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A tragic reminder of the risks in fossil fuels

Hello from our nation’s capital, where I’m making the rounds while melting in the incredibly humid summer weather.  Why do people in D.C. feel the need to wear full business suits in 90 degree weather?  Maybe we need a national policy project to change this.

Meanwhile, and on a more serious note, this week’s crude oil train crash in Lac-Megantic hit close to home for me.  My mother’s family is all from Sherbrooke, Quebec, just an hour east of the Lac-Megantic disaster. As of this writing, at least 15 people are confirmed dead and many more missing in the aftermath of a horrific explosion, which occurred a few miles north of the Maine border. Andy Revkin’s New York Times post on the disaster is a good reminder of the inherent volatility of fossil fuels, and the risks we take every day in a society powered almost entirely by these fuels. This is a lesson our military already understands, and that California is learning, as I wrote last year on the occasion of the Richmond, CA oil refinery disaster (a different, yet all-too-familiar, fossil fuel disaster).

Dramatic explosions capture the media’s attention and are horrifying to watch.  But fossil fuels can cause slower, longer-term disasters as well.  This week, the National Academy of Sciences released 20 years of data showing that northern Chinese citizens live on average five years less than their southern neighbors because of the heavy coal pollution in the north.  “The researchers project that the 500 million Chinese who live north of the Huai River will lose 2.5 billion years of life expectancy because of outdoor air pollution.”

But do not fear!  In the face of all this risk and volatility, there’s hope: 

  • We just worked for the past 8 months on Proposition 39 implementation, working to get California schools into a leadership position in the transformation to a clean energy future.  We’ve talked til we’re blue in the face about school facilities and the importance of healthy, safe, and efficient learning environments. But don’t take it from us – California students want to tell you themselves. Watch this video from high school students working with the Alliance for Climate Education in collaboration with Next Generation.
  • NRDC’s Devra Wang has a great new fact sheet and blog post on California’s energy efficiency leadership.  The state has set a strong example on energy efficiency that has saved Californians an estimated $65 billion dollars, avoided carbon emissions equal to what 5 million cars spew in a year, and lowered utility bills for consumers.  This is a perfect example of California setting standards that can be a blueprint for the rest of the nation – in this case, for the President’s climate action plan.
  • Idaho and Louisiana’s utility regulators both recently dealt a blow to utilities trying to squelch homeowners’ ability to put up solar panels.  The PUCs in both states maintained current utility rates for solar customers, despite utility efforts to raise those rates.  Sound esoteric and wonky?  The same fight is brewing here in California, which is why SB 43, the community solar bill wending its way through the CA legislature, is so important.

 

And in the midst of the hope and opportunity, there are real moral and practical dilemmas to contend with.  California is staring down just this sort of dilemma right now, as we grapple with the question of whether, and how, to tap our vast shale oil resources.  Here’s what people are saying this week about the Monterey Shale:

 

  • The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board calls this legislative session “the moment of truth for California and extraction of fossil fuels,” asserting the need for comprehensive oil and gas rules.
  • Meanwhile, the Sac Bee’s Dan Walters muses about the possibility of a “grand bargain” of sorts, in which the oil industry would be “given the green light to develop Monterey shale with some stringent but not crippling regulation, in return for which the state could impose a severance tax on new production that would benefit state and local governments.”
  • But passing any fracking regulation at all in California has proven nearly impossible. Bills intending to regulate or halt the practice of fracking in California have fared poorly this session, with all but one, Senator Fran Pavley’s SB 4, killed in committee.

Starting next week, Next Generation will release our own investigative series on fracking, asking and answering some of the key questions that we feel have to be part of the conversation in California for any of us – voters, advocates, policymakers, media – to decide on the right path forward.  Stay tuned!

News

California's Energy Efficiency Model Can Help Meet the President's Climate Goals

California’s 40 years of remarkable success in using energy efficiency to avoid dirty power generation and save utility customers billions, as detailed in a new NRDC fact sheet released today, offers valuable lessons to help meet President Obama’s groundbreaking climate action plan.
08/Jul » NRDC Switchboard

Dan Walters: California oil could boom again

"Fracking," as it's popularly termed, has ignited an oil boom in other states and California is believed to have the nation's largest shale oil deposits in the Monterey Shale Formation, a 1,750-square-mile chunk of the state, mostly in the lower San Joaquin Valley.
08/Jul » Sacramento Bee

Pollution Leads to Drop in Life Span in Northern China, Study Finds

A study released Monday by a prominent American science journal has found that pollution from widespread coal use in northern China has led in recent decades to an average decrease in life span of more than five years, compared with the life span of people living in southern China.
08/Jul » The New York Times

Editorial: California needs comprehensive oil and gas rules

This is the moment of truth for California and extraction of fossil fuels. As The Bee's Tom Knudson reported last Sunday, the oil industry is gearing up to exploit "an enormous buried treasure called Monterey shale," a deep deposit that runs from Los Angeles to Modesto and is thought to contain more than 15 billion barrels of oil.
09/Jul » Sacramento Bee

Fracking, California's Oil Frontier

This is not the first time oil companies have fracked wells in California. Today, though, they are doing it more often and in more places to try to tap an enormous buried treasure called Monterey shale. Stretching from Los Angeles north along the coast and into the San Joaquin Valley, the formation is not just another potential new source of domestic oil. It is the grand prize, the richest oil shale formation in America. If it can be fully exploited - and that is not yet clear - it is estimated to hold enough oil to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, flood the state with tax revenue and halt oil imports to California for a half-century.
07/Jul » Sacramento Bee

EU lawmakers back cap-and-trade fix

The European Parliament on Wednesday backed a rescue plan for the world's biggest cap-and-trade system for emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas from human activities.
03/Jul » San Francisco Chronicle

The Long Chain of Responsibility Behind an Oily and Deadly Train Wreck

Around the smoldering, oil-soaked crater in the heart of Lac-Mégantic, a small Quebec town where an unmanned train with 72 tank cars carrying crude oil derailed and exploded early on Saturday, killing at least 13 people*, the search for victims and causes is still on. Attention will soon focus on some misstep by a train crewman or maintenance worker or the like. But the chain of responsibility goes much further. While investigations proceed, here’s some context to mull.
08/Jul » The New York Times

Old Tactic in New Climate Campaign

It was a single word tucked into a presidential speech. It went by so fast that most Americans probably never heard it, much less took the time to wonder what it meant. But to certain young ears, the word had the shock value of a rifle shot. The reference occurred late in President Obama’s climate speech at Georgetown University two weeks ago, in the middle of this peroration: “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”
08/Jul » The New York Times

Utilities Dealt Blow on Solar-Power

Regulators in two states recently sided with the solar-power industry and homeowners who have solar-energy systems, marking defeats for electric utilities faced with a fast-growing constituency that is cutting into their revenue.
08/Jul » The Wall Street Journal

Viewpoints: Climate action plan will help protect health

Climate change is already affecting our health in California, and the health of millions of people in the United States and around the world. Extreme heat is predicted to affect anywhere from 1.7 million to 28 million Californians by mid- to late-century, and even by conservative estimates, 420,000 will be exposed to coastal flooding.
03/Jul » The Sacramento Bee

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