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Incinerator Victory in Muncy, Pennsylvania!

Just in time for the holidays, residents of the rural town of Muncy, PA just had their local borough council pass into law a set-back distance ordinance we wrote. It prohibits any new facilities requiring a state air pollution or waste permit from locating within 900 feet of an occupied dwelling, school, park, or playground.

This effectively blocks Delta Thermo Energy, a company we've been fighting for several years, having stopped them in 2014 from locating in the City of Allentown, PA. They planned to take 100-200 tons per day of trash and sewage sludge, turn it into "fuel pellets" through a "hydrothermal decomposition" process, then incinerate these waste pellets on-site. Of course, their magical process exploits an EPA loophole, allowing this waste not to be considered a waste anymore, so they can be regulated less strictly -- as a boiler or power plant, not as an incinerator.

They came to Muncy, PA in the summer of 2016, proposing the same, but after facing resistance, the proposal soon became one to just make the pellets, and market them to be burned in coal power plants in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. EPA's Clean Power Plan, and their Non-Hazardous Secondary Materials ("waste = fuel") rule incentivize this. While the Clean Power Plan is dead for now, the other incentives may continue, and could encourage coal plants to stay open longer than they otherwise would, and become dirtier by starting to burn waste without additional pollution controls.

Delta Thermo Energy has been unusually tenacious. Most companies give up after one or a few times being rejected. We expect to have to beat them again soon, as rumor has it that they may be looking at more sites near Muncy. They brag about having 22 local governments interested between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and we know of several that have already rejected them. Keep an eye out, and be in touch with us if they (or any other polluters) are coming your way!

Don't try this at home... without our help.

We'd love to work with other communities to get protective local ordinances passed to stop proposed or potential polluters, or to even set stricter requirements for existing facilities where possible. Please be in touch if you'd like to work together on this approach in your community. Do not simply copy ordinances we've had passed elsewhere. While most of the Muncy ordinance is as we proposed, some good things were removed or kept out, and it could have been stronger in some regards. Every community is different, so feel free to check out the resources we have on stopping polluters with local ordinances, but contact us to help develop a strategy that makes sense for your situation. Thanks!

Where U.S. Energy Comes From:

Want to know where U.S. energy currently comes from? Check out this new series of charts we just updated, based on data through August 2016, with projections for all of 2016. Find all of them here: www.energyjustice.net/energysources

U.S. Energy Sources

 

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Overall energy demand peaked in 2007. Energy demand is broken down into electricity, transportation and heating sectors. Electricity and transportation sector energy use also both peaked in 2007. Heating sector peaked in 1970.
  • Oil, gas, then coal are still our top three energy sources, followed by nuclear in 4th place.
  • Coal use is falling dramatically, while gas use is rising dramatically. In 2012, gas overtook nuclear as the second largest electricity source after coal. Gas will soon overtake coal as well.
  • As we predicted, the largest sector of natural gas use is now for electricity (overtaking the industrial heating sector), as we're in the middle of a second wave of construction of gas-fired power plants, with at least 300-some proposed in recent years, many of which are now online. We still import more LNG than we export, so the gas market is largely feeding electric power plants, not exports.
  • Despite several nuclear reactors closing in recent years, nuclear energy use is steady and slightly increasing (existing plants are being run harder).
  • Wind and solar are growing fast, but are still small.
  • Bioenergy is still the largest form of "renewable" energy, even though it's dirty, and worse for the climate than coal. Thankfully, it's stagnating since 2014 and stopped its rapid increase.
  • Heating fuel use is down a lot since 2014, probably due to global warming and record high temperatures, since it's mostly residential and commercial heating. Industrial heating (the largest part of it) hasn't fallen much in that time.
  • Biomass incineration peaked in 2014 and is now falling, thanks in large part to our activist network fighting off so many proposed facilities. Wood for home heating is falling fast, which is also good.

See more at www.energyjustice.net/energysources

VICTORY! DC Denies Exelon-Pepco Merger

DC's Public Service Commission just shot down the plan for the nation's largest nuclear utility, Exelon, to buy Pepco, the electric utility that services the Washington, DC area and a few neighboring states.

This is a huge victory for ratepayers and the environment, since Exelon wanted to have the extra millions of ratepayers to push the high cost of their aging nuclear reactors onto. They also have been hostile to renewable energy.

We played a small role in this, alerting people in DC to the hearings in the past year, and testifying at three of them. However, the major credit goes to the Power DC coalition, and the many people and groups who came and spoke out about this awful deal. Thanks to all who make this victory possible! DC was the last hope, as neighboring states have already approved the merger. For more info, look for updates on www.powerdc.org and www.facebook.com/PowerDCNow

WE WON!! Environmental Justice Victory in DC, as Mayor Pulls Incinerator Contract

- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network

We just stopped Washington, DC from approving a $36-78 million contract that was awarded to Covanta to burn the District's waste for the next 5-11 years.

In a rigged bidding process, the city allowed just four incinerators (no landfills) to bid to take 200,000 tons of waste a year. The one of the four that is in a rural white community does not accept out-of-county waste, leaving three incinerators in heavily populated communities of color as the only ones eligible to bid. The contract was awarded to Covanta's incinerator in Lorton, VA -- 4th largest in the nation and one of the largest polluters in the DC metro region. Lorton is the 12th most diverse community of color in the nation, and is also home to a sewage sludge incinerator and three landfills.

As I documented in an article last year, DC's waste system is a glaring example of environmental racism, from where the waste transfer stations are, to where much of it ends up in Lorton. On the way to this latest victory, we got the large (389 living unit) cooperative where I live in DC to change its waste contract to disallow incineration, a tiny step toward starving the Covanta incinerator. Now, we have a chance to shift the entire city away from incineration. I hope we can also repeat this in Philadelphia as their Covanta contract (for burning in Chester, PA) comes up for renewal in each of the next few years.

We did our homework and made a strong case, got diverse allies on board, educated and pressured DC city council, and flattened Covanta's 11th hour lies. Energy Justice Network was joined by 20 environmental, public health, civil rights and business organizations in calling on city council not to move the contract to final approval, and ultimately, our new mayor withdrew it from consideration, killing it.

The city will now have to cut a 1-year contract (hopefully not with any incinerator, if we can help it). This buys us time to convince city leaders that incinerators are indeed worse than landfills and that we need to resort to landfilling as we get the city's zero waste goals implemented, including digestion of residuals prior to landfilling.

Last summer, we helped pass a law that bans Styrofoam and other food service-ware that isn't recyclable or compostable, gets e-waste and composting going, and requires the city to come up with a zero waste plan (and we got it amended to ensure that incineration is not considered "diversion," but "disposal"). We're at a good crossroads in DC, where we can get the nation's capital setting good examples. The long-standing head of the Department of Public Works is stepping down, giving the city a chance to replace him and others anti-recycling incinerator zealots in the agency with real zero waste leaders. Any good candidates are encouraged to apply here.

