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What are Diablo Winds?

The winds fanning the historically dreadful California fires are borne from a complicated mash-up of meteorology, physics, geography, and topography. […]

Trump Rules: Under Trump, Coal Mining Gets New Life on U.S. Lands

President Trump, along with roundly questioning climate change, has moved quickly to wipe out those measures with the support of coal companies and other commercial interests. Separately, Mr […]

Photo: Belted kingfisher shoots through the sky

Some refreshing minimalism for our photo of the day. […]

Now there’s one less way for Big Coal to screw over Americans

The spurn of the screw

Now there’s one less way for Big Coal to screw over Americans

By on Jul 1, 2016Share

The Obama administration took a small step on Thursday to prevent coal companies from fleecing taxpayers.

Until now, the biggest coal conglomerates were getting away with scamming the government by selling coal mined on federal land to their own subsidiaries for a discounted, below-market price. Since the government’s royalties from that coal are a percentage of the sale price, that meant the companies were paying lower royalties than they should have been. Forty-two percent of the coal produced in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin — the biggest coal-producing area in the U.S. right now — was being sold through these “captive transactions,” according to Public Citizen, a good government advocacy group.

On Thursday, the Interior Department issued a new rule that puts a stop to that practice.

“One of the things Cloud Peak [Energy] and other coal companies were doing is selling to an affiliate at the mine mouth and then selling it in the export market at a significantly higher price,” says Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s energy program. This new rule will allow the department to more accurately calculate the “market value” of coal, oil, and gas extracted on public land and make sure it’s getting paid fair royalties. Slocum estimates that this could bring in an additional $300 million per year in royalties.

This is important for two reasons: Corporations should not be stealing from the public, and every penny we undercharge fossil-fuel companies is an implicit subsidy for the dirty fuels that cause climate change. Coal companies are struggling, and instead of throwing them a lifeline that will help them stay in the business of worsening global warming, we should be letting them sink.

Crucially, unlike many other rules issued by federal agencies, this new rule will apply not just to future leases but also to ones that already exist. So even under a coal lease bought five years ago, a company will now have to pay fairer royalty rates going forward.

This is just the beginning of reforms needed to the federal fossil-fuel leasing system. A bigger issue is that coal, oil, and gas lease rates have failed to keep pace with the market, and on top of that they do not factor in the social costs of pollution and climate change. If they did those two things, the cost of fossil-fuel leases would be prohibitive. As it is, the leasing program is a big money-loser for the federal government. Greenpeace estimates that coal leasing alone costs taxpayers some $50 billion per year.

Ultimately, of course, we should be keeping fossil fuels in the ground — especially on land owned by the public. Hillary Clinton has pledged to move toward that goal, but she hasn’t specified a timeline. President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell have only promised to ensure that the public gets a fair price for fossil fuels extracted from public land, and to align the leasing programs with the administration’s goal of combatting climate change. It’s not clear what exactly either of those things mean. But in January, the Interior Department put a moratorium on new coal leases pending the results of a multi-year environmental review of the leasing program.

Climate activists have made fixing the broken fossil-fuel leasing system their top priority, and clearly more changes will occur, but no one knows how far they will go.


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Risky Business: Court Requires EPA to Issue Financial Assurance Rules for Industries Handling Hazardous Waste

