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To understand California’s climate-change challenge, look no further than its popular ride-hailing companies.

Uber, Lyft and other companies make up a tiny piece of the biggest greenhouse-gas polluter in the state: transportation. Yet their contribution to climate-warming emissions is outsized, drawing attention from researchers and lawmakers and raising an ambitious question: How can the state rein in emissions from gig economy companies built on drivers who own their vehicles?

The latest strike against Uber and Lyft comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group that published a report in late February showing ride-hailing trips release 69 percent more climate-warming emissions than the walking, biking, transit and other car trips they displace. The findings support California’s own analysis, which concluded ride-hailing increases carbon dioxide pollution by 50 percent for every mile a passenger travels, compared to when they drive themselves.

The state took action in 2018, passing a first-of-its-kind law to curb that carbon pollution. It tasked the California Air Resources Board with setting targets to increase electric-vehicle miles within ride-hailing companies and to cut carbon dioxide for every mile a ride-hailing passenger travels. The California Public Utilities Commission must then enforce those rules when they take effect, which is slated for 2023.

California’s cars, trucks, planes and trains produce about 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Ride-hailing makes up a small fraction of that, accounting for 1.2 percent of the miles Californians travel by car. Still, the issue illustrates a much bigger challenge, said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis and a member of California’s air board.

“In some cases, we’re picking on them, with laws and rules like this. But on the other hand, it’s kind of a first step towards doing good, sustainable transportation policy,” Sperling told CalMatters. “They’re the guinea pigs.”


Why Is California Regulating Ride-Hailing?

Ride-hailing vehicles don’t pollute more than the rest of the cars in the state, but the distance they travel between rides makes them a problem, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists and the air board.

In fact, the ride-hailing fleet is more fuel-efficient on average, since it tends to consist of newer cars, more hybrids and more passenger cars rather than light trucks, according to a December report from the Air Resources Board.

While travelers driving themselves tend to go directly to a location, those working for ride-hailing companies drive extra miles between ride requests, or on the way to pick up a passenger. Those extra miles—when the driver is alone in the car—are called “deadhead miles,” and they make up almost 40 percent of the distance driven by ride-hailing vehicles.

For some drivers, that number is even greater.

“I’m a part-time driver, and I only drive during high demand times, like Friday night, right? And still, I would say that I have about a 50 or 60 percent occupancy rate,” said Nicole Moore, a Lyft driver and organizer with Rideshare Drivers United. “On a Friday night in the middle of Hollywood, I’ll have an empty car for like half an hour. Then I’ll get a 10-minute ride, and that’s it.”

Though ride-hailing makes up a small fraction of all California car miles, its impact is visible. Ride-hailing alone is responsible for about half of San Francisco’s rise in traffic congestion from 2010 to 2016, according to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. And it’s growing—while rides with taxis, ride-hailing and car-sharing make up less than 5 percent of vehicle miles traveled globally today, that number could be 19 percent by 2040, a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance projected.

“We know that that sector is growing,” said Joshua Cunningham, branch chief of advanced clean cars at the Air Resources Board. “Putting in a regulation to start controlling those emissions is really important.”


Setting Statewide Goals

That’s where the law requiring the air board to set carbon dioxide and electrification standards for ride-hailing fleets comes in. Authored by Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, it also tasks the California Public Utilities Commission with enforcing the rules and requires the ride-hailing companies to figure out how to meet them.

“We’re serious about our environmental impact,” Uber representative Austin Heyworth said at a recent air board meeting, where he expressed Uber’s support for the law and the air board’s efforts. Lyft, in a statement, said it is “striving to make every ride 100 percent electric over time.”

Others, however, are pushing a more ambitious strategy: electrify within the decade.

Environmental groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists and Sierra Club California urged the board at a January 23 meeting to evaluate what it would take to fully electrify ride-hailing fleets by 2030. The board directed staff to look into it.

Achieving zero-emission fleets, however, could be complicated in the gig economy. Because drivers typically own the vehicles they use, “fleet costsfall directly on the driver—gas, electricity, maintenance, everything and the cost of the vehicle,” said part-time Lyft driver Moore. Ride-hailing companies will have to curb emissions from cars they don’t even own.

It’s not the first time California’s heard this full-electrification idea. An early version of the 2018 bill included a requirement that ride-hailing companies shift to all zero-emission vehicles by 2030. Uber and Lyftlobbied successfully to remove it, citing concerns that low-income drivers would not be able to afford an electric vehicle, according to Streetsblog California.

Skinner said she wants to see the board take bold action in setting standards that will help clean California’s air and combat climate change.

“I want them to set the most ambitious goals possible and feasible,” Skinner said.

Still, air board staffer Cunningham called 100 percent electrification an “aggressive target.” While Cunningham was reluctant to speculate about the staff’s final assessment, he said in an email to CalMatters, “it is unlikely staff will determine that 100 percent electrification in 2030 is feasible.”


What’s Next?

Electrification is not the only way to decrease ride-hailing emissions. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ report also advocates for increasing shared rides and incentivizing trips that connect to public transit or bike or scooter shares.

Promoting connections to public transit is something the California Air Resources Board already is talking about. One idea is to reward ride-hailing companies for voluntarily connecting to transit or other low-carbon forms of transportation, like scooters or bikes, by giving them “regulatory credits” that count toward their emissions requirements, Cunningham said.

Gregory Erhardt, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, said there are “a lot of good reasons to be skeptical” of the notion that ride-hailing benefits public transit, however. Erhardt, who has studied public transportation ridership, said ride-hailing discourages commuters from using public transit and fills the road with more cars.

After hitting a peak in 2014, transit ridership in the United States began to decline. “Now, that drop-off is strange, because this is during a period in which the economy is strong; there are more jobs; and it’s during a period in which transit agencies are really expanding their service,” Erhardt said. “We would expect ridership to be going up and not down.”

Ride-hailing may have played a part: Erhardt found that public-transit ridership decreased when ride-hailing was introduced to an area, according to a study published in 2019. (A recent uptick in national transit ridership can be attributed to isolated growth in the New York City and Washington, D.C., regions, but even there, the cities didn’t beat their record high numbers.)

While the Union of Concerned Scientists study concedes that “today, ride-hailing competes with and draws riders away from mass transit,” it argues that the companies could promote connections to it. In some areas, Lyft and Uber provide information in apps about public-transit options, and in Denver, travelers can pay for public-transit rides through the Uber app, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists report.

Erhardt said the new report offered “promising paths forward.” To make these happen, however, the companies likely will need a push. In California, as the Air Resources Board crafts its regulation, the coming year will determine just how far the state will go to address the climate impact of ride-hailing.

“There’s not an incentive, without that regulatory push,” Erhardt said. “That’s the sort of lever that we need to incentivize people to change their behavior, both the companies and the travelers.”


‘You Have to Pull Drivers Up’

Don Anair, research and deputy director of the clean vehicles program with the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of the recent report, said the responsibility to address ride-hailing emissions “squarely falls on the companies.” Even though they do not own the fleet vehicles, Uber and Lyft could incentivize drivers to buy or lease electric cars, he said. He also suggested the companies encourage pooled rides by adjusting prices so more passengers want to share a trip.

