Frontline Communities Fight Dirty Power

Indigenous Environmental Network delegation to Paris climate summit. ©2015 Allen Lissner/IEN

Oxnard Battles Dirty Power Plant

Existing Oxnard Power Plant. Photo courtesy of VLULAC

By Lucas Zucker

It would be fitting for Oxnard to be the last stand of fossil fuel power plants in California. Like so many other low-income communities of color who live in the shadow of power plants, oil refineries, and drilling sites, burdened by the nation’s insatiable appetite for dirty energy, the residents of Oxnard are fighting back, pitting high school students from farmworker families against Fortune 500 company lobbyists in a power struggle whose effects could ripple across the state. "This could be a battle over the last fossil fuel power plant in California,” says Matt Vespa, senior attorney with the Sierra Club. And it’s beginning to look like a battle we might win.

Oxnard is the largest city along California’s Central Coast—a sweeping rural region stretching along the Pacific Ocean between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area—with an economy built on agriculture, the military, and the oil industry, dotted with beach towns and farmworker enclaves. The coastal city of 200,000 sits atop some of the most fertile soil on Earth, and is bordered by the last major free-flowing river and the largest wetland habitat left in Southern California. Oxnard’s population is 85 percent people of color (74 percent Latino) with nearly half of all adults having less than a high school education. As a low-income, predominantly immigrant community, Oxnard has long been used as the dumping ground for the Central Coast’s most polluting industries. The city ranks in the top 20 percent of the most environmentally burdened communities in the state, with some parts of the city ranking within the top 10 percent, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA). Oxnard’s beaches are home to three gas-fired power plants and an EPA Superfund toxic waste site. California Department of Public Health data shows that Oxnard has more students attending school in close proximity to the highest levels of toxic pesticide use than anywhere else in the state.

After Years of Pollution, Resistance
In recent years, community members have organized to push back and demand an end to the environmental injustices facing Oxnard. In 2006, when BHP Billiton, the largest mining company in the world, proposed a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal off the coast of Oxnard, which would have run a hazardous pipeline beneath densely populated low-income residential neighborhoods and been the largest source of pollution in Ventura County, more than 3,000 residents turned out for a State Lands Commission hearing to oppose the project, resulting in its rejection. The overwhelming outpouring of community voices speaking against the LNG terminal was a turning point for a city with a history of being targeted by polluters.

The defeat of the LNG project came in the wake of a $13 million grant from the California Coastal Conservancy to conduct a massive environmental restoration of Oxnard’s coastal wetlands. It was followed by the United States EPA putting an abandoned toxic waste site on Oxnard’s beaches on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) for cleanup. For many residents, it felt like Oxnard was finally seeing a gradual dismantling of the wall of pollution and industry between the community and the ocean, and that a legacy of environmental injustice was beginning to come to an end.

In 2014, NRG Energy, the largest power generation company in the United States, proposed yet another gas-fired power plant on Oxnard’s coast. Burdened as it has been for decades by fossil fuel power generation for all the surrounding cities and the smokestacks of three power plants along its coastline, Oxnard was not surprised at being targeted once again by polluters. But this time, after nearly a decade of environmental justice awareness, Oxnard residents were organized and ready to fight back.

The Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which had led the protests against the LNG terminal, sprang into action, bringing together community groups and leaders to oppose the project. When outraged residents packed city hall chambers, the city council moved quickly to pass an emergency moratorium blocking any new power plants along Oxnard’s coast.

“The people of Oxnard will no longer just accept further industrialization of our beautiful, but abused coast,” said Carmen Ramirez, Oxnard’s Mayor Pro Tem. “We want the same economic, recreational and aesthetic opportunities that other California coastal cities enjoy. Our future is at stake and state agencies and private industry must respect the wishes of the people who do not want yet another power plant on Oxnard’s shore.”

CAUSE protests oxnard power plant on 7/15/15. Photo: Lucas Zucker

NRG Tries “Astroturfing,” Threats of Abandonment
NRG immediately began to campaign furiously to undercut the staunch local opposition to the power plant. The company conducted an “astroturfing” campaign, inviting residents to a free dinner and presentation about the “new and improved” power plant, trying to persuade them to speak in support of the project at the city council meeting. NRG also ramped up contributions to local nonprofits and offered local veterans free tickets to the Ventura County Fair. They dubbed the proposed power plant “Puente” (bridge, in Spanish), as in, “bridge to a better future.” But above all, NRG’s strategy focused on the two ancient power plants on Oxnard’s beaches that they already operated.

The two old power plants use an obsolete technology called “once-through cooling,” which is deadly for local marine life. Both plants will have to be turned off by the year 2020—along with 17 other once-through cooling power plants along California’s coast—following a state water board mandate[i]. If the city refused to support NRG’s plans, the company threatened to abandon both plants to rust on the reach. NRG representatives ominously pointed to Morro Bay, a town farther up the Central Coast, where the operators of a once-through cooling power plant put a padlock on the door and walked away, leaving the city unable to afford the tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs. NRG insists that they have no legal responsibility to remove the power plants after they are shut down, even though they bought the plants after the water board ruling, knowing they would eventually have to cease operations.

Oxnard residents are all too familiar with irresponsible corporations whose shareholders profit for decades and then abandon their harmful sites in the community: the city’s Superfund toxic waste site is courtesy of Halaco, a metal smelter who left behind a radioactive slag heap at Ormond Beach.

When the city refused to blink, NRG resorted to hardball tactics. The company withdrew its public relations staff from Oxnard and sent a letter to the California Coastal Commission, asking them to pull back funding they had granted to the city to complete its Local Coastal Plan, which set out a long-term vision for a de-industrialized and restored Oxnard coastline.

