County Passes Nation’s First Carbon Tax

Last week the County Council of Montgomery County, MD approved the nation’s first example of a “carbon tax,” intended to decrease greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.  In an 8-1 vote on Wednesday, May 19, the County Council passed a five-dollar-per-ton tax on carbon emitted each calendar year, applying only to entities within the county that produce at least one million tons of carbon annually.  Only one such high-carbon emitter exists today in the county: a Mirant Corporation-owned coal plant responsible for three millions tons of carbon emissions every year.  Local environmental groups hope the new tax will help reign in pollution from Mirant and reduce the county’s carbon footprint. 
Mirant Corporation strongly criticized the County Council’s decision, claiming the locally-based carbon tax would drive away businesses and raise electricity bills for ratepayers.  At a public hearing before the council vote, Mirant officials were joined by a group of “Tea Party” anti-tax protesters, who likewise condemned the tax measure.  Yet while Tea Party protesters denied the existence of global warming, Mirant officials admitted human activities really are impacting the climate.  Thus the faction opposing the tax was seen by many as self-contradictory, while the Tea Party heckling of those testifying in favor of the bill seems to have simply put the opposition in a bad light.
“I’m afraid your testimony and your presence here today have had the opposite effect of what you intended,” Councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg said to the Tea Party protesters, hinting that the anti-tax activists would have been more effective had they behaved in an orderly and respectful manner.  Trachtenberg then asked to be put down as a co-sponsor of the carbon tax bill.
Meanwhile activists from Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) and other local environmental groups testified in favor of the carbon tax.  Many expressed optimism that Montgomery County’s efforts to tax carbon would set an example for other local governments, and even for state and national policy.  “With this heroic vote in the D.C. suburbs today, the coal lobby might want to prepare for local actions across the country,” said Mike Tidwell, CCAN directorCCAN also expressed satisfaction that half or more of the revenue from the tax will be used to fund energy efficiency projects.
The bill’s chief sponsor, Councilmember Roger Berliner, said he hoped Montgomery County taking action at the local level might help to spur a federal response to global warming.  “Local governments often take the lead on these issues,” said Berliner, “and as a result there is a greater push for federal legislation.” 
If the hopes of environmentalists prove well-founded, Montgomery County’s efforts could be duplicated by local and regional governments across the US.  Up until now, the preferred method for regulating carbon emissions in this country has been some version of a cap-and-trade program, designed to let major emitters establish a marketplace that creates incentives to cut back on pollution.  Recently however, amid concerns that such a market would provide opportunities for the kind of speculation that led to the financial crisis of 2008, lawmakers have been looking at cap-and-trade with a more skeptical eye.  The carbon tax model, which mandates costs for major polluters across the board, could end up providing an alternative to cap-and-trade policy.
Photo credit: DSCN1114

Jack Johnson to Play Free Gig for Beach Cleanup Volunteers

Widely known for his commitment to the environment, singer Jack Johnson has come up with a unique way to encourage his fans to partake in environmental activism. On Monday, May 24, Johnson will be performing a free concert at the Santa Monica Pier and has reserved the bulk of the 3,000 available tickets for volunteers who participate in a two-hour beach cleanup on the Saturday preceding the show. The beach cleanup is being led by the Santa Monica based environmental nonprofit Heal the Bay.

Flyer for Jack Johnson beach cleanup concert.

Johnson is also promoting the release of his upcoming “To the Sea” album and tour. Next week’s collaboration with Heal the Bay is just another in a long line of environmental causes that Johnson has championed with his performances. His 2008 tour was a model of sustainability. That tour used 14,000 gallons of biodiesel to power the buses, trucks, and generators, it diverted 65 tons of waste from landfills through recycling and composting, and over 1,400 metric tons of carbon were offset. This year’s tour will take similar measures, and like 2008, Johnson will donate 100% of the tour’s profits to a charity supporting environmental, art and music education.

For those looking to score a free ticket to next Monday’s pier concert, they will need to pre-register online for the Heal the Bay beach cleanup. According to Heal the Bay, volunteers will receive their tickets once the beach cleanup is complete.