Reject the Exelon Takeover of Pepco

Energy Justice Network testified in D.C. against Exelon energy corporation's takeover of Pepco, electric service provider to Washington, D.C. and Maryland. 
 
nuclear plantThis takeover is a bad deal for the District of Columbia and is not in the public interest. It would hit DC ratepayers with higher electricity bills, would undermine renewable energy and would not provide reliable power.
 
Exelon is the nation's largest nuclear utility, with 23 of the nation's 99 remaining nuclear reactors. 81% of Exelon's electricity output in 2013 came from these 23 reactors. Two-thirds of them (15 of the 23) are in a list of reactors that are "at risk" of early retirement. Five of these "at risk" Exelon reactors have enough of these problems in combination that they're said to "face particularly intense challenges." The costs to keep unprofitable plants running means huge rate hikes for ratepayers. The costs of their closure are even more alarming, due to both the need for replacement power as well as the astronomical costs of reactor decommissioning.
 
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that the cost of decommissioning ranges from $300 million to $400 million per reactor. Union of Concerned Scientists and the Nuclear Energy Institute both estimate that the average reactor unit now costs about $500 million to decommission. Actual decommissioning costs in recent years have exceeded $1 billion per reactor, as evidenced by the over $1 billion price tag for decommissioning Exelon's Zion reactor in Illinois and the $1.2 billion price tag for decommissioning the Vermont Yankee reactor. The 2-unit San Onofre reactor site in California, closed for good in 2013, has an estimated decommissioning price tag of $4.4 billion.
 
Nuclear reactors are NOT reliable. A reactor closed down temporarily for repairs, or permanently due to costs or unresolvable safety issues requires significant replacement power. Nuclear reactors also cannot take the heat. In the hottest summer days, when demand is highest due to air conditioner use, nuclear reactors increasingly have to curtail power or close temporarily, as they cannot legally discharge their heated cooling water that they cannot adequately cool.
 
Exelon is hostile to renewable energy, despite some minor investments. In Maryland, they're starting to push for nuclear power to be included in state Renewable Portfolio Standards, which would decimate the market for wind power as existing nuclear facilities can name their price and undermine new wind and solar development.
 
Nuclear power is not environmentally sound. To produce the same amount of energy as coal, it lays waste to more land with uranium mining. It consumes extensive amounts of fossil fuels to mine, mill, convert, enrich and fabricate nuclear reactor fuel, and transport long ways around the country between each of these steps, before the fuel even reaches the reactor. Extensive radioactive and chemical pollution contaminates communities each step of the way, including in nuclear reactor communities, where radioactive air and water releases are routine and legal, not to mention illegal releases from spills. 
 
For more info, see www.powerdc.org

Trash Incinerators: Don't Call it a Comeback

The New York Times ran an article on Jan 11th, 2015, acting like incinerators are making a comeback, and featuring the huge Energy Answers incinerator proposed in Baltimore as if it's "being built" (which is not true).  Incinerators are trying to come back, but our movement is effectively beating back the industry almost everywhere they go, with Florida a rare exception.

We submitted this Op Ed to the New York Times, but they chose not to print it (or those submitted by several others to correct their reporting).

It's also worth nothing that in Massachusetts (one of the four states where the Times says large new trash incinerators are being considered) it's illegal to even build them, and none are being considered.  See our webpages on incineration and zero waste for more info.

 

Trash Incinerators: Don't Call it a Comeback

The Times' Jan. 10th "Garbage Incinerators Make Comeback" article portrays a false trend.  Trash incinerators are the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to dispose of waste.  Since they impact health and property values, they're one of the most unpopular technologies in the world, and are actually on the decline in the U.S.

Far from a comeback, of the currently operating commercial-scale trash incinerators in the U.S., the last one to be built at a new site came online in 1995.  From 1995 until now, at nine existing incinerator sites (including West Palm Beach), operations have expanded, adding nearly 6,000 tons/day (tpd) of new capacity.  In that same time, 74 U.S. incinerators have closed, shutting down nearly 21,000 tpd of capacity.  Another 2,250 tpd incinerator (Florida's North Broward plant) is talking about closing soon for lack of waste to burn, as waste is sent to the new 3,000 tpd West Palm Beach incinerator one county north, to the displeasure of West Palm Beach residents.

Many hundreds of proposed incinerators have been stopped in the past few decades as well.  One compilation shows that 280 incinerator proposals were defeated in the decade between 1985 and 1994, and that trend has continued to this day, with several proposals defeated just last year.

At the industry's peak in 1991, there were 187 commercial trash incinerators in the U.S.  There are now about 80, with two more looking to close in the next year.

Waste Management, Inc., the world's largest waste corporation, has moved away from incineration.  Last year, they sold off their Wheelabrator subsidiary, abandoning their role as the nation's second largest operator of conventional waste incinerators.  Several experimental types of incinerators, using gasification, pyrolysis and plasma arc technologies have failed to prove capable of commercial operation.  WMI invested in a variety of these companies in recent years just to abandon them as well.

With this industry, there is a lot more "blowing smoke" than actual fire.  The plan in Baltimore for the nation's largest incinerator is permitted, but not actually "being built" as the article portrayed.  Incinerators supposedly "under consideration" in four other states aren't anything likely to happen, either, and are largely unknown to state permitting agencies.  One of those states, Virginia, confirmed that they have no active applications for incinerators anywhere in the state.  However, an informal proposal for one was "shot down due to public opposition" last year, after a year-long battle.

The same happened in Frederick, Maryland last November after a decade-long fight with the community caused the incinerator deal to crumble, even after all permits were issued.  The deal began to unravel when the partner county paid $1 million to back out of the contract thanks to their fiscal conservatism.  If only Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's leaders listened in 2003 when I warned them that the city faced bankruptcy if they invested in rebuilding their incinerator.  Eight years later, after listening to their consultants instead, the city was the largest at the time to seek bankruptcy protection.

Sadly, this is not so unusual, as incinerators must lock in energy sales and long-term waste supply contracts, even if construction is privately financed.  Local governments signing long-term waste contracts often get locked into bad deals where they pay too much for too long and are punished if they reduce waste or recycle more, since they still pay fees on waste they no longer supply to the incinerator.

Trash incineration is more expensive than landfilling which the waste industry (even the trash incinerator industry's trade association) has publicly admitted.  Of course, incinerators do not avoid landfilling as they need landfills for their ash.  Every 100 tons of waste burned results in 30 tons of ash that ends up landfilled.

Two studies done for the Energy Information Administration since 2010 show that trash incineration is also the most expensive way to make electricity.  It's the most expensive to build, and also the most expensive to operate and maintain – even though they get paid to take waste as their fuel, while other (non-renewable) energy sources pay for their fuel.

The industry avoids using the unpopular 'i' word, preferring to refer to incinerators as energy facilities, even though they're primarily waste facilities.  If you compare their pollution to other energy facilities, you find that they're far dirtier than coal power plants.  To make the same amount of energy as a coal plant, the average trash incinerator in the U.S. releases 28 times as much dioxin (the most toxic man-made chemicals known to science), 2.5 times as much carbon dioxide (impacting global warming), three times as much nitrogen oxides (impacting asthma), six times as much mercury and nearly six times as much lead (both affecting the brain and more), and 70% more sulfur dioxides (affecting breathing).  Incinerators are this much more polluting even though the average incinerator was built in 1987 and the average coal plant was built in 1968, with fewer pollution controls.

