Energy and Global Warming News for March 11: Rural utility loan bill designed to spur efficiency; Poverty and tyranny central to immoral practice of mountaintop destruction, water and air poisoning — RFK, Jr.

Members introduce rural utility loan bill designed to spur energy efficiency efforts

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill today to provide homeowners and businesses with low-interest loans to make energy efficiency improvements to cut their energy use.

The measure would grant $4.9 billion in loan authority to the Rural Utilities Services, which finances rural electric utilities. The RUS loans to the electric co-ops would be zero percent interest, and given on the condition that the co-ops would in turn make low-interest loans to their customers for things like installing insulation, replacing old heating and cooling systems and repairing leaky roofs.

The co-op loans could not exceed interest rates of greater than 3 percent.


“This bill provides for energy conservation, job creation and cost-effective upgrades that will improve consumers’ quality of life,” House Majority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said in a statement.

Supporters said the bill would create between 20,000 and 40,000 jobs. Rural co-op officials said efficiency programs may mean utilities won’t have to build new power plants to meet the electricity demands of their customers, avoding new carbon dioxide emissions most scientists say are warming the planet.

The legislation has 10 original co-sponsors: Clyburn, Reps. Tom Perriello (D-Va.); John Spratt (D-S.C.); Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.); and Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.); Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.); Michael Bennet (D-Colo.); Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.); and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).

The bill number in the House is h.r. 4785, although at the time of this post, the measure had not been added to the Thomas legislative database.

Poverty and tyranny central to immoral practice of mountain destruction, water and air poisoning

The Appalachian forest is the oldest and richest ecosystem north of the equator, having survived the Pleistocene ice era and provided the seed stock that reforested the continent. Appalachia has 80 species of trees and more biodiversity per cubic meter than anywhere on the continent.

Now the Massey Energy coal company, the largest practitioner of mountaintop removal, and a few corporate cronies are accomplishing what the Pleistocene could not: flattening Appalachia’s mountains, obliterating those ancient forests and the historic landscapes where Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone roamed and which birthed country music, NASCAR races and rough-hewn heroes for every American war. Using mammoth machines designed to replace human workers, and explosives with the power of a Hiroshima bomb each week, coal companies have already flattened 1.4 million acres, buried nearly 2,000 miles of streams and blown up 500 of America’s oldest mountains.

Industry’s claim that mountaintop removal brings prosperity to the region is a demonstrable lie. To the contrary, the out-of-state companies and Wall Street banks that control Appalachian coal are liquidating the resources of the region while impoverishing its residents. West Virginia, ground zero for the plundering of Appalachia, is blessed with some of the country’s richest resources yet is America’s 49th poorest state. In fact, coalfield counties throughout the region have some of the highest poverty levels in the nation.

Mountaintop removal is incompatible with either economic development or human habitation. Once-thriving communities like Whitesville, Marsh Fork, Shumate and Lindytown are now ghost towns dotting the coalfields. They stand emptied by residents fleeing the blasting, the choking dust, dried-up and poisoned wells, disappeared and contaminated streams, slurry spills, floods, landslides, mudslides and the murderously overloaded coal trucks that speed down narrow mountain roads. In fact, coal companies engage in a deliberate policy of buying and closing coal towns and paying the residents to leave. Then, after a few short years of production, the companies leave too, abandoning depopulated hollows and barren moonscapes that are useless for economic development or functioning ecosystems.

Time for next stage of sustainable business

Corporate America needs to track its use of energy and resources as closely as it does its hiring and cash flow if it wants to keep pace with social concern about climate change and other sustainability issues, an activist U.S. investor group argues in a new report.

Population growth and a rising standard of living across the world will bring opportunities — but also risks of higher energy costs, scarcer water and other possible consequences of climate change, the Ceres coalition of socially concerned investors, companies and public interest groups said.

Over the next decade, investors and consumers will expect more comprehensive disclosure from businesses about what climate-related risks they face and what they are doing about them, the Boston-based group, whose members oversee some $7 billion in assets, said.

“It’s time for a new generation of best practices, new expectations of what sustainability is,” said Mindy Lubber, president of the group.

Leading U.S. businesses ranging from top conglomerate General Electric Co to No. 3 railroad CSX Corp to the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc, have already gone public about their efforts to make their products and operations more environmentally friendly.

“The next step is moving into a comprehensive set of practices, from the board room to the copy room,” Lubber said. “Companies need to take sustainability into account, just as they would other major risks and opportunities in the marketplace.”

“Environmental and social issues are core to business performance in the 21st century,” Anne Stausboll, chief executive officer of the California Public Employees Retirement System, the biggest U.S. public pension fund and a Ceres member, said in a statement. “We are looking for companies that are managing these risks and developing opportunities.”

