Every year in October, the California State Bar Environmental Law Section hosts a three-day conference on the outskirts of Yosemite, attracting prominent lawyers, advocates, and public officials from all over the state. This past weekend, at the traditional Saturday night banquet, famed climate activist Bill McKibben was the speaker. Unfortunately at the last minute he couldn’t attend in person, but in his videotaped remarks, he commented on all the good things California is doing on the environment. However, he urged attendees to stop the state from taking a leading role in fracking, the destructive process of harvesting and then burning the last drops of oil and gasps of natural gas from underground rock.
McKibben could be forgiven for not realizing that there were a number of lawyers in the room who are dedicated to helping their oil and gas clients frack to their hearts’ content. After all, it is an “environmental” law conference, right? McKibben is not the first outside speaker at the conference to make that mistake. And he’s probably not the first person to hear someone introduce themselves as an environmental lawyer and assume that he or she is working to protect the environment, when in fact that person is working with clients who are hurting the environment.
The problem is the terminology. “Environmental” sounds benign, and it’s closely linked to “environmentalism,” which people associate as a movement to protect the environment. But calling a lawyer dedicated to helping their client frack (or pollute generally or stop environmentally beneficial projects) is like calling Kim Jong Un an expert in human rights law and policy.
Given the dynamic, it’s time to change the name of this legal field to a term that is less value-laden and misleading. My pick would be to rename it “resources” law. While many lawyers in the field associate “resources” with only one aspect of the practice, namely the forest and mineral-type part of it, there’s no reason the term needs to be defined so narrowly. Ultimately, everyone in this profession is fighting over natural resources, whether it’s air, land, chemicals, or water. And members of the general public would not assume that a “resources” attorney is either doing protective or destructive work when it comes to the environment.
I don’t mean to propose this change out of a sense of righteousness. After all, I fill up my gas car at Chevron; my carbon footprint is probably bigger than most people on Earth. And the law schools where I work are not immune to this criticism: our “environmental” law courses are training a significant number of students to counsel clients involved in damaging the environment.
But I believe words matter and that we have an obligation to be honest with the public and Bill McKibbens of the world — let alone ourselves. After all, when I get my gas at Chevron, I don’t tell everyone that I’m engaging in an “environmental” activity. And lawyers should stop pretending the same about what happens in this field.
Join me and author Tom Zoellner on Monday November 3rd at 7pm for a discussion that asks: “Are Trains the Future of L.A.?” The event is hosted by Zocalo Public Square and will take place at Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles (317 S. Broadway). From the blurb:
For a century, the hearts of Angelenos have belonged to cars and to flying machines, not trains–even though we never would have become a city without the railroad, and couldn’t survive as a global trade center without the rail links to our seaports. But today, in a potentially historic shift, Southern California governments are betting billions that trains can win us over. Five rail lines are under construction right now in L.A., part of a 30-year wave of projects that could give Southern California the most highly developed rail system in the country, save New York. But will we go along for the ride? Only a small percentage of us use the Metro rail regularly, and California’s high-speed rail project is unpopular in L.A. Will we change our ways and depend on trains daily–and embrace development around rail networks? What is it about rail that captures people’s hearts–and why has L.A. remained immune to this almost universally beloved mode of transport? Journalist and Chapman University English scholar Tom Zoellner, author of Train, and UCLA and UC Berkeley legal, business, and environmental scholar Ethan Elkind, author of Railtown, visit Zócalo to discuss the past and future of trains here, and whether Los Angeles will finally fall for rail.
You can get more information and register for the free event here. Hope to see you there!
Brad Plumer at vox.com describes why solar panels are getting cheaper. Interestingly, it’s no longer due to the glut in supply from Chinese overproduction and subsidies:
1) Solar modules are getting more efficient. “This doesn’t necessarily make the modules themselves cheaper,” [GTM Senior Vice President Shayle] Kann says. “But as modules get more efficient, you can get the same amount of power in a smaller area of your roof, which makes it easier to install, you need less racking and wiring, and it saves money on balance-of-systems costs.”
2) System manufacturers are facing pressure to cut costs. Again, back in 2008 to 2012, panel manufacturers faced a lot of competition and pressure to cut costs. Nowadays, that same pressure applies to the people making other parts of solar systems — the racking, for instance.
3) Economies of scale. Historically, the residential solar market consisted of thousands of small local installers who had high costs for finding new customers. But nowadays, the rooftop solar industry is dominated by some large companies — particularly SolarCity and Vivint, who had half the rooftop market in the second quarter of 2014. “So as the big guys gain more scale,” Kann says, “you see some savings out of that.”