A state-wide analysis by New York's environmental agency, found that the state's ten trash incinerators put out 14 times more mercury per unit of energy produced than the state's eight coal plants, and more mercury in total, even though the coal plants are much larger.

Recycling is stagnating where political leaders haven't really been leaders.  However, in over 7,000 communities around the country, people are using Save Money and Reduce Trash (SMART) programs where they pay less if they throw out less trash (also known as "pay as you throw").  Just like any other utility, if you pay for how much you use, you'll use less.  Communities switching to these programs find immediate reductions in trash generation of 44% on average.  Over 80% of Wisconsin communities and over half of Iowa communities use it.  These programs are now mandatory in Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, and are being considered in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Using the most expensive and polluting way to reduce tons going to landfills by 70% makes no sense, when some cities are already showing the way with "zero waste" plans that divert 70% or more from landfills and incinerators through source reduction, reuse, recycling and composting.  In doing so, they create 10 times as many jobs as landfills or incinerators.

Mike Ewall, Esq. is founder and director of Energy Justice Network, a national organization supporting communities threatened by polluting energy and waste facilities.

Are Carbon Taxes Another False Solution?

- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network

Carbon taxes are emerging as a major top-down climate solution enviros would like to see come out of Congress.  Plenty of “tax carbon” signs were present in the 400,000-strong People’s Climate March in New York City last month.  Even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is urging nations to adopt either a carbon tax, or the (failed and problematic) “cap-and-trade” model.  Cap-and-trade approaches enrich Wall Street speculators, can concentrate pollution in vulnerable communities that lack political clout, and fail to truly reduce carbon emissions, yet elevate lots of sketchy and climate-damaging false solutions from burning toxic landfill gases to running Indigenous people off of their forested lands.

Sadly, carbon tax proposals are riddled with problems as well, making it a “solution” we can’t support.  Real solutions would end corporate agriculture and dirty energy subsidies (including massive spending on imperial military adventures) and spell out policies that regulate and mandate what is actually needed to transform the agriculture, energy, materials/waste, and transportation sectors into sustainable climate solutions.  Instead, carbon taxes focus on one sector (energy) and hope that the market will choose the right solutions in the right time frame for all sectors.  It’s just as likely to elevate false solutions like nuclear power, biofuels, biomass and waste incineration.  Some proposals explicitly promote some of these false solutions.  If not structured properly, a carbon tax can also be regressive (harming the poor more).

In June 2013, we put together an Open Letter to Citizens Climate Lobby, signed by 86 organizations in 29 states and 11 countries, calling out the problems with the carbon tax legislation they’ve been pushing, which highlighted the following five points:

  • 1)    A carbon tax will be insufficient to move the market in a relevant time frame. 

Climate change is a genuine planetary emergency.  It’s already too late to prevent it, and the best we can do is minimize and brace for its impacts.  Any strategy to reduce greenhouse gas pollution needs to do so rapidly and decisively within a mandated timeframe.

The market does not know best.  A carbon tax relies on a market price to be enough to do the job in time, even though it would cover just part of the problem, and would surely set the price to low.  Setting a price on carbon does not guarantee that changes will be made in a meaningful time frame or that the changes will lead us toward clean solutions.

In 2012, Yvo de Boer, the former chair of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, stated that we need a minimum carbon tax of 150 Euros per tonne (about $212/ton) to drive the price signals we really need.  Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) – the main advocates for a carbon tax in the U.S. – supports a $15/ton tax that increases $10/year, taking 20 years to hit the minimum level needed to drive change.  The Boxer-Sanders Climate Protection Act of 2013 that CCL has been supporting, starts at $20/year and rises gradually to $34.49/year after 12 years and stays there, at a level six times lower than would be effective.

This is enough for politicians, Exxon and enviros to claim they’ve done something, but woefully inadequate to actually blunt the impacts of climate change.

  • 2)    A carbon tax elevates false solutions

By only punishing fossil fuels, a carbon tax puts nuclear power, “biomass” and waste incineration, landfill gas burning, and crop- and waste-based liquid fuels at a competitive advantage.  It even helps push “clean coal” and puts natural gas ahead of coal, ignoring the methane impacts that make it worse than coal.  We cannot count on the market to pick the clean solutions (conservation, efficiency, wind, solar and energy storage) over cheap, polluting false solutions, most of which are worse than coal for global warming.

Nuclear power: Everyone from MIT to the Union of Concerned Scientists to industry consultants to the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency seems to understand that a moderate carbon tax would mean a nuclear industry windfall.  Sure, a lot of fossil fuels are used in the nuclear fuel chain, but a carbon tax doesn't fully make up for the windfall nuclear power will get as it's put at a competitive advantage with fossil fuels, appearing cheaper than coal for the first time.  A carbon tax could include language to ban new nuclear reactors, phase out existing ones, or accomplish the same by repealing the Price-Anderson Act’s nuclear accident insurance liability caps.  It won’t, though, because carbon tax advocates won’t touch the issue.  Charles Komanoff of the Carbon Tax Center admits: “The fact that a carbon tax would create a price advantage for nuclear power is regrettable, but that’s the way it is.”  Citizen Climate Lobby has rabidly pro-nuclear NASA scientist James Hansen on their advisory board and allowed him to be a keynote at their 2013 annual conference, the same year when he’s pushing nuclear power in national media.

Nuclear power is the most expensive, subsidized and slow-to-build form of power and one of the most destructive and racist.  It is a false solution that releases radioactive air and water pollution and sucks up all of the economic resources needed to transition away from fossil fuels.  It chews up large amounts of land to bring uranium through four energy-intensive steps of processing before it can be used in a reactor.

Carbon tax advocates claim that we don’t need to worry about nuclear because it’s too expensive to go anywhere, and should be dealt with in separate policies (as if a separate effort to “fix it later” will have the support of the carbon-centric advocates).  The fact is that nuclear power is already the most heavily subsidized energy industry, enough that it’s already cost competitive with geothermal and off-shore wind.  Half of federal energy R&D went to nuclear power over the past 65 years.  The Obama administration is currently providing $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for two new reactors to be built in a black community in Georgia.  Nuclear power continues to struggle economically without big subsidies and is stagnant at the moment due to temporarily cheap gas prices, but carbon tax among the backdrop of other subsidies would put nuclear back in the front seat.

Trash incineration is 2.5 times as bad for the climate as coal, and is far worse by every other measure of pollutants as well.  New EPA loopholes, as well as Obama’s Clean Power Plan, are poised to allow coal plants and thousands of other boilers to start burning trash without regulation or community notification.  Carbon taxes ignore incinerators, even though over half of the CO2 emissions from trash incineration are from the burning of plastics and other fossil-fuel-derived products.  The world’s largest waste corporation, Waste Management, is poised to exploit this loophole and move from landfilling waste to sky-filling it by marketing trash fuel pellets to every boiler they can.  A carbon tax (coupled with the Clean Power Plan and EPA’s waste deregulation) will drive this climate-killing mass switch from coal to trash burning.