Ultimately, NRG had no need to persuade Oxnard to accept the power plant. The city’s tenuous position could have been easily cast aside by two state agencies with the power to approve or deny power plants: the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission (CEC). The CPUC is notoriously inaccessible, opaque and beholden to industry. Its president was forced to resign in 2014 following a scandal around inappropriate dealings with utility giant PG&E.[ii] Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) , represented by attorneys with the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), challenged the power plant proposal at the state level alongside the City of Oxnard and the Sierra Club (Los Padres Chapter).

PUC hearings packed by community opponents to new power plant in Oxnard on 7/15/15. Photo: Lucas Zucker

Oxnard: Engaged, Informed and not Afraid to Speak Out
Environmental justice and traditional environmental groups were armed with two maps that laid out the core of the legal argument against the NRG power plant. The first was a groundbreaking sea level rise map[iii] by The Nature Conservancy, which has several major environmental restoration projects in Ventura County, and took a special focus on mapping the impact of climate change on the Ventura County coast, especially low-lying Oxnard. The Nature Conservancy’s projections showed the proposed coastal power plant directly in the path of sea level rise, with potential flooding threatening the reliability of energy for the region. The second was the Cal Enviroscreen,[iv] a first-of-its-kind environmental justice map produced by the California EPA, which mapped the nexus of environmental health hazards and vulnerable populations, showing Oxnard’s status as one of the most negatively- impacted communities in the state. Utility companies in California are required to consider environmental justice when looking at proposals for new power plants to ensure that they are not concentrated in low-income communities of color, a requirement which Southern California Edison ignored when picking NRG’s power plant proposal for Oxnard.

Both state agencies held public participation hearings in Oxnard. Hundreds of residents turned out for each, overwhelmingly speaking against the NRG power plant and stunning observers. In a low-income immigrant community like Oxnard, residents are expected to be unaware, uninformed, unengaged, and afraid to speak out. Many of the speakers were from Oxnard’s predominantly Latino and politically-progressive younger generation. Dozens of local high school and community college students showed up to oppose the project. Many of the youth, organized through local chapters of CAUSE, Future Leaders of America, and the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project, also rode a midnight bus to San Francisco to speak directly to the CPUC and rally outside the agency’s offices.

“The Oxnard power plant exemplifies a fight where the community is demanding that the California Public Utilities Commission consider environmental justice over fossil fuels and profits,” said Strela Cervas, co-director of CEJA. “Everytime we build another polluting power plant, we take a step away from the growing potential of renewable energy that can power up California. California needs to stop plugging into dirty energy and power up our communities with clean renewable energy. Local renewable energy brings health, good jobs and economic investments into communities that need it the most.”

The organizing efforts and legal arguments against the NRG power plant made an impact on Regina DeAngelis, the judge assigned to the case at the CPUC. In January 2016, she issued a precedent-setting proposed decision recommending that the project not be approved until the energy commission conducts further analysis of the sea level rise and the environmental justice impacts of the proposed power plant. This was the first time the CPUC had ever declined to approve a power plant based on either risks stemming from climate change or a disproportionate burden on a disadvantaged community. Because of the statewide precedent that would be set if the utility commissioners approved the judge’s proposed decision, NRG and the energy and utility industry immediately pushed back hard, putting immense pressure on the commissioners to overturn DeAngelis’ proposed decision and consider instead an alternate proposal by Commissioner Carla Peterman, which would approve the plant. After several postponements, the community still awaits a final decision from the commission in March.

A Certain Poetic (Climate) Justice Will Prevail
The battle over a power plant in Oxnard has attracted such widespread attention not just for its legal significance, but also as a turning point in the state’s energy future. In the midst of the CPUC’s Oxnard proceeding, the California state legislature passed the historic SB350, a groundbreaking climate change policy that included a mandate for utilities in the state to achieve 50 percent of their energy from clean, renewable sources by the year 2030. This ambitious target pushes California’s energy industry to ramp up the construction of a renewable energy infrastructure and brings into question the value of building another new gas-fired power plant anywhere in the state.

“Clean energy resources like solar and energy storage continue to decline in cost and can provide dependable power without the health and climate impacts of gas plants," says Matt Vespa of the Sierra Club.

Perhaps poetic justice will prevail, as power plants shortsightedly built along the Pacific Ocean long ago are removed in anticipation of the rising seas caused by their own emissions. Whether or not Oxnard’s environmental justice activists are able defeat NRG’s power plant this year, the tide seems to be turning. The question is no longer whether children growing up in Oxnard will one day see a shoreline free of smokestacks, but how long before they do.

Lucas Zucker does policy research and advocacy, youth organizing, and communications for CAUSE.  He was born in Brooklyn, NY and raised in Oakland and Ventura, CA. 






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"This could be a battle over the last fossil fuel power plant in California.” — Matt Vespa, senior attorney with the Sierra Club.

Governor Brown is Not Green

California EJ Communities Bear Brunt of Bad Policies
By Eric K. ArnoldGovernor Brown at 2014 press conference on budget allocations. Courtsey of

At the Paris climate summit, California Governor Jerry Brown played up his reputation as a progressive visionary—one of America’s most experienced politicians on environmental issues. He met with world leaders, did a photo-op with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and gave a speech to graduate students about climate awareness, saying, “we’re talking about a different kind of life, a life not based on oil, and a life not based on so much emphasis on the individual as opposed to the common good.”1

Prior to leaving on the trip, he signed an executive order2 aligning California’s greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals with EU standards, noting that “California is on track to meet or exceed the current target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, as established in the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32). California’s new emission reduction target of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 will make it possible to reach the ultimate goal of reducing emissions 80 percent under 1990 levels by 2050.”