Crowds gather on the beach south of the pier for a past concert.

The good news for fans who cannot attend the beach cleanup is that the City of Santa Monica allows concert-goers to hang out in the sand on the south side of the pier, where the music from the stage can still be heard. However, to make sure the fans on the beach don’t undo the hard work of the volunteers, Heal the Bay and Jack Johnson are urging fans that “whatever they bring, they take home, recycle, or dispose of in the proper containers.”

Home Energy Efficiency Gains Momentum in Congress

With the BP Gulf Oil Spill pushing concern over US oil dependence to new heights, a broadly supported bill moving through Congress this month promises to reduce the need for burning oil and other fossil fuels by making US homes more efficient. The Home Star Energy Retrofit Act of 2010 passed the US House of Representatives last week, and is now on its way to the Senate. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the bill is not that it addresses both the environmental and economic concerns of many Americans simultaneously, but that it has gained support from a wider coalition of environmental and industry groups than almost any other green-minded bill in the nation’s history.

If passed into law, the Home Star Act will launch a two-year initiative that provides US residents with incentives to retrofit their homes with energy-saving products, the majority of which would be manufactured in the United States. The Home Star Act outlines two programs for accomplishing this goal. The bill’s Silver Star track promises to provide homeowners with rebates for installing specific technologies that increase energy efficiency, such as heat-retaining windows, more efficient water heaters, and better home insulation. Meanwhile the Gold Star track would give rebates up to $8,000 to those who do a comprehensive home energy audit and dramatically reduce their home’s consumption of energy.

In the House of Representatives, the Home Star Act was strongly supported by manufacturing and construction industry groups that believe the program can re-vitalize sectors hit hard by the economic downturn. According to the US Chamber of Commerce, “The incentives provided by the Home Star Act will create good, living-wage jobs for American workers,” and provide relief to the waning manufacturing industry. Home Star is predicted to create 170,000 new jobs in the US over the next ten years, and to simultaneously save consumers nearly $10 billion in energy costs.

Meanwhile environmentalists have been quick to point out that more efficient homes will mean reduced demand for oil, coal, and other fossil fuels, and have praised Home Star as an important part of the national transition to a cleaner energy future. The result has been an unlikely alliance. As Home Star moved toward final approval in the House, liberal environmental groups joined some of the most conservative industry associations in the country in making the bill a priority. Home Star passed the House 246-161 last week, with bipartisan support. According the green jobs advocacy group Green for All, the program “is a fast-acting, short-term, job creation program that will drive new private investment into the hard hit construction and manufacturing sectors, while saving consumers money on their energy bills.”

To become law, the Home Star Act still needs to clear the US Senate – where a companion bill to the one passed by the House already exists. The Senate bill has drawn supporters from both Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle, who seem confident in its prospects for passing. After approval by the Senate Home Star would go to the desk of President Barack Obama, who endorsed the House version, for his signature. Energy efficiency advocates hope Home Star will become law by the end of this month.

“Yesterday’s bi-partisan passage of the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act of 2010 in the House is a critical milestone on the road to economic recovery,” said the environmental group Climate Progress on Friday. “The alliance behind this rebate program to encourage Americans to invest in more energy-efficient homes is nothing short of historic.”

Photo credit: Modern Northwest Home

Lotus Electric Car to Use ‘Star Wars’ Noises to Warn Pedestrians


In a move aimed at reducing the silent danger from electric and hybrid cars, the European Commission is considering rules that will require these vehicles to emit an artificial noise to alert pedestrians to their presence. The regulation does not specify what the noise should sound like, only the minimum volume. As a result, some car manufacturers have been having a little fun with the type of sound their vehicles will emit. Matthew Reed from Lotus Engineering indicated that their new Evora 414E Hybrid will use a “futuristic sound a bit like Star Wars”.

The European noise regulation is in response to growing evidence of the risk posed to pedestrians from battery powered cars. A University of California at Riverside study recently found that a internal-combustion car could be heard at 28 feet away, but that a hybrid operating in silent battery mode could not be heard until it was only seven feet away.

