Tar Sands Oil Seen As Bad News All Around

Mar 18, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Vermont has a key role to play in keeping tar sands oil where it belongs — in the ground.

The increasingly imminent proposal to move tar sands oil from Canada through an existing pipeline in the Northeast Kingdom brings this issue very close to home.

At town meetings across the state earlier this month, 29 Vermont communities passed resolutions opposing the transportation and use of tar sands oil. This was a clear message that Vermonters don’t want to be complicit in the next chapter on climate destruction.

As with the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, President Obama can nix any proposal to bring tar sands through Vermont. Congressional members, including Vermont’s delegation, have called on the president to give any plan to bring tar sands through New England a searching environmental review.

We are a small state, but we have already borne more than our fair share of climate-change disasters. Stopping tar sands oil in its tracks and keeping it out of Vermont moves us in the right direction on climate change and helps avoid more climate devastation.

Tar sands oil, a gritty tar-like substance extracted from the sands of Alberta, Canada, is very different and far more damaging to our climate than conventional oil. It leaves behind a big mess and literally digs us deeper into the hole of climate change.

In a recent Scientific American article, editor David Biello reports that tar sands oil emits twice the greenhouse gas per barrel as conventional oil. As we seek newer and cleaner energy sources, using oil that is twice as dirty sends us hurtling at warp speed in exactly the wrong direction.

The nation’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, says the exploitation of tar sands oil will mean “game over” for the climate. It’s not just that tar sands oil is twice as dirty — there is also a lot of it. The government of Alberta estimates that it has available proven reserves of over 170 billion barrels of tar sands oil. That makes it the third largest proven reserve in the world, enough oil to meet Canada’s current demand for four hundred years.

The tar sands oil in Alberta sits beneath an area that is roughly the size of Florida. The reserves are vast and bountiful — not what we want from a resource that is extra dirty.

Doubling down on tar sands keeps us sadly hooked on oil, hooked on climate disasters for centuries and delays efforts to move towards cleaner energy supplies.

Tar sands oil creates other problems as well. The oil is extracted in enormous open pits, leaving vast destruction in its wake. Large areas are left uninhabitable for wildlife. Migratory birds get trapped in the waste pits.

And tar sands oil is corrosive, meaning greater wear and tear on pipelines — many of which are more than 60 years old, like the one in the Northeast Kingdom.

Spills of tar sands oil are far worse and more difficult to clean up than ordinary spills. The 2010 spill of tar sands oil in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan is already the most expensive pipeline oil spill in U.S. history, and cleanup may never be complete.

In short, tar sands oil is bad news all around.

Vermonters are not idly standing by. In addition to the town meeting resolutions, the Legislature is considering a bill that would require a review of any proposal to move tar sands oil through Vermont.

And a number of environmental groups and citizens recently filed a legal action requesting that any plans to use the existing pipeline for tar sands oil be reviewed though Vermont’s land use development law — Act 250 — to protect our land, water and air resources threatened by this dirty fuel.

The resolve of Vermonters can help keep tar sands oil in the ground and show how responsible action to tackle climate change can leave a clean legacy for our children.

This article was originally published as a Weekly Planet column in the Environment Section of the Rutland Herald/Times Argus newspapers on March 17, 2013. You can find a copy here.

Mapping Food Accessibility: a New Tool for Urban Farming

Mar 12, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »


A new interactive map released by USDA shows where the greatest challenges, and potentially the greatest opportunities, exist for the growing urban agriculture movement.

In many communities across the country, availability of fresh food is low, or even non-existent. A grocery store may be several hours away on foot, leaving families with little to no access to fresh fruits and vegetables, or other elements of a healthy diet. These areas, known as “food deserts,” usually exist in low-income regions, and they will present stark challenge as we face climate change, an obesity epidemic, and a fragile economy.

USDA’s map undoubtedly presents a sobering picture. However, it also provides a blueprint of opportunity. Areas lacking access to fresh food are exactly where inspiring urban farm initiatives are increasingly cropping up.