Biomass incineration is 50% worse than coal for the climate, and claims of carbon neutrality have been repeatedly debunked.  “Save the climate, burn a tree” doesn’t make for a catchy cause, but forests in the U.S. are being logged for this “renewable” power, and are even being chipped and shipped (with fossil fuels) to Europe to be burned in converted giant coal plants.  Ignoring “biogenic” CO2 emissions is just another form a climate denial.

That denial is strong in carbon tax bills.

The Boxer-Sanders Climate Protection Act of 2013 outright makes grants available to biomass and biofuels that are “not sourced from food crops” (which would include burning or liquefying trees, grasses, wood waste, animal waste, trash, sewage sludge and other wastes).  Taxing fossil fuels and putting the money into energy sources worse for the climate is as misguided as it gets.

Congressman Waxman’s draft bill also has clear support for biomass.  Section 9(5) will probably subsidize biomass just as Section 201 of Boxer-Sanders does.  Section 11(b)(5) of the Waxman draft specifically exempts biomass.  Section 3 defines “covered entities” with references to 40 CFR 98, which specifically instructs to “exclude carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of biomass” when GHGs from biomass are calculated.  This flies in the face of science.

Recent science tells us that these “biogenic” sources are not carbon neutral in any meaningful time-frame – that it takes several decades for wood burning to become just as bad as coal if trees are grown and left alone to compensate for the extra CO2 released, and centuries to approach carbon neutrality.  A 2009 study published in Science reported that measures such as a carbon tax applied to fossil but not to biogenic emissions, would result in conversion of virtually all remaining natural forests, grasslands and other ecosystems to energy crop monocultures by 2065.

Landfill gas burning for energy is even worse than trash incineration, as organic wastes are continually fed to landfills to become CO2 and methane.  CFCs and related intensely-potent global warming gases are also released by landfills.  Burning the gas for energy, ironically, causes more gas to escape the already pitiful gas capture systems, making it worse to use for energy than to just waste and flare the gas (even if coal were displaced by the small amount of power generated).  True zero waste solutions are needed, including keeping organics out of landfills, to tackle this major methane source.  Landfills are completely ignored by carbon tax proposals, except where they may be subsidized as clean alternatives, as renewable energy policies already do.

Biofuels are worse than petroleum for the climate, necessitating that we stop trying to grow fuels (using natural gas-based nitrogen fertilizers and other fossil inputs), and move away from burnable fuels altogether.

A growing literature demonstrated that biofuels are very inefficient to produce and when full lifecycle assessments are completed, many have a carbon footprint comparable to, or worse than fossil fuels.  Because of the very large land area, soil, water and fertilizer requirements to grow crops and trees for bioenergy, most biofuels result in vast, largely unacknowledged carbon and nitrous oxide emissions, depletion of soils and water resources, biodiversity losses as well as conflicts and human rights abuses, including escalating hunger due to food price increases.  Like biomass and landfill gas, a carbon tax both implicitly and explicitly promotes these false solutions.

It’s not easy to close these “biogenic carbon” loopholes.  Carbon taxes focus on the extraction phase (coal mines, oil refineries and gas wells or distribution hubs), so that they don't have to try to measure every smokestack and tailpipe.  This isn’t so easily done with biomass and waste-based climate pollution.  Will these be treated differently so that smokestack pollution is measured?  Will trees cut be counted only when going to markets that would burn them?  What about demolition waste and other “biomass” harvested for burning?  How would a carbon tax measure the “biogenic” and fossil portions of trash incineration?  How would landfills be accounted for so that all gas (collected or leaked) is counted, without encouraging landfill gas burning for energy (which causes more gas leakage)?  How would a carbon tax ensure that organics are composted and kept out of landfills in the first place?  How to account for biofuels?  It gets impossibly complicated, even without getting into the debate over how much to subtract out “biogenic” carbon that is sucked back up in the future as if anyone can guarantee that those trees won't be chopped back down for later burning or use.

Ignoring these emissions is not acceptable.  Making these dirty energy climate impacts invisible feeds the perception that these energy sources are valid alternatives to fossil fuels, and fails to educate carbon tax advocates and the politicians they speak to.  Nuclear power and incineration disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color.  Keeping their struggles invisible perpetuates the injustices.

Even Coal and Gas Supported? 

So-called “clean coal” could be supported as some bills exempt carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) schemes that attempt to store CO2 underground infinitely.  Congressman Waxman’s draft carbon tax, as well as Congressman Van Hollen’s carbon “cap-and-trade with dividend and auctions” bill both exempt CCS.  CCS is usually coupled with enhanced oil recovery (EOR) schemes that use the CO2 to get more oil out of oil fields – oil that releases CO2 when burned.  The CO2 used to extract the oil also comes back up with the produced oil.  Some CCS sites have already shown signs of the CO2 leaking out.  CCS loopholes that enable continued coal burning (or oil extraction) have no place in a climate bill.

Even natural gas may benefit from a carbon tax, relative to coal and oil, as the carbon content is lower.  However, this doesn’t account for the methane, which is 86 to 105 times as bad as CO2 for the climate over a 20-year time frame.  Gas leaks from well to end use are extensive and cause gas to always be worse for the climate than coal.  Citizens Climate Lobby’s 2014 policy proposal recognizes this and aims to account for it, but this foresight is unlikely to make it into any bill with a  change of passage, as the gas industry is the government’s darling.

  • 3)    A carbon tax could be regressive

A straight carbon tax would be regressive, impacting lower-income households harder than higher-income ones, as Food and Water Watch recently argued, citing a Congressional Budget Office report.  However, this flips around if the tax is returned to households in a monthly or quarterly dividend check.  Dividend checks are part of most carbon tax plans.  This would be a progressive wealth-redistributing policy that puts equal-sized checks in the hands of most U.S. residents.

One of the glaring errors in these policies is that the dividend checks would not go to all.  Millions of the most poor and vulnerable among us would be left out.  The Boxer-Sanders Climate Protection Act of 2013 would – after raising the costs of energy and goods on everyone – provide monthly rebate checks only to “legal residents of the United States.”  This would cause a disproportionate hardship on the nearly 12 million undocumented United States residents whose work is fundamental to our economy in important ways, from providing the food on our tables to caring for our children and elders.  Congressman Van Hollen’s “cap and dividend” bill does the same and seems to exclude even more people (those lawfully here on temporary work visas, including many agricultural workers).

Environmental Justice demands that any approach to curbing emissions does not shift economic and environmental burdens onto vulnerable communities.  To their credit, Citizens Climate Lobby supports dividend checks going to all households.  How to fix this, and who will speak up about it is another question entirely.  Perhaps CCL needs to make it a talking point in their lobby days.

  • 4)    A carbon tax fails to adequately cover all relevant sectors

A carbon tax fails to cover all critical economic sectors that are part of the problem and should be part of the solution.  Energy is a major climate culprit, but the agriculture and waste sectors need to be a major part of a climate policy solution as well.  It’s inadequate to expect that the indirect impacts on these other sectors will be enough to move them, and to do so in the proper direction.  Same goes for transportation, which is an energy sector, but also one that requires specific redirection of policy that a blunt tool like a carbon tax cannot provide.

