July 28, 2015

Member responses on Air District refinery emission regulations

We asked Sierra Club members to share their thoughts on the pressing issue of the regulation of refinery emissions at the local level by responding to the following prompt:

What would you tell Bay Area air regulators about why putting a cap on pollution coming from refineries is vital both for protecting our climate and maintaining the well-being of our communities?

Here are some of your replies:

Amy Robinson, member since 2012

“As a science educator for the West Contra Costa district for the last two years I have noticed a much larger group of my students suffer from respiratory difficulties than in other places I have taught. My students live in the shadow of the refinery and I smell fumes from the refinery as I drive to work… the large number of students with respiratory problems is not a coincidence.”

Mary Ellen (Mel) Harte, Ph. D., member since 1975

“Capping local refinery greenhouse gas emissions improves air quality, community health, shows how communities can address climate change effectively, and translates into economic boosts. Better air, health, climate and economy: 4 wins for the Bay Area!”

Sylvia Augustiniok, member since 1997

“I do not want to end up moaning ‘I can’t breathe.’”

Maureen Lahiff, member since 1985

“As a lecturer in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley, I have seen an overwhelming amount of data about the adverse health effects for both young and old from power plant emissions.”

Thomas Tereszkiewicz, member since 1994

“Bottom line is that they need to continue refining oil but need to do it as cleanly as possible for the health of all of us.”

— Reader responses compiled by Aya Kusch

Will the Air District fulfill its mandate and regulate greenhouse gas emissions?

11023439_10152704280007723_3911258114042743777_nLast October, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) adopted a resolution that seeks to “further protect Bay Area communities by committing the agency to develop a strategy to achieve further emission reductions from oil refineries.” While this resolution was certainly a step in the right direction, the Sierra Club, along with other environmental activists and community allies, have been working hard to ensure that the BAAQMD Board of Directors implements effective, meaningful rules to achieve the goals of this resolution.

Me TemplateBAAQMD is the regional government agency that regulates sources of air pollution within the nine San Francisco Bay Area counties. It is governed by a Board of Directors composed of 22 elected officials from each of those nine Bay Area counties. The Board is tasked with the duty of adopting air pollution regulations for the district. Their overarching mission statement is “to protect and improve public health, air quality and the global climate”; their vision is “a healthy breathing environment for every Bay Area resident.” BAAQMD has the authority to regulate emissions from stationary sources within the district, including industrial plants and oil refineries.

Having committed itself to real change with its October resolution, BAAQMD has an opportunity to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases (including methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide) that the five Bay Area oil refineries currently emit. While emissions of greenhouse gases have steadily gone down at the state level, greenhouse gas levels in the Bay Area continue to rise, in no small part due to our local refineries. However, the BAAQMD rules as drafted currently only address the emissions of the six commonly found “criteria” pollutants: carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide. Although both the BAAQMD Board of Directors and the staff have acknowledged they have the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from refineries, the proposed rules nevertheless fail to address them.

Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, warming the planet and causing global climate disruption. By failing to address greenhouse gases in its proposed emissions regulations, BAAQMD is condemning the Bay Area to longer and more severe droughts and wildfire seasons, sea-level rise that displaces shoreline communities and ecosystems, and greater respiratory health risks for sensitive populations. BAAQMD has a duty to adopt air quality regulations that protect public health and the global climate — but so far it’s falling far short of fulfilling that responsibility.

Not surprisingly, a big part of the reason greenhouse gas emissions have been omitted from these rules stems from fierce lobbying by the oil industry. The fossil fuel industry takes the stance that greenhouse gases should be exclusively regulated at the state level — not the local level. The problem with relying exclusively on state regulation of greenhouse gases is a result of the cap-and-trade program established in California by AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. Stated simply, without stricter local rules on greenhouse gas emissions, Bay Area oil refineries will be allowed to pollute a limitless amount of greenhouse gases, because they are able to pay other firms in different parts of the state to cut back on their emissions. As a result, AB 32’s cap-and-trade program does nothing to alleviate the ever-increasing amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the Bay Area.

In order for its October 2014 resolution to have real meaning, BAAQMD needs to step up and set numerical limits on greenhouse gas emissions for refineries. BAAQMD’s Southern California counterpart, SCAQMD, has already adopted similar rules that have proven effective at reducing greenhouse gas pollution in industrial communities.