Deforestation Conference to Turn Plans to Action

French President Nicolas Sarkozy will open a daylong conference Thursday of some 40 nations to start turning plans into action to save the world’s forests and help rein in the noxious gases blamed for climate change.

Ministers from countries of the Amazon and Congo river basins and Indonesia — whose massive forests, most at risk, are at the heart of efforts to end deforestation — were among those attending the one-day conference. A follow-up meeting is scheduled for May in Oslo, Norway.

‘’The forest in danger. Massive planet-wide destruction continues,’’ France’s influential environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo said to reporters Wednesday ahead of the conference.

The conference, with closed-door working groups, is looking to translate measures adopted at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in December into concrete mechanisms — and funds.

World Bank representatives and lending nations were also attending the meeting.

To simply inventory the forests — counting the fauna and flora — is a necessary but hugely expensive ‘’mammoth project,’’ said Henri Djombo, the Republic of Congo’s sustainable development and environment minister.

Deforestation, which involves the burning of trees to clear land and the natural rotting of trees, is thought to account for up to 20 percent of carbon dioxide sent into the atmosphere — as much as that emitted by all the world’s cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships combined. Reducing deforestation is one of the most effective ways to reduce the emissions responsible for climate change.

Indonesia and Brazil are the world’s third- and fourth-largest carbon emitters, after China and the United States. Deforestation for logging, growing crops or making room for cattle grazing, are the prime causes.

A plan to help protect tropical forests by having rich nations pay the countries concerned fell apart in Copenhagen, though the forest program, known as REDD — for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation — survived.

A portion of the $30 billion that world leaders agreed to spend over the next three years to help poor nations could go toward the forest program. World leaders agreed to spend a total of $100 billion by 2020.

Finding mechanisms to disburse those funds quickly and fairly is among the tasks at the conference.

Science chairman praises agency’s push on e-waste research

House Science Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) yesterday praised the administration’s request of $1 million to jump-start a program on electronic waste research.

The House last year passed legislation (H.R. 1580) that would authorize EPA to give grants for e-waste reduction research and development. The grants would focus on research to improve the efficiency of recycling and collection programs, develop less hazardous materials for manufacturing and promote lifecycle analyses of electronic devices. They would also target boosting public awareness of electronic waste and how to deal with it.

The growing number of products such as computers and televisions on the market has led to a flood of discarded electronics as consumers throw out old models. Those discards end up in the waste stream, where chemicals and other toxic materials contaminate the environment. EPA estimates that e-waste is growing two to three times faster than any other waste stream.

“We are looking at this important program, and this initial investment as laying the groundwork for where we expect to be,” said Paul Anastas, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “We look … for how to scope out where the possibilities for looking at not only the ways of handling the waste but always the ways of informing design, so that waste doesn’t continue into the future.”

EPA’s R&D office would receive $605.6 million in fiscal 2011 under President Obama’s budget request, an increase of $11 million over last year.

EPA is also moving forward with incorporating social behavioral sciences throughout its research strategy, Anastas said.

“Rather than creating isolated disciplinary programs … it’s about how we do integrated transdisciplinary research,” Anastas said. “As we consider the how of what we do … from the very beginning is to make sure that the wide range of disciplines are there at the table.”

Several research and development initiatives in particular would see increases in fiscal 2011. The agency is requesting $21.9 million for its computational toxicology program, a slight increase over last year’s funding level of $20 million. This initiative is geared toward speeding up progress of the Endocrine Disruption Screening Program, a long-stalled effort that seeks to identify chemicals that disrupt hormones.

EPA says this research, focused on screening chemicals more effectively and efficiently, is a critical tool for strengthening chemicals management and risk assessment, an agency priority outlined by Administrator Lisa Jackson.

The agency is also proposing a significant investment in its research program to promote integrated, multidisciplinary research. As a part of this, EPA calls for a 40 percent boost for a grant program called “Science to Achieve Results,” or STAR, to $87.2 million, an increase of $25.8 million.

As a part of that increase, EPA is requesting $17.4 million for research into endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Under STAR, EPA is also proposing $6 million more for green infrastructure research, up from $4.4 million; and $85.3 million, up from $81.9 million, for air quality research.

LCV goes after Blunt

Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan wasn’t the only Missourian taking hits Wednesday, as the League of Conservation Voters announced it’s adding Rep. Roy Blunt, the GOP’s presumptive Senate nominee, to its “Dirty Dozen” list of candidates to target for defeat this year. The group has rolled out a website to go after Blunt,, and is currently weighing how to spend money in the election. A spokesperson for the group told Morning Score: “No decisions have been made yet on how we will get involved in the MO-Sen race, but in the past we have run ads, set up field operations, done polling, made persuasion phone calls, done direct mail and placed canvassers in Dirty Dozen races. We are currently researching the race to see what’s useful and when/where. As a point of reference, LCV spent $1.5 [million] on races during the 2008 Dirty Dozen campaign, while over $3 [million] was what we spent on the entire election.”

