Judge proposes ordering PG&E to shut off power for wildfires
By SUDHIN THANAWALA
Wednesday, January 9
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — To prevent wildfires, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. should re-inspect its entire electric grid and cut off power during certain wind conditions regardless of the inconvenience to customers or loss of profit, a U.S. judge proposed Wednesday.
Judge William Alsup said in a court order his goal was to prevent the utility from causing any wildfires in the 2019 fire season.
“This will likely mean having to interrupt service during high-wind events (and possibly at other times) but that inconvenience, irritating as it will be, will pale by comparison to the death and destruction that otherwise might result from PG&E-inflicted wildfires,” Alsup said.
He gave PG&E until Jan. 23 to respond to his proposal. PG&E said it was reviewing Alsup’s order.
“We are committed to complying with all rules and regulations that apply to our work, while working together with our state and community partners and across all sectors and disciplines to develop comprehensive, long-term safety solutions for the future,” the company said.
Alsup is overseeing a criminal sentence against PG&E stemming from a deadly explosion of one of the utility’s gas lines in 2010. The blast in the San Francisco Bay Area killed eight people.
A U.S. judge in 2017 put PG&E on five years of probation following its conviction on pipeline safety charges. Alsup asked PG&E in November whether any requirements of the sentence might be implicated if its equipment ignited a wildfire. The judge noted that the sentence required that PG&E not engage in any additional crimes.
He also asked the utility to explain any role it may have played in a massive wildfire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed at least 86 people.
Investigators have not determined the cause of the wildfire that began Nov. 8 but speculation has centered on PG&E, which reported an outage around the time and place the fire ignited.
Alsup noted in Wednesday’s order that state fire investigators have determined PG&E caused eighteen wildfires in 2017, twelve of which they referred for possible criminal prosecution.
The judge proposed PG&E remove or trim all trees that could fall onto its power lines, poles or equipment in high-wind conditions and document its inspections and work. He accused the utility of a “history of falsification of inspection reports.”
He is also considering ordering the utility during the 2019 wildfire season to supply electricity only to those parts of its electrical grid it has determined to be safe under wind conditions at the time.
PG&E cut power to tens of thousands of Northern California customers in October because of high fire danger, prompting complaints and demands for reimbursement from some customers.
PG&E’s credit rating and stock price fell this month following reports that it was considering filing for bankruptcy protection in the face of potentially crippling liability damages from a spate of wildfires.
Tumor-free flounder are just 1 dividend from the cleanup of Boston Harbor
January 10, 2019
Author: Michael Moore, Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Disclosure statement: The research described in this article was funded by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, a state agency that provides wholesale water and sewer services across greater Boston, though a contract with Normandeau Associates, Inc.
Thirty years ago, during the 1988 presidential campaign, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush took a boat ride across Boston Harbor and derided the environmental record of his rival, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, calling the polluted waters a “harbor of shame.” Bush was right. For decades Boston had been dumping barely treated sewage into the harbor, although a court-ordered cleanup was just starting.
Since 1986 colleagues and I have studied tumors in Boston Harbor flounder, which were a major driver of public outcry over the state of the harbor. Flounder are tasty and easy to catch, and have long been a popular commercial and recreational species in Massachusetts coastal waters. But a 1984 study showed that 8 percent of winter flounder sampled from Boston Harbor had liver tumors. Another study found tumors in 15 percent of winter flounder and suggested that they were caused by exposure to sewage-borne pollutants.
Today the picture is very different. In a recent study, we provided evidence that the goal of cleaning up toxic chemicals from Boston Harbor has been met. Boston Harbor flounder are dramatically healthier, even those caught near an offshore outfall where treated sewage is now discharged into Massachusetts Bay. In fact, levels of disease associated with contaminant exposure are lower in flounder caught near the outfall than they were in the early 1990s. Boston Harbor’s turnaround shows that heavily damaged ecosystems can recover and provide benefits far larger than their cleanup costs.
Impact of the Clean Water Act
In 1972 Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which established the legal framework for regulating pollutant discharges into U.S. waters. At that time, Boston Harbor was severely polluted.
Raw sewage discharges had made local beaches risky for swimmers since the late 1800s. By the mid-20th century, heavy loads of pesticides, PCBs and heavy metals were also flowing into the harbor, contaminating sediments and marine organisms. Two overloaded treatment plants discharged largely untreated sewage and sludge into shallow harbor waters.