Looming ahead is the planned expiration of the 30% investor tax credit at the end of 2016 for all residential owners (it drops to 10% for third-party installers like SolarCity). My hope is the renewable lobby will successfully extend it. With prices coming down, the need for a 30% credit will probably be lessened. But some kind of diminishing tax credit will be important to maintain, especially as long as dirty power producers get to pollute for free.
TED Ed explains how playing a musical instrument gives you an awesome brain work-out:
It’s commonly accepted that millennials (those born between 1983 and 2000) are driving less than previous generations, contributing to a multiyear drop in per capita vehicle miles traveled in the US. But why exactly are they driving less? And will the trend hold as they age? The answers carry huge policy implications, particularly for our transportation and land use decision-making. Both processes put in place infrastructure designed to last decades.
Emily Badger at the Washington Post tackles this question. Her basic conclusion is that it’s likely a mix of factors, from a down economy to the rise of technology (mainly smart phones) to a cultural shift about cars. And of course, more study will be needed to see how permanent the shifts are over time.
One interesting economic factor she cites is that the high cost of living may force millennials to cut back on transportation expenses. So could our restrictive local housing policies actually be creating a culture that demands more urban housing? There’s some irony in that outcome, if that’s the case.
While we have to take a wait-and-see attitude, one finding is already clear to have long-lasting import: millennials simply don’t identify cars with status like previous generations. Their whole attitude about driving seems markedly different, since they’ve never known cheap gas and only know traffic.
Policy makers should certainly take note of this cultural and generational shift — and design our urban spaces and transportation infrastructure accordingly.
The (aptly named) Union of Concerned Scientists released a report this week showing that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new power plant rule sets a national renewable energy target that is barely above federal business-as-usual projections.
This rule was supposed to be one of the Obama Administration’s signature climate change achievements, issued under the Clean Air Act pursuant to a 2007 Supreme Court decision requiring it. So what gives? As one of the study researchers commented:
“The EPA was obviously feeling pressure from Congress and states over the rule and wanted to come up with something they thought would be defensible,” Steve Clemmer, director of energy research at UCS, told ThinkProgress. “I think they ended up erring too far on the side of being conservative about renewables. When the EIA — not an agency that’s seen as being optimistic about renewables — says we’re going to pretty much get to that level without the Clean Power Plan, that’s pretty pessimistic and unrealistic really.”
Given that the rule is still in draft stage, there is time to improve it. The study authors recommend that EPA bump up the renewable goal considerably, noting that states can cost-effectively produce nearly twice as much renewable electricity as the agency calculated. And it’s worth keeping in mind that the renewable energy target is only one part of the rule, which also includes energy efficiency and other greenhouse gas-reducing measures.
Given the environmental weakness of this part of EPA’s draft regulation, it’s ironic that congressional Republicans are complaining that EPA worked too closely with environmentalists in crafting it. For my part, I certainly hope EPA will be more receptive to input on this issue from the environmental community going forward.
The California Supreme Court today denied review of an appeal to an earlier ruling that allowed the system to begin construction. I reviewed that earlier decision here. With this victory, the High Speed Rail Authority should have clear skies for a while on the bigger picture questions related to the system. Of course, hundreds of lawsuits will persist on micro-issues, such as specific route alignment and the like.
But the one looming challenge will come when the Authority releases its final funding plan in the next few years. In order to cut costs and gain crucial political support from certain local elected officials (I’m looking at you, Supervisor Antonovich in Los Angeles County), the Authority made a number of compromises that will slow the train down between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Normally that kind of outcome is not a big deal, but the 2008 ballot measure that voters approved to launch the system requires a 2 hour 40 minute travel time between those two cities — nothing longer. The trial court will be investigating that prospect in the second phase of the litigation that gave rise to this appeal.
High speed rail backers are in a tough spot: a big infrastructure project like this one requires a lot of political compromise and flexibility. Yet voters baked in a host of detailed requirements in the 2008 initiative. While I understand the desire to ensure oversight and certain outcomes in such a measure, if read by the courts too rigidly, the ballot language will likely make the implementation of high speed rail practically impossible.
So far only the trial court judge has taken such a rigid approach, while the appellate and supreme courts have offered more leeway. But the decisions put the Authority on notice that the courts will be watching going forward. Of course, by that point it may be too late to halt or modify the project. So we’ll have to stay tuned to see how well the Authority ensure that high speed rail stays true to the 2008 vision put before the voters.
Back in 2011, California regulators banned the state’s electric utilities from owning and operating electric vehicle charging equipment. Part of the logic was that utilities would crowd out innovation, using their monopoly power and capital resources to dominate the market.