Smart grid tax hurdle falls for corporate investment grant recipients

The Obama administration yesterday announced the resolution of a tax issue that has held up a large portion of $3.4 billion in federal smart grid investment grants for nearly five months.

The Internal Revenue Service has ruled that smart grid investment grants from the Energy Department that are received by corporations will not be subject to federal tax, a “safe harbor” ruling under section 118(a) of the Internal Revenue Code.

However, the IRS said the ruling does not apply to a second major category of DOE grants, the $620 million in smart grid demonstration grants that were awarded in November, and neither DOE nor the Treasury Department clarified yesterday how that part of the smart grid program will go forward.

Several of the 100 smart grid investment grants made last October were given to partnerships, and they, too, are not covered by yesterday’s IRS ruling.

“Generally, we’re really excited,” said Katherine Hamilton, president of the GridWise Alliance. “This means almost all the projects can go forward.” A contrary IRS ruling making the grants taxable would have been “disastrous,” she said.

“This is an important step toward reaching the administration’s goal of a more reliable and efficient electrical grid,” said Matt Rogers, senior adviser to the secretary of Energy. “As these projects move forward, they will create thousands of new jobs and bring smart grid technologies to communities across the country.”

DOE said it is working with the IRS to see if yesterday’s ruling could apply to other smart grid and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act programs.

Why that step was so long in coming was not clear, some industry officials said. In passing the Recovery Act last year, Congress did not specifically exempt the smart grid grants from taxation, and some recipients may have assumed that the tax bite would not apply.

“What is of concern is that the whole process — everything — has moved slower than you wish it would have,” Hamilton said. She credited the Energy Department for working diligently to resolve tax and intellectual property issues that have arisen in the smart grid awards.

The investment grants were awarded to utilities, public power companies and cooperatives, equipment manufacturers, cities, energy system developers and other recipients, which committed $4.7 billion of their own resources

50 groups urge Obama admin to toughen habitat-protection rules

Fifty environmental groups are urging the Obama administration to revisit rules setting parameters for when federal agencies can harm or destroy habitat for protected species.

In a letter sent today to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, the groups attempt to set guidelines for administration efforts to redraw key provisions in the Endangered Species Act.

Interior Department officials have said they are considering wide-ranging revisions to the 1973 law, with changes to the habitat modification rules at the top of their list. Interior is likely to make the changes administratively — through new regulations and agency guidance — not through an ESA rewrite in Congress (Greenwire, Dec. 24, 2009).

The law requires the government to protect critical habitat for endangered species and prohibits “destruction and adverse modification” of that habitat. The big question, the groups say, is how to define “adverse modification.”

The phrase has been interpreted differently by different administrations. Multiple federal courts have said the Fish and Wildlife Service — the government’s primary ESA agency — needs to provide a clarification.

The Center for Biological Diversity spearheaded the letter aimed at shaping that clarification, with 49 other groups — including Oceana, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Sierra Club, American Rivers and Earthjustice — signing on.

“The courts are beginning to reject efforts to limit adverse modification, so I think the administration is starting to recognize they need to address it,” the center’s Bill Snape said. “The courts have been very clear that adverse modification is a recovery-based standard. [The administration] recognizes they need to work with that and give guidance to their own scientists on how to apply it.”

A technical but important distinction is whether the government must apply a “survival” or “recovery” standard when weighing habitat protections. Regulations in place since 1986 require protection for habitat as a means to aid survival of species. Environmental groups want them to expand protections to aid species’ recovery.

Environmentalists say the courts support their approach. In a 2004 decision in Gifford Pinchot Task Force v. Fish and Wildlife Service, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the survival-based standard goes against the Endangered Species Act because it would “drastically narrow the scope of protection commanded by Congress under the ESA.”

The issue also came into play in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups several years ago against Interior in an effort to block livestock grazing in Colorado habitat for Preble’s jumping mouse.

The groups argued that grazing was “adverse modification” because it would not promote the recovery of the mouse. But the government and ranching and homebuilder groups said grazing should be allowed, since “adverse modification” does not require “recovery.” They said grazing itself was not jeopardizing the mouse — even if it might be altering some of its habitat.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with environmentalists, ruling in December 2007 that the “adverse modification” standard requires agencies to consider recovery. The court said any permitted actions should allow for species “conservation.”