Some ride-hailing companies already are experimenting with initiatives to make zero-emission vehicles more available to drivers. Last year, Lyft launched an electric-vehicle rental program for drivers in Denver with a fleet of electric Kias. Rental prices increase with distance driven, starting at $230 a week.

Part-time Lyft driver Moore called these rental programs the “indentured servitude of the rideshare” because of how long it takes to earn enough money to pay off the rental fee. Representatives for Lyft and the Union of Concerned Scientists told CalMatters these rental programs could lower barriers to driving cleaner cars.

With time, the price of electric vehicles will go down, Anair said, and more used electric vehicles will enter the market. But right now, the steep up-front cost makes them unaffordable for some drivers, even though maintenance and fuel generally are cheaper than for gasoline vehicles.

That’s why Moore said that focusing solely on the cars won’t be enough. Moore drives a hybrid now, and it’s the first new car she’s ever bought. If she had to buy an electric vehicle, she “would have to quit driving and find another way to pay the bills,” Moore said. “You have to pull drivers up at the same time you pull standards up for their cars.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

In June 1966, a full-page advertisement appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, warning readers: “Now Only You Can Save Grand Canyon From Being Flooded … For Profit.”

David Brower, the Sierra Club’s executive director, was blasting two proposed dams that would have backed up the Colorado River into Grand Canyon National Park. The attack sounds tame in our vitriolic era, but it triggered such an unprecedented wave of anti-dam letters to Congress that the Internal Revenue Service revoked the club’s tax-exempt status as a nonpolitical organization. When dam-backers argued that a reservoir would make it easier to admire the canyon, Brower’s next ad notoriously asked, “Should We Also Flood the Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer the Ceiling?” By summer’s end, his public relations barrage had killed the huge project.

In The Man Who Built the Sierra Club, Robert Wyss details how Brower transformed the club from a modest Pacific Coast hiking network into America’s most-prominent environmental organization, in the process elevating the conservation movement into a national political force. Wyss portrays a true believer who fought relentlessly to protect the natural world. He succeeded, Wyss says, “because he made people care.” And he did so by becoming a deft public-relations pioneer.

Born in 1912 in Berkeley, Calif., Brower discovered the Sierra Club through mountain climbing. (He made 130 first ascents.) He honed his rhetorical skills leading the club’s popular 1930s backcountry outings, playing his accordion and telling campfire stories.

After serving in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division during World War II, Brower became the Sierra Club’s first-ever executive director. His tenure, from 1952 through 1969, marked the country’s most successful environmental protection achievements, and Brower’s outreach was essential, starting with his campaign against a proposed dam in Dinosaur National Monument in the 1950s. Brower inspired supporters through short films and an oversized book of panoramic photographs. At a time when color TV and interstate highways were novelties, Brower presented vivid and breathtaking scenes of remote natural landscapes few had visited, countering claims the region was a wasteland.

The films, screened from garden clubs to the Capitol, were “the most important thing we did in offsetting the Bureau of Reclamation’s propaganda,” Brower said. The book, edited by Wallace Stegner, launched Sierra Club’s signature coffee-table book series. “(Brower) had created a new genre, an expensive, sprawling book that openly touted an environmental message,” Wyss writes. His films, books and ads not only boosted membership; they helped protect Redwoods and North Cascades national parks and pass the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Those campaigns, Wyss writes, showed how environmental and advocacy groups could use media and public relations “in a way never seen before to win over sympathizers and outrage opponents.” Brower, however, always regretted the compromise that spared Dinosaur, since it led to the damming of the Colorado River and the creation of Lake Powell. Eventually, he opposed nearly all development.

His no-compromise message and natural charisma made Brower a hero on 1960s and 1970s college campuses. He gave what he called “The Sermon” hundreds of times, asking listeners to imagine the Earth’s 4-billion-year geologic history as an abbreviated six-day creation tale. If humans arrived on Earth just minutes before the end of the sixth day, he said, then the Industrial Revolution started 1/40th of a second before midnight, vividly symbolizing our brief but massive impact on the planet. “Brower was the evangelist, the apostle, the messiah,” Wyss writes, “drawing the young, who would become pilgrims to the cause.”

Brower’s fiery stubbornness would also be his undoing. As director, Brower publicly contradicted the Sierra Club’s support for California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, and later published new books without board approval. In 1969, Sierra Club leaders forced his resignation. Brower started other environmental groups and later reconciled with the Sierra Club, but he never again wielded the same power. He died in 2000, at the age of 88. Wyss laments Brower’s downfall, and argues the conservation movement still suffers from “a leadership vacuum.”

Today, cable news and social media allow people to instantaneously spread information and communicate with officials. Environmentalists still buy newspaper ads, give campus presentations and publish photography books. They also Snapchat, fire off email blasts and give TED talks. This past spring, Patagonia Inc. launched a virtual-reality-enabled multimedia website to defend Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which the Trump administration has since slated for a massive reduction. The website allows a visitor to listen to a Hopi archaeologist talk about Bears Ears’ cultural significance while scrolling around 360-degree views of slot canyons and rock art, as if on a hike. It’s a novel and evocative online experience, even without VR glasses, and the site is still gaining nationwide attention and support for the monument. As you click through the scenes, you see the digital legacy of David Brower’s PR successes—a sermon still being preached.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Man Who Built the Sierra Club: A Life of David Brower

By Robert Wyss

Columbia University Press

400 pages, $35

Published in Literature

Inside the California Assembly chamber on the night of June 1, the presiding officer urged lawmakers to recognize former members in their midst, “the honorable Henry Perea and Felipe Fuentes.”

In a familiar Capitol ritual, the former assemblymen waved from the balcony as applause rang out from their one-time colleagues.

But the two weren’t just retired lawmakers—they were now lobbyists being paid by oil companies to kill a bill that would soon meet its fate on the Assembly floor below.

That bill, by Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, would have forced industry to reduce air pollution that comes from their plants. Garcia knew the lobbyists in the balcony were pals of many of her Assembly colleagues. She knew oil and other industries were working hard to defeat her. And she knew her bill was in danger.

A million people in her industrial Los Angeles neighborhood “have been treated like a wasteland,” Garcia said in frustration, wiping tears from her eyes. Then she cast a glance toward the balcony. “Clean air is a big deal for a lot of Californians. You have a choice: Do we all matter?”

Her bill fell six votes short, as moderate Democrats joined Republicans to quash it. The moment marked a win for oil—and revolving-door politics.

Today, Garcia cites the lobbyists’ special relationships with current legislators as among the factors to blame for her bill’s demise.

“When you have a former member on the floor at the same time they are working for or against the bill,” she said, “you open the opportunity to have access in a way lobbyists normally would not have.”

Sacramento is full of termed-out or retired lawmakers who make second careers as lobbyists, strolling through a “revolving door” between government and the private sector. Current law prohibits ex-legislators from directly lobbying their former colleagues for one year after they leave the Legislature, and a measure on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk would slightly strengthen that by barring legislators who quit mid-term from lobbying during the remainder of that two-year-session, plus another year.