WhatYouCanDo

BAAQMD’s next board meeting will be on Wednesday, July 29th, at 9 am at 939 Ellis Street in San Francisco. We encourage you to voice your opinion by making a public comment at that meeting. RSVP here. Please check the event page before the event to make sure there have been no changes to the schedule. With questions or to volunteer, email ratha.lai@sierraclub.org.

— Hilliary Powell

The fight continues to protect Alameda County from Big Oil

10330498_624973077601777_5269613096295885824_nYour help is needed to fight Big Oil, especially if you live in Alameda’s East County. Activists in the East Bay have been working for over a year now to ensure that residents, including vineyard owners, growers, and ranchers, who make a living from the land, don’t have to share the water, the soil, or the air with oil extractors. Oil fields are inherently bad neighbors — dirty, noisy, 24/7 industrial operations that don’t belong anywhere near our homes, schools, water supplies, wildlife, or the fields growing the food we eat.

The original objective of our campaign was to ban fracking in Alameda County. But fracking is only one example of an extreme oil-recovery method. So a much “cleaner” proposal emerged from a comprehensive review by County planners responding to a request from the Board of Supervisors: remove all new and expanded extraction from the list of permitted activities in unincorporated areas of the County.

The opposition hasn’t given up. Industry group pushback appears to be behind the drafting of a new proposal that would leave the County vulnerable to the whims of mineral-rights holders and oil companies.

The opposition includes the California Cattlemen’s Association, Californians for Energy Independence (an oil-company-founded and funded group), and the existing local well operator, E&B Natural Resources. It’s worth noting that E&B Natural Resources’ operations in the Central Valley have been in the news this year; it is one of several firms required by the state to shut down wastewater injection wells out of fear they may be contaminating groundwater, and one of four firms being sued by a farmer for possibly contaminating his irrigation water, leading to the loss of over 3,000 cherry trees.

Oil extraction is incompatible with public health and safety. And it specifically runs counter to County objectives to protect and promote agriculture, making the Livermore area a clean and green tourist destination.

Please add your name to our online petition! Even better, have your community group, business association, union, or other organization write a letter to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors supporting an oil-free county! Send your letters to:

c/o Bruce Jensen
Alameda County Planning Department
Alameda County Administration Building
224 West Winton Avenue, Rm. 111
Hayward, CA 94544

Or contact Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who represents most of the East County, or other member of the Board of Supervisors directly:

  • Scott Haggerty (District 1): 510-272-6691
  • Richard Valle (District 2): 510-272-6692
  • Wilma Chan (District 3): 510-272-6693
  • Nate Miley (District 4): 510-272-6694
  • Keith Carson (District 5): 510-272-6695

We don’t have a firm date for when the matter will be considered by either the Transportation and Planning Committee or the full Board of Supervisors. When we know, we’ll post it here and on the campaign’s Facebook page. Follow us for updates!

— Rebecca Franke

Pittsburg WesPac oil project looms again

Photo by Steve Nadel.

Photo by Steve Nadel.

About this time two years ago, Bay Area climate activists learned about a new oil terminal proposed for Pittsburg, CA. A successful coalition effort succeeded in delaying the project. But an altered proposal is now back on the table and it’s time to join together to make sure this major new oil-infrastructure project is stopped for good.

The oil transfer and storage facility, proposed by oil-infrastructure company WesPac, would be built within 200 feet of homes, schools, and churches; re-use dilapidated, long-abandoned fuel tanks; and operate decades-old pipelines that connect to the Bay Area’s five refineries. It would receive (and possibly send) 10 million gallons a day of crude oil by ship and by rail.

A regional grassroots alliance sprang up to fight this hazardous project, led by community members and local non-profit organizations including the environmental justice group Sunflower Alliance and the Sierra Club’s Bay Chapter. I spent several months doing community organizing. Our biggest hurdle was that hardly anyone knew about the project — little to no community outreach had been done. Our biggest advantage was fear over the rail component of the project. Nearby residents were already generally unhappy about trains passing through their community. Their distrust was heightened by a number of explosions of “bomb trains” full of fracked crude oil, including the catastrophe in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people.

View of WesPac from a children's playground. Photo by Martin MacKerel.

View of WesPac from a children’s playground. Photo by Martin MacKerel.