Across New England, there is a tangible sense of excitement around the possibilities for an urban agricultural vision. We at CLF believe that building urban farming infrastructure is not just possible—it’s necessary.

CLF is heavily involved in ensuring that such a vision takes root. Our recent study details the economic development potential for urban agriculture in Greater Boston. The report found that urban agriculture can play an essential role in creating a more livable, carbon resilient, healthier, economically vibrant, and environmentally sustainable city—if we put smart policies in place and encourage market development for Boston grown foods. Through our Food and Farm initiative, our advocates are working to build this important infrastructure.

Both challenges and great opportunities lie ahead for urban agriculture as we face a changing climate, and we at CLF are playing an active role in establishing policies that will increase healthy food production, accessibility and sustainability across New England.

Global Warming Conference – Saturday March 16 – Montpelier, VT

Mar 11, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Senator Bernie Sanders is hosting a Global Warming Conference – What does it mean for Vermont?  — on Saturday March 16 from 10am to 4pm at Montpelier High School in Montpelier Vermont.

Bill McKibben will be the Keynote Speaker and Senator Sanders will be joined by Vermont and national leaders for workshops and discussions about climate change and what it means for Vermont.

I am pleased to join Senator Sanders and Bill McKibben for this event. It is a great opportunity to learn more about how we can tackle climate change together.

The event is free and open to the public and lunch will be provided.

More information is available here.

Maine PUC Approves Plan to Lower Power Bills with Increased Efficiency; Now it’s Legislature’s Turn

Mar 8, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) took important steps this week to increase energy efficiency in the state and pass those savings along to Maine’s electric customers. On Tuesday, the PUC issued its final order unanimously approving the Efficiency Maine Trust’s Triennial Plan, the comprehensive document that outlines the strategies, programs, budgets and estimated savings for three years starting July 1, 2013.

Some of the more critical components of the approved Plan are its budgets for the Trust’s largest programs related to electric efficiency. The Trust had proposed and made the case for expanding its budget for these programs by almost three times what would otherwise have been available to the Trust, estimating over $650 million in achievable cost-effective savings. The PUC  took a more conservative approach, but acted meaningfully, doubling the electricity budget and affording ratepayers close to $500 million in savings from these programs.

With their decision, Maine’s energy experts have spoken and they unanimously agree that the Legislature should significantly increase funding for energy efficiency. We hope the Legislature will take the responsible course of action this time and claim a victory for Maine ratepayers and the environment.

But, as I wrote last week, going forward, these efficiency funding decisions should reside with the experts at the PUC. The Maine law implemented last year shifting final say on certain energy efficiency funding from the PUC to the Legislature must be amended to direct that authority back to the PUC where it belongs. The Legislature will have the chance to make that change this session. The Legislature should look to the PUC’s actions this week as a demonstration of its keen understanding of the facts and the value of energy efficiency to the people and the state of Maine, and should follow the lead of our energy regulators.

The press release announcing the PUC’s decision is here.




Familiar Cautionary Tale Unfolding at Mt. Tom

Mar 7, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Mount Tom power plant in Holyoke, MA.

A familiar story appears to be unfolding at the Mt. Tom coal plant in Holyoke, Massachusetts. According to recently released documents, the owner submitted what is known as a Dynamic Delist Bid with ISO New England (ISO-NE), the operator of the New England electricity system and markets, and ISO-NE accepted the bid.

This means that during the 2016-2017 capacity commitment period the plant will not be obligated to run and will not receive any capacity payments. The plant could still run and be paid for the electricity it makes, but the act of de-listing means that Mt. Tom’s owner thinks there is a significant chance it will not be economic for the plant to run during that year.

This is not surprising given the sharp decline in how often the plant has been running over the past few years:

This news is particularly significant for two reasons:

  • First, submitting a de-list bid to leave the market for one year has been the first step on the path to retirement for two other coal-fired plants in Massachusetts, Somerset Station and Salem Harbor Station;
  • and Second, the fact that ISO-NE accepted the de-list bid means that it determined that Mt. Tom can exit the capacity market for that timeframe without any impact on reliability. That’s a good indication that Mt. Tom could permanently retire without impacting the system, although some additional analysis would need to be done.