But even as Brown received accolades from mainstream journalists and government leaders, frontline community members, climate experts and activists held a protest against the Governor’s support of offset credits for polluters and broader use of fracking technology in California—right in the midst of the climate talks.3

Back home, Brown is also often at the receiving end of criticism from environmental justice advocates.

“As much as Jerry Brown likes to talk about California being a leader in addressing climate change and other environmental justice issues, he has a real blind spot for oil and gas. As a result, California has seen a series of environmental catastrophes, including toxics in water and the rampant spread of fracking across the state,” says Hollin Kretzmann, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a group that is suing the Brown administration for polluting the water in Kern County.

Even the right-wing blog Breitbart reports:4 “Despite Brown’s tirades against fossil fuels, he has been very supportive of the California oil industry while governor.”

Pumpjacks in Kern County, CA. 2014 Sarah Craig/Faces of FrackingOnce an Environmental Champion
Brown first rose to political prominence in the 1970s. As California’s Secretary of State he challenged Big Oil on campaign finance, which resulted in the Political Reform Act of 1974. That same year, he was elected California’s governor at the young age of 36. Given the sobriquet “Governor Moonbeam” for his pledge to expand California’s space program, he was way ahead of the curve on renewable energy and energy efficiency, signing a groundbreaking tax incentive for rooftop solar in 1977. He established a moratorium on nuclear power, addressed air pollution in Los Angeles by creating the South Coast Air Quality Management District, blocked offshore coastal drilling through the California Coastal Act, and pushed for five California rivers to be added to the federal Wild and Scenic River System.

After failed runs for President and the US Senate and a stint as a KPFA radio talk show host, Brown returned to politics in 1999 as mayor of Oakland, where he pursued an ambitious plan to draw 10,000 new residents to the city, in the process, some say, accelerating gentrification. Brown used his connections to developers to propel himself into the Attorney General’s chair in 2006, and ultimately, the Governorship five years later. To his credit, as state Attorney General, Brown pursued emission limits under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). His advocacy contributed to California’s becoming a national model for federal fuel-economy standards during the Obama Administration.

Ironically, California’s strongest piece of environmental legislation, AB32, was enacted not by the Democratic Brown, but by his Republican predecessor, Schwarzenegger. Yet Brown has been happy to take credit for being proactive on climate change when it suits his purpose. As governor, Brown opposed the controversial Proposition 23, which would have rolled back AB32 until unemployment levels reached a 5.5 percent threshold. In the process, he pushed back directly at Big Oil, earning platitudes from environmental organizations like the Sierra Club.

Until recently, national media has often seemed in awe of Jerry The Environmentalist. In 2010, the New York Times noted, “Brown’s record on the environment is so deep and wide that he is probably the most experienced candidate on this set of issues running anywhere in the country.”

Three years later, Rolling Stone magazine gushed, “Brown’s first gubernatorial legacy was one of pathbreaking environmental reform,” and “A generation later, Brown has picked up where he left off.”6

While Brown may go down in history as one of the most celebrated politicians when it comes to climate change, he has undermined his own environmental legacy with a series of moves supporting oil, gas and big developers. As BuzzFeed stated, “…many environmentalists, farmers, and others have questioned an array of his policies and his apparently close relationship to the oil industry.”7 One prominent Democratic environmentalist told The Nation, “…climate leaders don’t frack.”8

Undercutting His Own Legacy
Environmentalists, and particularly environmental justice advocates, have long been frustrated with Brown’s contradictions. One recent controversy erupted over Brown appointees to the Coastal Commission who have reportedly taken pro-development stances and may have orchestrated the ouster of former Executive Director Charles Lester last February. Brown reportedly refused to intervene on behalf of environmentalists to influence the vote on Lester.

The same year Rolling Stone called Brown “arguably the most accomplished progressive governor in America,” Alternet reported on his “10 Worst Environmental Policies.”9 As it turns out, Governor Moonbeam isn’t quite as green as he might seem.

The article noted that Brown fast-tracked a $54 billion plan which would “divert massive quantities of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to corporate agribusiness, developers and oil companies,” imperiling salmon, steelhead, smelt, sturgeon, and other freshwater marine life populations. Other environmentally-dubious policies included Brown’s support of: (a) hydraulic fracking; (b) the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), which would sidestep California’s GHG emission reduction laws by allowing polluters to buy offset credits from Brazil and Mexico; (c) record exports of Delta water to corporate agribusiness; (d) the weakening of CEQA “…to fast-track big developments for giant corporations;” (e) clear-cutting in the Sierra Nevada; and (f) implementation of the controversial Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) initiative, denounced as “…one of the worst examples of corporate greenwashing in California history.”

According to environmental journalist Dan Bacher on the Daily Kos, “Under Brown, the Department of Conservation has become known as a virtual subsidiary of the oil and gas industries.”10 Oil industry regulators have been fired for refusing to violate the Clean Water Drinking Act by expediting oil drilling permits, and former oil industry executives have been appointed to high-ranking positions in state departments and commissions dealing with natural resources and fossil fuels.

As former Coastal Commissioner Steve Blank told KQED, “Under Schwarzenegger, there was an extended effort to reach out to a constituency he didn’t own. And now, with Brown, there is benign neglect of the constituency he’ll own forever.”11

Conflicts of Interest Fuel Policy
Charges of conflict of interest and nepotism have arisen from Brown’s delaying of a declaration of emergency in the horrific Porter Ranch natural gas leak caused by Sempra Energy—a company which paid Brown’s sister, Kathleen, almost half-a-million dollars to serve as a board member in 2013-14 and made $26,000 in campaign donations to Brown in 2014.12 Another Sempra board member, Lynn Schenk, also serves on the board of the California High Speed Rail Authority and was the state’s Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing (1978-83) during Brown’s previous stint as governor.

