So I was really excited to test drive the Nissan LEAF in Santa Monica this past weekend. Nissan is producing 50,000 of these electric cars and will roll them out starting in December. Los Angeles is getting 20,000 of them, and I am on the list for one.
Yea! Being an early adopter, I’ve been driving a Prius for eight years now and have been champing at the bit to do even more for the environment. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that while my car will not be spewing noxious fumes into the air, the power plants that will be producing the electricity to charge my car are powered by dirty coal. In fact, 44% of LA electricity is powered by coal from two plants in Arizona and Utah. 12,000 tons of coal are burned each day to provide our electricity.
And this scenario is being repeated across the country. 50% of the electricity in the US comes from coal. We burn over one billion tons of the black soot a year. That’s 20 pounds of coal per person every day. Coal is much more carbon intensive than either oil or natural gas.
Why is this bad? For one, it’s bad for our health. According to a report by Physicians for Social Responsibility, coal pollution contributes to four of the five leading causes of death in this country: heart attack, stroke, cancer and upper respiratory disease. 24,000 premature deaths and 550,000 asthma attacks are caused by coal fired pollution annually.
Coal-fired plants are the largest cause of human mercury production in this country. Mercury in mother’s blood and breast milk can interfere with the development of babies' brains and neurological systems and can lead to learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, problems with coordination, lowered IQ and even mental retardation.
Burning coal is bad for our environment as it accounts for 40% of our country’s global warming causing carbon emissions. (I assume I don’t need to tell anyone who reads this magazine why global warming is bad.) Additionally, over 500 mountains, 2,000 miles of rivers and streams and over a million acres of forest have been decimated by mountaintop mining operations.
Finally, coal plants consume billions of gallons of water each year. What do you do when confronted with facts and statistics like this? Cancel my LEAF reservation? Hell no! I, for one, am going to get more information and take action. This weekend, as part of 10-10-10, 350.org’s global day of climate action, 6353 events are being planned in 187 countries. In Los Angeles, there are two great events you can choose from. Or better yet, go to both.
Founded by Bill McKibben, one of the first environmentalists to sound the warning about global warming, 350.org is an international grassroots campaign to unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis. Its name comes from the determination by scientists that 350 parts per million is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.
For all of human history up until 200 years ago, we had about 275 ppm. Today we are at 392 ppm and rising. So their ambitious goal is to reduce our carbon emissions and get back to 350 ppm before it’s too late.
California is pretty progressive, right? We’ve set energy policy for the nation before. Remember catalytic converters? Well, in 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law AB 32, California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act. This law mandates that the state reduce carbon emissions 20% by 2020 back to 1990 levels. Not only would that reduce pollution and global warming, but it would also bring $10 billion of investment into the clean energy industry and hundreds of thousands of new green jobs to our state, jobs we so desperately need.
Sounds great, right? But what happened? While regulations are being implemented and businesses are getting off the ground, two Texas oil companies have been spending tens of millions of dollars on Prop 23, the deceptively named California Jobs Initiative on the November ballot. If passed, this would postpone the implementation of AB 32 until California’s unemployment rate drops to 5%. Anyone see that happening any time soon? Right now the unemployment rate is 12.8% and climbing.
As for coal, we all can see the effect of Big Coal money on policies, regulation and enforcement in this country. We all remember back in April when Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia exploded killing 29 miners. This was a totally preventable disaster that happened because Massey didn't want to spend the money to put in place proper safety procedures and equipment. Thousands more safety violations have been reported in Massey mines throughout West Virginia and Kentucky since the Upper Big Branch disaster.
Why does this continue to happen? Because instead of spending their money on safety and paying the multiple fines they have amassed, Massey would rather fund lobbyists and innocent sounding front groups like The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCE) and nuisance suits against environmentalists. In 2010, the coal industry spent $13 million on direct campaign contributions to individuals running for federal office.
And what do they get for their money? Lax enforcement of the regulations that do exist and millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for technologies that don’t work. The U.S. government continues to aggressively fund coal-related projects despite all that is known about coal’s impacts on health, climate and the economy.
In 2009, the Department of Energy asked for $648 million of “clean coal” projects – the largest request for coal R&D in 25 years. And now the ACCE is spending $120 million on ads, slick websites and a bus tour to deceive people about how bad coal really is.
So what is happening here in Los Angeles with regard to getting off of fossil fuels? And how can we ordinary citizens without the huge treasure chests of big business and big government help move it along? Mayor Villaraigosa’s goal is that LA get 20% of its power from renewable sources by 2010 and 40% by 2020. That would make a huge difference as LA has the second largest city owned utility company in the country.
