Briefly

Stuff that matters


dakota access

In a win for Standing Rock, Seattle just moved to dump Wells Fargo.

A Seattle City Council committee voted 8-0 to divest from the bank, which currently manages $3 billion of the city’s money and is a major funder of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. Hundreds of demonstrators swarmed outside City Hall before the Wednesday morning hearing and erupted in cheers upon learning the outcome.

The bill, which will go to a vote by the full council on Monday, calls for Seattle to find a more socially responsible bank and prohibits the city from investing in Wells Fargo over the next three years. Wells Fargo holds $120 million in a $2.5 billion credit agreement directly financing the construction of the pipeline. If the bill passes, Seattle will be the first major city to divest over Dakota Access.

On Tuesday, the acting secretary of the Army told two members of Congress that he has ordered approval of a final easement necessary to complete construction of the pipeline.

But the anti-pipeline fight continues on multiple fronts. In cities like Seattle, activists aim to apply financial pressure to Dakota Access’ biggest investors. In North Dakota, #NoDAPL organizer LaDonna Brave Bull Allard asked water protectors and their allies to return — seemingly contradicting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request to clear the resistance camps by Jan. 30.


Public vs Private

Puerto Rico will privatize its power utility.

Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced Monday that he will begin the process of selling the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, pending the approval of a federal judge and the island’s legislature.

Before Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on the U.S. territory last September, PREPA was already saddled with $9 billion of debt and aging infrastructure. After the hurricane, the utility came under fire for a series of blunders — from hiring and then firing Whitefish Energy to allegedly hoarding necessary supplies. Today, 30 percent of the island is still without power.

“What we know today is the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority does not work and cannot continue to operate like this,” Governor Rosselló said in a statement.

But not everyone agrees that privatizing PREPA is the best solution. “[It’s] a recipe for Puerto Rico being raked over the coals by private interests,” Tom Sanzillo, director of finance for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told Reuters.

“I’m in Puerto Rico now and it’s not really a surprise, they have been laying the groundwork for this for years,” tweeted journalist Naomi Klein, referring to how ‘disaster capitalism’ lets corporations profit off a society still reeling from a disaster. “The chaos post-storm was the perfect opening.”


sun blocked

The United States will start taxing solar panel imports.

We’d previously mentioned that President Donald Trump hinted at a tariff to “tank the solar industry.” Today, the Administration announced it’s actually doing it. Bloomberg called Trump’s move “the biggest blow he’s dealt to the renewable energy industry yet.”

The starting tax rate on imported solar cells will be 30 percent, but that will decline to 15  percent over the following three years. The United States imports 80 percent of its solar panels, mostly from Malaysia, South Korea, and a few other East Asian countries (where producers moved fleeing President Barack Obama’s levies targeting China). The new tax will likely drive up the price of solar installations in the United States.

However, U.S. solar cell producers had lobbied for the tariff to help them compete. Some have argued that the tax could help domestic solar companies develop superior technology.

Ironically, this is exactly the sort of thing that might have saved Solyndra, the failed solar company that in 2011 became a whipping boy for Republicans critical of Obama’s efforts on renewables. Solyndra was working on a more efficient form of solar cell, but it was swamped by a flood of cheap imported silicon cells.

Now, we have a Republican president interfering with free trade to shelter today’s Solyndras. We’re through the looking glass.


retro-leum

The United States could become the world’s biggest oil producer. It’s been a while.

Spurred by the higher profit margins that come with fracking technology, U.S. oil production is poised to set a record in 2018, potentially passing top oil producers Saudi Arabia and Russia.

For context, the last time we were pulling this much oil out of the ground — in 1970 — the Beatles broke up, the Apollo 13 mission narrowly avoided disaster, the United States invaded Cambodia, and the dot-matrix printer made its debut.

Now we’ve moved on to 3D printers, but we’re still stuck with petroleum technology.

If you count natural gas, the United States has been the biggest oil and gas producer since 2014. While China is now the world’s largest fossil fuels burner and biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States is a (much) larger producer, digging up and selling far more than our share of the problem.


Pipe Up

Opponents mount protests after major natural gas pipeline moves forward.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted the PennEast Pipeline its certificate of public convenience and necessity on Friday, which also allows the company to acquire land through eminent domain.

The proposed $1 billion pipeline would run nearly 120 miles from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and transport up to 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day. Its opponents say it would threaten the health and safety of nearby communities and endanger natural and historic resources. Proponents maintain that the pipeline is an economic boon that will lower energy costs for residents.

After getting the OK from FERC, the company moved up its estimated in-service date to 2019, with construction to begin this year. But it won’t necessarily be an easy road ahead. The pipeline still needs permits from the State of New Jersey, Army Corps of Engineers, and the Delaware River Basin Commission. And while Chris Christie was a big fan of the pipeline, newly elected Governor Phil Murphy ran a campaign promising a green agenda and has already voiced opposition.

Pipeline opponents are demonstrating this afternoon and taking the developers to court. “It’s just the beginning. New Jersey doesn’t need or want this damaging pipeline, and has the power to stop it when it faces a more stringent state review,” Tom Gilbert, campaign director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said in a statement.


workin' hard or hardly workin'

What’s Ryan Zinke been up to lately?

The Secretary of the Interior is always busy, relentlessly shaping the future of our public lands! Let’s check in:

  • Less than a week after the Trump administration announced a controversial offshore drilling draft plan, Zinke announced he was letting Florida opt out (in a tweet, no less.) Ironically enough, the White House isn’t too pleased with Zinke’s missive, and a top official at the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management says Florida is still being considered for offshore drilling. Sorry, Rick!
  • The Huffington Post reports that Zinke owns shares in PROOF Research Inc., a company from his hometown of Whitefish, Montana that makes and sells weapons. Cabinet nominees have to submit assets worth $1,000 or more to the Office of Government Ethics, and the Interior Secretary didn’t disclose these holdings. That said, it’s unclear whether the value of Zinke’s shares exceed the government cap. The major question is whether the connection will benefit PROOF Research, which already had a meeting with Zinke last April.
  • Last but not least, Zinke approved a road through a federal wildlife refuge in Alaska on Monday, connecting a remote community to an all-weather airport. Conservationists say the road jeopardizes fragile wildlife habitats.

That’s all, folks! For now …


mine country

So is coal great again or what?

Early last year, President Donald Trump signed an executive order reversing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. He told the assembled coal miners that the move promised boom times ahead. “You know what this says?” Trump asked. “You’re going back to work.”

Ten months later, the results are mixed. Behold the facts:

  • Jobs gained, jobs lost: Total U.S. coal employment was up about 1.6 percent last year, with most new coal jobs added in Virginia and West Virginia. But preliminary federal data obtained by Reuters shows that nearly two-thirds of coal-producing states reported coal job losses, including Ohio, Kentucky, Montana, Wyoming, and Texas.
  • Closure ahead: About half of the gains in coal jobs will be wiped out if the 4 West Mine in Pennsylvania closes this summer as scheduled, laying off around 400 coal workers.
  • Coal jobs near historic low: Some 50,000 people work in the coal industry, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s roughly one-third of what it was in the late ’80s.
  • More miner deaths: Last year saw 15 workplace-related coal worker deaths, an increase from nine in 2016.
  • Demand still sliding: Thanks to the usual suspects of cheap natural gas and falling costs for solar and wind power, old coal plants are getting less competitive, and U.S. demand for the fuel is decreasing.

One year after Trump was sworn in, his dreams of rolling back environmental policies have come true. But his promise to bring back coal is another story.