The buck doesn’t quite stop there. Kathleen Brown is also a director of the Forestar Group, a Texas-based oil and gas company who have aggressively lobbied against expanding regulation of fracking. Her stock in Forestar was valued at almost $950,000 as of December 2015. Coincidentally (or not), Forestar owns a 285-acre luxury condo development adjacent to Porter Ranch. The governor’s sister is also a partner in Manatt Phelps, a law firm used by the state’s biggest fracking lobby, the Western States Petroleum Association, which spent more than $13 million on lobbying in 2013-14.

It gets even stickier. As the East Bay Express reported, special interest groups poured almost $22 million into supporting a 2014 Brown-backed water bond, Proposition 1, a $25 billion project which exports Sacramento River water to agribusiness and oil companies engaged in fracking, endangering central valley chinook and delta smelt. According to the Express, “The contributors are a who’s who of Big Money interests in California, including corporate agribusiness groups, billionaires, timber barons, Big Oil, the tobacco industry, and the California Chamber of Commerce.”13 The proposition, which outspent its opposition exponentially, passed easily.

Challenging the grip of corporate lobbyists on California hasn’t been easy under Brown’s governorship. His reputation has served him like a Teflon shield. Public awareness campaigns about Brown’s support of hydraulic fracking proved informative, but failed to provoke any sort of mass outrage. Ditto Brown’s abrupt reversal of a campaign promise not to use Proposition 1 money to pay for habitat migration of marine species impacted by the construction of two underwater tunnels. But there are signs of a widening crack in Brown’s façade as a green guru.

Breaking Point for Environmentalists
Two recent lawsuits charging government collusion with oil and gas interests represent a break point for the environmental movement. Like much of the criticism against Brown’s administration in regards to the environment, they have to do with hydraulic fracking.

The fuel-extraction process of fracking has been linked to toxic hazards and science suggests that fracking can actually trigger earthquakes. In fracking states like Texas and Oklahoma, 7.9 million people are in danger from man-made earthquakes, according to CNN14—a prospect made more dangerous in the seismic fault-saturated California.

Both lawsuits originate out of Kern County, which accounts for approximately 99 percent of the fracking in California and one-tenth of all US oil production. Almost a quarter of the county residents—49 percent of whom are Hispanic or Latino, mostly of Mexican descent—exist below the poverty line, and more than two-thirds live within one mile of an oil well. The solidly Republican-leaning county holds the dubious distinction of having the most deaths by police shooting per capita in the US with 13 police shootings in 2015.

Kern is also a big agricultural producer, responsible for almost 50 percent of California’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. Agribusiness and fracking both require copious amounts of water and the expansion of fracking raises serious concerns about the contamination of groundwater with benzene and other hazardous chemicals; fracking has also been linked to respiratory problems, skin rashes, nosebleeds, and coccidioidomycosis, also known as “valley fever.”

The first lawsuit,15 filed in 2015 on behalf of Kern County farmers, alleges that the Brown administration colluded with the oil industry to avoid groundwater contamination laws. Specifically, it16 alleges that government officials entered into a criminal conspiracy with oil companies to subvert the Safe Drinking Water Act “to achieve through illegal means the goal of increasing oil production and maximizing profits and tax revenue by allowing the Oil companies to inject salt water into fresh water.” It also notes that permits approved by the State Oil and Gas Supervisor Tim Kustic rose from 50 to 1,575 in 2012 alone, after Kustic promised oil companies a “flexible” approach to permitting. Injecting contaminated water into aquifers increased sodium chloride levels in underground water to the extent that some orchards were damaged, threatening the livelihoods of farmers. To avoid public scrutiny, Brown and his co-defendants “suppressed research, destroyed documents, and refused to provide all information requested under the California Public Records Act,” said lead attorney R. Rex Parris in a statement.

The Kern county lawsuit was followed by a similar suit17 filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), challenging injections of leftover fracking waste into protected aquifers. According to the CBD, “California regulators allowed oil companies to drill more than 2,400 illegal injection wells for waste disposal or oil production into protected aquifers.”18

CBD’s Kretzmann says Brown “can’t be counted on” and that he, “hasn’t been an ally” of environmentalists concerned about the contamination of aquifers. The pervasive influence of the oil and gas industry, Kretzmann claims, has led Kern officials to sidestep comprehensive environmental impact report (EIR) requirements by changing them to allow for “one [environmental impact] review for all oil and gas projects for the next 25 years”, thus evading CEQA guidelines. Additionally, exclusionary tactics, such as not providing public materials about the proceedings in Spanish, negatively impacted Kern’s monolingual population of rural farmers, he says.

Then there is the fact that California is in a drought. Expanding fracking operations during a time of water conservation “is a remarkable obscenity,”19 said a Los Angeles Times op-ed. “Trucks line up on rural roads in Kern County, not to deliver water to those communities where wells have run dry, but to deliver it to drillers who inject it underground. What they bring back up is polluted wastewater.”

Silence on Oakland Coal Train
Brown was also strangely mum about a controversial plan to run coal trains to an Oakland port terminal. In addition to climate change concerns, the coal shipments would have exacerbated existing health risks in the area around the terminal, which has some of the worst air pollution and highest concentration of asthma in the state. The plan was strongly opposed by environmentalists and on June 28, 2016 the Oakland City Council finally gave in to public opinion and public health experts, voting 7-0 to block the shipments. Other opponents of the plan included state EPA employees and numerous elected officials, including State Senator Loni Hancock, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Assemblymen Tony Thurmond and Rob Bonta, and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, a former Brown aide.