Every Saturday in the fall of 2013, alliance members went out canvassing neighborhoods and talking with residents. Sierra Club members played a key role in building awareness of the project by running phone banks out of the Berkeley office. Over the course of several weekends, Club members made thousands and thousands of calls (to a city of only 67,000 people). We began to get a sense of how successful we were by the growing number of people we met in our outreach who had already heard of the project.

As more residents found out about the project, opposition swelled. People made their feelings known through protests, petitions, and strong comments at city council meetings. In January, we had a major break when Attorney General Kamala Harris released a letter that excoriated the project on health, safety, climate change, and environmental justice.

In February 2014, the Pittsburg City Council announced that, due to the problems highlighted by the public, they were re-opening sections of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for further comment; this required WesPac to decide whether or not to spend money to continue the process in the face of significant public opposition. That was a victory, albeit a temporary one.

In April 2015, Pittsburg announced that WesPac had re-submitted its proposal, but with the rail portion removed. While this reduces some of the danger, there’s still enormous risk to residents of fumes, leaks, fires, and spills, and it leaves the door open for WesPac to build a rail terminal in the future. And it’s still a major new oil-infrastructure project, a prospect our planet simply cannot afford. Literally the least we can do to limit climate change is to stop new fossil fuel infrastructure development.

WhatYouCanDo

The Pittsburg Planning Department has just completed some preliminary steps to produce a revised EIR. Comments on the scope of the EIR — what topics should be covered, such as regional air quality and climate change impacts — are due July 31st. Once the EIR is released for public comment, we’ll need help with public input, outreach, and organizing. To volunteer, email Martin MacKerel at martin.mackerel@gmail.com.

To speak up against the project before the EIR is released, you can attend a public hearing on July 22, at 6pm. The address is 65 Civic Avenue, Pittsburg. To learn more about the public hearing, you can contact Ratha Lai by calling him at 510-848-0800, or email him at ratha.lai@sierraclub.org.

Updates will be posted on pittsburgdc.org and facebook.com/pittsburgdc.

— Martin MacKerel

CleanPowerSF supporters warn voters of disingenuous dirty-energy ballot initiative

CleanPowerSF supporters at a rally in support of the renewable energy program in April.

CleanPowerSF supporters at a rally in support of the renewable energy program in April.

On July 6th, signatures a for PG&E-backed measure were submitted with the San Francisco Department of Elections for the November 2015 ballot. The measure purports to be all about transparency and accurate advertising of clean energy offerings. But the so-called “San Francisco Renewable Energy Truth in Advertising Act” is in fact a thinly-veiled attempt to kill the City’s nascent renewable-energy program, CleanPowerSF. The measure seeks to place burdensome requirements on CleanPowerSF — requirements that PG&E itself is not subject to — in order to undermine the locally-owned program before it launches in January of 2016.

The ballot measure would allow PG&E to label its dirtier fossil fuel and nuclear energy mix as as-green as the energy that will be provided through CleanPowerSF. CleanPowerSF plans to launch with an energy mix that is between 33% and 50% renewable, at rates competitive to those of PG&E, with an option to “opt up” to a 100% renewable product for a small premium. PG&E offered a 22% renewable power mix, as of their latest (2013) filings.

The measure was filed by IBEW Local 1245, the primary PG&E union, which has repeatedly used paid advertising, legislation, and ballot measures both locally and statewide to attack local Community Choice clean-energy programs that compete with PG&E’s profits by offering less polluting, less expensive electricity.

“Voters have seen through previous attempts to preserve California’s dirty energy monopoly, just as they will see through this disingenuous measure that attempts to undermine CleanPowerSF,” said Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter director Michelle Myers. “Community Choice energy programs like CleanPowerSF provide the mechanism for transitioning away from dirty fossil fuels to clean alternatives like wind and solar. Community Choice is good for ratepayers, good for economic development, and good for the planet.”

Under state law, clean, renewable electricity includes generation from solar, wind, and geothermal sources, and does not include polluting electricity generation from nuclear or fossil fuels.

If passed, this measure would set a double standard to allow PG&E to advertise unbundled renewable energy credits (RECs) as clean and green, while barring CleanPowerSF from using those terms (“clean” and “green”) to advertise offerings of the very same kind of RECs.

Since the CleanPowerSF program plans to use neither nuclear energy nor unbundled RECs in its power mix, the PG&E-backed proposition seems to be designed purely to give the for-profit utility an unfair marketing advantage.