Finally, in 1982 the Boston suburb of Quincy, the nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation and the federal government all sued Boston under the Clean Water Act for failing to update its sewage treatment systems. Evidence of tumors in flounder helped convince presiding Judge Paul Garrity that dramatic action was required. As Garrity asserted:
“The current and potential impact of pollution upon the health, welfare and safety of persons who live and work nearby Boston Harbor and who use it for commercial, recreational, and other purposes is staggering. The damage to that environment and to the creatures who live in it may very well become irreversible unless measures are taken to control, and at some point preclude, the pollution and consequent destruction of that very valuable resource.”
As a result, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority was established in 1985, and a court-ordered cleanup began. The timeline called for ending sewage sludge discharges by December 1991, developing secondary sewage treatment by 1997, and building a 9.5-mile tunnel that would carry treated effluent offshore by 2000. The cost for constructing the new secondary treatment plant and discharge tunnel was US $3.8 billion.
The changing flounder fishery
Even at its dirtiest in the 1970s and 1980s, Boston Harbor was a mecca for recreational flounder fishing. At one time, six businesses rented fishing skiffs out of Hough’s Neck in Quincy Bay, the southern arm of Boston Harbor, to anglers pursuing flounder that spent cold-weather months in Boston Harbor. This peninsula was referred to as the “flounder capital of the world.”
I began studying the genetics of flounder tumors as a doctoral student working with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution biologist John Stegeman in the mid-1980s. When I presented data from this work in 1987 at the New England Aquarium, Massachusetts Water Resources Authority officials were interested in our findings. The MWRA started funding our work in 1988, and continues to support it today. In my view, it is a good example of fundamental research that has produced a very long-term applied benefit.
We researched the underlying disease process in flounder, and showed that some tumor-associated cells were excellent predictors of tumor risk. We also found that winter flounder around the pre-cleanup sewage discharge points fed significantly on organic matter derived from sewage sludge – mainly worms feasting on nutrients in the sludge – before sludge discharges ended in 1991.
By annually examining flounder from four different sites in and beyond the harbor, we were able to show that the prevalence of tumors in the fish declined with time after the cleanup began, to the point where we did not detect tumors after 2004. Tumor precursor cells in the fish also decreased remarkably. The decreasing prevalence of liver tumors was a good indicator that the harbor cleanup also reduced human health risk, especially for seafood consumers.
Interestingly, winter flounder thrived on the abundant food in sewage sludge, even though it caused liver tumors. In the 1990s, once sludge was no longer discharged on outgoing tides, the flounder lost this food source. In response they shifted their movements so that they did not arrive in the harbor from deeper waters in Massachusetts Bay until they were ready to spawn in late April, and appeared in fewer numbers. This trend was also partly driven by region-wide reductions in the flounder population.
Today flounder are less notable in Boston Harbor than striped bass and seals, but are making a slow comeback. In another sign of how much cleaner the harbor is, humpback whales were recently filmed breaching in front of the upgraded sewage treatment plant on Deer Island.
A substantial payoff
A staggering amount of human effort and resources went into the Boston Harbor cleanup, but the results demonstrate that long-term investments to improve regional environmental quality can pay off. A recent study led by my colleague Di Jin estimates that Boston Harbor now provides a capital value of $30 billion to $100 billion in ecosystem services, such as recreation opportunities and habitat for fish and shellfish, thanks to a cleanup with a total price tag of $4.7 billion (for the measures discussed above plus sewer system improvements). I would not have eaten fish from Boston Harbor 30 years ago, but I would eat them today.
However, environmental conservation is never finished. New water quality challenges are emerging – notably, microplastics and pharmaceuticals in wastewater, which are not currently regulated. As the Trump administration pushes to reduce environmental regulation, it bears emphasizing that without federal legislation and legal action, Boston might still have the nation’s dirtiest harbor today.
With the right guiding principles, carbon taxes can work
January 10, 2019
Author: Gilbert E. Metcalf, John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service; Professor of Economics, Tufts University
Disclosure statement: Gilbert E. Metcalf has received funding for research on climate policy from Resources For the Future, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Climate Leadership Council.
Partners: Tufts University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
Like most economists, I favor taxing carbon dioxide to cut carbon pollution.
A carbon tax makes fossil fuels like oil and coal more expensive. That, in turn, leads consumers and industries to use less of them. At the same time, it boosts demand for alternative energy sources like wind and solar powered electricity.
With the anti-regulatory Trump administration in power and a Republican majority controlling the Senate, however, no such national policy is imminent. Prospects for statewide efforts may look bleak too, after ballot initiatives in Washington state that would have created the nation’s first carbon tax failed in 2016 and 2018.
But other states may move in this direction. Having conducted extensive research about how climate policies are working around the world over the past decade, I believe that the effort to enact a carbon tax is worth it.