“For [Brown] to be quiet on this coal issue is stunning,”20 San Francisco State University professor and political commentator Joe Tuman told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Brown’s public silence may have been evidence of a personal conflict: the project’s developer is his good friend, Phil Tagami. Their relationship is well-documented. As mayor of Oakland, Brown appointed Tagami to the Port Commission, and as governor, appointed him to the state’s Lottery Commission. Tagami also contributed $11,000 to Brown’s campaign for Attorney General, and Brown’s nuptials took place in the Tagami-owned Rotunda Building in Oakland.

As Oakland Magazine reported,21 Brown has financial ties to Tagami’s California Capital and Investment Group (CCIG) through a stake in the Edgewater Park Plaza business park in East Oakland. Though representatives of the governor have denied a conflict of interest, Brown declined to meet with opponents of the coal plan and hasn’t responded to their emails and letters, although Tagami himself acknowledged he talked about the issue with Brown.22

But Brown may not have the option to maintain his silence forever. State Senator Loni Hancock’s Senate Bill 1279 would prohibit the use of public funds to build or operate any port that exports coal from California. It also applies to any port near disadvantaged communities. It passed its initial policy committee vote in late June and is awaiting fiscal review. If that bill and several others Hancock has introduced make it through the legislature, Brown will be presented with a clear choice—sign or veto—and may finally reveal his position on the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

According to Kretzmann, Brown’s overall environmental record has been “very disappointing… The reality is, California has a lot of problems: air quality, water contamination in the midst of a drought… Brown has a lot to be accountable for.”

Some advocates, however, have a more balanced view of the governor. Alvaro Sanchez, environmental equity director for the Greenlining Institute, concedes that Brown’s stance on fracking and water has hurt his legacy in some capacity. But he emphasizes that Brown has been a global leader in forwarding environmental policy models. Perhaps more importantly, he adds, Brown has not stood in the way of environmental equity bills advanced by elected officials, such as Kevin De Leon. And the fact that there is robust funding for AB32 goals speaks for itself, he adds.

While Brown’s overall status with the media remains high, California journalists on an environmental beat are less likely to dole out untempered praise. Robert Gammon, Oakland Magazine senior editor and former editor of the East Bay Express, finds Brown’s stance on GHG reduction commendable, but “most environmental groups believe [Brown’s plan for water tunnels] will destroy the Delta,” he says. “If you look at his past record, and public rhetoric, he hasn’t really lived up to it.”

Eric K. Arnold is a contributing editor to Race, Poverty & the Environment and the founder of the blog.


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"Governor Brown has a real blind spot for oil and gas.” - Hollin Kretzmann, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD),

Paris Agreement is a ‘Dangerous Distraction’

Members of Grassroots Global Justice march against the G-20 meetings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. © 2009 Orin Langelle GJEP-GJEPClimate Justice Groups Release Report

Three major climate justice organizations—the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Climate Justice Alliance—organized a delegation to the December 2015 United Nations climate talks in Paris. The delegation, called “It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm,” included more than 100 leaders and organizers from US and Canadian grassroots and Indigenous groups. “It Takes Roots” delegates took part in the talks and helped to lead two weeks of direct action in the streets of Paris. The actions brought the broader movement against climate change into the streets, and also developed new ties among grassroots groups around the world who are united behind the call for “system change, not climate change.” The text that follows comes from the It Takes Roots report on the Paris talks, We Are Mother Earth’s Red Line: Frontline Communities Lead the Climate Justice Fight Beyond the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015 is a dangerous distraction that threatens all of us. Marked by the heavy influence of the fossil fuel industry, the deal reached at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) never mentions the need to curb extractive energy, and sets goals far below those needed to avert a global catastrophe. The agreement signed by 196 countries does acknowledge the global urgency of the climate crisis, and reflects the strength of the climate movement. But the accord that came out of the UNFCC’s 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) ignores the roots of the crisis, and the very people who have the experience and determination to solve it.

Our analysis of the Paris Agreement echoes critiques from social movements around the world, led by those most impacted by both climate disruption and the false promises that governments and corporate interests promote in its wake.  In order to effectively develop and support our next organizing steps, we must have a clear and honest understanding of the challenges and conditions we are facing. We have five core concerns with the content of the Paris Agreement:

The Agreement relies  on voluntary versus mandatory emission cuts  that do not meet targets scientists say are necessary to avoid  climate catastrophe. The Paris Agreement is not  based on what is scientifically necessary to address the  climate crisis .  The accord contains no binding mandatory emissions reductions—only voluntary pledges from each country, called “Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions .” Taken together, all these pledges would still allow an average global temperature increase of between 3 – 4 °C above pre-industrial levels . Scientists warn that this  level  of warming would be catastrophic  In fact,  the  agreement allows emissions to continue to increase without setting a date by which they need to begin to decrease .  The actual language states, “Parties aim  to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible .”

The Agreement advances pollution trading  mechanisms that allow polluters to purchase “offsets” and continue extremely dangerous levels of emissions. The agreement allows countries to claim reductions through pollution trading schemes written in the  agreement as “results-based payments,” rather than requiring actual reductions of pollution emissions at the  source. The underlying approach of these trading schemes is to create a market for emission credits that allows polluters to continue releasing greenhouse gasses if they can  produce a certificate attesting that they have contributed toward preventing a similar amount of emissions elsewhere, and thus avoid taking action against burning fossil fuels .  An example of what is being traded is a mechanism called “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation”4 (REDD+) .  Within climate negotiations, deforestation has become a global issue .  Forests provide vast amounts of carbon sinks that when destroyed emit CO2 into  the  atmosphere .  The loss of these forests, especially in the  Global South, is a major driver of climate change, accounting for roughly a fifth of global GHG emissions .  The Paris agreement approved REDD+ for implementation despite continued debates on how to make forests fit into  a financial carbon market regime with no real guarantee there would be progress in reducing the underlying causes of forest loss .  These carbon market regimes allow for the  privatization of the  carbon in the  forests, and tree plantations, wetlands, agriculture and soils to be used as sponges for mitigating greenhouse gases .  This allows governments and polluting corporations to offset their carbon and other GHGs,  to meet emission reduction targets rather than cut emissions at the  source .