“This so called ‘Truth in Advertising’ measure enables PG&E to deceive energy customers and claim that its dirty fossil fuel and nuclear power is just as ‘clean’ and ‘green’ as the far more renewable CleanPowerSF program,” said Jed Holtzman, Co-Coordinator of 350 San Francisco. “PG&E heavily uses the same unbundled RECs they are trying to ban for CleanPowerSF in order to greenwash the climate-changing and health-harming pollution they pour into the air every year.”

“For more than a decade we have repeatedly fought and defeated PG&E’s cynical ballot measures and legislative attacks against cleaner and lower-cost community-based energy,” said Bruce Wolfe of Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council. “Now this monopoly is outrageously seeking to set up special rules that would allow it to pretend its dirty nuclear and fossil fuel energy is as clean as wind and solar power? Give me a break!”

The Community Choice energy model has surged across the region as more communities recognize the extensive benefits it provides. These benefits include local green jobs and investment in the local economy; cleaner air and a lower carbon footprint; and freedom from the unstable and steadily increasing costs of electricity generated by fossil fuels.

“Community Choice energy programs continue to grow and provide customers with cheaper, cleaner energy than what PG&E provides,” said Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter conservation manager Jess Dervin-Ackerman. “This success may pose a threat to the dirty energy monopoly and its shareholders, but it’s an unambiguous good for San Franciscans.”

Richmond takes bold stand on coal and petcoke pollution

Sierra Club and partners at Richmond City Hall to advocate for the passage of resolutions designed to protect the community from coal and petcoke pollution.

Sierra Club and partners at Richmond City Hall to advocate for the passage of resolutions designed to protect the community from coal and petcoke pollution.

On May 18th, the Richmond City Council passed two important resolutions intended to protect local communities and the environment from the harmful impacts of coal and petroleum coke (petcoke) pollution.

The first resolution opposes the mining, export, and burning of coal, as well as the transport of coal and petcoke along waterways and through densely populated areas. That resolution includes a clause that would prohibit exports of coal and petcoke from ports on City land.

A second resolution calls on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to require all piles of coal and petcoke to be stored in enclosed facilities.

Coal is currently being exported through the private Levin-Richmond Terminal on Richmond’s bay shore. The coal is extracted from mines owned by Bowie Resources and travels hundreds of miles to Richmond from either Colorado or Utah in uncovered rail cars. Each open-top rail car can lose up to 600 pounds of coal dust on the journey from the mine to the port; this translates to 60,000 pounds of toxic fine particulate matter entering our air and water for every trip made by a coal train.

According to the Energy Information Administration, between 2013 and 2014 coal exports through the Bay Area rose from 1.3 million tons to over 3 million tons — a 126% increase in one year. Eyewitness reports place long, uncovered coal trains parked right alongside Richmond’s BART tracks at least twice a week.

Coal dust contains arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, nickel, selenium, and other toxic heavy metals. Prolonged, direct exposure to coal dust is linked to chronic bronchitis, decreased lung function, emphysema, and cancer. Residents living near the rail lines and export terminal are at greatest risk of these health issues and tend to be lower income communities and communities of color.

Ratha Lai, community organizer with the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Chapter, said, “The Sierra Club applauds the City of Richmond for formally recognizing the harmful impacts of coal and petroleum coke. Their actions today will protect the community, workers, and the environment. The Levin-Richmond Terminal Company has been profiting by shipping coal and petcoke overseas while the Richmond community suffers the harmful impacts. It is time to stop exporting dirty fuels through our ports and start protecting the community from the toxic pollution in coal and petcoke. Today’s City Council resolutions are landmark decisions in transitioning our community away from dirty fossil fuels to a clean and renewable energy future.”

WhatYouCanDo

We’re working hard to support a grassroots movement in Richmond and other communities across the Bay Area that suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation and corporate pollution. As always, one of our key strengths is the energy, thoughtfulness, and experience of our members. We will be canvassing and advocating in the coming months and your help would be greatly appreciated! To join the campaign, email Ratha Lai at ratha.lai@sierraclub.org or call (510)848-0800 ext. 328.

 

Sierra Club, nurses collect Richmond community health data as a weapon against coal

Sierra Club and nurses canvassing to collect community health data in Richmond's Parchester Village.

Sierra Club and nurses canvassing to collect community health data in Richmond’s Parchester Village.