Based on my experience serving as the deputy assistant secretary for environment and energy at the U.S. Treasury Department for two years during the Obama administration, I recognize it won’t be easy to enact tough climate policies. Recent events in France underscore this fact. There, President Emmanuel Macron has backed down on the taxes on gasoline, diesel and heating oil that led to waves of so-called yellow vest protests that rocked France and left six protesters dead by mid-December.
Fairness is central to the French protests, which sprang from objections to what came across to many voters as an elitist, out-of-touch central government that has lowered taxes on the rich while hiking taxes on the poor. The 2018 French budget, enacted last December, cut corporate tax rates and wealth taxes while increasing a social levy on all income similar to our payroll taxes. This change skewed taxes away from the rich and made the poor pay more.
This law had already stirred discontent. The hike in fuel taxes, part of a carbon tax initially enacted in 2014, poured fuel on those flames. Framing the increase as an environmental tax did nothing to assuage rural and low-income voters. “We’re not anti-environmental,” a movement organizer said. “This is a movement against abusive taxation, period.”
Meanwhile, the failure of the Washington State ballot initiative illustrates the risks of trying to enact controversial policies at the ballot box. When vast amounts of money poured into the state from big oil corporations like BP to finance a campaign against a carbon tax, thoughtful policy debate was forced to compete with a slick media campaign. Supporters also had to overcome the legacy of a previous failed referendum that pitted climate policy advocates against each other.
Designed correctly, a carbon tax can do more than reduce carbon pollution. It can also make tax codes more fair. Research by a group of economists demonstrates that carbon taxes can be progressive – meaning higher income households pay more in tax per dollar of income than lower-income households.
A carbon tax can also create jobs. Although instituting one in the U.S. would surely speed up the disappearance of U.S. coal mining jobs, that shift would continue no matter what while also expediting the creation of new employment opportunities. As of today, there are more than twice as many jobs in solar technology than in coal mining.
Finally, taxing carbon is unlikely to hurt the economy. Despite a roughly $135-per-ton tax on carbon dioxide, Sweden is doing just fine. Its GDP has grown by nearly 80 percent since it enacted a carbon tax in the early 1990s, while its emissions have fallen by one-quarter.
Sweden’s growth rate has actually exceeded that of the U.S. since 2000 despite high taxes on carbon pollution, in part because Sweden uses the revenue to cut other taxes. And the World Economic Forum finds the two economies to be about equally competitive.
Likewise, British Columbia’s carbon tax has not hurt its economy since going into effect in 2008. My analysis indicates, if anything, the tax has boosted growth in the Canadian province. That’s because some of the revenue raised was used, to cut marginal income tax rates on individuals and the tax bills for small businesses. Another economist based at the University of Calgary found that local employment increased by a small but statistically significant amount.
When and if Congress is finally ready to enact a carbon tax in the U.S., it should consider a guiding framework as it debates the elements of the new tax.
President Ronald Reagan understood the power of establishing frameworks to guide tax policy. In his 1984 State of the Union address, he called for a tax reform that would raise no additional revenue but “make the tax base broader, so personal tax rates could come down, not go up.”
With that directive, Reagan launched the most significant tax reform in the history of the tax code. His directive made clear that he wanted lower tax rates without sacrificing revenue. This simple framework imposed an important discipline that kept lawmakers on track.
In my new book, “Paying for Pollution: Why a Carbon Tax Is Good for America,” I lay out similar guiding principles. In my view, carbon taxation should be revenue-neutral, make the tax code fairer, streamline climate policy and lead to significant emission reductions.
Republicans and Democrats have argued for years over the size of the federal government. It is a debate that should not ensnare climate policy. Revenue neutrality in this context means that all the money raised through a carbon tax should be returned to Americans through some combination of tax cuts and direct payments.
Fairness means that low to moderate income households are not made worse off by the tax. There are many ways to do this including a proposal from the Climate Leadership Council, a policy initiative backed by big corporations like ExxonMobil and General Motors as well as three big environmental groups and former Republican secretaries of State James Baker III and George Shultz, to give all U.S. households the money raised from carbon taxation through carbon dividends.
The government should also provide transitional relief to carbon-intensive industries and regions. The federal government should partner with state and local governments to develop transition plans for these communities.
National climate policies generally include various tax breaks for renewable energy as well as mandates – which in the U.S. primarily consist of state-level renewable portfolio standards. With a carbon tax, it is possible to eliminate some of these overlapping policies and guarantee that emissions decline at the same time.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the whole point of climate policies and therefore the highest priority when implementing them. As the latest U.N. climate report makes clear, cutting carbon pollution everywhere and quickly is an urgent priority. And the Swedish track record suggests that pricing carbon dioxide can help make it happen without hindering economic growth.