Offsets and pollution trading have a double-edged impact: They  give  polluters in the  industrialized countries of the  North cover so they can  continue to poison the  air and water in the  communities  alongside refineries, coal  mines and fracking wells, and at the  same time in the  global South, including Mexico, these projects can  fail to secure the  rights of local  forest-dependent communities, peasants and Indigenous Peoples to their lands .  Even  where land titles might be recognized on paper, implementation of REDD+ projects that generate carbon credits is likely to lead to these people losing control of their lands, land evictions, and restrictions on entering forested areas .  Current safeguard mechanisms developed have no guarantees for being implemented at the  national or subnational areas of developing countries .  Tradable REDD credits are  a form of property title—privatization .  Those who own the  credit do not  need to own the  land nor  the  trees, but  they do own the  right to decidehow that land will be used. They also usually have the contractual right to monitor what is happening on the land and request access to the territory at any time they choose as long as they own the carbon credit.

The Agreement relies  on dirty energies and false  promises including hydraulic  fracturing  (fracking), nuclear  power, agro-fuels, carbon  capture and sequestration and other  technological proposals that pose serious ecological risks. While  the  fossil fuel industry has tried to position natural gas as a “transitional fuel” and nuclear energy as a green energy alternative, both of these industries carry tremendous risk to surrounding communities .  In 2015,  the  state of Oklahoma was forced to impose a ban on fracking, due to more than 5000 earthquakes in one year, sometimes more than 20 in a single day, directly resulting from extensive fracking operations. The nuclear power industry has seen similar disasters, such as the Fukushima meltdown of 2011. The Paris Agreement focuses on national voluntary pledges of emissions reductions, but not reductions in the extraction of fossil fuels, allowing contradictory practices such as the  Obama administration on the  one hand pledging net  emissions reductions, and on the  other proposing a five-year expansion of offshore oil drilling across the  Arctic and Gulf of Mexico .  A genuine Just Transition requires rejecting dirty  energy and investing in clean and renewable energy sources .

The operating text  of the Agreement omits any mention of human rights  or the rights  of Indigenous Peoples and women. Despite vocal objections from Indigenous Peoples, allies and human rights NGOs, the  operative text  of the  Paris Agreement is void  of any  language on the  recognition of human rights, with  limited language in the  preambular and addendum text .  The language on human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights within the  preamble is purely aspirational text  and not  legally binding or enforceable in any  way .  The preamble text  has no mention of the  rights of women .  The US, Norway, the  UK and the  EU have been key players in this  removal of language around human rights and the  rights of Indigenous Peoples .

The Agreement weakens or strips  the rights  of reparations owed to the Global South by the Global North.  The Paris Agreement dilutes the  language that until  now has been critical for establishing the expectation that countries that have greater historical responsibility for causing climate change must be held to higher standards for reducing emissions and addressing impacts .  Furthermore, the  Paris Agreement denies the  possibility for compensation or liability for loss and damage done, thus limiting rights of countries or communities impacted by climate change to use legal methods to hold entities accountable for causing their suffering.

The leadership of social movements of Indigenous Peoples, Black, Latina, Asian and Pacific Islander communities, small-scale farmers/peasants and women, and all communities on the frontlines of extraction who have been defending lands, territories, water, forests, the health of their communities and Mother Earth as a whole, is more critical than ever..

In the report, these quotes appeared at the beginning of the section:

“The harsh reality we face is that the very people who have already been experiencing the most frequent and severe climate impacts to date—Indigenous Peoples, small-scale farmers/peasants, women and low-income communities of color, especially in the Global South—will now face even more difficult life-or-death struggles as their lands, territories, waters, and forests could be increasingly privatized and taken away under the mechanisms of the Paris Agreement.” —Chung-Wha Hong and Sara Mersha, Grassroots International

“The Paris Agreement is a trade agreement, nothing more. It promises to privatize, commodify and sell forested lands as carbon offsets in fraudulent schemes such as REDD+ projects. These offset schemes provide a financial laundering mechanism for developed countries to launder their carbon pollution on the backs of the global south. Case-in-point, the United States’ climate change plan includes 250 million megatons to be absorbed by oceans and forest offset markets. Essentially, those responsible for the climate crisis not only get to buy their way out of compliance but they also get to profit from it as well.” —Alberto Saldamando, Human and Indigenous Rights Expert & Attorney

*A version of this story posted earlier today (4.22.16) included text from a pre-release version of the report's 5 points of concern.

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United Nations climate agreement never mentions the need to curb extractive energy and sets goals far below those needed to avert a global catastrophe.

Rebecca Solnit on Climate Change

Interview by Dayton Martindale

A sense of wonder can be a revolutionary tool.

In a dispatch from Paris for Harper’s, writer and activist Rebecca Solnit called the recent climate agreement negotiated there “miraculous and horrible.” This tension between the exciting and the awful, the transformative and the terrifying, motivates her book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Initially written in response to the Iraq War, the book will be re-released this month with a new section on climate change.

Solnit’s numerous books and essays cover a wide array of topics from environmentalism to feminism (famously, “Men Explain things to Me” helped inspire the concept of “mansplaining”). Her history of activism includes Nevada’s anti-nuclear testing movement in the 1980s and the protests around corporate globalization of the 1990s. Today we see another corporate trade deal—the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—on the table, American bombs falling across the Middle East and climate change accelerating.

