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Windsor pulls plug on all-electric rule to stave off lawsuits by developers

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Windsor has capitulated to developers who challenged the town’s ban on natural gas in most new homes, opting to end its all-electric rule to stave off potentially expensive litigation.

The Town Council on Wednesday voted unanimously, if regretfully, to delete the all-electric rule it passed in late 2019, when it became the first Sonoma County jurisdiction to ban natural gas in new residential construction under four stories starting in early 2020.

The vote to end the policy — known as a “reach code” because it’s a discretionary move beyond mandatory minimum building standards — is necessary to end the litigation under the terms of a settlement reached with the developers who sued, according to town officials.

But for Councilwoman Deb Fudge, a staunch supporter of the all-electric rule, the idea that Windsor had to abandon the climate-friendly policy under legal pressure was difficult to believe. She lamented the town’s inability to sufficiently fund its legal defense, which she estimated could cost up to $400,000, even after her efforts to drum up extra cash from private sector climate allies.

“It’s beyond comprehension that we have to fold and reverse our reach code because a rich developer can outspend us,” Fudge said.

Two developers, Bill Gallaher and the Windsor-Jensen Land Co., sued Windsor over the natural gas ban, with Gallaher also suing Santa Rosa over the city’s rule. The developers challenged the process by which the jurisdictions had passed their all-electric rules, citing the bedrock California Environmental Quality Act in their lawsuits.

Windsor’s quandary with its all-electric rule — to defend or disown — drew advocacy from across the North Bay and attention from across the state. Climate advocates urged town officials to defend the natural gas ban, seen as a small but key part of California’s struggle to curb the disastrous effects of global heating.
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Infill housing is critical for a healthy region and climate

Zack Subin & Zoe Siegel, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Bay Area cities and the state government have taken great steps recently to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the climate crisis. Recent bold action to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy include the exclusion of fossil gas from new buildings in major Bay Area cities, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s series of executive orders to phase out gasoline-powered cars, and state legislation to bring a carbon-free power grid.

In order to more completely address climate change, we need to think beyond energy infrastructure and tackle our housing crisis as well. To do this, we need to change the way we build, and in doing so change the environmental rhetoric around new housing. This change requires us to build dense infill developments as well as “missing middle housing” (like townhouses, fourplexes, and courtyard apartments) in existing communities, while discouraging sprawl development in high risk zones most vulnerable to climate change.

Simply allowing for more people to live in Bay Area cities is one of the most potent means of reducing climate pollution with local policies. According to research led by UC Berkeley’s Chris Jones (available interactively at coolclimate.org), it could be the single most impactful measure for Bay Area cities ranging from San Francisco to Oakland to Mountain View. This is because cities in the inner Bay Area already have relatively low carbon footprints, particularly within the transit-rich core.

Housing we don’t build in cities ends up in outlying suburbs where folks are forced to drive for most daily activities, burning gasoline and necessitating far more asphalt, steel and concrete. A drumbeat of reports from state and national organizations, including the California Air Resources Board, have said that the continued upward trend in miles driven is a threat to our emissions goals, even considering a continued shift to electric cars. Moreover, continued development on the suburban fringe threatens the very natural and working lands we need intact to reach carbon neutrality.
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Windsor poised to repeal natural gas ban opposed by developers

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

While Windsor has been negotiating with its challengers, Santa Rosa is not looking to settle.

“Santa Rosa is fighting the lawsuit and intends to keep our all-electric ordinance intact,” said Councilman Chris Rogers on Friday in a text message.

Windsor is preparing to repeal its ban on natural gas in most new homes as part of a tentative settlement with Bill Gallaher, the politically connected Sonoma County developer who has sued the town over its new climate-friendly mandate.

The Town Council on Nov. 18 put off the move under advice from Town Manager Ken MacNab after a flood of support from community members urging Windsor to defend its 2019 ban, which requires all-electric appliances in most new homes under three stories. MacNab had asked for more time “to review some of the legal points in the litigation.”

Under the proposed settlement, Gallaher and Windsor-Jensen Land Co., another developer that sued the town over the ban, would drop their lawsuits in exchange for a repeal of the all-electric rule, according to town documents. Town officials said they have pursued a deal to avoid costly litigation — taking an opposite tack from Santa Rosa, where City Hall is steeled for its own court fight with Gallaher over similar all-electric rules for new housing.