The transportation bill annually pumps tens of billions of dollars into highways.  Known as the “highway bill,” it allocates 80% of funding for highways and auto-centered infrastructure, and 20% for transit.  Without reversing this annual allocation, how can a carbon tax truly transform our car- and truck-centric transportation system into one centered around bike-able and walkable communities and fare-free mass transit?

Same goes for the waste and materials economy.  Solutions are far too nuanced to expect a carbon tax to properly lead us to a zero waste paradigm.  In 2006, EPA estimated that provision of goods accounts for 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and that provision of food accounts for another 13%, totaling 42% of emissions attributable to materials management.  Considering how EPA ignores biogenic emissions from waste incineration, underestimates GHG emissions from landfills, and didn’t have the latest science on methane, this is surely an underestimate.  Minimizing waste can reduce at least 37% of U.S. GHG emissions.  Since a carbon tax doesn’t address methane, CO2, or CFC emissions from landfills, or even the CO2 emissions from trash incinerators, municipal officials may react to a carbon tax by cutting truck trips, dropping separate recycling or composting collection to save fuel and let the waste be buried (or burned, then buried), rather than see the larger picture.

Agriculture has the most promise to transform from being the largest climate problem to the largest climate solution.  As the recent Cowspiracy documentary shows, animal agriculture (to feed meat and dairy consumption) is the leading cause of global warming, rainforest destruction, land use, water use, water pollution, and species extinction, while contributing to world hunger and numerous health problems.  The film draws attention to 2006 research by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization showing that the world’s livestock contribute more to global warming (18%) than the world’s entire transportation sector (13%).  It then introduces 2009 research by analysts at the World Bank Group showing that animal agriculture, viewed more holistically, is actually responsible for at least 51% of global warming!

While this 51% figure has been debated back and forth, it seems more credible than the lower figures, as it accounts for various oversights and also looks at methane’s impacts over a more relevant 20-year time horizon, rather than the 100-year figure.  At the time of the study, methane was understood to be 20-some times as potent as CO2 over 100 years and 72 times over 20 years.  We now know, from more recent research, that methane is 35 times as potent as CO2 over 100 years and 86 to 105 times over 20 years.  Even if the 51% figure (which the researchers say is conservative) is a bit inflated, it’s also still underestimating the true impacts of methane.

No matter how you cut it, animal agriculture is the largest contributor to global warming.  Because much of the impact is from methane, reducing meat and dairy consumption can have the most rapid effect on the climate.  After all, methane has a 7-8 year half-life and persists in the atmosphere for a short enough time to make a quick impact.  CO2, on the other hand, persists for over 100 years, so reductions in methane are far more important to avoid short-term global warming tipping points.

One U.N. agency, using the lower GHG estimate for animal agriculture’s impacts, stated in 2010 that: “A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”

Carbon tax policies, even if intended to cover methane, are likely to ignore agriculture as a sector, focusing primarily on CO2 from fossil fuel sources.  Congressman Van Hollen’s “cap and dividend” bill specifically exempts animal agriculture.  A carbon tax would drive up the costs of food – most especially meat and dairy – due to higher costs of oil and of nitrogen fertilizer (which is produced with huge amounts of natural gas).  However, the true global warming impacts of agriculture will be drastically downplayed.

Just as the transportation bill puts mega-subsidies into highways each year, the farm bill does the same for corporate agribusiness.  A carbon tax that only partially impacts this sector won’t be enough to shift to the solutions we need.

Can regenerative organic farming reverse climate change?

2014 Rodale Institute research shows that we can reverse climate change with decentralized, local, no-till, organic farming using compost, cover crops and enhancing crop rotations.  These practices, known as regenerative organic farming, can sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions using widely available and inexpensive organic management practices.

Citing 75 studies from peer-reviewed journals, including its own 33-year Farm Systems Trial, Rodale Institute concluded that if all cropland were converted to the regenerative model it would sequester 40% of annual CO2 emissions; changing global pastures to that model would add another 71%, effectively overcompensating for the world’s yearly carbon dioxide emissions.

Even if modest assumptions about soil’s carbon sequestration potential are made, regenerative agriculture can easily keep annual emissions to within the desirable range necessary if we are to have a good chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C by 2020.

For more info on this topic, see websites on “carbon farming” here, here and here.

We must replace animal and industrial agriculture with farming practices like permaculture, biointensive, and regenerative organic farming.  It must be decentralized, with community gardens, farmer’s markets, and community supported agriculture becoming wide-spread.  It won’t be enough to focus on individual change (but you should still click the previous link and find a CSA near you!).  We need institutional changes to encourage all of these practices and to replace the farm bills’ big ag policies with these green solutions.  A carbon tax will help a bit, but to truly make this shift, we need to transform agriculture policies and subsidies, focusing in on the details of how to do it right.  As the Rodale report explains, it takes all of the pieces, not just some, for soils to become the carbon sinks we need them to be.

Say what we want!

Blunt economic instruments won’t get us where we need to go.  We need to be blunt about what we want, and not expect “invisible hands” of the marketplace to move us to wind and solar rather than nuclear and incinerators, for example.  A real climate policy would mandate drastic (at least 75%) reductions in demand through energy conservation and efficiency throughout the economy, including a reversal in transportation priorities.  It would mandate that the rest of our energy needs be met by solar, wind and energy storage.  It would set a national zero waste policy.  The Farm Bill would become an engine for a climate-friendly regenerative organic agriculture system.  It would shift the $74 billion in annual dirty energy subsidies, and most of the gigantic military budget into making these solutions possible.  Finally, it would radically change our foreign policy from an imperial war-based conquest for our “economic interests” into one of reparations and support for other countries to follow this path to clean solutions.  …and then I woke up:

  • 5)    Better solutions are more politically realistic

“Political realism” is not usually part of my vocabulary.  It’s the term usually used by mainstream environmental groups to justify why they’re supporting rather compromised legislation – because, after all, the corporate controlled state or national legislators simply aren’t ready to pass something good, so we have to start with something not-so-good because it’s the best we can get.  The prominent environmental leader, David Brower, responded to this best:

“Compromise is often necessary, but it ought not to originate with environmental leaders.  Our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies, and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause.  If we cannot find enough vigor in us or our friends to win, then let someone else propose the compromise, which we must then work hard to coax our way.  We thus become a nucleus around which activists can build and function.” – David Brower

We must recognize that a carbon tax is a non-starter, politically – though this can eventually change and is slowly shifting.  Near-term, however, we’re not talking about something that can pass Congress.  Even a filthy cap-and-trade bill that we, Greenpeace, Dr. James Hanson and others called “more harm than good,” couldn’t pass in 2009 when foundations poured about $1 Billion into big enviro groups to push it.  …and that was before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the Tea Party takeover of Congress and other legal decisions that cemented corporate control over the federal government.

