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Environmental Thanksgiving

Dan Farber at Legal Planet posts his Top 10 things to be thankful for when it comes to the environment:

10. Nicaragua and Syria have joined the Paris Agreement, leaving the U.S. as the only outlier.

9. Some countries and car companies have announced plans to phase out gasoline vehicles.

8.  The new governors of New Jersey and Virginia are committed to fighting climate change.

7.  Tens of thousands of Americans have lined up to support environmental groups opposing You Know Who’s Administration.

6.  States from California to New York have strengthened their own climate change policies in direct response to the Administration.

5. China and the EU have remained firm in their support for the Paris Agreement.

4. The courts seem determined to rigorously review Administration actions.

3. China is about to announce its cap-and-trade plan, and may already have reached peak coal use.

2. Solar and wind prices are continuing to fall, making coal less and less competitive.

1.  There’s another presidential election in three years.

It’s a solid list. I would add two more: the price of electric vehicle batteries is falling rapidly, with two mass-market affordable EVs on the market (Chevy Bolt and the Tesla Model 3). And the congressional election is in less than a year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Lessons From The Maryland Purple Line Rail Fight

The Purple Line light rail is finally underway in the Maryland inner suburbs around Washington DC, after a 31-year battle by neighborhood residents to get it built. It’s a badly needed light rail connector between two spokes of the Metro heavy rail lines, running through very transit-dependent areas (see map above).

Ben Ross was one of its chief advocates as an activist resident. He summarized some of the lessons the grassroots coalition learned in their three decade fight, which I distill here:

  • Democracy still works: grassroots organizing and mobilization defeated well-heeled property owners.
  • Think big: the bigger the project proposal, the greater the coalition in support became, featuring an alliance of business, labor, environmentalists, and civic groups as well as transit advocates.
  • Go on the offensive: forget the active opponents of a controversial project, mobilize supporters and convince the undecided with a positive message about the many benefits and forget point-by-point rebuttals of their arguments.
  • Avoid preemptive concessions: Ross writes, “When the critics object to the project itself, changes they suggest will not end their opposition, and they will make it harder to build support by lessening the project’s value.”

That last bit of advice probably would have been helpful for the Obama White House negotiators on the Affordable Care Act, who accepted numerous Republican amendments on the bill without getting their votes and instead alienated their base supporters from the bill.

Overall, the lessons learned in Maryland with the Purple Line could apply to transit and infill housing backers in almost any community.

Cheapest Way To Meet 2030 Climate Goals: Electrify More Vehicles, Furnaces & Water Heaters

California’s 2030 climate goals will be a big step forward for the state. We’re already making good progress achieving our 2020 goals (to return to 1990 levels of carbon emissions), with the state likely to hit that goal a bit early thanks to the global recession and the plummeting price of renewables.  But the 2030 goals require an additional 5% reduction per year in emissions for the 2020s, to reduce our levels 40% below 1990 emissions. That’s a tall order.

Electric utilities will be a big part of the solution, but not just because of their efforts to decarbonize the electricity supply. They’re also needed to expand the kinds of things that can run on electricity instead of petroleum or natural gas.

Southern California Edison makes that case and puts numbers behind it, in a recent white paper the utility commissioned, per E&E news:

SCE used an analysis from the consulting firm E3 that found the cheapest of three pathways to meeting the state’s 2030 emissions goals entails electrifying 24 percent of light-duty vehicles and 15 percent of medium-duty vehicles, in addition to reaching an 80 percent carbon-free electricity target. It also would require 30 percent of residential and commercial water and space heaters to run on electricity rather than gas.

This pathway seems achievable at a reasonable cost, given the advances in battery technologies on the vehicle side. Still, we will need to keep the federal tax credit in place or find a viable substitute to keep demand for EVs strong in the short run.

On the furnace and water heating side, we’ll need some new, cheaper products to wean buildings off of natural gas and onto clean electricity. But the good news is that achieving the 80% carbon-free electricity goal by 2030 may not be so daunting, given that we may be on track for 60% renewables by 2030 anyway, plus all the large hydropower that doesn’t count under the renewables mandate.

As always with the future, there are plenty of variables and unknowns. But California’s progress to date on clean tech gives us a clear idea of what’s needed — and what the costs may be — to achieve the 2030 goals.

California’s Real Gas Tax May Be From Industry Profiteering

A bipartisan super-majority of California legislators took a courageous step this year to pass SB 1 (Beall), which raises the gas tax and vehicle license fees to help pay for backlogged repairs to our crumbling transportation infrastructure. Opponents are now mobilizing for a recall campaign against state senator Josh Newman of Orange County over the vote and to repeal the legislation by voter initiative.

But UC Berkeley energy economist Severin Borenstein makes the case that the gas tax increase may pale in comparison to possible price gouging by the oil industry:

It’s been 32 months now, and Californians continue to pay at least 20 cents per gallon more than our higher taxes, greenhouse gas fees (cap and trade and the low-carbon fuel standard), and production costs could explain. Throughout that time, I was a member of the California Energy Commission’s Petroleum Market Advisory Committee, a panel of independent energy market experts, and I chaired the committee starting in August 2015.