Although this is welcome news, because it means the end of a long legacy of pollution, it is not surprising. Even Brayton Point, New England’s largest power plant is facing desperate financial circumstances. Coal-fired power plants have been faltering across the country over the last two years, and CLF, Coal Free Massachusetts and local allies have been warning that Mt. Tom is not only a polluting, outdated relic but that it is also an unprofitable, unstable source of revenue for the City of Holyoke and that now is the time to plan for a cleaner, brighter future.

A task force created to examine the issue of retiring, demolishing, and eventually redeveloping the sites of aging coal-fired power plants in the Commonwealth will be visiting Holyoke on March 6 for a meeting with ISO-NE and a tour of the Mt. Tom plant.  CLF and its local allies are urging the task force to open this meeting to the public and to solicit more public input on the process.  Thus far, although meetings have been open to the public, there has been little effort to engage local community members.  Engaging the public is critical to an open, fair, transparent process that will create results that the entire community can get behind.



Offshore Wind Energy: Europe and Asia Have It, and We Should Too

Mar 6, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

An offshore wind farm off the coast of the Netherlands. Image courtesy of Nuon @ flickr

As of June 2012, the world boasted 4,619 megawatts of installed offshore wind energy capacity, while the United States had none. President Obama and other national leaders like Susan Collins want to change that statistic. The public also increasingly supports clean renewable energy in the wake of frequent severe weather events like Hurricane Sandy caused by climate change.

The biggest barrier to developing offshore wind energy has been criticism of its cost compared to other forms of energy. But offshore wind technology is in its infancy; it must be tested and supported much like subsidies were provided for the testing and development of oil and gas exploration. A recent study by the Brattle Group contained two findings that I found interesting.

– First, the study estimates the total investment needed to develop a U.S. offshore wind industry and how that investment would affect the price of electricity. The study showed that offshore wind could cost less to develop than subsidies paid for coal, oil and gas over the last 50 years.

– Second, the study estimates that offshore wind would result in an average monthly-rate increase for American consumers ranging from 0.2 percent to 1.7 percent.

Considering the huge amount being added to our tax bills to finance natural disaster relief from increased hurricanes, tornadoes and other weather events caused by global warming, this modest increase in electric rates to switch to cleaner power is a no brainer.

Here in New England, we have several potential opportunities for offshore wind: Cape Wind in Massachusetts, DeepWater Wind projects in Rhode Island, and the Hywind Maine pilot project in Maine.

What do you think? Would you pay a little more for electricity tax to reduce our dependence on fuels that add to global warming?

Gina McCarthy: Right Choice for EPA, Bridge Builder, Wicked Big Sox Fan

Mar 4, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

We are delighted by the news that Gina McCarthy has been nominated as Administrator the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Over the course of the last two decades the staff of Conservation Law Foundation has worked productively with Gina in her various roles in Massachusetts state government, during her tenure as the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and, most recently, as Deputy EPA Administrator for Air and Radiation.

Gina is a fierce advocate for the health and welfare of our children and families. She was instrumental in the creation of the landmark nation and world-leading efforts to rein in mercury and toxics use and pollution in Massachusetts and across New England.

Gina is both a hard-nosed negotiator and a sympathetic ear always willing to listen to criticism and learn from just about anyone. Indeed, the “McCarthy Principle” of crafting regulations can best be summarized in her own words: “In nearly all cases the more people are involved in making a decision, the better the decision will be.”

Her engagement, over the years, on nearly every conceivable environmental issue, ranging from the transportation system of Greater Boston, holding her own state transportation agencies to account for their obligation to help clean up our air, to the clean-up of contaminated groundwater at the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod to her powerful leadership in crafting the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, has prepared her well for the breathtaking scope of issues that land on the EPA Administrator’s desk.

Her sincerity, humor, willingness to admit error, flashes of caustic (and often self-deprecating) wit are all qualities that disarm those who approach her, and help explain the deep loyalty of those who have worked with her directly.