So, the choice is between one politically unrealistic solution and the others that we propose, which wouldn’t carry the several problems that a carbon tax would.  In 2009, a federal Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) law almost passed Congress, and similar laws have been passed in over 30 states.  That is far more politically viable than any tax marketed as a “fee” – especially where any progressive dividend would sadly be red-baited for its wealth redistributing aspects.

RPS policies are mandates for utilities to phase in a certain percentage of “renewable” energy in their mix.  While these aren’t defined cleanly like they should be, they still mandate a shift to a new electricity mix with specified technologies in a clear time frame.  The legislative structure and political momentum is there.  The main problem is ensuring that the concept of “renewable” is defined cleanly, being limited to non-burn technologies, prioritizing conservation, efficiency, solar, wind and energy storage.  Most state RPS laws (and federal bills) consider burning trash, biomass and landfill gas to be renewable.  Some get worse, counting “advanced” nuclear power, or the burning of coal (in gasification plants), waste coal, coal mine methane or tires.  These bad precedents in state laws have been pushed into federal bills and are likely to be redefined as “Clean Energy” Portfolio Standards so that nuclear power and coal mine methane is included.

…Which brings us to the problem with doing anything at the federal level.  Corporations control our government.  They do this at all levels, but getting meaningful policy passed without major compromises is only possible at the local level – and sometimes at state levels, but they’re pretty corporate controlled, too.  It’s critical to recognize that people power is strongest at the local level, and that social change comes from the bottom up.  That’s why we see success rates in our grassroots base ranging from 60 to 99%, depending on which industry is being fought, whether it be coal or gas-fired power plants, nuclear reactors, landfills or incinerators.

It’s unreasonable to expect top-down major national legislation that isn’t so horribly compromised that it begs the question of whether it’ll make any difference or do more harm than good.  That’s why we need to be pushing for clean election reforms at all levels of government.  It’s also why the movement and its funders need to be putting more energy into the grassroots, where we’re decimating entire industry sectors one community at a time, rather than into top-down strategies that expect major changes out of a corporate-puppet Congress.

As our open letter to CCL stated last year: “We must unshackle our democracy from corporate control and political bribery before we can achieve success.  Meanwhile, we must continue to build our power and advance the policies and projects from the community, municipal, state and regional levels, which is what grassroots organizing has been doing for decades: shutting down and preventing polluting facilities from coming online at the source while creating vibrant real solutions right at the community level.”

­­­

Mike Ewall is founder and director of Energy Justice Network, a national support network for grassroots activists fighting dirty energy and waste facilities. 

Fossil Fuel Divestment: How to Evolve the Campaign Beyond its Shortcomings

- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network

Sometimes, environmental movement campaigns that become very popular aren’t the ones that are the most strategic. Trying to divert the fossil fuel divestment bandwagon to a better path hasn’t been easy (or well-received), but some critical examination is long overdue.

As activists like to point out, we don’t have much time to address climate change. We’re already past the point where we can “stop” it, and likely past the points where we can contain it to the two degree Celsius increase that supposedly averts catastrophic levels of climate disruption. Given this urgency, we cannot afford for so much time and energy to be spent on campaigns that aren’t fitted to the scale of the problem.  It’s like scaring people about how awful global warming is, then telling them that they just need to screw in a different light bulb and drive a Prius.

In short, the fossil fuel divestment campaign is symbolic and diverts attention from going after the largest and most critical sectors driving climate change, and from actually disconnecting institutions from reliance on fossil fuels. It implicitly greenwashes other dirty energy sources (some of which are worse than coal) by framing the problem as just about fossil fuels. It similarly ignores the largest cause of global warming: animal agriculture. Unlike the anti-Apartheid campaign, it fails to target corporations in a position to actually change their behavior. Finally, investments are likely to be shifted to smaller fossil fuel corporations, corporations that support the fossil fuel economy, or other damaging investments. Efforts to drive investments to truly clean alternatives will be hampered by economic contradictions, requiring a deeper economic analysis as the campaign evolves.

Divestment is a symbolic campaign, but not a strategic one

Some of the main national organizers of this campaign – even Bill McKibben, in private – have admitted that the campaign is symbolic. Jamie Henn, a spokesperson with 350.org, said divestment alone will not succeed in reversing climate change, stating: “We have no illusion that we can bankrupt a company like ExxonMobil through divestment, but we can vilify them to the point where they begin to lose their political influence.” While campaign supporters have been building arguments for how symbolic campaigns can have tangible results, the reality remains that it’s still a stretch, and that more direct campaigns to fight fossil fuels would do far more for the climate and the communities directly impacted by the industry.

Christian Parenti makes several good points in his late 2012 article in The Nation, titled "Problems With the Math: Is 350's Carbon Divestment Campaign Complete?" He points out that the most infamous climate deniers, Koch Industries, is privately held and is immune to divestment, as is 70% of world oil reserves (and even more of the ‘easy oil’) which are owned by national oil companies that are also heavily insulated from the tactic (though some are now partially traded). He points out that corporations don’t make money on investments (stock is mainly a way to get money out of these corporations), and that their bottom line isn’t impacted by investments, but by those consuming their products.

What Would be More Strategic?

The biggest contributor to climate change (as much as 51%) is animal agriculture. However, as the recent Cowspiracy documentary shows, big environmental groups are unwilling to talk about this and advice that people stop eating so much meat and dairy. The other elephant in the room is natural gas power plants. With methane being 86 to 105 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year time-frame, and serious leakage of methane gas occurring throughout the natural gas infrastructure (which cannot be brought to levels lower than coal’s impacts), the current push from coal to gas is suicidal for the climate. There is a surge of about 300 gas-fired power plant proposals in the U.S. right now, and the major environmental groups are doing an excellent job of ignoring them, if not still championing the switch from coal to gas. If the time and energy (and funding) put into divestment were put toward stopping gas-fired power plants while there’s still time to challenge most of them, it would be a dramatic and real win. Divestment campaigns and power plant battles both aren’t easy to win, but the track record of stopping power plants is arguably far better than divestment’s track record so far. About 60% of the gas-fired power plant proposals in the last wave of development (10-15 years ago) were stopped. 400 were built. Many more weren’t. Each power plant stopped does far more than all divestment campaigns can claim to – avoiding about 30 years of fracking over each power plant’s lifetime.

Divestment is a student-centered campaign. Even if we don’t leave campuses, there are several ways corporations are tied to universities, including purchasing and service contracts, research grants, recruiting, and ties to board members (often called trustees or regents).

A campus divestment campaign could just as easily include campaigns like the one run by the Ohio Student Environmental Coalition (which Energy Justice Network started in 2006 to fight proposed coal plants in Ohio) where Ohio State University students successfully pressured their campus president to step down from the board of Massey Energy, a major coal mining corporation. Could that also be seen as symbolic?  Perhaps, but corporate influence over those running universities has had effects on curriculum and other corporate-university relationships – more than stockholding has in terms of influence.

Far more relevant would be to get schools and other institutions to replace fossil fuel use with demand reduction and clean, non-burn alternatives. This would directly stop their financial support for climate change, while becoming demonstration sites for how we should all live. Ending reliance on industry-funded scientific research (and getting more public funding for it) would also go a long way to end the “science for hire” that has our universities cranking out “tobacco science” promoting dirty energy.

