Toward agricultural intelligence...Badlands Journal editorial board...3-23-09
One of the Badlands Journal editors mentioned this article months ago but we failed to post it. We're sure, however, that readers that haven't already seen it will recognize Pollan's fine essay as a policy statement worth studying, particularly here in the Valley, where farm and land-use policy are the sacred precincts of the Zombies. (random bolded sections added by BLJ editors)
Badlands Journal editorial board
New York Times
Farmer in Chief ... MICHAEL POLLAN. Michael Pollan, a contributing writer for the magazine, is the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author, most recently, of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.”
Dear Mr. President-Elect,
It may surprise you to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food. Food policy is not something American presidents have had to give much thought to, at least since the Nixon administration — the last time high food prices presented a serious political peril. Since then, federal policies to promote maximum production of the commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat and rice) from which most of our supermarket foods are derived have succeeded impressively in keeping prices low and food more or less off the national political agenda. But with a suddenness that has taken us all by surprise, the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close. What this means is that you, like so many other leaders through history, will find yourself confronting the fact — so easy to overlook these past few years — that the health of a nation’s food system is a critical issue of national security. Food is about to demand your attention.
Complicating matters is the fact that the price and abundance of food are not the only problems we face; if they were, you could simply follow Nixon’s example, appoint a latter-day Earl Butz as your secretary of agriculture and instruct him or her to do whatever it takes to boost production. But there are reasons to think that the old approach won’t work this time around; for one thing, it depends on cheap energy that we can no longer count on. For another, expanding production of industrial agriculture today would require you to sacrifice important values on which you did campaign. Which brings me to the deeper reason you will need not simply to address food prices but to make the reform of the entire food system one of the highest priorities of your administration: unless you do, you will not be able to make significant progress on the health care crisis, energy independence or climate change. Unlike food, these are issues you did campaign on — but as you try to address them you will quickly discover that the way we currently grow, process and eat food in America goes to the heart of all three problems and will have to change if we hope to solve them. Let me explain.
After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent. And while the experts disagree about the exact amount, the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do — as much as 37 percent, according to one study. Whenever farmers clear land for crops and till the soil, large quantities of carbon are released into the air. But the 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. This state of affairs appears all the more absurd when you recall that every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis — a process based on making food energy from sunshine. There is hope and possibility in that simple fact.
In addition to the problems of climate change and America’s oil addiction, you have spoken at length on the campaign trail of the health care crisis. Spending on health care has risen from 5 percent of national income in 1960 to 16 percent today, putting a significant drag on the economy. The goal of ensuring the health of all Americans depends on getting those costs under control. There are several reasons health care has gotten so expensive, but one of the biggest, and perhaps most tractable, is the cost to the system of preventable chronic diseases. Four of the top 10 killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount — from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent. While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda, this has come at a steep cost to public health. You cannot expect to reform the health care system, much less expand coverage, without confronting the public-health catastrophe that is the modern American diet.
The impact of the American food system on the rest of the world will have implications for your foreign and trade policies as well. In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food. Nations that opened their markets to the global flood of cheap grain (under pressure from previous administrations as well as the World Bank and the I.M.F.) lost so many farmers that they now find their ability to feed their own populations hinges on decisions made in Washington (like your predecessor’s precipitous embrace of biofuels) and on Wall Street. They will now rush to rebuild their own agricultural sectors and then seek to protect them by erecting trade barriers. Expect to hear the phrases “food sovereignty” and “food security” on the lips of every foreign leader you meet. Not only the Doha round, but the whole cause of free trade in agriculture is probably dead, the casualty of a cheap food policy that a scant two years ago seemed like a boon for everyone. It is one of the larger paradoxes of our time that the very same food policies that have contributed to overnutrition in the first world are now contributing to undernutrition in the third. But it turns out that too much food can be nearly as big a problem as too little — a lesson we should keep in mind as we set about designing a new approach to food policy.
Rich or poor, countries struggling with soaring food prices are being forcibly reminded that food is a national-security issue. When a nation loses the ability to substantially feed itself, it is not only at the mercy of global commodity markets but of other governments as well. At issue is not only the availability of food, which may be held hostage by a hostile state, but its safety: as recent scandals in China demonstrate, we have little control over the safety of imported foods. The deliberate contamination of our food presents another national-security threat. At his valedictory press conference in 2004, Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, offered a chilling warning, saying, “I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.”
This, in brief, is the bad news: the food and agriculture policies you’ve inherited — designed to maximize production at all costs and relying on cheap energy to do so — are in shambles, and the need to address the problems they have caused is acute. The good news is that the twinned crises in food and energy are creating a political environment in which real reform of the food system may actually be possible for the first time in a generation. The American people are paying more attention to food today than they have in decades, worrying not only about its price but about its safety, its provenance and its healthfulness. There is a gathering sense among the public that the industrial-food system is broken. Markets for alternative kinds of food — organic, local, pasture-based, humane — are thriving as never before. All this suggests that a political constituency for change is building and not only on the left: lately, conservative voices have also been raised in support of reform. Writing of the movement back to local food economies, traditional foods (and family meals) and more sustainable farming, The American Conservative magazine editorialized last summer that “this is a conservative cause if ever there was one.”
There are many moving parts to the new food agenda I’m urging you to adopt, but the core idea could not be simpler: we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine. True, this is easier said than done — fossil fuel is deeply implicated in everything about the way we currently grow food and feed ourselves. To put the food system back on sunlight will require policies to change how things work at every link in the food chain: in the farm field, in the way food is processed and sold and even in the American kitchen and at the American dinner table. Yet the sun still shines down on our land every day, and photosynthesis can still work its wonders wherever it does. If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized, surely it is food.
How We Got Here
Before setting out an agenda for reforming the food system, it’s important to understand how that system came to be — and also to appreciate what, for all its many problems, it has accomplished. What our food system does well is precisely what it was designed to do, which is to produce cheap calories in great abundance. It is no small thing for an American to be able to go into a fast-food restaurant and to buy a double cheeseburger, fries and a large Coke for a price equal to less than an hour of labor at the minimum wage — indeed, in the long sweep of history, this represents a remarkable achievement.
It must be recognized that the current food system — characterized by monocultures of corn and soy in the field and cheap calories of fat, sugar and feedlot meat on the table — is not simply the product of the free market. Rather, it is the product of a specific set of government policies that sponsored a shift from solar (and human) energy on the farm to fossil-fuel energy.
Did you notice when you flew over Iowa during the campaign how the land was completely bare — black — from October to April? What you were seeing is the agricultural landscape created by cheap oil. In years past, except in the dead of winter, you would have seen in those fields a checkerboard of different greens: pastures and hayfields for animals, cover crops, perhaps a block of fruit trees. Before the application of oil and natural gas to agriculture, farmers relied on crop diversity (and photosynthesis) both to replenish their soil and to combat pests, as well as to feed themselves and their neighbors. Cheap energy, however, enabled the creation of monocultures, and monocultures in turn vastly increased the productivity both of the American land and the American farmer; today the typical corn-belt farmer is single-handedly feeding 140 people.
This did not occur by happenstance. After World War II, the government encouraged the conversion of the munitions industry to fertilizer — ammonium nitrate being the main ingredient of both bombs and chemical fertilizer — and the conversion of nerve-gas research to pesticides. The government also began subsidizing commodity crops, paying farmers by the bushel for all the corn, soybeans, wheat and rice they could produce. One secretary of agriculture after another implored them to plant “fence row to fence row” and to “get big or get out.”
The chief result, especially after the Earl Butz years, was a flood of cheap grain that could be sold for substantially less than it cost farmers to grow because a government check helped make up the difference. As this artificially cheap grain worked its way up the food chain, it drove down the price of all the calories derived from that grain: the high-fructose corn syrup in the Coke, the soy oil in which the potatoes were fried, the meat and cheese in the burger.
Subsidized monocultures of grain also led directly to monocultures of animals: since factory farms could buy grain for less than it cost farmers to grow it, they could now fatten animals more cheaply than farmers could. So America’s meat and dairy animals migrated from farm to feedlot, driving down the price of animal protein to the point where an American can enjoy eating, on average, 190 pounds of meat a year — a half pound every day.
But if taking the animals off farms made a certain kind of economic sense, it made no ecological sense whatever: their waste, formerly regarded as a precious source of fertility on the farm, became a pollutant — factory farms are now one of America’s biggest sources of pollution. As Wendell Berry has tartly observed, to take animals off farms and put them on feedlots is to take an elegant solution — animals replenishing the fertility that crops deplete — and neatly divide it into two problems: a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feedlot. The former problem is remedied with fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all.