At the end of the day, Gina is at heart still the same person who once served as a municipal public health agent, worrying about the families of one town in Massachusetts. But that person now has deep and essential knowledge about the complex worlds of energy, environmental and climate policy and a broad set of tools essential to meeting the powerful challenges that EPA faces in the 21st Century.”

. . . And she is wicked smart and a wicked big Red Sox fan.

Forward on Climate Rally: We’re Strong Together

Feb 28, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The National Mall was quiet when I stepped off the 350 Massachusetts bus last Sunday. As the sun rose over the Washington Monument and I was tasked with finding breakfast for eleven of my very hungry peers from Stonehill College, I could not help but feel excited and energized for the day ahead. This was a historic moment. So much is at stake in our fight against climate change.

A few weeks earlier I attended the Keystone XL rally in Portland, ME and I could not believe the crowds- over 1,000 people showed up! I wondered: How many people would show up in DC? You can imagine my excitement as the morning went on and thousands upon thousands of Americans from all across the country gathered on the National Mall. They gathered to hear from environmental leaders like Bill McKibben of 350.org, Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). They gathered to stand together, sharing a simple concern. And they gathered to share a simple message with the country: We need to act now, together, on climate change.

As these and several other speakers shared their stories with the 45,000 Americans gathered in front of them, the urgency with which we must address this complex climate change problem was evident. It’s going to take a great deal of effort, time, and some significant behavior change, but the Americans who gathered together on this frigid day are just a few of the millions of us who are ready for some serious legislative action on climate change.

Stonehill students at the Forward on Climate Rally

At times, the crowd roared. They cheered in agreement when it was noted that, “We will never be able to eat money and we will never be able to drink oil.” The emphasis was certainly on the Keystone XL pipeline and President Obama’s ability to stop this project in its tracks. While the cheering was frequent, the signs were funny, and people smiled at the young children running around, the mood was somber as the march began toward the White House.  As the Rev. Yearwood, President of the Hip Hop Caucus noted, “We’re fighting for existence.” That day, on the National Mall surrounded by thousands, the fight was alive.

As Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) President John Kassel noted in his blog post on the topic, this type of movement certainly needs strategists, lawyers, and scientists to succeed, but also the “people in the streets, in villages and barrios, on college campuses and in cornfields and in automobile assembly plants.” Due to the excellent organizing of 350 Massachusetts, the Commonwealth sent a sizable and diverse delegation of 7 full buses including 11 of my fellow students and friends from Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.

Active in a variety of different ways with sustainability and environmental issues at the College, our group of students were able to secure a grant to cover the costs of trip from our school’s “Green Fund” which awards small grants to groups of students looking to engage in environmental events and make campus a greener place! Needless to say, this was an incredible opportunity and it has energized and inspired all of us to take further action at our school to make a positive environmental difference. Whether this be our ongoing divestment campaign, our work to reduce plastic consumption of water bottles and “to-go” meal containers, or education regarding our composting options in the cafeteria, the Forward on Climate rally proved to all of us that we all share a joint responsibility to work together to fight and seriously address the threat of climate change.

Please join us in this critical fight to preserve and protect our previous environment. Join Conservation Law Foundation. If there’s one lesson learned from the rally, it’s that we must work together. Looking around the mall, you couldn’t help but agree that we’re stronger when we do.

Dark Days Ahead: The Financial Future of Brayton Point

Feb 28, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Just how much financial trouble is Dominion facing at its 50-year old coal and oil-fired power plant? The prospects are bleak and looking worse. For years, people have assumed that the largest coal-fired power plant in New England could weather any storm, but the numbers show that Brayton Point is facing dark days, and the clouds are not likely to lift.

Brayton Point Capacity Factors from 2007-2012

Today, Conservation Law Foundation released an independent analysis of the financial performance of Dominion Resources’ Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts. The report, authored by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, projects a bleak future for the 50-year-old coal-fired facility. Entitled Dark Days Ahead: Financial Factors Cloud Future Profitability at Dominion’s Brayton Point, the report found that the once profitable power plant’s earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) are plummeting due to a perfect storm of market conditions that are projected to continue at least through the end of the decade.