We’ve already met the first goal. Considering we were at only 5% in 2005, that is quite an achievement. So how do we get the remaining 20%. According to Evan Gillespie, regional representative for The Sierra Club, we could increase our capacity for renewables through local sources and from large farms outside the area.
First, we need to pass something called the solar feed in tariff. This is a plan where businesses and homeowners would put solar panels on their roofs, and the DWP would buy all of the power they generate. Second, we can build large wind and solar farms like the Milford project. This is a wind farm being planned in Utah which would use the transmission lines coming from the existing coal plant. If we could transition off of the two coal power plants to renewable sources, it would be the equivalent of removing 6 million cars from the roads.
Sounds easy, right? Who would be opposed to something like this? Well, in order to fund it, we would need to have a rate increase. Not so easy. It took several attempts to get LA’s first rate increase in ten years passed last April, and that’s probably only enough of an increase to start paying back the debt that the DWP accrued to pay for the increasing costs of coal.
Right now, people see coal at just under 5 cents per kilowatt hour as our cheapest source of energy. But according to the Sierra Club’s David Caso, coal is going to get a lot more expensive. First, Obama and his EPA are going to force coal companies to factor in the externalties (costs to health and the environment) into the cost of coal. Also, the actual costs of coal are going up as costs like shipping by rail increase. So we either pay now or we pay later. But if we pay now, we’ll do so with benefit to our health and our environment.
So how can we help? I’ve always believed the most effective social change can come first at the personal and then at the community level. We saw how impossible it was to pass even a watered down climate bill in Washington this past year. But in our own day to day activities, we can certainly do little things like bike to work, carpool, unplug our appliances when we don’t use them, etc.
On the citywide level, we can join the LA Beyond Coal Campaign which is part of the Sierra Club’s nationwide Beyond Coal campaign that has worked locally around the country to halt proposals for 131 new coal plants to date. We need to take the actions they suggest to convince the DWP and the City Council to develop the most progressive Integrated Resource Plan possible. On the statewide level, we must vote no on Prop 23 in November and tell all our friends to do the same.
This Sunday, you can show your support for all these actions by attending the “March against Prop 23 and Stop Texas Oil Rally” at 10:30 at the Valero gas station at the corner of 5th and Alameda and then march to the music of a samba band to City Hall at noon. Then at 12:30 on the South Lawn of City Hall, you can enjoy the “Kick Coal and Oil out of LA Rally” organized by Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. According to Greenpeace organizer Jenny Binstock, the rally is designed to “bring communities together to highlight the many ways we are bound to fossil fuels and learn about how we can move our city toward being a national leader in clean energy and fighting climate change.”
The events are held on the same day as LA’s first cicLAvia. Modeled after the original cicLAvia in Bogota, Columbia where every year 80 miles of streets are closed off to cars, the one in LA features seven miles of streets that traverse ten neighborhoods. Get it? 10-10-10. So come out on Sunday and bicycle or jog or power walk like I do. But do come out.
Like Sally Field says in that bone-loss medication commercial “I’ve got this one body and this one life.” Well, we only have this one planet, and even if we’re not going to be around when all the you know what hits the fan, our children and grandchildren will. We can’t wait for our politicians to do it for us. We’ve seen how well that hopey, changey thing has worked out.
Stand up and be counted at rallies and public hearings. Make telephone calls, sign petitions and write letters to public officials and newspapers and get your friends to do the same. Like Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Yeah, I’d rather end with Gandhi. No offense Sally.
For more information about the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, go to: https://www.sierraclub.org/coal/ca/
For more information about No on 23, go to: https://www.stopdirtyenergyprop.com/
For more information on cicLAvia and to get a route map, go to: https://ciclavia.wordpress.com/
For more information on 350.org, go to: https://www.350.org/
After a 12 year career in cable television, much of it spent managing and producing programming for community access stations in Boston and LA, Lauren Steiner left the paid workforce to raise her two sons. When Bush started making noises about invading Iraq after 9/11, Lauren decided it was time to become involved in politics on the grassroots level. For the past six years, she has organized documentary screenings and panel discussions about health care, environmental and campaign finance reform issues. More recently she helped organize lobbying visits for a campaign finance bill and for the preservation of net neutrality. Lauren is pleased to be writing for the LA Progressive about some of the issues she finds important, highlighting the groups in LA seeking to make a difference and letting readers know how they can get involved.