“You can’t run if you can’t afford to leave,” says a middle-aged man with long, graying dreads. He’s standing in the driveway of his home in Richmond, California. “But I do think they’re trying to get rid of us, either by making us move, or by—”

His unfinished sentence hangs in the air, as he fills out a community health survey on the impact of the coal trains that are running through his neighborhood, their uncovered cars spewing toxic dust into the air.

Where is the dust coming from? Big corporations in Utah and Colorado use the rail lines to transport coal to East Bay Area shipping ports, where it can be exported to other countries.

While moving toxic fuels means profit for corporate interests, local residents may be paying the price with their health. In addition to the trains, they also live adjacent to the Chevron refinery, which has been repeatedly cited for environmental violations. That’s why the Bay Chapter has partnered with nurses from the California Nurses Association (CNA) to canvas Richmond’s Parchester Village and other impacted neighborhoods. We’re surveying residents of the predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods for information on any health impacts they may have experienced as a result of environmental toxins.

“Uncovered coal trains come in 125-car trains, twice a week, and they are polluting our community. That’s why we are doing this community health survey,” says Ratha Lai, Bay Chapter conservation coordinator and Richmond resident. “Through this, we are going to build some concrete, raw data that our elected official partners can take and advocate at the state level.”

On a recent Monday night, three CNA-registered nurses joined in the canvassing: Mary Roth, a Kaiser Vallejo advice nurse and 29-year Richmond resident; Johanna Lavorando, a Kaiser Richmond Medical/Surgical nurse and former Richmond resident of 8 years; and Maria Sahagun, a 10-year Richmond resident and former registered nurse at the recently-closed Doctors Medical Center (DMC).

“I came out here tonight because healthcare and environmental discussion go hand in hand,” says Sahagun, who wonders how residents will be treated for the symptoms they may experience as a result of the toxic trains, when the closure of DMC left a hole in access to healthcare. “West County is surrounded by these coal trains and a toxin-emitting corporation, and you removed the hospital? It’s a blatant act of discrimination.”

DMC closed on April 21, and now the more than 40,000 people—many of them low-income Medicare and Medi-Cal patients—who used the DMC emergency room each year are without a nearby hospital. As Sahagun points out, these residents are now experiencing a reduction in care while living in Chevron’s backyard and adjacent to coal trains.

“Poor communities have to suffer such an assault on their health because of the way heavy industries are placed near them. And when we don’t even have a healthcare system to help them deal with that stuff, it’s really disturbing,” agrees Roth, who explains that nurses wind up treating patients for asthma, heart disease, and other illnesses that can be triggered by environmental toxins.

“I think it’s important, from a public health point of view, for nurses to participate in community events,” Lavorando adds. “With these coal trains, it’s critical that we gather as much information as we can, and give it to officials who can try to change regulations.”

Lavorando explains that at one stop during the evening’s canvassing, a young father shared a lengthy list of symptoms, including vision and breathing problems. Yet, he wasn’t sure if pollutants were a factor.

“He said the doctor checked him out and told him he was okay, but he was telling us, ‘I know I’m not okay,’ because his chest was hurting and his throat was closing up,” Lavorando says. “And his story wound up being the same story that a neighbor shared.  So again, that’s why it’s important as nurses to take part in these events and gather this information—to get people thinking about what kind of symptoms can be triggered by the environment.”

At the end of the evening, Lai gathers the anonymous surveys to bring back to Sierra Club’s Berkeley offices, where they will be compiled with data gathered on future canvassing events, to eventually turn over to local and state representatives. Will the data spur change? For the RNs and the Sierra Club, a healthier community and a cleaner environment is worth the work of standing up to corporate interests.

“I’m glad someone cares. We tend to disappear,” says the man filling out the form in his driveway. “I think you guys have a big fight. But it’s good someone is ready to fight.”

Sierra Club and partners at Richmond City Hall to advocate for the passage of resolutions designed to protect the community from coal and petcoke pollution.

Sierra Club and partners at Richmond City Hall to advocate for the passage of resolutions designed to protect the community from coal and petcoke pollution.

Hope for Richmond

The Sierra Club worked with the City of Richmond on two important resolutions intended to protect local communities and the environment from the harmful impacts of coal and petcoke pollution; the first opposes the mining, export, and burning of coal as well as the transport of coal and petcoke along waterways and through densely populated areas. That resolution includes a clause that would prohibit exports of coal and petcoke from ports on City-owned land. A second resolution calls on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to require all piles of coal and petcoke to be stored in enclosed facilities.