Despite this danger, critics contend that the widespread adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles has steadily been removing a major source of noise pollution from the environment and that by artificially requiring these cars to make noise, those gains will be erased. In the hopes of mitigating this concern, the noise making technologies being implemented by the car manufacturers focus the artificial sound only in the direction the car is moving.

In addition to Europe, similar plans are also currently being considered in the United States and Japan.

Concerns Mount Over Growing Gulf Oil Spill

GULF OF MEXICO, April 27 – An oil rig that exploded and sank off of the coast of Louisiana last Thursday has reportedly been leaking 42,000 gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico since the explosion.  Original reports concluded that the oil was not leaking despite the sinking of the rig, but two leaks were discovered approximately 5,000 feet below the water’s surface on Saturday. 

Fireboats battle the Deepwater Horizon fire on April 21, 2010  Photo: uscgd8

A robotic vehicle unit has been dispatched to attempt to seal the leaks by manually instituting a blowout preventer that failed to prevent the oil from escaping broken pipes.  National Ocean Service Acting Assistant administrator David Kennedy, who was science coordinator during the 11-million-gallon 1989 Exxon Valdez cleanup, stated that the leaks were difficult to discover because they are so far below the surface and because the primary concern of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)  and the Coast Guard had been search and rescue operations for any survivors of the initial explosion.  The initial explosion occurred on the rig on April 20, sending 126 workers into lifeboats.   Eleven workers from the rig are still missing and are presumed dead.

Oil rigs are common in the Gulf of Mexico  Photo: NOAA

The oil spill is currently 600 miles wide and subject to wind direction.  As of Monday evening, the winds had changed direction away from land, pushing the oil back towards the former location of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which was about 53 miles south of Venice, Louisiana.  Oil was not expected to directly impact the coast for at least three days.  As the oil interacts with the coastal environment, impacts on the ecosystem can affect fish, turtles, sea mammals and birds and coral reefs.  Commercial impacts may affect the shrimp, crab, mussel and oyster populations.  If the oil leak remains unsecured, the impacts will increase in range.  In addition, ships are attempting to skim oil from the surface when weather conditions allow.  Aircraft are applying oil dispersant and provided aerial assessment.  NOAA will continue to monitor weather and tidal activity to anticipate the oil trajectory and impact.  Several sperm whales were spotted in the area but were unaffected by the spill.  Similar oil leaks can persist for months if uncontrolled, as the oil is emptying out of a large known reservoir.  A recent similar spill in Australia leaked for ten weeks before being controlled.

Coast Guard deploying oil boom  Photo: EPA

BP Global, the company leasing the rig, has revealed plans to drill wells to relieve the oil pressure if the flow can’t be plugged.  The company is also investigating a dome to contain oil directly from the well.  These solutions could take up to two months to implement.  Over 1,000 BP employees are working towards containment of the spill.  The coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida are readying thousands of feet of boom, a floating tube designed to absorb the oil, to protect fragile and economically important coastlines.  Efforts by underwater vehicles have been hampered by the difficulty of performing maneuvers such as turning valves at a depth of 5,000 feet, a repair which has never been attempting at such depth. 

Oil spills have lasting ecological effects  Photo: marinephotobank

The oil emergency has caused growing political attention.  President Obama has recently introduced federal plans to increased oil exploration off of the American coast.  The dangers of deeper drilling are being debated against the dangers of closer proximity to shore.  In the case of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the distance is giving the coast time to prepare but the depth has hampered repair efforts.  Lawmakers are also questioning the safety regulation on Gulf rigs.  Senators from New Jersey and Florida wrote to the heads of the Energy and Commerce committees calling for a separate agency to oversee rig safety, which is now the responsibility of the Mineral Management Service (MMS).  MMS also runs rig lease sales.

The oil spill could affect the surrounding marine community for years or potentially even decades into the future.  The area contains four endangered turtle species.  The Gulf is also one of two hatchery sites for endangered bluefin tuna.