What was once a regional food economy is now national and increasingly global in scope — thanks again to fossil fuel. Cheap energy — for trucking food as well as pumping water — is the reason New York City now gets its produce from California rather than from the “Garden State” next door, as it did before the advent of Interstate highways and national trucking networks. More recently, cheap energy has underwritten a globalized food economy in which it makes (or rather, made) economic sense to catch salmon in Alaska, ship it to China to be filleted and then ship the fillets back to California to be eaten; or one in which California and Mexico can profitably swap tomatoes back and forth across the border; or Denmark and the United States can trade sugar cookies across the Atlantic. About that particular swap the economist Herman Daly once quipped, “Exchanging recipes would surely be more efficient.”
Whatever we may have liked about the era of cheap, oil-based food, it is drawing to a close. Even if we were willing to continue paying the environmental or public-health price, we’re not going to have the cheap energy (or the water) needed to keep the system going, much less expand production. But as is so often the case, a crisis provides opportunity for reform, and the current food crisis presents opportunities that must be seized.
In drafting these proposals, I’ve adhered to a few simple principles of what a 21st-century food system needs to do. First, your administration’s food policy must strive to provide a healthful diet for all our people; this means focusing on the quality and diversity (and not merely the quantity) of the calories that American agriculture produces and American eaters consume. Second, your policies should aim to improve the resilience, safety and security of our food supply. Among other things, this means promoting regional food economies both in America and around the world. And lastly, your policies need to reconceive agriculture as part of the solution to environmental problems like climate change.
These goals are admittedly ambitious, yet they will not be difficult to align or advance as long as we keep in mind this One Big Idea: most of the problems our food system faces today are because of its reliance on fossil fuels, and to the extent that our policies wring the oil out of the system and replace it with the energy of the sun, those policies will simultaneously improve the state of our health, our environment and our security.
I. Resolarizing the American Farm
What happens in the field influences every other link of the food chain on up to our meals — if we grow monocultures of corn and soy, we will find the products of processed corn and soy on our plates. Fortunately for your initiative, the federal government has enormous leverage in determining exactly what happens on the 830 million acres of American crop and pasture land.
Today most government farm and food programs are designed to prop up the old system of maximizing production from a handful of subsidized commodity crops grown in monocultures. Even food-assistance programs like WIC and school lunch focus on maximizing quantity rather than quality, typically specifying a minimum number of calories (rather than maximums) and seldom paying more than lip service to nutritional quality. This focus on quantity may have made sense in a time of food scarcity, but today it gives us a school-lunch program that feeds chicken nuggets and Tater Tots to overweight and diabetic children.
Your challenge is to take control of this vast federal machinery and use it to drive a transition to a new solar-food economy, starting on the farm. Right now, the government actively discourages the farmers it subsidizes from growing healthful, fresh food: farmers receiving crop subsidies are prohibited from growing “specialty crops” — farm-bill speak for fruits and vegetables. (This rule was the price exacted by California and Florida produce growers in exchange for going along with subsidies for commodity crops.) Commodity farmers should instead be encouraged to grow as many different crops — including animals — as possible. Why? Because the greater the diversity of crops on a farm, the less the need for both fertilizers and pesticides.
The power of cleverly designed polycultures to produce large amounts of food from little more than soil, water and sunlight has been proved, not only by small-scale “alternative” farmers in the United States but also by large rice-and-fish farmers in China and giant-scale operations (up to 15,000 acres) in places like Argentina. There, in a geography roughly comparable to that of the American farm belt, farmers have traditionally employed an ingenious eight-year rotation of perennial pasture and annual crops: after five years grazing cattle on pasture (and producing the world’s best beef), farmers can then grow three years of grain without applying any fossil-fuel fertilizer. Or, for that matter, many pesticides: the weeds that afflict pasture can’t survive the years of tillage, and the weeds of row crops don’t survive the years of grazing, making herbicides all but unnecessary. There is no reason — save current policy and custom — that American farmers couldn’t grow both high-quality grain and grass-fed beef under such a regime through much of the Midwest. (It should be noted that today’s sky-high grain prices are causing many Argentine farmers to abandon their rotation to grow grain and soybeans exclusively, an environmental disaster in the making.)
Federal policies could do much to encourage this sort of diversified sun farming. Begin with the subsidies: payment levels should reflect the number of different crops farmers grow or the number of days of the year their fields are green — that is, taking advantage of photosynthesis, whether to grow food, replenish the soil or control erosion. If Midwestern farmers simply planted a cover crop after the fall harvest, they would significantly reduce their need for fertilizer, while cutting down on soil erosion. Why don’t farmers do this routinely? Because in recent years fossil-fuel-based fertility has been so much cheaper and easier to use than sun-based fertility.
In addition to rewarding farmers for planting cover crops, we should make it easier for them to apply compost to their fields — a practice that improves not only the fertility of the soil but also its ability to hold water and therefore withstand drought. (There is mounting evidence that it also boosts the nutritional quality of the food grown in it.) The U.S.D.A. estimates that Americans throw out 14 percent of the food they buy; much more is wasted by retailers, wholesalers and institutions. A program to make municipal composting of food and yard waste mandatory and then distributing the compost free to area farmers would shrink America’s garbage heap, cut the need for irrigation and fossil-fuel fertilizers in agriculture and improve the nutritional quality of the American diet.
Right now, most of the conservation programs run by the U.S.D.A. are designed on the zero-sum principle: land is either locked up in “conservation” or it is farmed intensively. This either-or approach reflects an outdated belief that modern farming and ranching are inherently destructive, so that the best thing for the environment is to leave land untouched. But we now know how to grow crops and graze animals in systems that will support biodiversity, soil health, clean water and carbon sequestration. The Conservation Stewardship Program, championed by Senator Tom Harkin and included in the 2008 Farm Bill, takes an important step toward rewarding these kinds of practices, but we need to move this approach from the periphery of our farm policy to the very center. Longer term, the government should back ambitious research now under way (at the Land Institute in Kansas and a handful of other places) to “perennialize” commodity agriculture: to breed varieties of wheat, rice and other staple grains that can be grown like prairie grasses — without having to till the soil every year. These perennial grains hold the promise of slashing the fossil fuel now needed to fertilize and till the soil, while protecting farmland from erosion and sequestering significant amounts of carbon.
But that is probably a 50-year project. For today’s agriculture to wean itself from fossil fuel and make optimal use of sunlight, crop plants and animals must once again be married on the farm — as in Wendell Berry’s elegant “solution.” Sunlight nourishes the grasses and grains, the plants nourish the animals, the animals then nourish the soil, which in turn nourishes the next season’s grasses and grains. Animals on pasture can also harvest their own feed and dispose of their own waste — all without our help or fossil fuel.
If this system is so sensible, you might ask, why did it succumb to Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs? In fact there is nothing inherently efficient or economical about raising vast cities of animals in confinement. Three struts, each put into place by federal policy, support the modern CAFO, and the most important of these — the ability to buy grain for less than it costs to grow it — has just been kicked away. The second strut is F.D.A. approval for the routine use of antibiotics in feed, without which the animals in these places could not survive their crowded, filthy and miserable existence. And the third is that the government does not require CAFOs to treat their wastes as it would require human cities of comparable size to do. The F.D.A. should ban the routine use of antibiotics in livestock feed on public-health grounds, now that we have evidence that the practice is leading to the evolution of drug-resistant bacterial diseases and to outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisoning. CAFOs should also be regulated like the factories they are, required to clean up their waste like any other industry or municipality.
It will be argued that moving animals off feedlots and back onto farms will raise the price of meat. It probably will — as it should. You will need to make the case that paying the real cost of meat, and therefore eating less of it, is a good thing for our health, for the environment, for our dwindling reserves of fresh water and for the welfare of the animals. Meat and milk production represent the food industry’s greatest burden on the environment; a recent U.N. study estimated that the world’s livestock alone account for 18 percent of all greenhouse gases, more than all forms of transportation combined. (According to one study, a pound of feedlot beef also takes 5,000 gallons of water to produce.) And while animals living on farms will still emit their share of greenhouse gases, grazing them on grass and returning their waste to the soil will substantially offset their carbon hoof prints, as will getting ruminant animals off grain. A bushel of grain takes approximately a half gallon of oil to produce; grass can be grown with little more than sunshine.