Still, the oil industry’s strategy this year was striking. After failing last year to prevent a new law requiring massive cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, oil came back this year lobbying hard. Democrats held a supermajority in the Legislature, but were divided over how to redesign the state’s landmark cap-and-trade program, which forces businesses to reduce emissions or pay for permits to pollute.

The oil industry’s goal: to shape the next phase of cap and trade through 2030. And it had hired four former lawmakers—all Democrats—to advocate on its behalf.

Each hailed from predominantly working-class, Latino districts and joined an influential “mod squad” of moderates during their legislative tenures, which covered various periods between 2002 and 2015. Two are from Kern County, the biggest oil producer in California. And three quit their elective office mid-term to work for industry.

All four declined interviews for this article, as did their employers. Three were registered lobbyists during the peak of cap and trade negotiations this year:

Henry Perea, the son of a Fresno City Council member and grandson of Mexican immigrants, made his mark in the Assembly as the former leader of its mod caucus before quitting mid-term, initially to work for a pharmaceutical trade association. Now he lobbies for the Western States Petroleum Association.

Felipe Fuentes, raised in the San Fernando Valley, worked as a legislator to secure tax credits to keep filmmakers in the state, then was named to the Los Angeles Times 2016 “naughty” list for bailing on his Los Angeles City Council seat to become a lobbyist. His firm’s clients include an oil production company.

Michael Rubio, who worked his way up in Kern County politics, abruptly quit the state Senate in 2013 to work for Chevron, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

• A fourth is not a registered lobbyist, but manages government affairs for a refinery company: Nicole Parra, whose father was a Kern County supervisor, won election to the Assembly at age 32 and also became a mod caucus leader, known for sometimes endorsing Republicans.

“The industry showed incredible smarts by going out and hiring these people. Nationally, the oil industry is very Republican,” said David Townsend, a Democratic political consultant who knows all four through his work running a fundraising committee that helps elect business-friendly Democrats.

“Their knowledge base is enormous. Their relationships are broad-based and deep. If I were in trouble, they are some of the ones I’d hire,” Townsend said.

Oil companies have a long history of fighting against the aggressive climate policies backed by many California Democrats. This year, though, instead of fighting against cap and trade, oil teamed with other business interests to lobby to make cap and trade more industry-friendly. In the final deal that lawmakers approved on a bipartisan vote in July, oil won a new law forbidding local air-quality districts from enacting emissions restrictions tighter than the state’s—as well as a potential perk worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Leading environmental groups supported the bill to extend cap and trade for another decade, but other environmentalists wound up opposing it for being too easy on polluters.

“This easy crossing from legislator to advocate for the industry has happened before, but it seems to have been happening recently in greater bulk. So that, to me, is kind of distressing,” said Kathryn Phillips, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, which opposed the cap-and-trade plan. “These are people who have been friends with the people they are going to lobby.”

Many aspects of those relationships play out in ways the public never sees—through text messages and phone calls, or at private get-togethers. Weeks before lawmakers voted on the final cap-and-trade bills, Senate leader Kevin de León dined with Perea and Rubio at an intimate Sacramento restaurant known for $44 steaks.

De León, a Los Angeles Democrat who has carried many clean-energy bills, said former lawmakers didn’t get any special treatment from him.

“I sit down with everybody across the spectrum. That’s my job as the leader of the Senate,” he said. “I have to sit down with all perspectives, whether it’s oil, whether it’s clean energy, whether it is labor unions, whether it’s businesses.”

After Perea became a lobbyist, he met with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to talk about cap and trade, and held additional meetings with the speaker’s staff, Rendon acknowledged. But the speaker rejected the idea that former lawmakers were especially influential in negotiating the next phase of California’s landmark climate policy.

“On an issue like cap and trade, where members arrive with a certain set of values and with information already, I am inclined to think that this is less impactful,” Rendon said.

On the other hand, former lawmakers—especially those who served most recently—can bring unique insider know-how to any lobbying effort. They understand caucus dynamics, know how to tailor persuasive messages to particular legislators, and enjoy unusual access to public officials.

Signs of that were on display throughout the year in the bustling Capitol. In April, Parra participated in a lunchtime discussion with legislative staffers about professional advancement for women of color, joined by a legislator, a lawmaker’s chief of staff and an aide to the governor who works on environmental issues. And in September, as lawmakers began a long night voting on dozens of bills, Perea strolled down a Capitol hallway packed with lobbyists and slipped into the back door of the Assembly chamber—right past a sign labeling the room restricted to “members and staff only.”

Well-connected environmental advocates also roam the halls. Last year, for example, the Assembly honored former legislator Christine Kehoe, a San Diego Democrat who now runs a group that works to expand use of electric vehicles.

When politicians leave office, they frequently take a job developing a lobbying strategy—but not directly lobbying. Rubio did that when he quit the Legislature in 2013 to work for Chevron, as did Perea when he resigned in 2015 to work for a pharmaceutical trade association. But as the cap-and-trade negotiations heated up this year, both officially registered as lobbyists—a sign that they anticipated having a lot more direct contact with lawmakers. Perea left the pharmaceutical group to join the Western States Petroleum Association as a registered lobbyist in May. The next month, Rubio registered as a lobbyist for Chevron. In September, he filed paperwork with the Secretary of State ending his registration as a lobbyist. (Both men scored spots this year on a popular list of the 100 most influential players around the Capitol.)

Fuentes was elected to the Los Angeles City Council after he was termed out of the Assembly in 2012. He quit the City Council last year to become a lobbyist with a firm called the Apex Group, whose many clients include Aera Energy—a firm that drills for oil in the San Joaquin Valley.

Parra, after being out of elected office for eight years, was hired by Tesoro (now Andeavor) in November as a manager of state government affairs.

No one has complained to California’s political watchdog that the former lawmakers broke any ethics rules in their advocacy work this year. The assemblyman carrying the bill to lengthen the time lawmakers are banned from lobbying said it’s not inspired by any of the Legislature’s recent departures.

Still, even if legal, the idea that personal relationships may influence statewide policy can be disconcerting, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

“If we think about what we’re worried about when it comes to any lobbyist, it’s the idea that our lawmakers are making decisions based on what hired guns are asking them to do as opposed to what’s good public policy,” Levinson said. “Lobbyists have an outsized influence on lawmakers, and that is exponentially increased when that lobbyist is a former lawmaker.”

Even if former lawmakers held office at different times than today’s legislators, they may be connected through other political circles. That was the case for Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, whose time in the lower house coincided with Perea but not the other three. She knew them, though, through California’s larger network of Latino Democrats.

Gonzalez Fletcher said she never felt pressured by the former legislators as the cap-and-trade negotiations advanced—perhaps because she declared her support for the bill early. Still, she saw them around the Capitol or ran into them while out for after-work drinks.