International Coal Debate Centers on South Africa


Future Site of Medupi Power Station

A coalition of over 70 South African activist groups is asking for U.S. support to help stop the construction of what would be the world’s fourth largest coal plant in the world. In response, U.S. organizations including the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth have launched an international campaign to prevent the World Bank from financing this massive project lead by African energy giant Eskom. The debate over South Africa’s mega-coal plant is likely to come to a head this Thursday, April 8th, when World Bank representatives are expected to vote on whether or not to finance its construction. U.S. environmentalists have joined in the fight by calling on Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to vote against the World Bank loan.

Interestingly, this is hardly a case of Western environmentalists attempting to tell a developing country how to provide cheap energy to its citizens. Indeed, it’s grassroots opposition inside of South Africa itself that has grown and spread to the international community.

Three weeks ago, South African activists Makoma Lekalakala and Caroline Ntaopane traveled to the United States to drum up opposition to the proposal to build the 4,800 megawatt coal plant in their country. In response, U.S. environmental groups, including the Sierra Club,  agreed to help convince U.S. policy-makers to use their influence at the World Bank to ensure the plant does not receive funding. To finance the project, Eskom is counting on a $3.75 billion loan from the World Bank, without which the coal plant may prove too expensive to build. In order to pay back the loan, the utility plans to triple electricity rates in many South African communities – accounting for at least part of the widespread opposition to the plant in South Africa.

“The World Bank’s mission is to alleviate poverty,” wrote Bruce Nilles and Mark Kresowik of the Sierra Club after meeting with Lekalakala and Ntaopane last month, and “Eskom officials claim the coal plant is going to help the poor get access to electricity. But hearing Makoma and Caroline describe how their community’s electricity rates are tripling over the next five years….we know that this loan will do anything but help the poor.”

Activists in the U.S. have kicked into action, calling on the United States to vote against the loan to Eskom. The Obama administration has so far indicated it would abstain from voting on the proposal – effectively neither supporting nor condemning the coal plant. Yet without clear U.S. opposition, the World Bank loan is likely to go forward, and groups like Friends of the Earth are calling on the administration to affirmatively register a “no” vote. “The [South African coal plant] loan would be a disaster for the poor in South Africa,” reports Friends of the Earth, “and would lock their country into decades of dirty energy when clean, renewable alternatives exist.”

Though Eskom’s proposed coal plant is notable for its enormous size, the fight over funding for the plant is just one of the most recent manifestations of growing international concern over the World Bank’s role in financing coal plants and other fossil fuel projects which contribute to climate change. Currently, the World Bank is already supporting the construction of a major coal plant in India. In October of 2009, the bank approved a loan to another large plant in South Africa’s neighbor, Botswana. World Bank executives have defended the institution by pointing out that they are scaling up investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects as well. But environmental groups charge that as long as the World Bank continues to support massive coal plants like Eskom’s, the resulting increase in greenhouse gas emissions will eclipse the bank’s greener investments. South Africa has already become the most coal-dependent of all African nations, with 6% of the continent’s population accounting for over 40% of Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Should the World Bank decide against funding the Eskom coal plant, it would send a clear signal that the bank is shifting away from support for fossil fuel projects. Eskom’s proposal is just the sort of project which only a few years ago would probably have received World Bank approval without a hitch – and the mere fact that this coal plant has been met with widespread opposition represents a change for the bank. However, in the end it may be the U.S. which determines whether the fourth largest coal plant on the planet will move forward or not.

Environmental Group Blasts Nestlé Over Palm Oil

The world’s largest food and beverage company has run into difficult times, as environmentalists charge it with destroying rare wildlife habitat and rainforests that serve as carbon sinks.  Following publication of a report linking Nestlé’s use of the food ingredient palm oil to destruction of rainforests in Indonesia, more than 100,000 supporters of environmental group Greenpeace have emailed the company asking Nestlé to sever ties with palm oil suppliers that destroy rainforests.  Many of the same activists have also flooded Nestlé’s Facebook page with comments criticizing the use of palm oil.