The report shows that those conditions make it unlikely that Brayton Point will ever recoup its recent $1 billion investment in upgrades to the facility, or return to profitability.

“Brayton Point is looking at losing money for the foreseeable future,” said David Schlissel, who co-authored the report with financial expert Tom Sanzillo. “The market conditions have changed and are continuing to change for old coal plants. There is nothing on the horizon that shows that this power plant will be able to return to financial health; in fact, even the most optimistic scenario shows that Brayton Point cannot produce earnings that would cover its costs and produce a return for equity investors at any time through 2020.”

Sanzillo added, “The forecast for Brayton Point is indicative of what’s happening all over the country. We are seeing the owners of these 50-year-old coal-burning facilities facing do or die decisions about their futures, with hundreds having already announced their plans to retire in the next few years and more going that route every month. Brayton Point’s current experience – bleeding money and owner Dominion Resources having already written off $700 million of its $1 billion investment in upgrading the plant – and its bleak outlook clearly show that continuing to operate this plant doesn’t make economic sense.”

A Perfect Storm of Changing Conditions Sends Earnings Plummeting

The report points to a set of changed conditions that together are putting severe downward pressure on Brayton Point’s earnings, which dropped from $345 million in 2009 to an anemic $24 million in 2012, a decrease of some 93 percent:

• Natural gas prices have declined significantly since 2008 and are expected to remain low for at least the remainder of this decade.
• Wholesale energy market prices have decreased In response to the declining natural gas prices, , meaning reduced revenue for coal plant owners and reduced generation at coal plants like Brayton Point.
• Meanwhile, prices for capacity have been also been declining with a 35% decrease in the price obtained in the Forward Capacity Auction in 2012 as compared to the price for 2010.
• Additionally, energy usage in ISO-NE decreased by 2-3 percent between 2008 and 2012 as a result of the economic downturn and increasing energy efficiency efforts.

Future Profitability is Unlikely

The report provides two extremely conservative scenarios of future performance: an “optimistic scenario,” in which generation from Brayton Point coal Units 1-3 is projected to rise to a 60% capacity factor through the years 2013-2020, and a “less optimistic” scenario, which assumes that the units’ generation will not exceed 40% for any year in the period. In 2012, Brayton Points Units 1-3 operated at an average 16% capacity factor. Thus, the report says, earnings from those units could be much lower than projected in the two scenarios modeled. “In no way have we looked at a ‘worst case’ scenario,” noted Mr. Sanzillo.

In both scenarios, based on forward-looking conditions, the report shows that it is unlikely that future energy market prices, ISO-NE capacity market prices, plant generation and coal prices will lead to earnings high enough to provide its owner with adequate recovery of capital or return on investment. The report’s conclusions are based on projections that show that it is reasonable to expect that for the remainder of this decade, at least:

• Energy market prices in New England will remain low, reflecting continuing low natural gas prices.
• Energy consumption in New England will remain flat while consumption in Massachusetts may decline.
• Bituminous coal prices will increase over time.
• As a result, the generation at Brayton Point Units 1-3 is not likely to reach the high levels of performance achieved by the units through 2009.
• Future New England capacity prices are not likely to increase significantly.

On the longer horizon, from 2020 on, the report points to increasing pressure to place a significant price on carbon emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants, and the plant’s age, as additional factors that will likely weigh on the plant’s earnings.

N. Jonathan Peress, VP and director of Conservation Law Foundation’s Clean Energy and Climate Change program, commented, “Brayton Point, like many other old coal plants in New England and around the country, is at a tipping point. Dominion has already made a losing investment in trying to make this plant viable beyond its useful life. Now, Dominion and its shareholders need to decide whether to keep pumping money into Brayton Point with little chance of a return, as this analysis clearly shows, or to let it go. This report provides compelling evidence for the Town of Somerset, which has been seeing its tax revenue from the plant decline in recent years, to begin planning for Brayton Point’s retirement, and a healthier future for that community in all respects.”


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