“There was a lot of checking in: ‘Where are people? Where do you think things will land?’ It felt more like information-gathering in my brief discussions with former members,” Gonzalez Fletcher said. “I didn’t feel a lot of hard lobbying going on.”

At a time when many lawmakers worry that Sacramento’s lobbying corps isn’t as diverse as either the state or the Legislature (Latinos make up 39 percent of Californians and 23 percent of state legislators), the oil industry has been represented by black and Latino lobbyists in the Capitol for several years. Its move to bring on the four Latino former lawmakers reflects a larger economic shift in California.

“It’s not because they are Latino,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant with expertise in Latino politics. “It’s because they represented districts that are poor and working-class. There just happens to be a very strong relationship between race and class in California.”

Madrid said working-class communities respond to industry arguments about the cost of environmental regulation—either as consumers who will see the cost of gas increase, or as workers who want to keep blue collar jobs in their regions. With Republicans divided over cap and trade, and lacking much clout in the Capitol, it was logical for oil to bring on some prominent Democrats.

“You’re starting to see a transformation of what has traditionally been a right-left, red-blue, Republican-Democrat divide,” he said. “There is a realignment occurring.”

Another indication emerged five days before lawmakers voted on the cap-and-trade extension. The California Business Roundtable, a group of 30 companies including Chevron and Valero, enlisted a new lobbyist: Richie Ross, former bare-knuckles chief of staff to one of the most powerful Democratic Assembly speakers in state history, Willie Brown.

Today, Ross is unusual among Sacramento lobbyists because he is also a political consultant whose clients include 10 Democratic legislators—giving him financial connections both to the groups that pay him to lobby, and the politicians who pay him for campaign advice.

He said he provided advice to the Roundtable and did not lobby his political clients in the Legislature: “They had me register (as a lobbyist) because at that point, everyone was uncertain as to whether they would need me to lobby.”

The Roundtable’s president, Rob Lapsley, is a longtime Republican. But he said business groups knew that when it came to cap and trade, they needed Democrats involved to get the plan they wanted from a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“Richie is a smart, strategic advisor with long-term relationships. We found that of great value,” Lapsley said. “He goes back a long way. And he was very helpful in getting additional insights.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

On the 10th floor of Xcel Energy’s downtown Denver office building, energy traders sit before banks of screens filled with flickering, colored digits, as they buy and sell electricity for the utility’s sprawling service areas. In one corner, a trader monitors the Midwest wholesale market, and in another, the Southwest Power Pool—an odd name, given that it actually covers the Great Plains, not the Southwest.

On a recent day, an electronic map showed North Dakota in blue; the price of the state’s wind power was near zero. On the other hand, southern Indiana was burnt orange, with the price of a kilowatt-hour near 8 cents. Five minutes later, Ohio turned pale green as the price dropped to 5 cents.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, the trader handling Colorado had no fancy, color-coded price map. When he needed to buy or sell, he had to get on the phone and call around to other utilities to find out what they had, at what prices. Then he had to fix the price, coordinate the dispatch of the electricity, and file the paperwork—all things being done automatically across the room by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, and the Southwest Power Pool, which covers all or parts of seven states.

There, in a nutshell, is the state of affairs when it comes to Western electricity markets. While 60 percent of the nation’s electricity is handled through computerized regional markets, the West is stuck in the 1980s.

Electricity sales in the West are Balkanized among 38 “balancing authorities,” or local markets.

All provisions for necessary plants and power, including backup reserves, must be made by the utilities in each local market, while the companies in the neighboring market do the same. Electrons don’t flow between them.

But in a bigger market, electricity—a perishable commodity that moves at the speed of light—can travel wherever there is demand. There is less need for redundant backup systems, as someone is always making electricity, and someone is always buying.

“If Iowa wants to go to 80 percent (wind), they can, because they belong to the Midwest ISO,” says Steve Berberich, chief executive officer of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), an in-state wholesale market.

But the day of a Western electricity market, also known as a regional transmission organization (RTO), may be at hand. CAISO and Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp, which operates power plants in six Western states, are looking to form a regional market. Berberich says he hopes that market can be extended across the entire West.

On the eastern end of the region, seven utilities, including Xcel, have formed the Mountain West Transmission Group, which extends from Wyoming into New Mexico and Arizona. The group—a precursor to an RTO—is trying to develop a uniform transmission charge, or tariff, for the region. Currently, each utility has its own charge for moving electricity through its wires. Once it has developed a uniform tariff, it may join one of the nearby regional transmission organizations or create its own market.

Regional markets have a lot of moving parts. MISO operates a day-ahead market where wholesale power is sold from utility to utility for the coming day, as well as a real-time market to fill in for unexpected demand or outages. Electricity suppliers submit bids to MISO, which then fills orders for that power starting with the lowest price. The price at which all orders are filled is called the clearing price, calculated by algorithms and computers for the spot, or real-time market every five minutes.

In this bidding system, wind and solar, with their steadily declining prices, are becoming more attractive to utilities.

“Any time you can avoid a fuel burn, you’ve got an opportunity for savings,” says Stephen Beuning, Xcel’s director of market operations.

At the moment, however, wind power from Wyoming or solar electricity from California can’t easily move around the West. On one day, CAISO had to dump 485 megawatts of wind and 657 megawatts of solar, because there was no way to sell it to utilities outside its grid.

“We can’t get to the goal of 50 to 60 percent renewable energy by 2050 without an RTO,” says Zichella.

In theory, a West-wide RTO would have allowed California to sell that excess wind and solar to, say, Utah or Colorado, thus avoiding the need to burn natural gas there. Similarly, Colorado utilities could ship excess wind power to California to back up solar during times of peak demand.

Setting up an RTO isn’t easy, though.

“The software is a huge expense—and California has created it and is willing to share with the West,” says Nancy Kelly, a senior energy policy adviser with Western Resource Advocates, an environmental group.

California’s offer to share, however, is being met warily around the West by those who are concerned that while a Golden State-dominated system might be good for California, it may be less so for others.

CAISO is controlled by the California governor and Legislature. “That is going to have to change to be acceptable to the PacifiCorp states,” says Bryce Freeman, administrator of the Wyoming Office of Consumer Advocate. “Unless that is resolved, it’s a fool’s errand.” PacifiCorp operates in Oregon, Washington, California, Utah, Wyoming and Idaho.

In Utah, lawmakers are drafting a bill to give them veto power over joining the CAISO market. “We aren’t opposed,” says Jeffrey Barrett, deputy director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Energy Development. “We just want to make sure it is a good deal for Utah.”

The state has among the lowest electricity rates in the West—a competitive advantage it doesn’t want to lose, Barrett says.

Though they concede that a regional grid could help renewables, the Sierra Club is opposed to the current CAISO expansion plan, because it would bring 24 coal-fired PacifiCorp units into the regional system.

“In bumping up the productivity of these coal plants, it will throw a lifeline to some, allowing them to operate for another 16 years,” said Travis Ritchie, an attorney with Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Still, economic forces and renewable-energy policies look to be pushing the West toward a regional market. A CAISO study released in July found the proposed RTO would lead to up to $1.5 billion in savings annually in California by 2030—equal to a 3 percent cut in electricity rates.