The damning report, titled “Caught Red-Handed: How Nestlé’s Use of Palm Oil is Having a Devastating Impact on Rainforests, the Climate, and Orangutans,” was published by Greenpeace International on March 17th, 2010.  The report focuses on Nestlé’s sourcing of palm oil from Sinar Mas, the largest palm oil-producing company in Indonesia.  According to Greenpeace, Sinar Mas engages in agricultural practices that include clearing vast areas of rainforest, encroaching into orangutan habitat, and breaking Indonesian forestry law.  “Despite Sinar Mas’ track record and increasingly dirty reputation,” wrote Greenpeace in the report, “Nestlé has no policies in place to avoid dealings with the group and continues to buy palm oil from Sinar Mas.”

Following the release of the report, thousands of Greenpeace supporters logged onto Nestlé’s Facebook page to register their discontent.  Many web activists focused on the impact of palm oil plantations on the highly endangered orangutan, which has become the poster child for the disappearing rainforests of Southeast Asia.  “We all want your KitKats,” one activist wrote to Nestlé via Facebook, “but not how they’re served now.”


Palm Oil Plantation

In response to what has become a major public relations disaster for Nestlé, the company has announced it is cancelling its direct purchases from Sinar Mas, and that all its palm oil purchases will come from sustainable sources by 2015.  Yet Greenpeace maintains the 2015 date is not soon enough, and that Nestlé still buys from Sinar Mas indirectly through other companies like Cargill.  Meanwhile the Indonesian Palm Oil Growers Association is threatening a boycott of its own if Nestlé complies with the demands of Greenpeace. 

The Greenpeace-led campaign against Nestlé is in many ways just the latest manifestation of a growing concern among environmentalists that Indonesia’s rainforests are disappearing at breakneck speed – threatening to take hundreds of endangered species like the orangutan with them.  Large-scale deforestation in Indonesia largely began in the 1960s under the dictator Suharto.  Though Suharto resigned in 1998, the systematic corruption which characterized his 30-year regime continues to plague Indonesian government today and makes major reform difficult.  In recent years, the massive expansion of the palm oil industry in Indonesia has increased the rate of deforestation even more and inspired a wave of criticism from groups like Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network. 

A week after release of the report which triggered the online protests, the flood of messages on Nestlé’s Facebook page shows little sign of abating.  “A KitKat lasts seconds,” read one comment from Wednesday night.  “Extinction is forever.”  It’s not clear yet how Nestlé will respond to Greenpeace’s request that it cut ties with customers of Sinar Mas like Cargill.  But the next few weeks should continue to be very interesting for the iconic producer of the KitKat.

Photo Credit: Palm Oil Plantation

Illinois Lawmakers Add ‘Tire Incineration’ to Green Energy Bill

[img_assist|nid=141598|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=199|height=274]In a move that would shock even the most cynical government observer, the Illinois legislature is poised to add the “burning of tires” to a list of renewable energy programs eligible for clean energy credits. This special treatment for tire incineration is the result of measures put forth by Rep. David Miller (D), who just happens to represent the district where the state’s sole tire incinerator is located. That incinerator, Geneva Energy, is located in Ford Heights, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States, where more than 95 percent of the population is black and half live in poverty.

The measure, if passed, will allow Geneva Energy to earn valuable green energy credits in return for their burning of tires, a process which releases deadly pollutants, such as benzene, butadiene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Of course, the intent of the original legislation was to reward and encourage the production of renewable energy, such as wind and solar. In Illinois, energy companies must get at least 10 percent of their electricity from green sources by 2015 and 25 percent by 2025.

While millions of old tires must be disposed of each year, better alternatives to incineration include shredding them for reuse in asphalt, playground cushioning, and athletic tracks, among other things.

Rep. Miller, who is currently running for state comptroller, has recently removed his name from the bill after a lobbying effort by the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) focused attention on this legislated loop-hole. “This is the sort of cynical legislative maneuvering that makes people question the credibility of our elected officials,” ELPC head Howard Learner stated. “Burning tires is not clean, renewable energy by any credible definition.”