It will be argued that sun-food agriculture will generally yield less food than fossil-fuel agriculture. This is debatable. The key question you must be prepared to answer is simply this: Can the sort of sustainable agriculture you’re proposing feed the world?
There are a couple of ways to answer this question. The simplest and most honest answer is that we don’t know, because we haven’t tried. But in the same way we now need to learn how to run an industrial economy without cheap fossil fuel, we have no choice but to find out whether sustainable agriculture can produce enough food. The fact is, during the past century, our agricultural research has been directed toward the goal of maximizing production with the help of fossil fuel. There is no reason to think that bringing the same sort of resources to the development of more complex, sun-based agricultural systems wouldn’t produce comparable yields. Today’s organic farmers, operating for the most part without benefit of public investment in research, routinely achieve 80 to 100 percent of conventional yields in grain and, in drought years, frequently exceed conventional yields. (This is because organic soils better retain moisture.) Assuming no further improvement, could the world — with a population expected to peak at 10 billion — survive on these yields?
First, bear in mind that the average yield of world agriculture today is substantially lower than that of modern sustainable farming. According to a recent University of Michigan study, merely bringing international yields up to today’s organic levels could increase the world’s food supply by 50 percent.
The second point to bear in mind is that yield isn’t everything — and growing high-yield commodities is not quite the same thing as growing food. Much of what we’re growing today is not directly eaten as food but processed into low-quality calories of fat and sugar. As the world epidemic of diet-related chronic disease has demonstrated, the sheer quantity of calories that a food system produces improves health only up to a point, but after that, quality and diversity are probably more important. We can expect that a food system that produces somewhat less food but of a higher quality will produce healthier populations.
The final point to consider is that 40 percent of the world’s grain output today is fed to animals; 11 percent of the world’s corn and soybean crop is fed to cars and trucks, in the form of biofuels. Provided the developed world can cut its consumption of grain-based animal protein and ethanol, there should be plenty of food for everyone — however we choose to grow it.
In fact, well-designed polyculture systems, incorporating not just grains but vegetables and animals, can produce more food per acre than conventional monocultures, and food of a much higher nutritional value. But this kind of farming is complicated and needs many more hands on the land to make it work. Farming without fossil fuels — performing complex rotations of plants and animals and managing pests without petrochemicals — is labor intensive and takes more skill than merely “driving and spraying,” which is how corn-belt farmers describe what they do for a living.
To grow sufficient amounts of food using sunlight will require more people growing food — millions more. This suggests that sustainable agriculture will be easier to implement in the developing world, where large rural populations remain, than in the West, where they don’t. But what about here in America, where we have only about two million farmers left to feed a population of 300 million? And where farmland is being lost to development at the rate of 2,880 acres a day? Post-oil agriculture will need a lot more people engaged in food production — as farmers and probably also as gardeners.
The sun-food agenda must include programs to train a new generation of farmers and then help put them on the land. The average American farmer today is 55 years old; we shouldn’t expect these farmers to embrace the sort of complex ecological approach to agriculture that is called for. Our focus should be on teaching ecological farming systems to students entering land-grant colleges today. For decades now, it has been federal policy to shrink the number of farmers in America by promoting capital-intensive monoculture and consolidation. As a society, we devalued farming as an occupation and encouraged the best students to leave the farm for “better” jobs in the city. We emptied America’s rural counties in order to supply workers to urban factories. To put it bluntly, we now need to reverse course. We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America — not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security. For nations that lose the ability to substantially feed themselves will find themselves as gravely compromised in their international dealings as nations that depend on foreign sources of oil presently do. But while there are alternatives to oil, there are no alternatives to food.
National security also argues for preserving every acre of farmland we can and then making it available to new farmers. We simply will not be able to depend on distant sources of food, and therefore need to preserve every acre of good farmland within a day’s drive of our cities. In the same way that when we came to recognize the supreme ecological value of wetlands we erected high bars to their development, we need to recognize the value of farmland to our national security and require real-estate developers to do “food-system impact statements” before development begins. We should also create tax and zoning incentives for developers to incorporate farmland (as they now do “open space”) in their subdivision plans; all those subdivisions now ringing golf courses could someday have diversified farms at their center.
The revival of farming in America, which of course draws on the abiding cultural power of our agrarian heritage, will pay many political and economic dividends. It will lead to robust economic renewal in the countryside. And it will generate tens of millions of new “green jobs,” which is precisely how we need to begin thinking of skilled solar farming: as a vital sector of the 21st-century post-fossil-fuel economy.
II. Reregionalizing the Food System
For your sun-food agenda to succeed, it will have to do a lot more than alter what happens on the farm. The government could help seed a thousand new polyculture farmers in every county in Iowa, but they would promptly fail if the grain elevator remained the only buyer in town and corn and beans were the only crops it would take. Resolarizing the food system means building the infrastructure for a regional food economy — one that can support diversified farming and, by shortening the food chain, reduce the amount of fossil fuel in the American diet.
A decentralized food system offers a great many other benefits as well. Food eaten closer to where it is grown will be fresher and require less processing, making it more nutritious. Whatever may be lost in efficiency by localizing food production is gained in resilience: regional food systems can better withstand all kinds of shocks. When a single factory is grinding 20 million hamburger patties in a week or washing 25 million servings of salad, a single terrorist armed with a canister of toxins can, at a stroke, poison millions. Such a system is equally susceptible to accidental contamination: the bigger and more global the trade in food, the more vulnerable the system is to catastrophe. The best way to protect our food system against such threats is obvious: decentralize it.
Today in America there is soaring demand for local and regional food; farmers’ markets, of which the U.S.D.A. estimates there are now 4,700, have become one of the fastest-growing segments of the food market. Community-supported agriculture is booming as well: there are now nearly 1,500 community-supported farms, to which consumers pay an annual fee in exchange for a weekly box of produce through the season. The local-food movement will continue to grow with no help from the government, especially as high fuel prices make distant and out-of-season food, as well as feedlot meat, more expensive. Yet there are several steps the government can take to nurture this market and make local foods more affordable. Here are a few:
Four-Season Farmers’ Markets. Provide grants to towns and cities to build year-round indoor farmers’ markets, on the model of Pike Place in Seattle or the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. To supply these markets, the U.S.D.A. should make grants to rebuild local distribution networks in order to minimize the amount of energy used to move produce within local food sheds.
Agricultural Enterprise Zones. Today the revival of local food economies is being hobbled by a tangle of regulations originally designed to check abuses by the very largest food producers. Farmers should be able to smoke a ham and sell it to their neighbors without making a huge investment in federally approved facilities. Food-safety regulations must be made sensitive to scale and marketplace, so that a small producer selling direct off the farm or at a farmers’ market is not regulated as onerously as a multinational food manufacturer. This is not because local food won’t ever have food-safety problems — it will — only that its problems will be less catastrophic and easier to manage because local food is inherently more traceable and accountable.
Local Meat-Inspection Corps. Perhaps the single greatest impediment to the return of livestock to the land and the revival of local, grass-based meat production is the disappearance of regional slaughter facilities. The big meat processors have been buying up local abattoirs only to close them down as they consolidate, and the U.S.D.A. does little to support the ones that remain. From the department’s perspective, it is a better use of shrinking resources to dispatch its inspectors to a plant slaughtering 400 head an hour than to a regional abattoir slaughtering a dozen. The U.S.D.A. should establish a Local Meat-Inspectors Corps to serve these processors. Expanding on its successful pilot program on Lopez Island in Puget Sound, the U.S.D.A. should also introduce a fleet of mobile abattoirs that would go from farm to farm, processing animals humanely and inexpensively. Nothing would do more to make regional, grass-fed meat fully competitive in the market with feedlot meat.
Establish a Strategic Grain Reserve. In the same way the shift to alternative energy depends on keeping oil prices relatively stable, the sun-food agenda — as well as the food security of billions of people around the world — will benefit from government action to prevent huge swings in commodity prices. A strategic grain reserve, modeled on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, would help achieve this objective and at the same time provide some cushion for world food stocks, which today stand at perilously low levels. Governments should buy and store grain when it is cheap and sell when it is dear, thereby moderating price swings in both directions and discouraging speculation.
Regionalize Federal Food Procurement. In the same way that federal procurement is often used to advance important social goals (like promoting minority-owned businesses), we should require that some minimum percentage of government food purchases — whether for school-lunch programs, military bases or federal prisons — go to producers located within 100 miles of institutions buying the food. We should create incentives for hospitals and universities receiving federal funds to buy fresh local produce. To channel even a small portion of institutional food purchasing to local food would vastly expand regional agriculture and improve the diet of the millions of people these institutions feed.