Both resolutions were passed by the Richmond City Council on May 19th.

WhatYouCanDo

If you live in Richmond, take the quick community health survey.

We’re working hard to support a grassroots movement in Richmond and other communities across the Bay Area that suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation and corporate pollution. As always, one of our key strengths is the energy, thoughtfulness, and experience of our members. We will be canvassing and advocating in the coming months and your help would be greatly appreciated! To join the campaign, email Ratha Lai at ratha.lai@sierraclub.org or call (510)848-0800 ext. 328.

This article was adapted from a blog post by the California Nurses Association.

Time to put the “Public” back in the California Public Utilities Commission

In the coming months, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will be making critical decisions that will have a big impact on how much electricity our state consumes and where that energy comes from. Your energy bill and the environment hang in the balance.

California has been a leader in developing policies to prevent and combat catastrophic climate change. However, turning vision, executive orders, and legislation into action requires effective implementation. The CPUC is the regulatory body responsible for making decisions about the way many of California’s energy policies are implemented. The decisions currently on their plate include how residential electricity rates should be structured, how power generated by local rooftop-solar installations should be paid for, and whether California utilities should contract for new fossil-fuel-based electricity generating capacity.

Because of their intense financial interest to the utilities, CPUC proceedings are well attended by utility lawyers and technical staff. Unfortunately, what’s in the best immediate financial interest of the utilities is often counter to the best interest of the public and the environment. And because the issues are technical and complex, the public is not as engaged or present as one might hope. Yet we, the ratepayers, pay the price when energy policy threatens California’s environment, degrading our air, our water, our ecosystems, and our climate.

With critical decisions pending, this year is a key time for public engagement and volunteer action. The CPUC is under intense scrutiny due to allegations of inappropriate, potentially illegal communications between the investor-owned utilities and former CPUC president Michael Peevey. Commissioner Michael Picker’s confirmation to the CPUC presidency is now pending; a confirmation hearing will be held in August. It is therefore a particularly important time to insist that the CPUC protect the public interest.

Members should be aware of the importance of the following issues, and can comment as concerned individual citizens and ratepayers.

San Diego’s chance to “go clean”

The CPUC is charged with overseeing utility plans for assuring adequate and reliable generating capacity to meet California’s needs. To meet power demands, the CPUC is required to first draw on “preferred resources”: energy efficiency, renewable resources, and programs that encourage smart, informed consumption to curb power use during peak periods (an approach known as “demand response”). The CPUC’s commitment to “preferred resources” is currently being tested as it considers how to replace the now-defunct San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Diego County.

The local utility, San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), has proposed purchasing partial replacement power from a $2-billion, 600-megawat (MW) gas-generating plant to be built in Carlsbad, California. The Carlsbad plant would represent a substantial cost to the ratepayers and would mean increased greenhouse-gas emissions over the 20-to-40-year life of the plant.

In March, an Administrative Law Judge issued a Proposed Decision denying SDG&E’s application to purchase power from the Carlsbad plant. In response, President Picker filed an Alternative Proposed Decision authorizing 500 MW of new gas-generating capacity. The Sierra Club has filed extensive technical comments making it clear that new gas-generating capacity is not needed, as the Request for Offers to replace the nuclear plant produced, in the words of the Administrative Law Judge, “a robust number of offers for preferred resources and energy storage.”

This is an opportunity for the CPUC to define whether they are regulating for California’s clean-energy future, or protecting fossil-fuel interests by authorizing new and unneeded dirty power. The CPUC will consider SDG&E’s application to purchase the gas-generated power at its May 21st meeting.

Rate restructuring to incentivize or punish conservation?

The CPUC is also working to implement California Assembly Bill 327, complex legislation that requires a reconsideration of California’s residential electricity rates. A proposal supported by the utilities would levy fixed charges of approximately $120 per year on ratepayers, irrespective of how much electricity they use or whether they have rooftop solar. The utility-sponsored model would also “flatten” the rate structure, effectively raising the rates for those using little electricity and lowering them for those using lots.