By Katie Schaefer and Greg Wannier Hardrock mining has left a toxic legacy in communities across the country. Under a new court-approved settlement, EPA must issue regulations that will force companies to set aside money to clean up the messes they make. Last Friday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a settlement the Sierra Club and other environmental groups reached with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that establishes a timeline for the agency to issue regulations ensuring that polluters–not taxpayers–pay to clean up their toxic messes. The settlement resolved litigation brought by the Sierra Club, Idaho Conservation League, Earthworks, Amigos Bravos, Great Basin Resource Watch, and Communities for a Better Environment, represented by Earthjustice, seeking regulations requiring facilities that produce hazardous waste to maintain evidence of their financial ability to cover cleanup costs. These financial assurance regulations are long overdue: for more than 30 years, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) has required EPA to develop rules requiring industries that handle hazardous substances to have a financial security mechanism in place, such as a bond or insurance policy, to cover the costs of cleanup from their operations. All too often, polluters declare bankruptcy or shelter assets to avoid shouldering the costs of environmental disasters. When the companies skip town, the burden of paying for cleanup falls on taxpayers. Cleanup bills are paid from a public trust fund, known as the “Superfund,” but polluting industries have dodged their responsibilities for so long that this trust is currently underfunded by over $100 million. This shortfall leads to significant delays in cleaning up Superfund sites, prolonging the dangers to public health and the environment. After the Club and its allies brought a previous lawsuit in 2008 to compel EPA to follow the law, the agency issued findings that financial assurance rules were warranted for four industries: metal (“hardrock”) mining; chemical manufacturing; petroleum and coal products manufacturing; and electric power generation, transmission, and distribution (largely focused on coal ash pollution from coal-burning power plants). Although EPA has announced its intent to propose a rule for hardrock mining several times over the last decade, the agency continued to drag its feet, and so environmental groups brought this new lawsuit to force EPA to act. The court’s decision puts an end to this decades-long delay with a binding schedule on EPA to complete the rules, which have been vigorously opposed by industry. EPA must now complete the draft financial assurance regulations for hardrock mining by December 1, 2016, and finalize the regulations by the end of 2017. The agency must also make formal determinations of whether to regulate the three other industries–coal ash ponds, chemical manufacturing facilities, and petroleum and oil refineries–by the end of this year; final regulations would then be due between 2019 and 2024. Implications for Standing The D.C. Circuit’s decision also is good news for the broader environmental community, specifically for environmental groups’ ability to bring agencies to court when they unreasonably delay their mandatory duties. The court affirmed the legal standing of the Sierra Club and our allies based on demonstrations that EPA’s lack of financial assurance rules put our members in harm’s way and that the required rules would redress that injury. Recently, in Clapper v. Amnesty International, 133 S.Ct. 1138 (2013), the U.S. Supreme Court cast some doubt on the ability of citizens to challenge government regulations–or lack thereof–unless they prove that injury is “certainly impending.” Here, the court took a commonsense approach, recognizing that Sierra Club members who live in harm’s way–whether next door to a coal-burning power plant, in the shadow of a coal ash dam, or downstream from a petro-chemical facility–and who have been and will continue to be harmed by pollution from hazardous waste, should be able to demand regulations that could make sure the waste is cleaned up. The court rightly recognized that “financial assurance requirements would redress their injuries by incentivizing these industries to limit hazardous releases and by reducing cleanup delays.” The industries subject to financial assurance requirements have left a toxic legacy in communities across the country: the EPA estimates that one in four Americans lives within three miles of a hazardous waste site. Putting these rules in place will help protect public health and the environment by pushing companies to internalize the true costs of their operations and creating much-needed incentives to reduce risk and properly handle hazardous waste. Image Source: Copper Mine Tailing Pond – iStock — This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website. […]

More Than Just a Pretty Place

Celebrating the centennial of a government agency isn’t exactly the norm in America these days, but the National Park Service represents something special. It has taken what Wallace Stegner called “the best idea we ever had” and made it a reality — a system of national parks that is both the envy of the world and the priceless birthright of every American.Sierra Club members were excited when the National Park Service was created in 1916, and today we’re more than ready to celebrate this centennial. At the same time, though, we want to join the Park Service in using this milestone as an opportunity to think about what we want the next 100 years to look like for America’s national parks, monuments, and historic places.That was a recurring theme during an online discussion I had last week with National Park Service director Jonathan B. Jarvis, Outdoor Afro founder Rue Mapp, Latino Outdoors founder José González, and Sierra Club Board director Allison Chin. You can watch it here if you missed it.We covered a lot of ground, but a couple of themes stood out.First, our national park system embodies not just our scenery but also our history. Director Jarvis talked about how the National Park Service has consciously chosen to speak more honestly about the Civil War, as well as the relevance of national historic sites such as Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. Although President Obama has designated some spectacular public lands as national monuments, he’s also chosen to preserve important historic sites like the Pullman, César E. Chávez, and Honouliuli national monuments.Second, history shows that we need to bring more democracy to our national park system. One hundred years ago, it was assumed that national parks were relevant only for a particular class of people, and that attitude has been frustratingly slow to change. That’s why the work of leaders like Rue Mapp and Jose Gonzalez is so important, but we can’t expect them to do all the heavy lifting. The responsibility also lies with established outdoor organizations like the Sierra Club. As José said during our discussion, America’s public lands are “both a responsibility and a privilege.” Every American deserves to enjoy them, and all Americans share responsibility for their stewardship.How do we bring all kinds of people to the parks? One approach is outreach like the Obama administration’s Every Kid in a Park program, which seeks to get every fourth-grader in America to visit a national park this year by offering a free annual pass. Do that 12 years in a row (which is Director Jarvis’s goal), and you’ve reached an entire generation.Another approach, though, is to bring the parks to the people — what we call “Nearby Nature.” A great example is the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. John Muir once hiked in these mountains, and today they’re within 90 minutes of 15 million people in the Los Angeles Basin.So let the celebrating begin — for all Americans. ; — This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website. […]