Create a Federal Definition of “Food.” It makes no sense for government food-assistance dollars, intended to improve the nutritional health of at-risk Americans, to support the consumption of products we know to be unhealthful. Yes, some people will object that for the government to specify what food stamps can and cannot buy smacks of paternalism. Yet we already prohibit the purchase of tobacco and alcohol with food stamps. So why not prohibit something like soda, which is arguably less nutritious than red wine? Because it is, nominally, a food, albeit a “junk food.” We need to stop flattering nutritionally worthless foodlike substances by calling them “junk food” — and instead make clear that such products are not in fact food of any kind. Defining what constitutes real food worthy of federal support will no doubt be controversial (you’ll recall President Reagan’s ketchup imbroglio), but defining food upward may be more politically palatable than defining it down, as Reagan sought to do. One approach would be to rule that, in order to be regarded as a food by the government, an edible substance must contain a certain minimum ratio of micronutrients per calorie of energy. At a stroke, such a definition would improve the quality of school lunch and discourage sales of unhealthful products, since typically only “food” is exempt from local sales tax.
A few other ideas: Food-stamp debit cards should double in value whenever swiped at a farmers’ markets — all of which, by the way, need to be equipped with the Electronic Benefit Transfer card readers that supermarkets already have. We should expand the WIC program that gives farmers’-market vouchers to low-income women with children; such programs help attract farmers’ markets to urban neighborhoods where access to fresh produce is often nonexistent. (We should also offer tax incentives to grocery chains willing to build supermarkets in underserved neighborhoods.) Federal food assistance for the elderly should build on a successful program pioneered by the state of Maine that buys low-income seniors a membership in a community-supported farm. All these initiatives have the virtue of advancing two objectives at once: supporting the health of at-risk Americans and the revival of local food economies.
In the end, shifting the American diet from a foundation of imported fossil fuel to local sunshine will require changes in our daily lives, which by now are deeply implicated in the economy and culture of fast, cheap and easy food. Making available more healthful and more sustainable food does not guarantee it will be eaten, much less appreciated or enjoyed. We need to use all the tools at our disposal — not just federal policy and public education but the president’s bully pulpit and the example of the first family’s own dinner table — to promote a new culture of food that can undergird your sun-food agenda.
Changing the food culture must begin with our children, and it must begin in the schools. Nearly a half-century ago, President Kennedy announced a national initiative to improve the physical fitness of American children. He did it by elevating the importance of physical education, pressing states to make it a requirement in public schools. We need to bring the same commitment to “edible education” — in Alice Waters’s phrase — by making lunch, in all its dimensions, a mandatory part of the curriculum. On the premise that eating well is a critically important life skill, we need to teach all primary-school students the basics of growing and cooking food and then enjoying it at shared meals.
To change our children’s food culture, we’ll need to plant gardens in every primary school, build fully equipped kitchens, train a new generation of lunchroom ladies (and gentlemen) who can once again cook and teach cooking to children. We should introduce a School Lunch Corps program that forgives federal student loans to culinary-school graduates in exchange for two years of service in the public-school lunch program. And we should immediately increase school-lunch spending per pupil by $1 a day — the minimum amount food-service experts believe it will take to underwrite a shift from fast food in the cafeteria to real food freshly prepared.
But it is not only our children who stand to benefit from public education about food. Today most federal messages about food, from nutrition labeling to the food pyramid, are negotiated with the food industry. The surgeon general should take over from the Department of Agriculture the job of communicating with Americans about their diet. That way we might begin to construct a less equivocal and more effective public-health message about nutrition. Indeed, there is no reason that public-health campaigns about the dangers of obesity and Type 2 diabetes shouldn’t be as tough and as effective as public-health campaigns about the dangers of smoking. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in three American children born in 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes. The public needs to know and see precisely what that sentence means: blindness; amputation; early death. All of which can be avoided by a change in diet and lifestyle. A public-health crisis of this magnitude calls for a blunt public-health message, even at the expense of offending the food industry. Judging by the success of recent antismoking campaigns, the savings to the health care system could be substantial.
There are other kinds of information about food that the government can supply or demand. In general we should push for as much transparency in the food system as possible — the other sense in which “sunlight” should be the watchword of our agenda. The F.D.A. should require that every packaged-food product include a second calorie count, indicating how many calories of fossil fuel went into its production. Oil is one of the most important ingredients in our food, and people ought to know just how much of it they’re eating. The government should also throw its support behind putting a second bar code on all food products that, when scanned either in the store or at home (or with a cellphone), brings up on a screen the whole story and pictures of how that product was produced: in the case of crops, images of the farm and lists of agrochemicals used in its production; in the case of meat and dairy, descriptions of the animals’ diet and drug regimen, as well as live video feeds of the CAFO where they live and, yes, the slaughterhouse where they die. The very length and complexity of the modern food chain breeds a culture of ignorance and indifference among eaters. Shortening the food chain is one way to create more conscious consumers, but deploying technology to pierce the veil is another.
Finally, there is the power of the example you set in the White House. If what’s needed is a change of culture in America’s thinking about food, then how America’s first household organizes its eating will set the national tone, focusing the light of public attention on the issue and communicating a simple set of values that can guide Americans toward sun-based foods and away from eating oil.
The choice of White House chef is always closely watched, and you would be wise to appoint a figure who is identified with the food movement and committed to cooking simply from fresh local ingredients. Besides feeding you and your family exceptionally well, such a chef would demonstrate how it is possible even in Washington to eat locally for much of the year, and that good food needn’t be fussy or complicated but does depend on good farming. You should make a point of the fact that every night you’re in town, you join your family for dinner in the Executive Residence — at a table. (Surely you remember the Reagans’ TV trays.) And you should also let it be known that the White House observes one meatless day a week — a step that, if all Americans followed suit, would be the equivalent, in carbon saved, of taking 20 million midsize sedans off the road for a year. Let the White House chef post daily menus on the Web, listing the farmers who supplied the food, as well as recipes.
Since enhancing the prestige of farming as an occupation is critical to developing the sun-based regional agriculture we need, the White House should appoint, in addition to a White House chef, a White House farmer. This new post would be charged with implementing what could turn out to be your most symbolically resonant step in building a new American food culture. And that is this: tear out five prime south-facing acres of the White House lawn and plant in their place an organic fruit and vegetable garden.
When Eleanor Roosevelt did something similar in 1943, she helped start a Victory Garden movement that ended up making a substantial contribution to feeding the nation in wartime. (Less well known is the fact that Roosevelt planted this garden over the objections of the U.S.D.A., which feared home gardening would hurt the American food industry.) By the end of the war, more than 20 million home gardens were supplying 40 percent of the produce consumed in America. The president should throw his support behind a new Victory Garden movement, this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population. Eating from this, the shortest food chain of all, offers anyone with a patch of land a way to reduce their fossil-fuel consumption and help fight climate change. (We should offer grants to cities to build allotment gardens for people without access to land.) Just as important, Victory Gardens offer a way to enlist Americans, in body as well as mind, in the work of feeding themselves and changing the food system — something more ennobling, surely, than merely asking them to shop a little differently.
I don’t need to tell you that ripping out even a section of the White House lawn will be controversial: Americans love their lawns, and the South Lawn is one of the most beautiful in the country. But imagine all the energy, water and petrochemicals it takes to make it that way. (Even for the purposes of this memo, the White House would not disclose its lawn-care regimen.) Yet as deeply as Americans feel about their lawns, the agrarian ideal runs deeper still, and making this particular plot of American land productive, especially if the First Family gets out there and pulls weeds now and again, will provide an image even more stirring than that of a pretty lawn: the image of stewardship of the land, of self-reliance and of making the most of local sunlight to feed one’s family and community. The fact that surplus produce from the South Lawn Victory Garden (and there will be literally tons of it) will be offered to regional food banks will make its own eloquent statement.
You’re probably thinking that growing and eating organic food in the White House carries a certain political risk. It is true you might want to plant iceberg lettuce rather than arugula, at least to start. (Or simply call arugula by its proper American name, as generations of Midwesterners have done: “rocket.”) But it should not be difficult to deflect the charge of elitism sometimes leveled at the sustainable-food movement. Reforming the food system is not inherently a right-or-left issue: for every Whole Foods shopper with roots in the counterculture you can find a family of evangelicals intent on taking control of its family dinner and diet back from the fast-food industry — the culinary equivalent of home schooling. You should support hunting as a particularly sustainable way to eat meat — meat grown without any fossil fuels whatsoever. There is also a strong libertarian component to the sun-food agenda, which seeks to free small producers from the burden of government regulation in order to stoke rural innovation. And what is a higher “family value,” after all, than making time to sit down every night to a shared meal?