The all-electric measures are meant to align cities with California’s goal of fighting climate change by eliminating fossil fuel use associated with buildings. And supporters, including Windsor residents and elected officials and climate advocates from across the North Bay, have called on Windsor to stick with its rules while questioning the influence of political contributions that Mayor Dominic Foppoli has received from Gallaher. Some are calling for the mayor to recuse himself from the matter.

All of the written public responses Windsor officials received and published ahead of the Nov. 18 Town Council meeting were in support of the town’s natural gas ban.

“It would really be an extreme disappointment if a millionaire developer was able to bully the town out of doing all the amazing work to support the climate that this town does,” Windsor resident Jennifer Silverstein said at the virtual council meeting, noting that Windsor’s response to the Gallaher and Windsor-Jensen lawsuits could have ramifications beyond the town. “If they succeed in bullying us, they will bully Sonoma County and they will bully California.”

The five-member council is set to discuss the litigation again Wednesday in closed session. Its next regular meeting is scheduled for Dec. 16.
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The fossil fuel industry wants you to believe it’s good for people of color

Sammy Roth, LOS ANGELES TIMES

The letter to Mexico’s energy minister offered a glowing review of a fossil fuel project in Baja California.

Writing in July, three U.S. governors and the chair of the Ute Indian Tribe praised the Energía Costa Azul project — which was seeking approval from the Mexican government — as “one of the most promising [liquefied natural gas] export facilities on the Pacific Coast.”

The letter was arranged by Western States and Tribal Nations, an advocacy group that says it was created in part to “promote tribal self-determination” by creating easier access to overseas markets for gas extracted from Native American lands.

But internal documents shared with The Times reveal that the group’s main financial backers are county governments and fossil fuel companies — including Sempra Energy of San Diego, which received approval this month to build the $1.9-billion facility in Baja. In fact, the group has just one tribal member, the Ute Indian Tribe.

Western States and Tribal Nations isn’t the only effort by fossil fuel proponents to cast themselves as allies of communities of color and defenders of their financial well-being.

The goal is to bulwark oil and gas against ambitious climate change policies by claiming the moral high ground — even as those fuels kindle a global crisis that disproportionately harms people who aren’t white.

Recent examples abound.

As protests rocked the United States after the police killing of George Floyd, a government relations firm whose clients include oil and gas companies told news media that the mayor of San Luis Obispo, Calif., was “getting a lot of heat” from the NAACP over a proposal to limit gas hookups in new buildings. That was proved false when the local NAACP chapter said it supported the policy.

Around the same time, Alaska’s all-Republican congressional delegation wrote a letter to federal officials complaining about the refusal of several banks to finance oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, writing that the banks were harming Alaska Natives by “openly discriminating against investment in some of the most economically disadvantaged regions of America.”

Some of the most contentious debates involve natural gas. The fuel is less polluting than coal, but an international team of scientists reported last year that planet-warming emissions from gas are rising faster than coal emissions are falling. A recent study in the peer-reviewed journal AGU Advances found that replacing coal with gas might do little good for the climate.

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How Biden aims to amp up the government’s fight against climate change

Juliet Eilperin and Annie Linskey, THE WASHINGTON POST

A new administration would enlist departments like Transportation, Agriculture and Treasury to advance its climate goals

President-elect Joe Biden is poised to embed action on climate change across the breadth of the federal government, from the departments of Agriculture to Treasury to State — expanding it beyond environmental agencies to speed U.S. efforts to mitigate global warming and to acknowledge that the problem touches many aspects of American life.

The far-reaching strategy is aimed at making significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions even without congressional action, by maximizing executive authority.

“From the very beginning of the campaign, when President-elect Biden rolled out his climate plan, he made it clear he sees this as an all-of-government agenda, domestic, economic, foreign policy,” said Stef Feldman, campaign policy director for Biden, a Democrat. “From the very beginning, when he talked about infrastructure, he talked about making sure that it built in climate change, that we are making our communities more resilient to the effects of climate change.”

The vast majority of scientists agree that carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases released when humans burn fossil fuels is helping warm Earth. On the campaign trail, Biden proposed the most aggressive plan of any major party nominee to try to slow that warming.

In a sign of how Biden has already elevated the issue, he discussed the topic with every European head of state with whom he spoke on Tuesday, including the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Ireland. Biden has started frequently referring to the climate “crisis,” suggesting a heightened level of urgency.

Read more at https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/11/11/biden-climate-change/

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Op-Ed: Don’t believe self-serving messengers. Logging will not prevent destructive wildfires

Chad Hanson, LOS ANGELES TIMES

My community of Big Bear City, in the mountains east of Los Angeles, had a tense week recently. For a few nerve-racking days, the El Dorado fire, which has burned more than 20,000 acres in and around the San Bernardino National Forest, threatened to move our way.