The PMAC issued its final report last month. It highlighted the unexplained price premium … that has hit Californians since mid-February 2015, amounting to $12 billion — or $1,200 for a typical family of four — in excess payments over the last two and a half years. Those extra payments continue today at a rate of about $3 billion per year, nearly twice the cost of Wednesday’s gas tax increase.

And unlike the extra tax revenue, this money is not going to fix any roads or bridges.

When Borenstein’s state-organized committee tried to make recommendations to investigate the surcharge, they got nowhere with the legislature:

The PMAC discussed both profiteering and infrastructure constraints on production and imports. But the final report concluded that the committee had been given neither the authority, nor the resources, to fully investigate and determine the cause of the mystery surcharge. The committee had no budget allocation, was assigned less than one full-time staff person, and had no power to compel cooperation from industry.

The committee urged the State to commit serious time and resources to unpack the reasons for the new normal of higher payments to gasoline sellers. So far, there is no sign of an appetite in Sacramento for such an investigation, even as we re-argue the case for and against increasing gas taxes to maintain roads and bridges.

So perhaps the real scandal here isn’t the legislature’s efforts to address our crumbling roads, bridges and transit systems — but rather it’s unwillingness to find out why the oil industry is charging California drivers so much for gasoline.

And in the meantime, California drivers (at least those who aren’t driving electric) are paying the price for this inaction.

Rebuilding Fire-Ravaged Northern California Sustainably — Tonight On City Visions

The wildfires that devastated Northern California this month claimed over 40 lives and nearly 9000 structures. But as businesses reopen and people return to their neighborhoods, what is being done to ensure future resilience in our fire-prone communities?

Should we rebuild in the same way, or allow more walkable, compact development? What role does water management play in the rebuilding effort?  And how can you prevent fire damage to your home and property?

Join me tonight on City Visions as I discuss these issues with:

You can tune in on KALW 91.7 FM in the San Francisco Bay Area at 7pm or stream live on the web. Hope you can join the conversation with your questions and comments!

Pro-Trump California Farmers Now Suffer From Labor Shortage

We need productive farms in California to provide local food, help the economy in one of the poorest regions in the country, and as a buffer against continued sprawl. So it’s both environmentally and politically significant that the president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, Paul Wenger, penned an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle complaining about labor shortages:

On my farm near Modesto, where I grow almonds and walnuts, I’ve had trouble hiring enough people to tend and harvest my crops. And I’m far from alone: Around California, farmers and ranchers report chronic problems in finding and hiring qualified and willing people to work in agriculture.

The California Farm Bureau Federation — a membership association representing farmers and ranchers — conducted an informal survey of our members. It showed more than half of responding farmers experienced employee shortages during the past year. The figure was higher among farmers who employ people on a seasonal basis — 69 percent of those farmers reported shortages.

Wenger goes on to describe how farmers have offered higher wages, benefits and more year-round jobs. But because farmers depend on an immigrant workforce, these businesses have been hit hard by the federal crackdown on immigration, now intensified under Trump, as well as increasing living standards and lower birthrates in Mexico.

Yet many in this industry, which is generally very Republican, backed Trump in the last election.  And their preferred candidate’s policies and rhetoric now appear to be hurting their business:

We’ve been asked many times if the Trump administration’s immigration policies contribute to the shortages. We’re not exactly sure at this point. Our survey results found that a number of farmers reported their employees are increasingly concerned about immigration enforcement and may be more reluctant to move from job to job. Although we’re not aware of any significant increase in enforcement activity on California farms, the atmosphere has certainly changed.

Successful farms are important to California’s way of life and to guard against sprawl. If continued economic pressure on them motivates more to sell out to developers and stop growing our food, we’ll all be worse off for it.

And for more on low-carbon agriculture and policies to encourage it, check out our Berkeley/UCLA Law report Room to Grow:

California’s Fast Food Grease Is Powering Clean Transportation

Your high carb diet may be helping California achieve a low-carbon future. The state’s aggressive low-carbon fuels mandates have increasingly encouraged large-scale fuel consumers to purchase biofuels from restaurant “brown grease” in order to meet the requirements.

This renewable diesel from plants and animal fat can be used without blending because of its similar properties to petroleum diesel (see our Planting Fuels report for more information). Biodiesel, on the other hand, is more limited, as it typically maxes out at 20 percent as a blended fuel with petroleum, due to automaker restrictions.

While the state aims for a future of battery-powered vehicles to reduce transportation emissions, biofuels like renewable diesel are currently picking up most of the slack. As Robert Tuttle in Bloomberg describes:

In recent years, cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, and San Diego, as well as Sacramento County, have transitioned to using renewable diesel to power buses, fire engines and other city vehicles. Alphabet Inc.’s shuttle buses in Silicon Valley also burn it, and UPS said two years ago that it would buy 46 million gallons of the fuel to run its fleet of delivery trucks.