Our agenda puts the interests of America’s farmers, families and communities ahead of the fast-food industry’s. For that industry and its apologists to imply that it is somehow more “populist” or egalitarian to hand our food dollars to Burger King or General Mills than to support a struggling local farmer is absurd. Yes, sun food costs more, but the reasons why it does only undercut the charge of elitism: cheap food is only cheap because of government handouts and regulatory indulgence (both of which we will end), not to mention the exploitation of workers, animals and the environment on which its putative “economies” depend. Cheap food is food dishonestly priced — it is in fact unconscionably expensive.
Your sun-food agenda promises to win support across the aisle. It builds on America’s agrarian past, but turns it toward a more sustainable, sophisticated future. It honors the work of American farmers and enlists them in three of the 21st century’s most urgent errands: to move into the post-oil era, to improve the health of the American people and to mitigate climate change. Indeed, it enlists all of us in this great cause by turning food consumers into part-time producers, reconnecting the American people with the American land and demonstrating that we need not choose between the welfare of our families and the health of the environment — that eating less oil and more sunlight will redound to the benefit of both.
Yolo residents protest flood-zone changes...Hudson Sangree
Residents of the town of Yolo were briefed Monday night about changes that will put the entire town in a 100-year flood zone, jacking up insurance rates and restricting construction.
About four dozen residents gathered in the town hall in neighboring Zamora to hear officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Yolo County.
They expressed frustration with the changes to FEMA's flood-zone map that probably will result in higher rates for federal flood insurance as well as requirements that new buildings be elevated above any projected flood levels. The planned changes are scheduled to take effect next year.
Residents also questioned FEMA officials about how their flood risks could be determined without established elevations for individual properties. The officials said the burden would be on property owners to show that their buildings sit above the flood zone.
"This is extremely unfair," said Van Overhouse, an electrical engineer who lives near Yolo.
Lifelong residents of the town – which is four blocks long and has about 400 residents – say it has never flooded and the changes are unnecessary. But FEMA officials said Cache Creek, known for rising quickly during storms, presents a danger. It flows in a steep-sided gully just behind First Street.
The local levees, probably pushed up by farmers in the early part of the 20th century, do not meet current standards, FEMA officials said.
"We're having to put people into a flood zone for your own safety and your own protection," said Jana Critchfield, a flood insurance specialist with FEMA.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA has been on a mission to update and digitize its flood maps, which are used to determine federal flood insurance rates nationwide.
The changes are affecting communities throughout the Sacramento region.
In Yolo County, West Sacramento will be reclassified as having a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year – a 100-year flood zone.
Officials there have embarked on an ambitious and expensive levee improvement project.
FEMA changes will reclassify the small unincorporated communities of Yolo, Knights Landing and Clarksburg as high-risk flood zones.
Residents of those towns say the current FEMA rating of low-to-moderate risk more accurately reflects the fact that their towns have not flooded since levees were constructed decades ago.
Many levees were built by farmers with sand and soil from their fields and sloughs. Narrow and steep-sided to begin with, the levees have eroded and become overgrown with thick coverings of trees, shrubs and grasses.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now requires levees be made of densely packed clay and concrete and to be clear of all vegetation except for mown grasses. The mounds must have gently sloping sides and wide flat areas on top.
Yolo County has approximately 175 miles of levees, none of which meets Army Corps standards, according to county officials.
County planners said the cost of bringing the levees up-to-date could be anywhere from $8 million to $18 million a mile. Recent estimates have been in the range of $15 million a mile, they said.
That, said David Morrison, a county planning official, prohibits upgrading levees around small towns and in rural areas.
He estimated improving the 35 miles of levees near Knights Landing would cost half a billion dollars, with the local share being about 25 percent.
"I don't think the people of Knights Landing have $125 million," he said.
Nevada Irrigation District plans novel project to rid lake of mercury...Cathy Locke
Modern gold-mining technology may be tapped to undo environmental damage caused by Gold Rush-era mining practices that left many Northern California waters tainted with mercury.
The Nevada Irrigation District proposes a pilot project to remove mercury from Lake Combie, a small reservoir on the Bear River that straddles the Placer-Nevada county line between Meadow Vista and Lake of the Pines.
The project will be watched with interest throughout the mercury-laced Gold Country – by water and mining officials as well as by residents who live nearby.
Tim Crough, the district's assistant general manager, said the Combie project would combine dredging with a centrifuge process to "spin" the mercury out of water extracted from the lake.
"It's a pretty novel approach," said Charles Alpers, a research chemist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Sacramento and a consultant for the project.
The work, which could begin in 2010, would remove accumulated sand and gravel that can make boating difficult. But the primary goal, Crough said, is to improve water quality.
The district is seeking grants for the project, which is expected to cost $6 million to $8 million, he said.
During the California Gold Rush, miners used about 6,600 tons of mercury to recover about half that much gold. Heavier particles sank in sluices, but finer mercury particles washed out and became embedded in sediment in streams and lakes.
Until recent years, the mercury deposits were of little concern.
"The thought was that mercury was trapped behind reservoirs, and if you didn't stir it up, it was OK," Crough said. "But it gets stirred up with every storm, and it goes over the dam."
Mercury, which is harmless in its elemental form, is not considered a drinking water hazard, Crough said. But transformed into methylmercury, it is taken up by plants and fish and becomes more toxic as it moves up the food chain.
Methylmercury impairs the nervous system. Women and children are particularly at risk.
The California Environmental Protection Agency in 2003 issued a health advisory after high concentrations of mercury were found in watersheds of the Bear and Yuba rivers, major sites of hydraulic mining. The agency urged limiting consumption of fish from certain Sierra lakes and streams, including Lake Combie.
Rick Humphreys, an engineering geologist with the state Water Resources Control Board, found that suction dredging – a common method of mining sediment from the bottom of a stream or lakebed – is not very effective in removing mercury.
"But nobody's come up with a better mousetrap," he said.
Humphreys said he intends to look closely at the pilot project, which would run the return water through a giant centrifuge, developed for gold mining by Knelson Concentrators of British Columbia, to remove those fine mercury particles.
Chevreaux Aggregates had mined the Lake Combie area for more than 30 years before the 2003 state EPA advisory, Crough said. But the mercury problem must be solved before aggregate mining can resume there.
The presence of the nearby gravel plant, with its sediment basin, makes Lake Combie the ideal test site, Crough said.
But some Meadow Vista residents are wary.
Jeff Evans, a member of the Meadow Vista Municipal Advisory Council, said many residents think the effort has more to do with fostering mining operations than removing mercury.
Louis Sigmond, council chairman, said, "It seems like a very noble experiment … but I'm not sure if it's good for Meadow Vista."
Sigmond said concerns center on truck traffic and air pollution. Unless those issues are resolved, he said, the project faces community opposition.
U.S. home sales surge
Biggest jump in six years; price fall seen lingering...Staff and wire reports. Record staff writer Bruce Spence contributed to this report.
Sales of previously occupied homes jumped unexpectedly in February by the largest amount in nearly six years as first-time buyers took advantage of deep discounts on foreclosures and other distressed properties.
Economists said sales, while still at levels not seen since 1997, may finally be coming back to life after declining sharply following the stock market plunge last autumn.
Prices, however, are expected to keep falling well into the year. Tens of thousands of homes remain tied up in the foreclosure process and are not yet for sale. Plus, as the recession deepens and job losses mount, many buyers are likely to stay on the sidelines.
"The four-letter word in the housing market is 'jobs,' " said Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. "If you're worried about having a job tomorrow, you're not likely to buy a home now."
The National Association of Realtors said Monday that sales of existing homes grew 5.1 percent to an annual rate of 4.72 million last month, from 4.49 million units in January.
It was the largest monthly sales jump since July 2003, with first-time buyers accounting for about half of all transactions. Sales had been expected to dip to an annual pace of 4.45 million units, according to Thomson Reuters. The results, which came after a steep decline in January, mean that sales activity has returned to December's levels but still remains lower than most of last year.
"If January was a disaster for housing, February may be the rebound month," wrote Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors.
Sales of existing homes in San Joaquin County actually have been on a slide for several months, though sales numbers remain relatively high because of ever-dropping prices for foreclosure properties.