The fire had seen little movement in the previous days, despite the fact that it was burning in dense forests with many dead trees and downed logs. Weather conditions had been cool and calm. Then things changed, and quickly. The weather shifted to hot, dry and windy. Right away, the El Dorado fire began spreading much more rapidly, toward Big Bear. We were notified to prepare for potential evacuation. Several days later, temperatures cooled again, winds died down and fire activity calmed.

Scenarios like this are playing out across the western United States, especially in California and Oregon. Many homes have been lost and, tragically, at least 30 lives too. Numerous communities have been forced to evacuate, displacing thousands of families. People are scared and looking for answers.

Meanwhile, as wildfires continue in parts of the West that don’t often burn, a troubling new form of climate change denial has crept into the public dialogue, and it is only increasing the threats to public safety.

The logging industry — and the Republican and Democratic politicians whose reelection campaigns it finances — are busy telling the press and the public that they should focus on “forest management” in remote wildlands, rather than on climate change and community wildfire preparedness. Joining this chorus is a group of agency and university scientists funded by the Trump administration.

Logging bills are now being promoted in Congress, ostensibly as solutions. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) introduced a bill last month that would severely erode environmental laws to increase commercial logging in our national forests. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has introduced a bill that would triple funding to subsidize logging on federal forestlands.
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Op-Ed: A better way to help Californians survive wildfires: Focus on homes, not trees

Editorial Board, LOS ANGELES TIMES

Firestorms in the West have grown bigger and more destructive in recent years — and harder to escape. Massive and frenzied, they have overtaken people trying to outrun or outdrive them.

Gridlocked mountain roads prevented many Paradise residents from fleeing the Camp fire, which killed 85 people in 2018. This year, more than 30 people have died in the fires in California and Oregon, and again, in many cases, people were trying to escape fast-moving blazes.

There’s much work to be done on how we protect people amid a wildfire, including how and when we advise them to evacuate. But fire experts also are considering different ways to protect communities, and some of these ideas haven’t been given their full due as options for states that increasingly find themselves under siege.

One approach, seen in a bill proposed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), is to log more dead trees and dig more firebreaks, among other things. But it’s outmoded and environmentally problematic; environmental groups have attacked the bill for allowing the fast-tracking of logging permits, bypassing the normal review process, in areas far from any towns that could be threatened.

Beyond that, trying to prevent fires can lead to overgrown forests that set the stage for more catastrophic blazes. Rather than going down that road, or cutting trees and brush in order to make fires smaller and slower, the better, more scientifically based approach is to focus more on houses and less on trees.
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Op-Ed: Lawmakers let oil and gas interests sicken us; Gov. Newsom can put us on the path to recovery

Venise Curry & Ellie Cohen, CAL MATTERS

Make no mistake about it. Climate change is powering California’s perfect storm of record heat, lightning, drought, wildfire and smoke amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and electricity blackouts.

In his video message to the Democratic National Convention in August, Gov. Gavin Newsom made it clear. “The hots are getting hotter; the dries are getting drier. Climate change is real. If you are in denial about climate change, come to California.”

While touring the devastating North Complex Fires near Oroville on Friday, Newsom called current state goals “inadequate to meet the challenges” and vowed to fast-track state efforts to combat the climate crisis.

Yet California continues to fan the flames as the seventh largest oil producing and third largest refining state in the country?

State lawmakers, with the exception of a few climate leaders, are increasingly falling under the thrall of oil and gas industry dollars. The Western States Petroleum Association, the largest and most powerful corporate lobby in California, spent $8.8 million on lobbying in 2019 alone.

Californians are being poisoned daily by pollutants emitted from California’s 81,500 active and idle oil and gas wells, pumps, refineries and pipes. Toxic oil and gas infrastructure – from freeways to oil rigs – are too often located in communities of color, dangerously close to homes, schools and hospitals due to historic redlining and racist redevelopment policies.

Read more at: https://calmatters.org/commentary/my-turn/2020/09/lawmakers-let-oil-and-gas-interests-sicken-us-gov-newsom-can-put-us-on-the-path-to-recovery/?eType=EmailBlastContent&eId=28eb561a-c380-430e-9f9f-745a3f45e261

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Its electric grid under strain, California turns to batteries

Ivan Penn, THE NEW YORK TIMES

When demand exceeded supply in a recent heat wave, electricity stored at businesses and even homes was called into service. With proper management, batteries could have made up for an offline gas plant.