But so far, electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the state is rolling out poorly. eVgo, the company that received a $100 million state mandate to deploy charging infrastructure, is way behind schedule. Many existing charging stations are crowded and too few and far between, while the equipment is unreliable and often unavailable when you need it. Meanwhile, competing charging companies have developed cumbersome “networks” that you have to sign up for in order to access their chargers, instead of just having a simple, universal payment method like a gas station credit card reader.
So is it time to call in the cavalry (i.e. utilities) to flood the market with cheap charging? San Diego Gas & Electric would certainly like to get that call. The company recently proposed a “pilot project” that looks more like a large-scale EV charging effort:
The [vehicle-grid integration] pilot is an “innovative hourly time-variant rate and associated grid-beneficial charging infrastructure,” SDG&E said, calling for authorization to develop 5,500 charging stations targeting multi-family dwellings and workplaces between 2015 and 2025. The VGI pilot would require approximately $59 million in capital costs and $44 million in operations and maintenance over the life of the project.
The California Public Utilities Commission has punted consideration of this pilot to the larger proceeding dealing with the question of electric utility involvement in charging more generally. That proceeding may issue a ruling in December.
From my perspective, the current charging infrastructure is inadequate and frustrating. Limited involvement by utilities might be welcome, provided that it’s done on a small scale to make sure we don’t unleash a beast. Perhaps the SDG&E pilot, or a smaller version of it, could be a good first step. The ultimate resolution of these issues will of course depend on careful fact-finding at the proceeding and input from stakeholders. But the bottom-line focus should be on the provision of cheap, reliable, ubiquitous, and easy-to-use charging for EV drivers.
A long time ago, somebody in some room somewhere came up with minimum parking requirements. Those random formulas soon became boilerplate code for cities and counties across America, regardless of how much people actually needed the expensive-to-build parking spots. The problem is particularly acute near transit, where cars are by definition less necessary.
As I blogged back in 2012 about a profile on UCLA parking guru Don Shoup, the requirements are stunning in their mindlessness:
Funeral parlors? A basic formula is eight parking spaces plus one for each hearse. Convents? One-tenth of a space per nun is fine. Adult bookstores? One space for every prospective patron plus one for the cashier holding the longest shift (no mention of the flasher in the alley). Public swimming pools? One space for every 2,500 gallons of water on the premises, chlorine included.
But it looks like Miami, the U.S. city most likely to be the first to fall to climate change, is pioneering a more rational, albeit baby-step reform. A proposed zoning change would eliminate parking minimums for buildings under 10,000 square feet near public transit. To be clear, developers could build or contract for more parking if the market demanded it. The upshot of removing pointless parking is cheaper housing and rents for everyone.
The Miami Herald published an effective op-ed from young professionals couching the parking requirement as part of the overall mismatch between land use policy and emerging demand:
What baffles us most is why housing targeted to our generation should be required to have parking at all. Our grandparents’ love affair with the car is outdated. We don’t want to spend all our money buying and maintaining a car. We don’t want the guilt of contributing to air pollution and energy consumption. We don’t want to worry about having a designated driver. And we definitely don’t want to grow old waiting in traffic.
If Florida can pioneer this move from Golden Girls-era parking to a more contemporary policy approach, perhaps other cities and states around the country will follow suit.
Auto dealerships may be falling down on the job when it comes to selling electric vehicles. A new policy brief by UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and Economy analyzed consumer surveys and conducted interviews with automakers and dealers. The report reveals:
large across the board deficits on every facet of the [electric vehicle] purchase experience, notably salesperson knowledge and expertise about the vehicle.
Tesla was the notable exception. The company has made headlines fighting state-level policies that restrict automakers from direct sales to customers, and this survey indicates why: Tesla can do a much better job selling their cars than a disinterested franchise dealer. As the report notes,
Tesla’s elimination of steps that add little or no value at the retail facility (e.g. price negotiations, paperwork, and waiting) shifts efforts toward more PEV-specific support that likely bolsters customer satisfaction scores.
I’m not surprised by the negative findings. I found a similar dynamic when I researched electric vehicle policies in Hawaii. Many sales reps there were unfamiliar with electric vehicles and not motivated to sell them. They couldn’t answer basic questions about how the vehicles perform. In one case, a dealer owner on the Big Island was apparently openly hostile to the idea of electric vehicles and refused to sell them at all, despite the strong economics there (he’s since reversed course and is now selling them). By contrast, when I leased my electric vehicle from a California dealer that was a top-seller for EVs, the salespeople were very knowledgeable and helpful.
If automakers are serious about selling electric vehicles, they need to work the carrots and sticks to get their dealers familiar with the cars and motivated to sell them. At a minimum, at least one sales rep on-site needs to drive one for an extended period of time. Only through consistent use can they 1) understand the challenges and options available and 2) develop a feel for the positives these cars bring to the driving experience.