It would also lead to a reduction in toxic and greenhouse gas emissions across the West, according to the study, although there would be a slight bump up in the early years from the PacifiCorp coal-fired plants.

The analysis, however, didn’t look at benefits outside California. “A big question is: Will costs and benefits be equal across the system,” says Elta Kolo, an analyst with GTM Research, an energy consulting firm. “It will be crucial to get consumers on board.”

The West presents some unique challenges. The New England ISO covers six states, but is an area one-thirteenth the size of the size of the West, a region with a mix of sparsely populated states and heavily urban ones, states with ambitious renewable energy standards, and those heavily tied to coal.

“They are different, but still similar in that they need electrons, they need reserve capacity, and they need to make money,” says Amanda Ormond, managing director of the Western Grid Group, which advocates for a more efficient grid to promote renewable energy.

“A Western market is almost certainly inevitable,” Ormond says. “Most of the utilities in this country and the rest of the world operate in organized markets, because it is more efficient. It is going to happen.”

Published in Environment

Last month, California’s Mojave and Colorado Deserts, along with the neighboring San Bernardino Mountains, became home to three new national monuments—Castle Mountains, Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow—thanks to President Barack Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act.

Together, these new monuments protect 1.8 million acres of desert and mountains. These new monuments will help preserve the ecological integrity of a region under tremendous pressure from two of the country’s fastest-growing urban regions, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. By connecting existing protected areas, plants and animals will have a better chance to move to cooler and wetter climates as our deserts become hotter and drier due to climate change. These new monuments will help to ensure that California’s magnificent deserts and neighboring mountains are healthy and whole for years to come.

The monuments also protect a region that’s brimming with stories of the diverse people who’ve made their homes here.

Castle Mountains provides an important buffer between an old gold mining site and the Mojave National Preserve. Prospectors first flocked to the Castles in 1908. The boomtown of Hart grew from nothing to 1,500 people in just a few months. Today, the site is barely perceptible: One can find just a chimney, tin cans and memories. When Interstate 40 was completed in 1973, the busy roadside services of US Highway 66 in Mojave Trails disappeared overnight. Proprietors simply walked away from their cafes, service stations and motels. Now these remnants of history are slowly turning to dust, even as this lonely stretch of the “Mother Road” attracts tourists from all over the world. Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa in Sand to Snow host village sites that are thousands of years old. Numerous petroglyphs, pictographs and grinding stones found there offer a glimpse into the life of Native Americans before contact with the Spanish.

However, the creation of these new national monuments is just the beginning. As communities across the desert rightfully celebrate the designation of these monuments, the exciting work of making them more than lines on a map begins. Local elected officials, business leaders, tribes, recreational interests, conservation organizations and others should join together to ensure that adjacent communities such as Barstow, Needles, Morongo Valley and Desert Hot Springs, along with tribes such as the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and the Fort Mojave tribe, receive the full economic, educational and recreational benefits of the newly protected public lands.

Advocates for the new monuments have long highlighted the economic benefits that conservation would provide, and there are numerous studies to support this. However, without proper signage, well-marked trail-heads, adequate parking areas, strategically located front-country campgrounds and good maps, it will be difficult to attract visitors. To realize true economic benefits, it will take infrastructure improvements, marketing and personnel. There must be a significant financial investment, through a public-private partnership.

The Bureau of Land Management, in particular, is going to need an official partner to raise funds for things like the construction of visitor centers, campgrounds, wayside exhibits and signs, as well as the less-exciting, but no-less-important expenses, including operating costs and funding for education and interpretive programs. This new partner organization could work with groups that have existing relationships with the BLM and the Forest Service, like the Mojave Desert Land Trust and The Wildlands Conservancy, in three areas: education, stewardship and recreation. Local schoolchildren need educational resources, and there should be interpretive programs for visitors and locals alike. Stewardship programs can connect people to their public lands, help to build and maintain infrastructure, restore damaged ecosystems, and advance knowledge through citizen-science projects. Finally, we must ensure that the multiple recreational activities permitted in these monuments are carried out responsibly, without damage to natural habitat and in respect of the sacred sites of local tribes, through programs that teach and promote responsible use of our shared natural resources.

Diversity is increasing in the desert, just as it is across the nation, but California’s deserts have always been diverse. Of course, Native Americans have been here for thousands of years. Even in small, isolated railroad and mining towns, residents came from remarkably diverse backgrounds. For example, during Amboy’s heyday in the 1930s and ’40s, along Route 66 in Mojave Trails, a Greek and a Chinese immigrant each owned and operated a café, motel, gas station and garage. Hopi and Navajo railroad workers lived in town and maintained the line. Mexican Americans made up the majority of students in the Amboy School. (To learn more about the history of the Mojave Desert’s mining and railroad communities check out Joe de Kehoe’s book The Silence and the Sun.)

Ensuring that we draw Southern California’s kaleidoscope of races and cultures to enjoy these new monuments is no simple task. It will require having a workforce that reflects diversity, and the creation of an environment for visitors where cultural differences are honored and embraced. To get there, we’ll need conservation leaders who reflect our diverse communities. Fortunately, there are numerous examples of training programs that draw participants from diverse and often underserved communities throughout the Southland. One example is the San Gabriel Mountains Forever’s Leadership Academy, a rigorous program that’s training a new generation of conservation advocates who better reflect the makeup of our nation.

If we want visitors to these new monuments to be as diverse as the communities near them, we have to roll out a multicultural welcome mat. We will have to address issues of access. There must be adequate and affordable transportation and a welcoming environment, including bilingual interpreters, campgrounds that can handle multi-generational visitors, bilingual signage and information, and gender-neutral restrooms to serve both families and the transgender community. Partnering with organizations like Outward Bound Adventures and the Sierra Club’s My Generation Campaign, both of whom are already working in the Coachella Valley, could help break down barriers, economic and cultural, to greater visitation by people of color.

The secretary of the interior, whose department includes the BLM and National Park Service, agrees. Secretary Sally Jewell recently signed an order in honor of the memory of Doug Walker (a long-serving member of The Wilderness Society’s governing council) that will increase access to public lands by youth and young adults who are “disadvantaged and under-resourced.”

Finally, it all has to start by reaching out to diverse communities to ensure that there is maximum participation in the creation of the general management plans that will guide the three new national monuments. We also must include diverse user-groups: Equestrians, off-highway-vehicle users, hunters and conservationists all have interests that must be addressed. Sooner rather than later, listening sessions should be organized throughout the desert and mountain area—something both the BLM and U.S. Forest Service have expressed their determination to do.

All of this will take years to accomplish. However, I’m hopeful that when the first anniversary of these new monuments is marked in February 2017, all stakeholders will see that significant progress has been made. I’m also sure the future of these monuments will be inclusive, reflecting the very best tendencies of Southern California and the nation.

Mati Jatovsky is the California desert representative for The Wilderness Society and a former park ranger interpreter. He lives in Joshua Tree. 

