially those with financial stakes and decades-long commitments to plants like Palo Verde, to pivot to fast-changing renewables technology.

“If you’re a company that operates one way, and you’ve always operated that way, it’s hard to all of a sudden to ask them to change, to be nimble, to be Silicon Valley-like,” he said.

As the lawsuit stymies the ballot measure, Palo Verde’s future is a loose end. Arizona Public Service says the plant will shut down if the measure succeeds. If it closes, thousands of employees would lose their jobs. But the Clean Energy group points to predictions that say the plant could stay open even if the measure passes.

Beyond Arizona, nuclear energy’s place in the carbon-free future of the West is an open question. In California, whose renewable goal is already 50 percent by 2030, nuclear plants have closed decades before their licensed expiration dates, struggling to compete with cheaper natural gas and solar. Whether nuclear plants should stay open as a stable alternative to fossil fuels divides environmentalists. Amanda Ormond of the Western Grid Group, which promotes incorporating clean energy into the grid, thinks nuclear power is an obstacle to a functional renewable future.

“Transitions have costs, and this is a huge transition,” Ormond said of the ballot measure’s proposals. “Palo Verde might close anyway. It’s an inflexible, expensive resource, and it will face the consequences of any resource.”

In the meantime, a utility regulator has proposed an alternate clean energy plan to the Arizona Corporation Commission, the organization that regulates the state’s utilities. Commissioner Andy Tobin wants to require utilities to meet an 80 percent target, including nuclear, by 2050. “The one thing I know about energy right now is that everything is uncertain,” Tobin said. He wants his plan to push clean energy without amending the constitution.

Time and legislative obstacles stand in the way of the Clean Energy initiative. But even if it fails, numbers show that Arizona voters are ready for renewables — in two recent polls, Arizonans wanted their state to prioritize solar power over all other resources. “We’re moving to renewable energy,” Ormond. “The question is how fast.”

Elena Saavedra Buckley is an editorial intern at High Country News.