Monday, November 25, 2013

Endangered Species Protection is Threatened by the General Assembly

By Thomas Au, Sierra Club PA Conservation Chair

The gas drilling and mining industries have been pushing new legislation to undermine the independence of the PA Fish and Boat Commission and the PA Game Commission to administer Pennsylvania's endangered species laws. 

The so-called Endangered Species Coordination Act (House Bill 1576 and Senate Bill 1047) would place regulations for rare species by the Fish and Boat Commission and Game Commission under the purview of the state's Independent Regulatory Review Commission - a five member body dominated by the legislature.  While this process appears to be innocuous on the surface, it essentially subjects proposed actions by these independent agencies to second-guessing by political appointees.

The current process allows scientists from the PA Game Commission, PA Fish and Boat Commission and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, after public hearing and discussion, to determine when a species in Pennsylvania is rare, threatened or endangered and take steps to protect them. The current process also allows the Pa Fish and Boat Commission to designate wild trout streams. The bills would take this independent authority away from these agencies and their professional staff, and put the ultimate decisions in the hands of political appointees. 

The bills would actually prevent a species from being listed in Pennsylvania, unless it is first listed by the federal government.  This ignores the fact that many species may be threatened in Pennsylvania due to conditions in our state that do not exist in other states.  These include the great egret, the long-eared owl, and numerous species of mussels and fish. And according to testimony from the staff of the Commissions, it would make it more difficult to protect many rare Pennsylvania wildlife and fish species.

The bills would also require the agencies to re-propose all the species currently under their protection by enacting regulations on each one of them.  This would require a huge amount of agency resources to be used to re-justify listed endangered species, without providing funding pay for the agency work.  This mandate that will divert scarce resources from other agency critical work. 
The cumulative effect of the changes proposed in the bill blunt the Commissions' programs for threatened and endangered species of fish and wildlife - allowing drilling, mining, and clear-cutting to evade agency review. 

In 2012, the Governor’s Energy Executive, Patrick Henderson, wrote in a report to the General Assembly that the Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory environmental review tool should continue to be enhanced so as to assist in the up-front avoidance of conflicts with threatened and endangered species, flora, fauna, habitat and other sensitive natural resources and increase certainty in decision making and long-term planning of pipeline operators.  If this is the Governor's position, his office should be leading the opposition to these bills.

With ever-larger tracts of pristine public and private land being subjected to industrial development, including gas drilling, pipeline construction, and mining,  the likelihood of encroachment on  threatened and endangered species increases.  These industries should not attempt to shield themselves from potential conflict by curbing the ability of the fish and game commissions to list and protect these species. Pennsylvanians cherish their wild resources, and we should not be weakening their protection.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ontario, Canada, Goes Coal Free

Today Ontario, Canada, is showcasing a path for a world working to prevent runaway climate change. Today, Ontario retired their last coal-fired power plant. Part of a bold plan launched by former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty in 2003 to cut pollution in the province, this is great news for everyone who loves clean air and is working to provide a safe and liveable planet for future generations. 
What's more, the steps Ontario has taken over the past decade to retire its five coal-fired power plants is a great guide for the U.S. in making a speedy transition to a modern, clean, carbon-free energy system. 

What can we learn from Ontario?
1) Be honest about the costs of coal. In 2003 Ontario looked at the full cost of coal, both the costs of coal-generated electricity, and the health costs the province was paying related directly to the health costs of burning coal. An honest accounting concluded that coal is among the most expensive ways to generate electricity.

2) Be bold. Long before other states and cities were talking about phasing out coal, then Premier McGuinty announced he would lead the effort to replace all the coal plants in a decade. This took a lot of courage, but also a profound belief in our scientists and engineers to imagine and build a coal-free electricity sector.

3) Invest heavily in energy efficiency. The province demonstrated that the cheapest source of power is efficiency, or reduced demand. In fact, according to Scientific American, these savvy actions made Ontario one of the first places in the world where energy demand began to decline, rather than increase.

4) Provide clear and fair rules for clean energy developers. With a clear roadmap and and balanced incentives wind power quintupled over the past 6 years in Ontario. Today wind and energy efficiency will make up much of the replacement for the retiring coal plants. A carbon-free grid is now within reach, as clean energy continues to grow and will back out the remaining natural gas.
This move by Ontario is the latest in a string of great clean energy news across North America. Last week the Tennessee Valley Authority announced the retirement of 3,300 megawatts of coal power in the Southeastern U.S. Earlier in 2013, Los Angeles and Chicago both announced they were going coal-free, with L.A. even announcing a major solar power deal with the Moapa Band of Paiutes in Nevada. The U.S. has been ditching coal (as fast as its investors), because a mix of hard-hitting grassroots advocacy, new EPA protections, and rising coal prices, has brought about the retirement or announced retirement of 155 coal plants.

With the largest grassroot environment movement in the U.S. working together to de-carbonize the electric sector, activists are fighting for clean energy and climate solutions from coast to coast. In the past week activists in Florida and Arizona rallied for solar power; North Dakota approved a new wind farm; Sudbury, Massachusetts just flipped the switch on a solar array that will save the city $100,000 annually.

This is also the latest in a string of great clean energy news across the globe. Sparked by the President's climate action plan which called for an end to public financing of coal overseas, the United Kingdom and multilateral banks like the World Bank and the European Investment Bank have also stopped throwing taxpayer dollars at dirty coal projects. These governments and institutions will instead be investing in clean, renewable energy.
While coal has powered the U.S. economy for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, we now know it is the leading source of climate disruption, it pollutes our air and makes our kids sick, and it has no place in a modern, high-tech economy. We live in the most innovative country on earth -- the first country to put a man on the moon, the nation that brought the Internet to the world. Our neighbors to the north are showcasing leadership. Let's build on their leadership, our incredible progress here in the U.S., and get to 100 percent clean energy in less than two decades. I know we can.
-- Bruce Nilles, Senior Director of the Beyond Coal Campaign