Published in Community Voices

On Earth Day 2014, a group of farmers, ranchers and Native Americans who live along the route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline marched and rode horseback through Washington, D.C., wearing cowboy hats and feather headdresses. On the National Mall, they erected tipis and held ceremonies; a couple of days later, they gave a hand-painted tipi to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in President Barack Obama’s honor. They gave the tipi the same names that the Lakota and Crow gave Obama in 2008—“Man Who Helps the People” and “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land.”

The message was implicit: The man who helps the people rejects the Keystone pipeline. In November, Obama did just that, handing the climate movement its clearest political victory yet.

The fight over Keystone XL gained national attention when prominent environmentalists like Bill McKibben positioned it as a litmus test of Obama’s commitment to fighting climate change. The pipeline would have connected the Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries; most environmentalists argued that it shouldn’t be built because it would lock in the continued exploitation of one of the dirtiest fuels on Earth.

But for those who marched on Washington last year, the battle was more personal. Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska feared the pipeline would leak, polluting their land and water, and jeopardizing their livelihoods. Tribes worried about water contamination, disturbances to treaty lands and the possibility of man camps popping up near their communities and increasing crime. Many landowners said TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, tried to bully them into signing easements.

“They didn’t like that a private corporation could use eminent domain for their own gain,” says Jane Kleeb, who organized opposition in Nebraska. “And they really didn’t like that it was a foreign corporation.”

Together, the self-described cowboys and Indians and the climate crusaders proved a potent political force. Here was a project that could be framed as a high-stakes climate issue that got regular folks fired up, too—something the 2010 effort to pass federal carbon legislation achieved only insofar as it provoked rabid opposition from Tea Partiers. That cap-and-trade bill was designed by a handful of big green groups to be palatable to big business, but included little to inspire popular support—and environmentalists made scant effort to build a broad coalition to fight for it.

With Keystone, the national groups gave the local concerns additional weight, and the locals provided the national fight with unexpected—and often conservative—spokespeople. It helped that, all over the country, a slew of other proposed pipelines, fracking projects, fossil-fuel export terminals, natural gas storage facilities and coal and oil trains were sparking loud and sustained local opposition. Keystone became a common enemy activists rallied around. They brought populist passion to the national environmental movement—a fervor that it’s lacked for years, but that’s crucial for pressuring politicians to take stands on controversial issues.

“Keystone was a proof-of-concept that infrastructure fights can garner some political constituency and can be won,” says Eric de Place, policy director for the Sightline Institute, a Northwest think tank that opposes coal exports and crude-by-rail facilities. “I spent a huge portion of my life working on carbon pricing and trying to explain demand curves. But when an oil train goes off the rails and explodes”—as has happened in North Dakota and Canada—“it really highlights for people just how dangerous the fossil fuel infrastructure is.”

Northwestern communities have already beaten back proposals for major new developments to export U.S. coal to Asia, and now they’re working to defeat additional coal and oil train and shipping terminals. Days after Obama rejected Keystone, the Portland, Ore., City Council passed a resolution opposing any new infrastructure that would increase the city’s capacity to store or transport fossil fuels.

“Taken collectively, there’s real momentum against any new fossil fuel infrastructure,” says Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune.

Should oil prices rise, it’s easy to imagine that momentum encountering more friction. In USA Today recently, Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute and Steven Hayward of Pepperdine University argued that the “fracking revolution” that flooded the market with oil and dropped prices is what really enabled Obama to kill Keystone.

In rejecting it, Obama acknowledged that to confront climate change, we need to start leaving some fossil fuels where they are. It was a statement that would have been hard to imagine at the start of his tenure, when “drill baby drill” dominated the energy debate, as well as a symbolic win for climate activists, who are coalescing behind a new campaign to “keep it in the ground.”

That idea is gaining some traction. This month, Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced a bill to end the leasing of federal lands and waters for fossil-fuel extraction. The gesture shocked even environmentalists.

“It’s radical,” de Place admitted, in a delighted, if slightly baffled, tone. “This is the sort of thing that only a few people were talking about five years ago. Now, with the rejection of Keystone, we can contemplate a Senate bill that seemed unsayable a few years ago. It’s evidence that there’s been a broad, titanic shift in the way people talk about energy.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Aaron Mair in May became the first African-American president in the Sierra Club’s 123-year history.

Mair, most recently a research analyst with the New York State Department of Health, has been an advocate for the preservation of natural spaces and for equal access to public land for decades. One of Mair’s primary goals as president is to address critical socio-economic issues often neglected by the conservation community.

An expert in spatial epidemiology with a degree in Southwest Asian and North African studies from New York’s Binghamton University, Mair is well-versed in the complex relationships between people and the environments in which they live. Mair is known as an advocate for thriving natural landscapes, not only in remote national parks and wilderness, but also in the metropolitan areas where most of the world’s population now lives.

At a time when the Sierra Club struggles to remain relevant to the cultural interests of a population that is growing younger, more urban and more diverse, Mair hopes to shift the club’s mission toward policies that better include the needs and values of under-represented minorities.

James Edward Mills recently spoke to Mair about his background and vision for the Sierra Club.

How did your experiences growing up inform your interest in protecting the natural world?

I’m the son of Ellis Island immigrants from Jamaica, where my family owned land. They were always free people of color, urban dwellers of an agrarian background. Having a garden was part of their life. Going back and forth from Jamaica (with my family), it was going from the concrete jungle of Harlem to the island where it was green.

Most people don’t realize that there were great migrations and structural, political and social economic issues that were forces on blacks of the land throughout the South. Blacks went from having land to being landless and then to being defined by the ghettos that we were placed in when we got to urban settings.

But where we grew up in Northern Westchester, that environment, that green space, made the difference in your life choices and your life outcomes. So if you have that enrichment or that investment and that base, your possibilities and your potential increases.

That diverse community made me stronger. I could network and share and see what other people’s dads—black, white, Hispanic—were doing, or how hard-working they were, and was mentored by that sharing and exchange of values. If you look at nature, when you go into any green space, it’s not monoculture. It’s a diversity of plants and organisms, holistically diverse and connected. So I grew up in one of those suburban middle class blue-collar communities where that type of diversity was organic and informed. Again, it still reflects the divisions and fissures that is America, but it is the core underpinning of my American self.

Was there a particular moment in your career when you became an environmental activist?

When I was doing graduate work at the (State) University of New York at Binghamton, we had to do a project in my master’s thesis class. Ours was basically trying to connect a community to a park. This was right along the Susquehanna River. That was my first time understanding class analysis, access to open space, looking at a community use pattern and actually realizing the impact of urban planning and urban design.

In our society, we look at our government and the places where we live, and we think that nothing is connected. Either you’ve got a park or a road or this or that. But what I realized was that these things are connected; they are designed, and they absolutely shape whole communities. And so one of the things you notice is how the black population was settled in certain portions of (New York City), alienated from this green space … (to which) middle class whites would have access. So even though theoretically, everybody would have access by law, the actual design and plan made the properties that were near this green space more valuable. You start to see the institutional forms of how racism is reinforced and maintained by planning departments, municipal departments, zoning departments, and you realize that this is the power of the vote. This is how political pressure can be brought to bear on the outcome of an environmental system. And that’s when I had the epiphany, in about 1984—that ah-ha moment that just hits you like a ton of bricks.