Bloomberg isn’t something I’d normally cite, but they hit the nail on the head with this recent opinion piece

“If divestment activists were serious about making a difference, setting an example, and drawing the full weight of America’s moral opprobrium onto the makers and consumers of fossil fuels, they’d be pushing a University Agenda that looked more like this:

  1. Require administrators, faculty, sports teams and other student groups to travel exclusively by boat and rail, except for “last mile” journeys.
  2. Cease construction of new buildings on campus.
  3. Stop air conditioning buildings, except for laboratories and archives that require climate control. Keep the heat no higher than 60 degrees in winter.
  4. Put strict caps on power consumption by students, keeping it to enough electricity to power one computer and one study lamp. Remove power outlets from classrooms, except for one at the front for the teacher.
  5. Ban meat from campus eateries and require full-time students to be on a meal plan.
  6. Remove all parking spots from campus.
  7. Stop operating campus shuttles, except for disabled students.
  8. Divest the endowment from fossil-fuel companies, if it makes you feel better

Why has No. 8 jumped to No. 1? Because it’s easy. Because a group of students pushing endowment divestiture can shut down a public meeting and be rewarded with the opportunity to hold a teach-in; a group of students pushing a faculty flying ban and the end of campus parking would find the powers that be considerably more unfriendly. Not to mention their fellow students. Or, for that matter, their fellow activists, few of whom are actually ready to commit to never in their lives traveling out of America’s pitiful passenger rail network. This is what I meant in an earlier post where I said that doing the easy but pointless thing is a substitute for, rather than a complement to, the hard and necessary thing.”

Dirty Energy is NOT just Fossil Fuels

 

Especially since the campaign is a symbolic one, it’s important that we educate people properly and stop feeding the perception that fossil fuels are the only dirty energy source, or the only fuels cooking the climate. This focus on fossil fuels has major blind spots, both for the climate and environmental justice.

Trash incineration, biomass incineration, landfill gas burning and biofuels are all promoted as renewable and carbon neutral, even though they’re worse than their worst fossil fuel counterparts. Nuclear power is also a serious problem, with its own climate impacts, which sucks up the money needed to transition away from fossil fuels.

Trash incineration is 2.5 times as bad for the climate as coal, and is far worse by every other measure of pollutants as well.  New EPA loopholes, as well as Obama’s Clean Power Plan, are poised to have coal plants and all sorts of boilers start burning trash without regulation or community notification. Divestment, like other climate policies, ignores incinerator emissions, even though over half of the CO2 emissions from trash incineration are from the burning of plastics and other fossil-fuel-derived products.

Biomass incineration is 50% worse than coal for the climate, and claims of carbon neutrality have been repeatedly debunked. “Save the climate, burn a tree” doesn’t make for a catchy cause, but forests in the U.S. are being logged for this “renewable” power, and are even being chipped and shipped (with fossil fuels) to Europe to be burned in converted giant coal plants. Ignoring “biogenic” CO2 emissions is just another form a climate denial.

Landfill gas burning for energy is even worse than trash incineration, as organic wastes are continually fed to landfills to become CO2 and methane. Burning the gas for energy, ironically, causes more gas to escape the already pitiful gas capture systems, making it worse to use for energy than to just waste and flare the gas (even if coal were displaced by the small amount of power generated). True zero waste solutions are needed, including keeping organics out of landfills, to tackle this major methane source.

Biofuels are worse than petroleum  for the climate, necessitating that we stop trying to grow fuels (using natural gas-based nitrogen fertilizers and other fossil inputs), and move away from burnable fuels altogether.

Nuclear power is the most expensive (and subsidized) form of power and one of the most destructive and racist. It is a false solution that sucks up all of the economic resources needed to transition away from fossil fuels. It also uses a significant amount of fossil fuels to chew up large amounts of land and bring uranium through four energy-intensive steps of processing before it can be used in a reactor.

By making these dirty energy climate impacts invisible, divestment campaigns feed the perception that these energy sources are valid alternatives to fossil fuels. A campaign that is more symbolic than strategic should at least ensure that its campaigners “get it” about these false solutions, and not pretend that their impacts are zero. More troubling is the fact that nuclear power and incineration disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. Keeping their struggles invisible perpetuates the injustices.

Even natural gas is partially greenwashed by divestment, since it only measures the top corporate divestment targets in terms of CO2 emissions – without including the substantial leaks of gas throughout the system that cause fracked gas to be worse than coal for the climate. If leaked methane was properly accounted for, far more fracking companies would be campaign targets. Since the campaign only targets extraction-sector corporations, the energy utilities and power plant developers driving the market for the gas are left untouched, even though demand-side campaigning would be far more effective.

Fossil Fuel Divestment is NOT based on the Anti-Apartheid Divestment Campaign

 

Fossil fuel divestment is not like divestment from South African apartheid. The Free Burma movement of the 1990s was. In both cases, multinational corporations were pressured to divest from specific countries.  In the mid-1990s, after the Free Burma movement pressured Pepsico to leave Burma, where the company had sponsored trade shows for the military junta, Texaco was the next major campaign target. Texaco was working to build a gas pipeline through the rainforest using slave labor. Soon after the University of Wisconsin system divested over $230,000 in Texaco stock, specifically over this issue, Texaco pulled out of the pipeline project, just before they were about to be the target of a new national student campaign. These victories in Burma and South Africa were possible because corporations were pressured to cut their losses by dropping one small part of their overall operation.

 

Targeting the Wrong Corporations

 

Unlike those earlier divestment campaigns, the Fossil Fuel Divestment strategy is asking Exxon to stop being Exxon. If the campaign wanted to directly change corporate behavior through divestment, it needs to go after the corporations that can afford to make these changes, such as targeting the banks that finance dirty energy, or the cement companies that provide cement casings for fracking wells, or the power plant developers and utilities driving the demand for coal and gas. Such a campaign needs to target the corporations that enable the Exxon’s of the world, not expect Exxon itself to respond to minor fluctuations in stock price.

 

Reinvesting in What?

 

Unless reinvested wisely, money will just shift to other bad corporations, like the banks that finance fossil fuels, or companies that supply them, or other types of dirty energy. Shifting investments away from the top 200 corporations targeted by the campaign could likely mean shifting to smaller fossil fuel corporations, as Haverford College points out:

 

The campaign focuses on 200 companies identified as having the largest proven reserves of fossil fuel resources, but does not address investments in other companies with marginally smaller fossil fuel reserves, or in companies with closely related activities, such as drilling and exploration services. When the College investigated a claim that a portfolio can be ‘optimized’ to exclude the 200 named companies while closely tracking the performance of a broad index fund, we learned that this was accomplished by replacing the excluded fossil fuel companies with other, smaller fossil fuel companies and associated service companies. We question the symbolic power of a strategy that would merely replace certain fossil fuel companies with other players in the same or related industry.”

 

Shifting from the targeted 200 corporations to smaller or ancillary fossil fuel companies or their funders is the opposite of strategic. These other corporations are the ones who could more easily be moved by a divestment campaign.