Sales have declined since December, mostly because many foreclosures have been delayed by voluntary foreclosure moratoriums by lenders and a state law that beginning last fall that requires lenders to at least attempt to contact homeowners to try to modify a loan before proceeding with foreclosure.
Stockton real estate brokers said they are expecting sales to jump again next month, though, because of an expected wave of backlogged foreclosure properties that had been delayed only by the moratoriums and the state law.
Sales countywide have declined from 1,214 in December to 819 last month. The median sales price also slipped, from $165,000 to $152,000 in the same span, according to figures from Coldwell Banker Grupe-Trendgraphix monthly sales reports, based on Multiple Listing Service data.
Sales of previously occupied homes in the Western United States climbed in February, as low mortgage rates and cheap foreclosed properties drew in many first-time buyers and investors,.
A total of 68,000 existing homes and condos were sold in February in the 13-state region. Sales were up 24 percent from the same month last year, without adjusting for seasonal factors, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Sales of foreclosed homes helped drag down the region's overall median home sales price by about 19 percent to $269,900, the association said.
The national sales figures don't yet reflect the new $8,000 tax credit designed to lure even more first-time buyers into the market. That should juice up early summer sales, but how much will depend on the overall condition of the U.S. economy.
"If the economy stabilizes around midyear and financial conditions improve, then sales will probably begin to slowly increase as buyers step back into the market," JPMorgan Chase analyst Abiel Reinhart wrote. "An important reason for this is that affordability has already increased sharply, both as a result of lower prices and lower mortgage rates."
The median sales price nationally plunged to $165,400, down 15.5 percent from $195,800 a year earlier. That was the second-largest drop on record and prices are off 28 percent from their peak in July 2006.
However, in a positive sign, seller asking prices are starting to rise in places like San Diego and Orange County, where declines have been severe, said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the Realtors. That could be an early indication that prices are stabilizing in the most distressed parts of the country.
Meanwhile, in contrast with the housing boom, when buyers took out ever-riskier loans and maxed out their home equity lines, "home buyers are not over stretching" Yun said. "They want to stay within their budget."
The number of unsold homes on the market last month rose 5.2 percent to 3.8 million, a typical increase for the winter months. At February's sales pace, it would take 9.7 months to rid the market of all of those properties.
"Inventories are still high relative to sales rates, and would probably be even more so if all those wishing to sell their home actually had the house on the market instead of pulling it off in the face of rapidly eroding prices," wrote Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR Inc.
Record Staff Writer Bruce Spence contributed to this report.
Sellers don't want to compete with foreclosures that have swamped the market, especially in California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona.
About 45 percent of sales nationwide are foreclosures or other distressed property sales, which typically sell at a 20 percent discount, according to the Realtors group.
That's great news for buyers, who are paying the most attractive prices in years. Plus, interest rates have sunk to historic lows.
The Federal Reserve last week moved to reduce already low rates by printing $1.2 trillion and pumping it into the economy through the purchases of mortgage-backed securities and Treasury debt.
The central bank also will double its purchases of debt issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to $200 billion.
Delta officials to state legislators: Remember us...Alex Breitler
SACRAMENTO - Officials from five Delta counties asked legislators Monday to remember the people who live and work in the estuary as lawmakers embark on what is expected to be a crucial year for the Delta.
Speaking to a new Delta stewardship committee headed by state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, San Joaquin County leaders said locals must figure prominently in whatever plan emerges on how to manage the Delta.
"We feel this is possibly historic that the five of us have been able to get together and agree on as much as we have," San Joaquin County Supervisor Larry Ruhstaller said.
The five-county coalition, which formed in 2008, called for the Delta to be recognized as a place and not merely as a water supply or an ecosystem.
Wolk - who has a similar viewpoint - introduced a series of water bills last month, including one that would create a Delta conservancy, a flexible tool that she believes would protect agriculture, increase recreation and public access, promote tourism and help the environment.
Another Wolk bill would establish a stewardship council to balance water supply, environment and the needs of the people of the Delta.
No fewer than 200 agencies have been involved in managing the Delta in the past, a cumbersome governance structure that many feel has contributed to the deterioration of the environment and unreliable water supplies for two-thirds of California.
A state Cabinet-level Delta Vision committee said in a December report that more discussion was needed on long-term governance before a final decision could be made. The same report, however, said ground could be broken for a peripheral canal in 2011.
Wolk and others criticized the state for pushing a canal without legislative or voter approval, and without a clear governance system in place.
Mike McGowan, a Yolo County supervisor, asked legislators Monday to understand that there are "real people who live in the Delta."
"We are not whining," he said. "We are trying to tell you that there are things in the Delta that are very near and dear to our hearts. ... We do not want you to forget about us."
Those who live, work or play in the Delta worry that large-scale habitat restoration plans could wipe out farmland and that a canal would divert fresh water around the Delta, worsening water quality.
The legislative process is just beginning; at least five multibillion-dollar water bonds have been introduced, along with other bills to address how the Delta is governed.
At Monday's hearing, Wolk thanked the officials from San Joaquin, Yolo, Contra Costa, Solano and Sacramento counties.
"I thought it was very important for people to hear your voices and to hear your voices together," she said.
San Francisco Chronicle
AP source: EPA closer to global warming warning...H. JOSEF HEBERT, Associated Press Writer. Associated Press writer Ben Feller contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Environmental Protection Agency has taken the first step on the long road to regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.
Politicians and the public, business and industry will have to weigh in along the way, but for now a proposed finding by the EPA that global warming is a threat to public health and welfare is under White House review.
The threat declaration would be the first step to regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act and could have broad economic and environmental ramifications. It also would probably spur action by Congress to address climate change more broadly.
The White House acknowledged Monday that the EPA had transmitted its proposed finding on global warming to the Office of Management and Budget, but provided no details. It also cautioned that the Obama administration, which sees responding to climate change a top priority, nevertheless is ready to move cautiously when it comes to actually regulating greenhouse gases, preferring to have Congress act on the matter.
The Supreme Court two years ago directed the EPA to decide whether greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, pose a threat to public health and welfare because they are warming the earth. If such a finding is made, these emissions are required to be regulated under the Clean Air Act, the court said.
"I think this is just the step in that process," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, noting the Supreme Court ruling. Another White House official, speaking anonymously in deference to Gibbs, predicted "a long process" before any rules would be expected to be issued on heat-trapping emissions.
But several congressional officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity because the draft declaration had not been made public — said the transmission makes clear the EPA is moving to declare carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases a danger to public health and welfare and views them as ripe for regulation under the Clean Air Act.
Such a finding "will officially end the era of denial on global warming," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., whose Energy and Commerce subcommittee is crafting global warming legislation. He said such an endangerment finding is long overdue because of the Bush administration's refusal to address the issue.
The EPA action "signals that the days of ignoring this pressing issue are over," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., whose Senate committee is working on a climate bill.
Many business leaders argue — as did President George W. Bush — that the Clean Air Act is ill-suited to deal with climate change and that regulating carbon dioxide would hamstring economic growth.
"It will require a huge cascade of (new clean air) permits" and halt a wide array of projects, from building coal plants to highway construction, including many at the heart of President Barack Obama's economic recovery plan, said Bill Kovacs, a vice president for environmental and technology issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Abigail Dillen, an attorney for the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, which is involved in a number of lawsuits challenging permits for new coal plants, dismissed the dire economic warnings from business groups about carbon dioxide regulation.
"It's to their interest to say the sky is falling, but it's not," she said. "The truth is we've never had to sacrifice air quality to maintain a healthy economy. The EPA has discretion to do this in a reasonable way."
An internal EPA planning document that surfaced recently suggests the agency would like to have a final endangerment finding by mid-April. But officials have made clear actual regulations are unlikely to come immediately and would involve a lengthy process with public comment.
Gibbs, when asked about the EPA document Monday, emphasized that "the president has made quite clear" that he prefers to have the climate issue addressed by Congress as part of a broad, mandatory limit on heat-trapping emissions.
But environmentalists said the significance of moving forward with the long-delayed endangerment issue should not be understated.
"This is historic news," said Frank O'Donnell, who heads Clean Air Watch, an advocacy group. "It will set the stage for the first-ever national limits on global warming pollution and is likely to help light a fire under Congress to get moving."