The Sierra Club has a longstanding tradition of preserving wilderness areas for recreation and the protection of endangered species. What can the Sierra Club and you as its president do to make these environmental issues more relevant to the poor, the socially disenfranchised, the perpetually urbanized and people of color?

What John Muir had recognized was that as our nation was consuming itself, all those natural wonders, all those wild places—we were losing them. That movement then was: If we’re going to rape everything, then we should save these postage stamps of what it used to be. But this preservation occurred among elites who had elitist values, and one could make the case that not all Americans had access to these places and these spaces. These natural wonders were often preserved for the use and exploitation and sport of the top 10 percent of families.

Today, the environmental justice movement is recognizing and taking ownership of the values that people of color hold with respect to their use of the environment. They can play a significant role in protecting it, but things cannot be only from the perspective or point of view of whites. It must include all points of view so that when laws and regulations are fashioned, they’re not advantaging one group over another. The environmental justice movement has affirmed the rights of people of color with regard to their access to clean land, clean air and clean water, and that minority communities cannot, should not, be the dumping ground.

Being the first (black) president, I’m in a position where we’re reshaping club policy. So we’re going after a massive strategic plan about how this organization is operating and making sure that it’s a diverse, equitable, inclusive and welcoming environment. The Sierra Club, in the past, has been a club: You either get in or you get out, and the little localities are very tight and close-knit, and still many are not welcoming places. Now we’re going to the stage of how people of color can step in and become a part of this organization and really shape the culture internally and facilitate that change.

What kind of policies can the Sierra Club create or support to more directly address the issues of environmental justice?

There is some serious intentional and deep work that we have got to do. From the mid ’80s to now, I’ve seen significant change, but it’s still not fast enough or deep enough. We cannot wait for these goals by 2020 and 2050. If they can right now invest a few billion dollars in weapon system programs or a couple of billion dollars in off-shore drilling, they can easily provide those same incentives for the retrofitting and the greening of jobs in urban areas. You would wind up having full employment of the marginalized and underemployed, earning at least living-wage jobs and putting America on the positive side of the feedback loop of taxpayers and homeowners.

President Obama should be as intentional about green jobs as he has been with the “all of the above” carbon strategy by which he has allowed more drilling for oil and natural gas. He should have also been putting in the same amount, buck for buck—in fact, even more—into the green economy, and we would not be seeing the same levels of disparity in a number of our urban centers. But this is where the Sierra Club and powerful old organizations like it—networking with labor and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—can work together through climate-justice initiatives.

The Sierra Club right now is at the ground floor of networking and tying these things together. It’s now working and advocating in places it never traditionally did. You just did not have the Sierra Club doing civil rights marches, because people thought a civil rights march was something different from protecting the environment. But the right to vote shapes land-use policy that protects the environment. In fact, to this day, a lot of the pushback within the Sierra Club is people saying we’re straying away from our mission. My argument is educating them to understand that, no, protecting civil rights and labor rights is critical to our mission. It’s by having a voice from the left, the blue-collar labor and civil rights community, being at the helm of an environmental organization where you are able to see how that all comes together. If you want to know what environmental success looks like, it’s multi-ethnic.

Through your tenure as president of the Sierra Club, how will you define your own success?

What would be success for me is if I could get a hold of the president’s ear to shift him from the “all of the above” strategy that is still fueling our series of climate catastrophes. If I could shift his investment in the re-gridding of America, the retooling of America that provides clean and green jobs for all Americas.

My measure of success is when the voting rights of all citizens are protected so that we have a say in the planning and zoning and land use that allows for sustainable communities. Will I be able to do that within the arc of a year? The answer is no. But what I can do is model the values and belief in the real experience that I have grown up with. And that’s what I bring to this post. I bring a deeper shade of green.

James Edward Mills is a freelance journalist and author of the book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors. This piece originally ran in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond that 67 percent of California voters approved last week, will provide millions of dollars for projects everyone likes.

It sets aside funds to strip pollutants from valuable urban aquifers; it will bring in money to repair aging pipes that leach pollutants into drinking water. Locally, the Salton Sea could get part of the $500 million the measure authorizes for restoring damaged ecosystems.

So what about it makes many environmental groups so mad?

The Center for Biological Diversity, Food and Water Watch, and San Francisco Baykeeper all took an explicit stand against Proposition 1, as did virtually every fisherman’s advocacy group in the state. The Sierra Club, though it officially opposed the legislative bill that produced the ballot measure, remainedneutral in theory, but the group’s position statement announcing neutrality also used the word hate.

Chelsea Tu, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, says the problem comes down to this: While the bond measure does indeed give a nod to higher environmental concerns, “those beneficial provisions are far outweighed by the $2.7 billion in the bill set aside for surface and groundwater storage provisions.”

In other words, the “public benefits” it funds could mean new dams: One would flood 14,000 acres in Colusa County north of Sacramento for the proposed Sites Reservoir; another would augment current San Joaquin River water storage at Temperance Flat. Prop 1 funds could also go toward adding 18.5 feet to Shasta Dam—a $1.1 billion project touted as a “bargain“ by Westlands Water District General Manager Tom Birmingham, but opposed by the Winnemem Wintu tribe, which was flooded out of sacred lands once when the dam was finished in 1945.

Proposition 1 does not explicitly state that any of the $2.7 billion will fund dam projects, however, and not every environmental group worries quite so much. “The era of big dams is over,” pronounced Doug Obegi, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, on the organization’s blog. “The water bond does not earmark funding for Temperance Flat or any other surface storage project.” Dams cost too much money to make sense anymore; even with taxpayer subsidies, they “can’t compete economically with these regional and local water supply projects.”

Emphasizing that NRDC “strongly opposes” both Temperance Flat and a Shasta Dam raising, Obegi’s organization endorsed Prop 1.

Tu thinks that’s not only “optimistic,” but at odds with Gov. Jerry Brown’s oft-stated agenda.

“Every time the governor talks about the water crisis, he talks about building out water infrastructure projects that go back to the 1950s,” she says. “Those are projects that both state and federal legislatures have been pushing for many, many years.” They’re also projects that the state’s agricultural interests, which consume more than three-quarters of the state’s water, have lobbied hard for, along with a multibillion-dollar tunnel project that would suck water from the Sacramento River before it ever gets to the ailing California Delta. (Prop 1 was written to be “tunnel neutral.”)

Adam Scow, California campaigns director for Food and Water Watch, calls Prop. 1 “a bunch of mystery meat,” ominously geared toward finding more ways to deliver water to industrial agriculture. Even more alarming, he says, is that according to the provisions of the bill, the nine members of the California Water Commission have been tasked with allocating the meat. Those nine members have been appointed by “Big Agriculture’s closest ally,” Scow says. “A man named Jerry Brown.”