 

As the divestment campaign evolves, the need for reinvesting in clean solutions has become more of a priority.  However, there are inherent contradictions in trying to play within the confines of institutions that insist on getting high returns on their “investments.” Even the term “investment” is misleading, as putting money into stock markets is more akin to gambling than investing, and is more often about getting money out of corporations (by doing nothing to earn it), than about stock being used to build the company.

 

Marjorie Kelly, co-founder (and for 20 years, president) of Business Ethics magazine, points this out in her book, The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy. After touting socially-responsible business for decades, she came to the conclusion that corporations are inherently incapable of being socially responsible, and wrote that book to outline how corporations should be radically redesigned. The intro of her book explains: 

 

Stockholders fund major public corporations -- True or false?

 

False.  Or, actually, a tiny bit true — but for the most part, massively false.  In fact, “investing” dollars don't go to AT&T but to other speculators.  Equity investments reach a public corporation only when new common stock is sold — which for major corporations is a rare event.  Among the Dow Jones industrials, only a handful has sold any new common stock in thirty years.  Many have sold none in fifty years.”

 

The capitol flow for these large corporations is in the opposite direction, forcing the corporation to internalize profits, externalize costs and constantly grow as fast as possible. The very nature of investing supports an economic growth model that is killing the planet.  Infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. As Edward Abbey once said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”  As a friend put it to me, “first we knew that the earth was flat, then we knew the earth was round… now we know that the earth is constantly growing.”

 

Clearly, we need to move beyond this understanding of the world, as if we can expect corporations to constantly grow the economy, returning profits to shareholders as if resources are endless. If we don’t challenge this premise and these economic models, we’re just reinforcing this market-based capitalist framework that brought us these problems in the first place. We need a steady state economy, but such an economic model isn’t something that an institution can invest in, expecting a return.

 

Are we smashing capitalism yet?

 

After the huge People’s Climate March, I participated in “Flood Wall Street” – a sit-in a few blocks from Wall Street, which stopped traffic (but not Wall Street) for several hours. Many were eager to “smash capitalism” – which I support – but I find it amusing how it’s framed as a one-step act, perhaps to be done on the way home from work. The idea is usually offered up by those who can’t articulate what the first steps might be to smash capitalism. I think it’s safe to say that shifting investments from a set of 200 large corporations to other corporations (large or small) is not a step toward smashing the capitalist growth-based economic model that is cooking our planet.

 

Worker-owned cooperatives and publicly-owned energy systems are one good step away from corporate control. However, they generally aren’t the sorts of systems that return profits to absentee shareholders.  Using investments as the primary tactic limits the campaign to alternatives that are still growth-based and expectant on making money by doing nothing. The best alternative I’ve heard, which is a wonderful idea, is to reinvest endowments in the creation of new cooperatives to reduce energy demand locally and return some of the savings to the investors. We need to hit a point where all home and building owners are approached with offers to fund their maximizing use of conservation, efficiency and non-burn heating and electricity alternatives. This approach couples the investment alternatives with a real way to reduce use of fossil (and bio-) fuels.

 

Evolving the Campaign & "Divesting" in the Broad Sense

 

The two main national U.S. student socially responsible investment (SRI) movements in the 1990s rapidly evolved and radicalized once they saw the need to have a deeper anti-corporate analysis.  That analysis was informed, in large part, by the "Taking Care of Business" booklet that launched the modern anti-corporate personhood movement, and related materials. The 2003 documentary, The Corporationwhich exposes how modern corporations meet the government’s definition of a psychopath, is also an eye-opener calling us to a deeper analysis and more meaningful tactics.  

 

We need to “divest” in a much broader sense. Let’s stop the 300-some proposed gas-fired power plants while there’s still time. Let’s also stop the rest of the dirty energy infrastructure, whether it be the popular pipeline to protest, the not-so-known pipelines, the Bakken crude oil “bomb trains,” the coal and nuclear facilities, or the biomass and waste incinerators. Let’s attack the demand by making campuses and communities into models of how to get away from burning anything to meet our energy needs. Let’s look honestly at the need to end animal agriculture and be willing to talk to people about what they eat, and change institutional choices in the matter. Let’s challenge one another’s environmental organizations to admit that deeper changes are needed, to focus on some of the immediate threats they’re ignoring, and to stop promoting bad policies, like Obama’s Clean Power Plan, carbon tax or trading schemes, and “renewable” energy policies that include biomass or other combustion sources.

 

Plugging in: Students seeking out a more radical (getting to the root of a problem), justice-oriented way to plug in are encouraged to check out the Student Environmental Action Coalition and to explore our campus organizing resources, including our Energy Justice Shale Initiative (formerly Energy Justice Summer) and Frack U. programs, supporting grassroots resistance to fracking. Anyone seeking to work with front-line impacted communities, or wanting to explore how reinvestment can benefit some of the environmental justice communities we work with (like Chester, PA) should get in touch with us at Energy Justice Network and check out our map of communities impacted by dirty energy and waste facilities.

 

Mike Ewall is founder and director of Energy Justice Network, a national support network for grassroots activists fighting dirty energy and waste facilities. 

Correction to our Latest Newsletter on Methane

In our latest Energy Justice Now newsletter, we wrote that "methane is now known to be 86 to 105 worse than CO2 over a 20-year time-frame." That should have said 86 to 105 times worse. This is now corrected in the full article. For documentation on this, see our natural gas page. Not subscribed? Sign up on our sidebar. Thanks!

VICTORY: NYC Trash Train Plan Derailed in Chester, PA

We've been supporting the Chester Environmental Justice group to "derail" plans to send 500,000 tons/year of trash from the richest part of New York City by train to be burned in the low-income, 75% black City of Chester, near Philadelphia, PA. The plan would fulfill a contract Covanta has with New York City to burn this waste for the next 20-30 years. That contract would send an equal amount to Covanta's Niagara Falls, NY incinerator, where people are fighting the trash-by-trail plan as well (see http://stopburningthefalls.com/myths/). Chester hosts the nation's largest trash incinerator, burning up to 3,510 tons/day, and residents have had enough.

We just won a vote of the Chester City Planning Commission on July 11th, 2014, when we got them to vote "NO" on Covanta's proposal for a rail box building to store the rail cars of trash. It'll go to City Council next, and we'll be cranking up the pressure to get them to follow the Planning Commission's advice.

With about 100 people turned out, standing-room-only, we packed the place and made a strong impact. We also had 100 people email the local officials leading up to the meeting.

We demanded that the Chester Planning Commission recommend that City Council vote "NO" on Covanta's NYC trash-by-train proposal. See www.ejnet.org/chester/ for background info and a copy of our presentation.

The second best part was the silence when the Planning Commission chair asked for a second on the proposal to ask Covanta to expand their capacity and add pollution controls (how about just the pollution controls??).

The BEST part was when the chair then moved that they recommend a "NO" vote and asked "all in favor, say aye" ...and the entire room responded in chorus with "AYE." Beautiful and empowering.

Here's the news coverage of it:

Chester planners give thumbs down to Covanta land development plan

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