On the Net: Environmental Protection Agency: www.epa.gov/
Exxon Valdez, 20 years later...Carl Pope. Carl Pope is the executive director of Sierra Club, the nation's oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of one of the worst environmental disasters in history, the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
After two decades, the memory of the spill persists for the commercial fishermen and Alaska natives whose livelihoods were destroyed by Exxon's recklessness. Sadly, the oil persists, too: A 2007 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study showed that 26,600 gallons of crude oil from the spill are still lingering below the surface of Alaska's beaches.
What has the oil industry learned since the spill? Not much. Oil spills are still a regular occurrence. Just weeks ago, a tanker off the coast of Australia crashed, spilling more than 50,000 gallons of oil and shutting local fisheries.
Here in the Bay Area, memories of the 2007 Cosco Busan spill are still fresh: Oil slicked birds, blackened beaches, and a stifled crab season.
It's not just tanker accidents that pour oil into our oceans, threatening to destroy fisheries and the coastal economies that rely on them.
Since 1993, U.S. offshore drilling has sent an average of 47,800 barrels of oil a year into the sea, according to data from the Minerals Management Service. Offshore drilling platforms are particularly vulnerable to storms: The Coast Guard estimates that roughly 9 million gallons of oil were spilled during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita alone.
Contrary to what the oil industry would like us to believe, there is no effective method for cleaning up an oil spill. And where there are tankers and offshore drilling, there always will be spills.
Instead of opening the door to more Exxon-style disasters with expanded offshore drilling, we should be embracing the clean energy solutions that will keep our beaches and marine life safe.
More offshore drilling will do nothing to lower gas prices or create energy independence. It will only add to the billions of dollars that oil industry executives have raked in year after year.
Fortunately, the Obama administration understands that Americans want clean energy and the jobs that come with it, not more bloated oil industry profits.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that his agency will be working to develop more of our nation's clean energy resources. Salazar is also allowing expanded public scrutiny for the offshore drilling plan that President George W. Bush pushed through in his waning days in office.
On April 16, Salazar will hold a public hearing on offshore drilling here in San Francisco.
Bay Area residents who care about California's coasts should let Salazar know that we support the administration's commitment to renewable energy, and that we want to leave the drill-everywhere days of the Bush administration behind us.
Contra Costa Times
Will Sharp Park Golf Course become a nature preserve?...Julia Scott
PACIFICA — The peace and quiet of Sharp Park Golf Course seemed surreal Monday in contrast with the controversy surrounding it.
Golfers teed off without seeming to know that their days on the course could be numbered.
Disagreement over the future of the golf course, located in Pacifica but owned and maintained by San Francisco, ruptured into a public schism last week when two members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors offered differing visions for managing the property — including an option to close the golf course and transform it into a wildlife preserve to protect two threatened species, the California red-legged frog and the San Francisco garter snake.
The Center for Biological Diversity has threatened to sue the city over what they call abuses to both species, but it agreed this winter to hold its fire if the city would negotiate a phased solution.
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi's legislation asks city staff members to draft legislation exploring a couple of alternatives, one of which involves developing a restoration plan for the golf course and the rest of city property in Pacifica, including an archery range and a former rifle range that is slated for cleanup.
The legislation also asks city staff members to look into transferring the land to the National Park Service or jointly managing the property with the agency, which raises the possibility of shrinking the golf course or transforming it into a 400-acre park with managed wetlands.
Mirkarimi requested that the legislation consider both maintaining the golf course and eliminating it.
Mirkarimi's move prompted fellow Supervisor Sean Elsbernd to introduce a last-minute, one-page riposte directing the City Attorney's Office to look into declaring the golf course a historic landmark. The course was designed by well-known golf course architect Alister MacKenzie, who also built Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia.
Reached by telephone on Monday, Elsbernd was quick to predict that neither his nor Mirkarimi's language will ever turn into actual legislation. However, the discussion will "precipitate stronger negotiations" between the Center for Biological Diversity and the city's Recreation & Park Department.
"Do I genuinely believe it will be landmarked? No. One side is throwing a bookmark down, I'm throwing down another," said Elsbernd, who said he would "fight" to retain the public 18-hole golf course. "Golf and the environment are not mutually exclusive. They can work together, and I have every expectation that we can make that happen."
San Francisco has been studying how to divest itself of many of its golf courses, most of which are losing money. Pacifica has fought hard to retain the golf course, an important indirect source of tourist income. Pacifica officials have even offered to take over management of the golf course, an offer that San Francisco has declined.
"Our bottom line has always been that it remains a golf course and we're willing to do whatever we can to see that happen," said Pacifica City Manager Stephen Rhodes.
Both San Francisco and Pacifica argue that Sharp Park is marginally profitable, although the Center for Biological Diversity disputes that.
Longtime Sharp Park golfer David Diller, president of the Sharp Park Golf Club, does not like the idea that he and his fellow golfers may be an endangered species themselves. Flooding on the course, a seasonal occurrence, has partially closed the 14th fairway, and existing protections for red-legged frogs prevent pumping the water out when the frogs are laying their eggs in the spring.
"There's always this misconception that if you're pro-golf you're anti-environment — but nothing could be farther than the truth," Diller said. "(Sharp Park) has been there for over 70 years. If we're doing such a terrible job, why are there still San Francisco garter snakes and red-legged frogs?"
At $12 for seniors and $20 for residents of San Francisco or Pacifica, Sharp Park has long been touted as one of the most affordable public golf courses in the area — an important consideration for golfers on a fixed income and residents on a budget.
On a Web site devoted to Sharp Park, www.restoresharppark.org, the Center for Biological Diversity calls for transforming the "exclusive, underused and budget-breaking golf course" into a series of wetlands with trails, a visitor center and camping and picnic zones. The costs are not discussed, although Jeff Miller, an advocate with the center, thinks that such an epic project would easily attract state and federal dollars.
"Our position is that the best use of the site is to close the golf course," he said. "We're certainly willing to hear if the Recreation & Park Department thinks that it can keep the golf course or keep a portion of it open while addressing the endangered species problem."
SF court to hear Wal-Mart appeal in case on discrimination against women...Bay City News Service
SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) An 11-judge federal appeals court panel will hear arguments in San Francisco this afternoon on whether to allow a class action lawsuit against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. on behalf of more than 1.5 million women nationwide.
If the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allows a class, or group, lawsuit, the case would be the largest civil rights class action in U.S. history.
The case would be handled in a federal trial court in San Francisco, where six women filed the original lawsuit in 2001.
The lawsuit claims the discount department store chain discriminates against female employees in pay and promotion.
Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., is the world's largest private employer. The proposed class is estimated at between 1.5 million and 2 million women who worked at Wal-Mart stores since 1998.
The company is appealing a ruling in which a three-judge penal of the appeals court ruled by a 2-1 vote in 2007 to allow a class action.
Wal-Mart has claimed in court papers that it doesn't discriminate and that a class action would be inappropriate because job decisions are made by individual managers.
Company attorneys wrote in a brief submitted to the court that treating the case as a class action would be "unprecedented, unworkable, unconstitutional and unlawful.''
Last week, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a brief weighing in on the side of the plaintiffs in support of a class action
Lawyers for the federal agency wrote that class actions have "proved to be an important tool for ensuring that individuals injured by systemic discrimination may obtain redress.''
The panel is expected to take the case under submission at the end of a one-hour hearing and issue a written ruling at a later day. Its decision could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Los Angeles Times
Construction firm probed in leveling of Long Beach salt marsh
The city has issued a stop-work order against 2H Construction after crews allegedly graded 10 acres near the Los Cerritos Wetlands. The firm was operating without proper permits, an official said...Louis Sahagun
A Signal Hill construction company has come under investigation for leveling 10 acres of salt marsh, dumping asphalt and unearthing a former city dump near the Los Cerritos Wetlands at the mouth of the San Gabriel River.
Long Beach officials Friday issued a stop-work order against 2H Construction, after residents complained that the company was tearing up wetlands. Long Beach City Manager Pat West said 2H was operating without appropriate permits while it was preparing the land for construction of a soccer field.
On Monday morning, an egret stood in the center of the barren parcel amid bulldozer tracks and mounds of toppled palm trees and refuse on the eastern edge of the Los Cerritos Wetlands. An osprey was perched on a lone post where vegetation once grew.
"What was green with trees and nesting birds is now muck devoid of vegetation," said Elizabeth Lambe, executive director of the nonprofit Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust. "We're angry that our laws could be violated like this with impunity."