As the article shows in the chart below, the result of this readily available, if not unhealthy, feedstock is a growing percentage of brown grease-based renewable diesel offsetting petroleum fuel usage:

Of course, meat-heavy diets are making climate change worse. But at least in the short run, this is one fat solution to the problem.

San Francisco Will Test Supreme Court’s “Hole” In Prop 13 & 218 Restrictions On Local Tax Increases

Back in August, the California Supreme Court potentially “ripped a huge hole” in Prop 13 and 218, the two constitutional initiatives in the state that force a two-thirds majority requirement on any local tax measures. In California Cannabis Coalition vs. City of Upland, the court held that “general taxes” initiated by citizens can now be approved with a simple majority vote.

While the court apparently attempted to limit the decision just to “general taxes,” the reasoning implies that all citizen-initiated taxes only require 50% + 1 for approval, including special taxes like for transit or housing (i.e. for a specific purpose and not for general revenue for the government). CalMatters has a nice summary of the legal and political situation that ensues from this decision.

And now here comes San Francisco to test that broad interpretation. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, backers of a city ballot measure to divert more than half of San Francisco’s hotel-tax revenue for arts programs and homeless family services lost last year with a majority in favor — but not two-thirds.

But based on a new legal opinion by City Attorney Dennis Herrera, they can now try again and get approval with a simple majority vote.  Herrera’s office informed the Elections Department that “the Court’s analysis and reasoning [in California Cannabis] also appear to apply to the two-thirds voting requirements for special taxes” like the one that lost last year.

But Herrera concedes that “future litigation, legislation, or a ballot measure to amend the State Constitution to address the California Cannabis decision may resolve this issue with more certainty.”

And if this measure is eventually approved by the voters with less than a two-thirds majority, Herrera may have just guaranteed that it becomes his predicted test case to resolve the issue.


Electric Airplanes: Quieter, Cleaner, And Coming Soon?

The sky may be the actual limit when it comes to what types of transportation we can electrify. We know electrification is a great fit for passenger vehicles.  But trucking and aviation are iffy for battery electric transport, as the weight of the battery doesn’t work so well for powering long-distance trips.

But short-haul trips may be another matter. A company in the United Kingdom wants to electrify short plane trips from places like London to Paris and Amsterdam, per the Guardian:

Carolyn McCall, easyJet’s chief executive, said the aerospace industry would follow the lead of the automotive industry in developing electric engines that would cut emissions and noise.

“For the first time in my career I can envisage a future without jet fuel and we are excited to be part of it,” she said. “It is now more a matter of when, not if, a short-haul electric plane will fly.”

The airline said it was the next step in making the airline less harmful for the environment, after cutting carbon emissions per passenger kilometre by 31% between 2000 and 2016.

Wright Electric claims that electric planes will be 50% quieter and 10% cheaper for airlines to buy and operate, with the cost saving potentially passed on to passengers.

It’s pretty amazing to imagine the reduction in noise and air pollution from electric airplanes. Like trucking, other fuels will be needed for long trips (ideally low-carbon biofuels). But short-haul electric flights may be an idea ready to take off soon.

What To Make Of Columbus

Today is Columbus Day, or as more places are calling it: “Indigenous People’s Day.” I support this terminology change, as the brutal impact of Columbus’s journey on Native Americans (throughout both continents) is too often overlooked by the dominant culture.  Case in point: we still regularly use terms like “settler” and “colonialism” rather than more straightforward terms like “invasion.”

But I didn’t totally agree with this short, entertaining video takedown of Columbus by “Adam Ruins Everything” from College Humor, which is making the internet rounds today:

A lot of the points in the video are accurate. And I’m glad a spotlight is being shone on Columbus’s foibles and cruelty.  But some context would be helpful.

First, Columbus was a master navigator, and his achievement of sailing from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean is a legitimate one.  It’s supposedly the route that sailors still take today.

Second, the idea that Columbus was a “footnote” in history until Washington Irving wrote about him, as the video argues, was not by accident: the Spanish tried hard to keep their “discovery” a secret from other European powers.  They wanted monopoly access to the Americas. As a result, Columbus was not celebrated or promoted officially during his time (actually, it’s even worse than that: Columbus was evidently such an autocrat and tyrant that his crew eventually had him sent back to Spain in chains below deck).

Finally, like it or not, Columbus’s voyage set in motion a massive invasion from Europe (and Asia) into the Americas.  While other Europeans had made it to the Americas before, none generated a lasting wave of migration like what Columbus’s voyage did.

That’s not to say that the impact was all because of Columbus: Spain was financially, technologically and politically ready to capitalize on its discovery.  But Columbus’s voyage was a cataclysmic and world-changing event that is worth being remembered and honored.  Just not by idolizing the flawed man at the center of it.

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