Scow thinks Proposition 1’s other benefits recede in light of that fact. Aquifer cleanup, water for fish, habitat restoration and drinking water for disadvantaged communities are all good, he says, and even necessary. They just don’t have to be yoked to what he calls “a bloated bond deal,” written with industrial agriculture in mind.

“We do need to address the inequities in water rights we have in this state,” Scow says. “We just don’t need a bond deal to do it.”

But that bond deal is exactly what Californians overwhelmingly approved on Election Day.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell came to the Mojave Desert this September to announce a multi-agency effort to boost renewable energy development in the desert.

But first, she had to go on a hike.

“We went out into the Big Morongo (Canyon) Preserve,” she told reporters. “Fifteen, 20 minutes from here, there are wetlands. Wetlands, and 254 different bird species. Who knew?”

I remember being amazed, too, on a 2008 visit to that same preserve with a couple of California conservationists. I thought I knew the dry desert, its banded sunsets and varieties of lizards. But Morongo was a wonderland of seeps and birds, where a couple of times we stopped to behold a desert tortoise munching on purple flowers.

It was also a wonderland through which the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had hoped to string a transmission corridor. The city planned to call it the Green Path North, as it would haul geothermal energy from the Salton Sea to the transmission hubs that serve Los Angeles.

That transmission line never happened. As with so many renewable-energy projects slated for the Mojave and Colorado deserts of California, Green Path North mostly fell victim to market forces—but not before it sullied the utility’s reputation locally. The proposal had the effect of uniting off-roaders, rock-climbers and conservationists in protest against the careless industrialization of the desert for energy projects—even clean-energy projects.

The new Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a collaboration among federal, state and local governments; the solar industry; Native American tribal leaders; and environmentalists, is an attempt to get ahead of such careless proposals. An analysis of 22.5 million acres of desert land, both public and private, it sets aside habitat for desert species like the tortoise and bighorn sheep. It should guide developers toward land rich with transmission, but absent cultural and natural resources.

Jewell called it a “road map” that can be used for more renewable-energy development around the country. As she stood against a background of windmills just outside of Palm Springs, describing how the Obama administration means to “double down” on public-lands renewable energy development, the 8,000-page document went online.

So far, environmental groups have mostly praised the effort, as have Native American leaders and national park advocates. Kim Delfino, the California program director at Defenders of Wildlife, says she hopes it means that “we can focus on the projects we all can support.” The Sierra Club calls the plan “a promising step” toward protecting “areas with environmental, cultural or scenic value that should be preserved for future generations.”

Energy developers, too, should be happy, as the plan promises to end the uncertainty that has wasted so much of their time and money. Two weeks before the plan’s release, for example, the California Energy Commission had belatedly approved the Palen Solar Power Plant, a collaboration between California-based BrightSource Energy and Spanish developer Abengoa. The commission had rejected the project last December, partially on the grounds that its peculiar technology—fields of mirrors that concentrate sunlight on a 750-foot high tower—would create hazards for birds in the Colorado Desert. A similar BrightSource solar plant on California’s border with Nevada seems to be creating an ecological “megatrap” that kills birds.

But in mid-September, the commission changed course: The project could go ahead, but at only half of its proposed size. Then, on Sept. 26, the developers suddenly withdrew their application. The delay had cost them a federal tax credit and, quite possibly, their power purchase agreement with a major California utility.

The Desert Sun called the cancellation “shocking,” accurately summing up the general reaction to the announcement. But the real shock should not have been that Palen was canceled, but that the project was ever considered an appropriate idea for a place where it could do so much damage.

Will the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which clears the way for 20,000 more megawatts of solar and wind on desert lands by 2040, prevent more ill-planned projects that stutter and fail? Everyone I talked to who’d come to hear Secretary Jewell speak said they were optimistic.

But a conservation plan is only as good as the people who make it happen on the ground. It’s worth remembering the lesson of the Green Path North: No energy project can be green without the support of the people who will have to live alongside it. And environmental ideals mean little if they aren’t backed up by genuine care for the local landscape.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared. She is a contributing editor for the magazine.

Published in Community Voices

As all eyes in the West turn to the skies for relief from 14 years of “mega-drought,” as Gov. Jerry Brown put it when he declared a drought emergency in January, this is as good of a time as any for those of us in the West to ask: “How did we get caught between a rock and a dry place, and what, if anything, can we do about it now?”

To answer that question, we have to go back to the boom-boom years of America’s dam-building. No politician in the West was a bigger believer in the transformative power of impounded water than Arizona’s favorite son, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was the Bureau of Reclamation’s biggest booster in Congress when the agency proposed mind-boggling water projects to tame the mighty Colorado River.

Never mind that the Hoover Commission, in a report commissioned by Congress, warned in 1951 that the Bureau of Reclamation would bankrupt the nation with senseless dams and irrigation projects, while holding future generations of Americans hostage to unpaid bills and unintended consequences.

At a time when Goldwater and the Bureau of Reclamation were enjoying a Golden Age of water projects, their chief nemesis was an environmental crusader named David Brower. Brower, president of the Sierra Club and founder of the Earth Island Institute, single-handedly led the fight against building Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. And lost. He called that defeat “the darkest day of my life.”

Time and old age have a way of bringing people to their senses. Toward the end of his life, Goldwater took political positions that left most of his libertarian allies scratching their heads in bewilderment. Is Barry going senile? Did somebody poison his soup?

No, Goldwater’s public epiphany came about when PBS aired Cadillac Desert, a series based on Marc Reisner’s eponymous book. In the third episode, when Goldwater and Reisner were discussing the adjudication of the Colorado River, the silver-haired Goldwater looked out across the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix and asked, “What have we done to this beautiful desert, our wild rivers? All that dam-building on the Colorado, across the West, was a big mistake. What in the world were we thinking?”

That admission reverberated across the high mesas of the Southwest like summer thunder. A few months later, when Brower and I talked over lunch, I asked him, “What did you do when Goldwater said it was all a big mistake?”

He cackled and then let out an expletive. “I reached for the phone and called (Goldwater), and I said, Barry, let’s do the right thing: Help me take out Glen Canyon Dam. He said he would! Then he died a few months later.”

Brower died a few months after that.

Taking out Glen Canyon Dam would not have altered today’s water crisis in the Southwest, but it would have made a resounding statement. It would have said: “Wild rivers rock.” It would have said, “We should have left well enough alone.”

We can’t go back to that America any more than we can return to the days before the Civil War, or to the Indian Wars, and fix things. We’re stuck with the aftermath of those decisions, many of them poorly informed, unwise or downright bad. And, sadly, as the Hoover Commission warned 63 years ago, the consequences will be with us for generations to come.

The Colorado River, though, is a special case. It has always been a special case—now more than ever. The drought that grips the Southwest today is the worst in 1,250 years, say some experts, and it shows no sign of releasing its grip. No doubt, the region’s leaders despair over vanishing options. The Bureau of Reclamation has announced it may start rationing water to downstream states by 2015. And no climate model is predicting rain.

What in the world were we thinking?

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Portland, Ore., and is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire through Indian Territory.

Published in Environment

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