Yes, it's the economy, stupid. With the election closing in on us, jobs are at the top of everyone's issue list -- except among the news media, which has developed a curious affection for tea. But just because important issues are being giving little attention doesn't mean they have been solved. One area that's not getting the level of coverage it deserves in this election year is the environment.
So join Michael Brune (who has visited us before) to discuss what can and should be done about environmental issues as we roll toward November and beyond.
Question: At this point, there seems to be a great deal of despair around the issue of climate change. Democrats don't seem to have the guts for any definitive action, Republicans have stalled even the most tentative steps, and even international calls for change seem to have turned into confused mumbles. Do you see any real hope of progress on this issue while there is still time to do something?
Michael Brune: I do see hope, because even though we’ve been beaten in the fight to get a comprehensive climate bill passed in Congress, and even though we couldn’t get anything decent out of Copenhagen last year, progress is being made on other fronts. A grassroots movement has unified to stop the construction of 138 (and counting) new coal-fired power plants. A growing collection of organizations is building momentum to stop the expansion of Canada’s dirty tar sands. Planning is underway for large-scale deployment of offshore wind, and there’s some other scattered good news on new car regulations, distributed solar, investments in efficiency, etc.
There was no way that a single bill passed by Congress was going to solve our climate crisis, just as no treaty signed by a majority of nations will suddenly transform the global economy from dirty to clean energy. Certainly we weren’t going to get strong bills or treaties when legislators have been so intimidated by the oil and coal lobby.
The good news (and it is real, genuine, bona-fide good news) is that we can make significant cuts in carbon in the next several years while reducing the size and influence of the oil and coal industries. We have a shot of shutting down up to a third of the U.S. coal fleet within the next five years. Think about that. We’ll do this by pushing the EPA to enforce the Clean Air Act to make coal-burning utilities follow the law and clean up their oldest and dirtiest plants. When these plants have to pay to clean up their pollution, they can’t compete with clean energy, pure and simple.
Similar gains can be made in reducing oil consumption. The kicker is this: as the coal and oil industries are reduced, clean energy sectors like solar and wind will gain in size and influence. Costs will continue to drop, employment will grow, and a new politics can emerge. Rather than a comprehensive bill being the first thing we do to fight climate, it might be the last.
So... that’s one way it can work out. Yes, we still have a steep climb. Yes, the oil and coal lobbies will fight us at every opportunity. And yes, this may very well get harder after this election. But there’s a
genuine pathway to success here, and it doesn’t depend on buying out a couple Senators to somehow compile 60 votes.
Question: The Clean Water Protection Act has 172 sponsors in the House and still hasn't moved forward. The Appalachia Restoration Act has bipartisan support in the Senate, including cosponsors from coal producing states. Even so, we're left with what appear to be contradictory regulations and statements on mountaintop removal. Is there any chance of either of these bills being advanced before the end of the session, or failing that, of the Obama administration taking definitive action to end mountaintop removal mining?
Michael Brune: We’d love to see action on both bills before the end of this session but it doesn’t look likely, which is very disappointing. We need legislation that will outlaw MTR once and for all.
In the meantime, it’s up to Obama’s EPA to put a halt to any further blasting in Appalachia. The biggest test of the Administration’s commitment to coalfield residents, Appalachia’s mountains – and basic environmental sanity – is whether the Administration will approve Arch Coal’s Spruce mine MTR mining permit. Today there are hundreds of coalfield residents in Washington, D.C. calling for an end to mountaintop removal as part of the Appalachia Rising mobilization, which the Sierra Club co-sponsored along with many other groups. We hope the Obama administration is listening.
(More after the break)
Question: We're finally starting to see some electric vehicles returning to the American market, but the availability of these vehicles is very limited (you can read this as "neither Chevy or Nissan will sell me a car here in the Midwest even though I'm waving money at them and willing to buy today"). Do you think the manufacturers are serious this time? How does this fit in with your overall ideas for green transportation?
Michael Brune: Yes, we are glad to see automakers producing more electric and hybrid vehicles, but we need to make sure this isn’t just more tokenism. It’s time to move to electrify much of the transportation sector (while we decarbonize how power is produced).
But it’s important to remember that this is only part of the solution. It's really about reducing our overall driving, as the vast majority of cars on the road will run on oil for years to come, since the average car is on the road for more than 15 years. Livable communities where we can walk, bike and use mass transit are essential to a clean energy future.
For now we're calling on the Obama administration to propose strong new federal fuel efficiency and global warming pollution standards for cars and light trucks. That rulemaking process will start in just a couple days, and will be finalized early next year – covering model years from 2017 to 2025. Let’s hope the standards that are establish don’t simply tinker around with the internal combustion engine when a more rapid transformation is required. If we’re to break our dependence on oil, we’ll need to see some urgency from the White House. Today transportation consumes more than 70% of the 19 million barrels of oil used daily in the U.S. Transportation is also responsible for 30% of global warming pollution in the United States.
Question: There's just one public hearing left on the EPA's proposals for dealing with coal ash. Even though it's gotten almost no press coverage, these hearings have been well-attended, often standing-room only, and the questions have shown how much people in the area really care about this issue. Where does the Sierra Club come down on the current set of proposals? Do you think these hearings will affect the EPA's decision?
Michael Brune: Coal ash is toxic, hazardous waste, and we want the EPA to regulate it as such. We certainly expect these hearings to have an impact - the determination of citizens across the country to be heard on this issue has been inspiring. I attended the Dallas hearing, and people traveled from Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and all across Texas, during torrential downpours and floods, just so they could tell EPA to regulate toxic coal ash more stringently than household garbage. One guy rode his bike 1800 miles to get there!
Both the EPA and the National Academy of Sciences have years of research showing that coal ash is becoming increasingly toxic. How bad is it? Consider that the health risks of living near a coal ash dump are greater than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. More than 1.5 million children live near these sites – it’s just unacceptable to not dispose of this waste properly. For decades, the coal industry has told the American people that coal ash is safe, just as BP executives said that offshore drilling was safe, and tobacco executives told Americans that cigarettes didn't cause cancer and auto executives told us that installing catalytic converters would wreck the industry. Is there anyone who thinks we should just take polluting CEO’s at their word any more?
This is actually a very straightforward issue. Coal ash is laced with toxic chemicals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium, and more. Corporations shouldn’t be allowed to just dump this waste casually near drinking water sources and in ways that would contaminate our air and water. Effective coal ash regulations need to require basic protections for communities, including composite liners, water run-off controls, groundwater monitoring, and the financial assurance that companies pay to clean up what they pollute. EPA has identified two options: treat coal ash as a hazardous waste or essentially perpetuate the status quo. Wanna guess what we support?
Considering the tremendous grassroots support that we have seen at the hearings around the country, I am hopeful that EPA will do the right thing.