This interview was originally published at In These TImes and is reprinted here as part of a collaboration sponsored by the indpependent media organization The Media Consortium.

What are your thoughts on the election?

The current hate-fest on the Left is just…kind of sad. The Left is famous for tearing itself apart. I’m not sure the purpose of that exercise. Hating on people has never been a great form of social change, so far as we know. I have preferences and they’re probably not that hard to guess. But with Obama, people so completely put their faith in: “Oh, we’ll elect this magic, amazing super-human and then we’ll all go home and do absolutely nothing.” The movement that put Obama in office was powerful enough to make really profound change, but everyone went home because they thought he’d do it.

That’s what you see with Bernie Sanders: this infatuation with an almost savior-like figure who will do it all. No, actually, massive grassroots movements need to exist the day after the election. Electoral politics are dismal; I’m more interested in grassroots power, popular power.

How has your activism influenced how you think about social change?

I’ve had a front-row seat in how change gets made, and I’ve seen that it’s often slow, indirect, unpredictable and sometimes incredibly wonderful. But I’ve also seen people who don’t perceive it if it’s not quick and direct. The incredible nuclear freeze movement in the early 1980s was driven by fear of Armageddon. I remember one guy being like, “I went to a rally and it didn’t change anything and I didn’t do anything more.” Really? You thought the Kremlin was going to fall to its knees because you went to an upstate New York rally? But the movement had tremendous power. When the Soviet Union collapsed there was this incredible moment where powerful movements could’ve pushed forward total disarmament, but there were no powerful movements. It’s sad.

Six years ago, the climate movement decided to stop the Keystone pipeline. As David Roberts at Vox has said, it was not just about changing one pipeline but changing the culture. Watching that process take place up close is boring. There were bad meetings and demonstrations that aren’t always triumphs.

But then you pull back and, oh my God, six years later, we defeated the northern stretch of the pipeline and we’re in a completely different place with the climate movement. A lot of people don’t have the long-term memory to see that—not that six years should even count as long-term. Also, hanging out with people who are passionate idealists and deeply devoted has made my life incredibly richer—this heroic sense of what it means to be a member of civil society, a person with a commitment that’s bigger than themself.

There’s this idea that political engagement is some sort of horrible, dutiful thing you do, like cleaning the toilet or taking out the garbage. But it can be the most fantastic thing you do. It can bring you into contact with hope, with joy, with a sense of deep connection, with what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.” Disconnection from a larger sense of purpose and agency, from community and civil society, and from hope are huge factors in unhappiness.

How do you keep hope amid climate change?

It’s tough because we know terrible things are happening and are going to happen. Hope is that we can steer toward the best-case scenarios instead of the worst. Hope is not like saying, “Let’s pretend I don’t have cancer.” It’s saying, “Let’s hope this treatment has survivability. Let’s work for the best-case scenarios.” Things are changing fast. If you said three years ago that Congress was going to introduce a bill to prevent all fossil fuel extraction on public land, people would be like, “You’re out of your mind,” and that just happened. The science is changing, politics are changing, technology is changing, and we don’t actually know what they’re going to look like in three or 10 years.

The proposed solutions for climate change require large-scale state planning, but you’re very sympathetic to a local or anarchistic approach.

Paris was about nation-states, and they have a role. But at the same time, San Diego decided to go 100 percent fossil- free by 2035 and San Francisco finally implemented its clean-power program. Things are happening on a lot of scales.

We do need legislation and agreements. As Naomi Klein points out, one of the reasons the Republicans are furious about climate change is that it does require large-scale cooperation and regulation. But a lot of the systems are on smaller scales. My solar roof. Your transit alternative. Our statewide building code. New York’s fracking ban.

In Hope in the Dark you argue that the environmental movement should reach out and form alliances with rural communities.

It’s really funny talking just after Cliven Bundy got arrested and charged. He represents the far-right fringe of rural culture. A lot of what rural people who were suspicious of big government think isn’t that different from what radicals on the Left think, but right-wing outreach was awesome and left-wing outreach was somewhere between pathetic and nonexistent. How do you convince them that the world government they should fear is not the U.N., it’s the TPP? How do you get outside the stereotypes where people assume, “Oh, I have nothing in common with feminists or labor organizers”? We have a lot of divides that are artificial or not carefully examined. People on both the Right and Left are operating with a lot of stereotypes about each other.

What do you think of the argument that we need more women and people of color in power?

In a culture dominated by white men, often people succeed through allegiance to that white, male worldview, to those priorities. Thus: Margaret Thatcher, Clarence Thomas and so forth. I am not sure we will see what might be different about non-white and non-male governance until it’s more than a minority in a white-male system. I loved it that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when asked, “Do you think there should be more women on the Supreme Court?” said there should be nine.

Can writing drive social change?

It’s important not to be prescriptive and say all writing has to have a political or practical end. Something I recall often is Lawrence Weschler’s Vermeer in Bosnia, about a human rights tribunal judge dealing with Bosnian war criminals. Weschler asks how he can bear to listen to stories of horrific atrocities day after day. The judge pauses for a moment and then his face brightens and he says, “After work I go to the museum and I go to the Vermeers.” That’s the best and most succinct description of how beauty, pleasure and joy help people do really difficult things. They often get dismissed as not part of the revolution. But I do believe that writing has and does and can change the world in direct ways, too.

You write a lot about walking, and about past writers like Thoreau and Woolf walking. Do you walk a lot?

Yes. Part of the solution to climate change is that we don’t need to rush around, we don’t need to consume as much, we don’t need to move around as much, because what’s up close can be pretty magnificent. I’ve been in San Francisco since 1980 and I still discover things all the time. A sense of wonder can be a revolutionary tool.