Dolphins Win Big At Oscars

Los Angeles, California (March 10) – Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony was not just a big night for fashion and entertainment. It also helped to bring light to an environmental topic from the dark ocean depths. The Cove received an Oscar for Best Feature Documentary, an honor which will help bring awareness to the controversial issue of dolphin capture and slaughter.

In The Cove, director Louie Psihoyos takes the viewer to the Japanese coastal village of Taiji and follows as a team of freedivers, activist and filmmakers covertly reveal a cultural practice of rounding up dolphins into a cove, whether to provide dangerously mercury-laden meat or to bring in commercial entertainment dollars as performers. The film also features dolphin activist Ric O’Barry, who trained the dolphins used on the television show Flipper before redirecting his efforts during the last thirty-eight years to freeing dolphins from captivity.

The annual dolphin hunt involves rounding up and harpooning about 2,000 dolphins annually, where each animal can be sold for $500. Japan has defended the practice as a food tradition being conducted in a legal and appropriate manner and questions the scientific determinations reported in the film, particularly concerning the mercury content of dolphin meat and it’s consumption by Japanese children. The village of Taiji has a population of 3,800 and claims to be the birthplace of the Japanese commercial whaling industry.

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Though haunting in its imagery, the film is a well-told story with a purpose to inspire the audience into activism and protection of all graceful and intelligent marine life. The Cove has been recognized for its powerful style and message throughout the year, receiving awards for best documentary of 2009 from Environmental Media Award and National Board of Review as well as a Critics Choice Award and three Cinema Eye Awards in New York. Producers Fisher Stevens and Paula DuPres Presman were also acknowledged by the Producers Guild of America. Furniture maker IKEA even created a special edition ‘Klippan’ sofa cover using The Cove as inspiration after awarding the film the IKEA Green Prize at the Rome International Film Festival.

The documentary’s focus is particularly impactful considering the recent tragic death of Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau by captive killer whale Tillikum. The filmmakers continued their quest to free the dolphins even during the acceptance speech for their Oscar by holding up a banner that read ‘Text Dolphin to 44144’ as a means for the audience to learn about and take part in their cause of discontinuing the annual dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan. The New York Times reports that Japan has reacted to the film’s success by threatening legal action. The film only recently gained permission to be shown in Japan in April, where the director hopes that the Japanese people will decide to stop supporting this cultural practice.

Cable channel Animal Planet plans to screen the feature later this year. Plans for a television series version of The Cove are also under production for the network by Mr. O’Barry and his son. The film’s creators continue their activism in the wake of their win, as a March 8, 2010 New York Times article reported the group’s exposure a California restaurant’s illegal practice of serving whale meat. Santa Monica sushi restaurant The Hump could face $200,000 in fines and a prison time if those involved are convicted of possession or sale of marine mammals in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Congratulations to The Cove creators for their success in both filmmaking and raising environmental awareness. Dolphins everywhere can swim a little easier tonight.

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All Southern Antarctic Ice Shelves Melting

RESTON, Va., Feb. 24 (UPI) — The U.S. Geological Survey says every ice shelf in the southern section of the Antarctic Peninsula is retreating because of climate change.

The USGS says its report is the first to document that every ice front in that area has been retreating overall from 1947 to 2009, with the most dramatic changes occurring since 1990.

The retreat, scientists said, could result in sea-level rise if warming continues, threatening coastal communities and low-lying islands worldwide.

The USGS previously documented the majority of ice fronts on the entire peninsula have also retreated during the late 20th century and into the early 21st century.

Officials said the ice shelves are attached to the continent, holding in place the Antarctic ice sheet that covers about 98 percent of the Antarctic continent. As the ice shelves break off, it becomes easier for outlet glaciers and ice streams from the ice sheet to flow into the sea. That transition of ice from land to the ocean is what raises the sea level.

“This research is part of a larger ongoing USGS project that is for the first time studying the entire Antarctic coastline in detail, and this is important because the Antarctic ice sheet contains 91 percent of Earth’s glacier ice,” USGS scientist Jane Ferrigno said.

“The loss of ice shelves is evidence of the effects of global warming,” she added. “We need to be alert and continually understand and observe how our climate system is changing.”

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Photo Credit.