If the CPUC adopts this rate model, it would reduce economic incentives to conserve electricity, make energy-efficiency upgrades, or install solar panels. Economic models suggest that fixed charges and flattened rates will in fact lead to an increase in electricity usage. Fixed charges are an unfair burden on those who use little electricity, and may harm low-income ratepayers.

Later in 2015, the CPUC will consider proposals for how owners of residential rooftop-solar installations should be compensated for the power they feed back into the electrical grid. This is another contentious topic, with the utilities pushing to discontinue the current Net Energy Metering program.

WhatYouCanDo

As these issues come to a head in the next months, we will need your support! Go to sierraclub.org/sfbay/email and sign up for the “General” list and your local list to make sure you receive updates.

— Claire Broome

Regulatory action puts wood smoke pollution in the spotlight

fireplace_smokeAccording to the website of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (the Air District), the San Francisco Bay Area is home to an estimated 1.4 million fireplaces and wood stoves. Wood smoke from these devices is the top source of wintertime air pollution. Now, in an effort to protect public health and the environment, the Air District has proposed headline-generating changes to its regulations on wood burning.

The updated rule is currently being finalized after a round of public workshops. The goal is to reduce wood smoke, which accounts for 39% of hazardous particulate wintertime air pollution and is a major contributor of air toxics. To achieve this goal, it’s important to consider why wood-smoke pollution is such a significant problem and to choose the most effective solutions.

Scientific studies link wood smoke to a litany of health problems including asthma attacks, heart attacks, and strokes. Wood smoke is a toxic mix of particulate matter and substances such as benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins, and furans that are harmful and even carcinogenic.

Burning wood contributes to climate disruption

Burning wood releases almost twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas, and it additionally generates methane and soot (also called black carbon). Carbon dioxide and methane are widely recognized as greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Black carbon is considered by many scientists to be second only to carbon dioxide in terms of contribution to climate disruption. This finding prompted Al Gore to call on countries to burn less wood to reduce atmospheric black carbon levels.

It is a misconception that burning wood is carbon neutral. Some argue that the carbon dioxide released when a tree is burned is equal to that released during decomposition. However, this ignores the time scale: the carbon sequestered in a growing tree is released into the atmosphere in a matter of minutes when it burns. In contrast, it can take over a century to release that carbon if the tree is allowed to decay naturally. The difference in timescale is critical—to reduce greenhouse gases and slow climate disruption, greenhouse-gas levels must be curbed as quickly as possible.

EPA-certified wood stoves aren’t the answer

One possible solution is incentivizing change-outs of older wood-burning stoves and fireplaces for new EPA-certified wood stoves. Unfortunately, the real-world performance of EPA-certified wood stoves doesn’t match their laboratory performance because the testing procedure doesn’t mirror in-home conditions. For example, lab tests use kiln-dried lumber, not cord wood, and don’t count start-up emissions. In addition, EPA-certified wood stoves have not been shown to be effective in reducing emissions of toxics like dioxins and furans.

Pellet stoves perform far better in that in-home emissions are similar to their test values and even lower than those of EPA-certified wood stoves (although still far higher than natural-gas heaters).

The right alternatives

So what are the best replacements for wood?

In a home that uses a fireplace for ambience, a gas log set reduces air pollution with minimal energy use. In a home that uses a woodstove for heat, technological innovations have created a compelling alternative: electric ductless mini-split heat pumps. These are an ideal solution from both a public health and climate perspective. Ductless heat pumps are more energy efficient than heating with natural gas or other fuels. They produce no local emissions, and their low energy usage makes them ideal for running off of solar panels, allowing for net-zero-energy-use homes. And that’s the kind of house anyone could feel proud to call home.

The Sierra Club supports the efforts of the Air District to transition away from wood-burning devices that cause unhealthy and dangerous air pollution. The Sierra Club will be following this issue closely to ensure that the Air District provides resources and mitigates the cost impact of changing to cleaner devices.

— Tracey Gant

Alameda County action on oil and gas extraction delayed again

thisoneOnce again, action by Alameda County to ban new oil and gas operations, including fracking, has been postponed. While the delay is unfortunate, it does provide more time for people in Livermore (where active wells are located) and throughout all of Alameda County to make their concerns known to the supervisors.

Proposed planning and zoning changes are now scheduled to go before the Planning Commission on September 8th. In the meantime, to get involved in our work to stop fracking locally and at the state level, contact our working group, Alameda County Against Fracking, at dontfrackcal@gmail.com.