Dayton Martindale is a contributing writer for Rural America In These Times. He studied astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, where he wrote and edited for the student alternative paper The Nassau Weekly and student film/TV blog The Princeton Buffer. He tweets at @DaytonRMartind.


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"Massive grassroots movements need to exist the day after the election. Electoral politics are dismal..."

Clean Power — Our Power

A Perspective from NY/NJ Environmental Justice Groups

By Ana Orozco and Molly Greenberg

Climate Justice Alliance at the historic People's Climate March, 2014. Photo by Rae Breaux, ©2014 Our Power Campaign

In January 2016, members of  community-based and environmental justice groups across the US held simultaneous actions in all ten EPA Regional headquarter cities. The protests call for the adoption of the Our Power Plan (OPP) a comprehensive justice-focused response to reducing greenhouse gasses that flags the dangers of false promises like carbon trading, natural gas, and nuclear energy.

This national demonstration of solidarity was coordinated by the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), which unites frontline communities hit hardest by climate disruption, pollution, and economic crises.

In New York and New Jersey members from UPROSE in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, NJ personally delivered the Our Power Plan report to EPA Region 2 administrator Judith Enck and staff at their Manhattan office. The aim of the actions is to challenge the EPA to bring an environmental justice lens to Obama administration policies—chief among them, the Clean Power Plan (CPP), released in August 2015, by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  This plan is an attempt by the US government to confront climate change and reduce the country’s carbon pollution.

The CPP demonstrates that the Obama administration and the EPA take seriously the issue of climate change and have finally developed a plan to reduce this country’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The plan addresses carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, which is a start. But the plan does not go far enough. It still allows for hazardous energy facilities, completely neglects co-pollutants, accepts extractive energy sources and fails to address disparate siting of power plants in low income communities and communities of color.

The Our Power Plan highlights some of the shortcomings with the CPP and proposes justice and equity based solutions. One of the most glaring shortcomings of the CPP is accepting natural gas, nuclear energy, and incineration as satisfactory alternatives to coal-fired energy. Unfortunately the NJ Energy Master Plan shares these shortcomings. If we really want to reduce our GHG emissions by 80% by 2050, a goal of the De Blasio administration’s OneNYC plan and the CPP, we need to stop relying on false solutions such as natural gas. It is a non-renewable fossil fuel resource and releases co-pollutants like methane, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Exposure to these pollutants has severe respiratory effects, especially in those who already suffer from asthma, resulting in increased hospital visits.

Another problematic proposal in the CPP, is relying on the carbon market (cap and trade) as an incentive for coal-fired power plants to reduce their GHGs. To think within the framework of our current economic system, is not sustainable and further exacerbates the climate crisis. Any form of pollution commodification like carbon trading is no solution, and must not be entertained as such. Impacts of our current fossil fuel based economy, built on overconsumption, are heavily felt in low-income communities and communities of color, where climate change has had catastrophic effects, cost us lives and our cities millions of dollars in reconstruction and infrastructure costs.

In Region 2, environmental and public health injustices from dirty fossil fuel industries continue to overburden our most vulnerable communities, low-income communities of color. Environmental/Climate Justice leaders in NY and NJ demand that we go beyond the CPP and address issues of co-pollutants, natural gas facilities such as the Newark Energy Center, and three peaker power plants in Sunset Park, garbage incinerators, and aging coal fired-plants. We need to begin addressing real emissions reductions at the source and stop looking to false promises, which only allow for business as usual. The three peaker plants in Sunset Park are natural gas power plants and expose nearby residents to co-pollutants such as NOx and SOx, GHGs which can cause or worsen respiratory diseases and increase asthma related hospital visits. Not only is our community affected by daily exposure to these co-pollutants, but communities impacted by fracking suffer the disastrous consequences of this natural gas extraction process.

What is truly shocking is that even with the weakness in the CPP to really go after the dirty fossil fuel industry, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has halted any progress by issuing a stay. This move sheds light on the essence of the up-hill battle we are up against. The decision also deflects and takes away from the climate justice argument that the CPP does not go far enough in efforts to reduce GHGs. If we have to put our efforts into getting a weak proposal back on the table, our movement for a radical change away from a fossil fuel based, extractive economy is interrupted and further delayed.

So while we await the results from the recent Supreme Court decision as environmental justice advocates we continue our efforts to implement the Our Power Plan and support real solutions to the dirty energy industry. We look to EPA Region 2 to commit to a continued conversation and actions to address dirty energy affecting the health and well-being of our communities. The EPA has an opportunity to do things differently, to really challenge climate change, why then propose weak solutions?

With real solutions like weatherization, wind and solar, within our reach let’s stop entertaining false promises that rely on business as usual instead of community-based solutions that can actually help us reach these very real goals of GHG reductions by 80% over the next 34 years. It is time to put into action a “Just Transition” away from an extractive economy and towards local renewable economies where communities struggling to hold onto homes, jobs, businesses, and livable ecosystems benefit from all at once. This is the real potential of the Clean Power Plan.

In order to ensure survival, communities who are currently at the frontline of the climate crisis know that we need to move away from the fossil fuel driven economy. While the EPA is taking small steps in the right direction, this glacial pace towards progress is dangerous for our communities. We cannot afford to entertain climate deniers or fossil fuel based industry representatives. Instead we need to be working towards a Just Transition, developing a system that is based on equity, based in real renewable energy solutions and not driven by profit over human and environmental health.

Ana Orozco is the Climate Justice Policy and Programs coordinator at UPROSE

Molly Greenberg is the Environmental Justice Policy Manager at Ironbound Community Corporation

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In order to ensure survival, communities who are currently at the frontline of the climate crisis know that we need to move away from the fossil fuel driven economy.