Last month as a heat wave slammed California, state regulators sent an email to a group of energy executives pleading for help. “Please consider this an urgent inquiry on behalf of the state,” the message said.

The manager of the state’s grid was struggling to increase the supply of electricity because power plants had unexpectedly shut down and demand was surging. The imbalance was forcing officials to order rolling blackouts across the state for the first time in nearly two decades.

What was unusual about the emails was whom they were sent to: people who managed thousands of batteries installed at utilities, businesses, government facilities and even homes. California officials were seeking the energy stored in those machines to help bail out a poorly managed grid and reduce the need for blackouts.

Many energy experts have predicted that batteries could turn homes and businesses into mini-power plants that are able to play a critical role in the electricity system. They could soak up excess power from solar panels and wind turbines and provide electricity in the evenings when the sun went down or after wildfires and hurricanes, which have grown more devastating because of climate change. Over the next decade, the argument went, large rows of batteries owned by utilities could start replacing power plants fueled by natural gas.

But that day appears to be closer than earlier thought, at least in California, which leads the country in energy storage. During the state’s recent electricity crisis, more than 30,000 batteries supplied as much power as a midsize natural gas plant. And experts say the machines, which range in size from large wall-mounted televisions to shipping containers, will become even more important because utilities, businesses and homeowners are investing billions of dollars in such devices.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/03/business/energy-environment/california-electricity-blackout-battery.html

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Science Says: Climate change, people stoke California fires

Seth Borenstein, AP NEWS

If you want to build a fire, you need three things: Ignition, fuel and oxygen. But wildfire in California is a much more complex people-stoked witch’s brew.

The state burns regularly because of fierce autumn winds, invasive grasses that act as kindling, fire-happy native shrubs and trees, frequent drought punctuated by spurts of downpours, a century of fire suppression, people moving closer to the wild, homes that burn easily, people starting fires accidentally or on purpose — and most of all climate change.

“California has a really flammable ecosystem,” said University of Colorado fire scientist Jennifer Balch. “People are living in flammable places, providing ignition, starting the wildfires against a backdrop of a warming climate that is making wildfires worse.”

Trying to manage California’s wildfires is like trying to hold back a tidal wave, said Columbia University fire scientist A. Park Williams: “Big fires are kind of inevitable in California.”

And it’s getting worse, fast. Area burned by wildfire in California increased more than fivefold since 1972, from a five-year average of 236 square miles (611 square kilometers) a year to 1,394 square miles (3,610 square kilometers) a year according to a 2019 study by Williams, Balch and others.

Dozens of studies in recent years have linked bigger wildfires in America to global warming from the burning of coal, oil and gas, especially because it dries plants and makes them more flammable.

“ Fuel moisture drives the fire business,” said University of Alberta fire scientist Mike Flannigan. “Fuel moisture is being influenced by climate change.”

In California, a Mediterranean climate sets up ideal conditions for fire then is worsened by climate change, said University of California, Merced, fire scientist LeRoy Westerling, who has had his home threatened twice in the last few years.

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FILE – In this Monday, Aug. 17, 2020 file photo, flames from the River Fire crest a ridge in Salinas, Calif. In California, a Mediterranean climate sets up ideal conditions for fire then is worsened by climate change, says University of California, Merced, fire scientist LeRoy Westerling, who has had his home threatened twice in the last few years. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

If you want to build a fire, you need three things: Ignition, fuel and oxygen. But wildfire in California is a much more complex people-stoked witch’s brew.

The state burns regularly because of fierce autumn winds, invasive grasses that act as kindling, fire-happy native shrubs and trees, frequent drought punctuated by spurts of downpours, a century of fire suppression, people moving closer to the wild, homes that burn easily, people starting fires accidentally or on purpose — and most of all climate change.

“California has a really flammable ecosystem,” said University of Colorado fire scientist Jennifer Balch. “People are living in flammable places, providing ignition, starting the wildfires against a backdrop of a warming climate that is making wildfires worse.”

Trying to manage California’s wildfires is like trying to hold back a tidal wave, said Columbia University fire scientist A. Park Williams: “Big fires are kind of inevitable in California.”

And it’s getting worse, fast. Area burned by wildfire in California increased more than fivefold since 1972, from a five-year average of 236 square miles (611 square kilometers) a year to 1,394 square miles (3,610 square kilometers) a year according to a 2019 study by Williams, Balch and others.

Dozens of studies in recent years have linked bigger wildfires in America to global warming from the burning of coal, oil and gas, especially because it dries plants and makes them more flammable.
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