From Davos: Water Is a Valuable Asset – Let’s Treat It Like One

Mark R. Tercek is the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy and author of Nature’s Fortune. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek. Many communities around the world are running out of water. When demand outpaces supply, communities often turn to difficult and costly solutions, such as building reservoirs, importing water or constructing desalination plants. But this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, I’m pushing global leaders to consider a different solution–one that could significantly accelerate progress on addressing the root cause of water scarcity around the world. Let’s tap economic forces–the power of the market–to be smarter about how we use the water we already have. By viewing water as a tradable asset, we can create water markets that encourage water users–such as cities, farms and companies–to be more efficient. The water saved can then be allocated for other uses. With half the world’s cities and three-fourths of irrigated farms experiencing regular water shortages, it’s critical that we capitalize on the value created from conserving water. My organization, the Nature Conservancy, is harnessing private capital through impact investing to do just that. Impact investing–which allows investors to align their portfolios with their values by investing in initiatives that generate financial, societal and environmental outcomes–is emerging as a fresh source of funding for conservation projects. With our impact investing unit, NatureVest, our global water experts and Australia team have created the world’s first community water trust in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin. Through that program, we’re working to raise $69 million of investor capital to help balance water use in the basin so there’s enough for farmers, communities and nature. Here’s how it works: A community water trust acquires a portfolio of water rights and then collaborates with farmers, who buy and sell water allowances through a water rights trading system. Through the trust, scientists help farmers execute water-saving strategies, and farmers who conserve water can sell their remaining rights back to the trust. The trust, in partnership with local conservation organizations, then uses some of that saved water to restore degraded freshwater ecosystems. It leases back the remainder to water users, ensuring Murray-Darling farmers get the water they need while at the same time generating financial returns for investors. In the Murray-Darling Basin, we–along with local nonprofit Murray Darling Wetlands Working Group–plan to use water saved through the trust to restore more than 40,000 acres of wetlands during the next decade. Not only will this wetland restoration benefit farmers and wildlife–such as frogs, fish, turtles and waterfowl–but it also will help preserve Aboriginal cultural and spiritual sites, many of which are located in the wetland areas. This impact investment-driven solution to water shortages uses market-based strategies to encourage and reward smart water use. It generates environmental, financial and social benefits at a greater scale than philanthropy-funded efforts can while also supporting farmers and communities who rely on freshwater. Impact investing can help conservation organizations scale up solutions to a variety of other problems, as well. For instance, NatureVest leverages private capital to accelerate sustainable grazing practices in Africa, prevent urban stormwater runoff in the U.S. and help island nations restructure debt in ways that help them adapt to climate change. Embracing innovative solutions like these–and finding new sources of funding, such as impact capital–will be critical as global leaders leave Davos, ready to meet the world’s challenges head on. Images (top to bottom): Innovative market-based solutions are helping balance water use among farmers, communities and nature. © Ami Vitale; The Murray river in Victoria, Australia. © Mark Schapper; Community water trusts encourage farmers to save water. © Mark Godfrey/TNC — This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website. […]