Sean Hitchcock, president of 2H Construction, bought the land less than a month ago, city officials said. On Monday, he was on vacation and not available for comment, according to a company spokesman who declined to comment."Right now, there are more questions than answers," said Long Beach City Councilman Gary De Long, whose district includes the property. "What happened here? How did it happen? Exactly what rights does the developer have?"
The conflict is the latest chapter in a decade-long effort to restore the Los Cerritos Wetlands, an active oil field flanked by supermarkets, a movie theater, motels and power plants that also is a sanctuary for wildlife.
Tiger beetles and horned snails burrow in its salt flats and brackish ponds. The endangered Belding's sparrow flits through carpets of pickle weed. Waterways teem with fish, and their edges are criss-crossed with the tracks of coyotes and raccoons.
A century ago, the wetlands stretched over 2,400 acres. Today, state officials call the remaining 400 acres a "degraded wetlands."
The area gained attention two years ago when a federal judge tossed out local developer Tom Dean's environmental impact report on a proposal to build a 16.5-acre Home Depot Design Center retail complex on the east side of the wetlands.
Dean recently sold several nearby acres to Hitchcock, according to city officials.
Thomas Marchese, vice president of the University Park Estates Neighborhood Assn., vowed to fight to protect the site from development. "We already have lots of soccer fields in Long Beach," he said, "but not a lot of wetlands."
The price of greenhouse gases
As White House officials weigh issuing a finding that climate change endangers public health, foes of greenhouse gas regulations are ignoring the cost of doing nothing...Editorial
President Bush's greatest crime against the environment was his refusal to regulate greenhouse gases. The Obama administration is reportedly wasting little time righting that wrong.
Quoting unnamed sources, the Washington Post reported Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency has sent the White House a preliminary finding that climate change is endangering public health and welfare. If this is cleared by the Office of Management and Budget and finalized by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, it would lay the groundwork for national regulation of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases. That would have an impact on the economy, though whether positive or negative is a matter of debate.
Firmly focused on the downside is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has long argued that a climate-change crackdown would devastate Main Street America, imposing costly permitting requirements on such facilities as schools, hospitals and office buildings. Reacting to news of the pending EPA finding, chamber officials are even claiming that it would undermine President Obama's economic stimulus package because infrastructure projects to be built with the money would be delayed by reviews of their impact on greenhouse gases.
Not really. The EPA finding would apply only to emissions from vehicles. If the agency does find that they endanger the public, it would add urgency to a process that's already underway to toughenfuel-efficiency standards. Eventually, it might also lead to regulation of emissions from other sources, particularly power plants. But that's years away, and onerous rules for schools and offices are unlikely. As for the stimulus money, most or all will be spent by the time the EPA gets around to regulating new construction.
Left unmentioned by the chamber, and other groups opposing strong government measures to fight climate change, is the fact that the EPA is obliged by both law and science to take action. In 2007, the Supreme Court ordered the EPA to issue a ruling on whether greenhouse gases were endangering the public; if so, it would be forced under the Clean Air Act to do something about it. With no scientific basis to claim that global warming isn't harmful -- doing so would contradict the EPA's own findings -- the Bush administration's only recourse was to stall. So it avoided making a decision while running out the clock.
There will be winners and losers in the clean-energy economy, and those who stand to lose have the loudest voices inthe U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The winners won't just be green-technology innovators; they include everybody on Earth. The EPA should issue an endangerment finding, and Congress should quickly pass new laws that impose a price on greenhouse gases.
EPA Halts Hundreds of Mountaintop Mining Permits...DINA CAPPIELLO, The Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency put hundreds of mountaintop coal-mining permits on hold Tuesday, saying it wants to evaluate the projects' impact on streams and wetlands.
The decision, announced by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, targets a controversial practice that allows coal mining companies to dump waste from mountaintop mining into streams and wetlands.
It could delay 150-250 permits being sought by companies wanting to begin blasting mountaintops to access coal.
Those permits are issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, an agency that has been criticized by environmental groups and has been sued for failing to thoroughly evaluate the environmental impact of mountaintop removal.
Under the Clean Water Act, companies cannot discharge rock, dirt and other debris into streams unless they can show that it will not cause permanent damage to waterways or the fish and other wildlife that live in it.
Last month, a three-judge appeals panel in Richmond, Va., overturned a lower court's ruling that would have required the Corps to conduct more extensive reviews. The appeals court decision cleared the way for a backlog of permits that had been delayed until the lawsuit was resolved.
The EPA's action on Tuesday leaves those permit requests in limbo a little longer.
"If the EPA didn't step in and do something now, all those permits would go forward," said Joe Lovett, executive director for the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment. "There are permits that will bury 200 miles of streams pending before the Corps."
Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said further delays in the permits would cost the region high-paying jobs. "This is very troubling, not only for jobs in the region, but production of coal generally," said Raulston.
In a separate action, the EPA recommended denying two permits the Army Corps of Engineers was planning to issue that would allow two companies to fill thousands of feet of streams with mining waste in West Virginia and Kentucky.
In letters sent Monday to the Corps' office in Huntington, W.Va., the EPA said that Central Appalachia Mining and Highland Mining Co. have not done enough to avoid and minimize damage to water quality and stream channels.
In the case of the Highland Mining's plans, which would fill in approximately 13,174 feet of stream in Logan County, W.Va., the agency said it believes the project "will result in substantial and unacceptable impacts to aquatic resources of national importance."
On the Net: EPA Wetlands Site:http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands
EPA Presses Obama To Regulate Warming Under Clean Air Act...Juliet Eilperin
The Environmental Protection Agency's new leadership, in a step toward confronting global warming, submitted a finding that will force the White House to decide whether to limit greenhouse gas emissions under the nearly 40-year-old Clean Air Act.
Under that law, EPA's conclusion -- that such emissions are pollutants that endanger the public's health and welfare -- could trigger a broad regulatory process affecting much of the U.S. economy as well as the nation's future environmental trajectory. The agency's finding, which was sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget without fanfare on Friday, also reversed one of the Bush administration's landmark decisions on climate change, and it indicated anew that President Obama's appointees will push to address the issue of warming despite the potential political costs.
In 2007, the Supreme Court instructed the Bush administration to determine whether greenhouse gases should be regulated under the Clean Air Act, but last July, then-EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson announced that the agency would instead seek months of public comment on the threat posed by global-warming pollution.
Interest groups and experts across the ideological spectrum described the EPA's proposal yesterday as groundbreaking. But while environmentalists called it overdue and essential to curbing dangerous climate change, business representatives warned that it could hobble the nation's economic recovery.
"This is historic news," said Frank O'Donnell, who heads the environmental watchdog group Clean Air Watch. "It will set the stage for the first-ever national limits on global-warming pollution. And it is likely to help light a fire under Congress to get moving."
But William L. Kovacs, vice president of environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said an effort to regulate greenhouse gases based on the EPA's scientific finding "will be devastating to the economy."
"By moving forward with the endangerment finding on greenhouse gases, EPA is putting in motion a set of decisions that may have far-reaching unintended consequences," he said. "Specifically, once the finding is made, no matter how limited, some environmental groups will sue to make sure it is applied to all aspects of the Clean Air Act."
The White House emphasized that the administration is simply fulfilling its legal obligations and will still press for a legislative solution to the question of curbing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
"The president has made clear that to combat climate change, his strong preference is for Congress to pass energy security legislation that includes a cap on greenhouse gas emissions," said White House spokesman Ben LaBolt. "The Supreme Court ruled that the EPA must review whether greenhouse gas emissions pose a threat to public health or welfare, and this is simply the next step in what will be a long process that engages stakeholders and the public."
OMB spokesman Kenneth Baer did not give a specific timeline for when the White House will decide on how to proceed.
Johnson's action came in rejection of his scientific and technical staff's recommendation. In December 2007, the EPA staff wrote the White House to urge that the agency be allowed to make the finding that global warming threatens human health and welfare, but senior White House officials rejected that proposal on the grounds that the Clean Air Act was not the best way to deal with climate-change issues.
Since then, however, federal officials have provided additional rationales for such a finding. Last month, Howard Frumkin, who directs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Environmental Health, testified before a Senate committee that the CDC "considers climate change a serious public health concern" that could accelerate illnesses and deaths stemming from heat waves, air pollution, and food- and water-borne illnesses.
But even those who support cutting greenhouse gases warn that doing so under the Clean Air Act could be complicated. "This would be a regulatory maze far exceeding anything we've seen before," said David Schoenbrod, a professor of environmental law at the New York Law School.
While the EPA's finding is not final, experts steeped in the Clean Air Act began debating yesterday what it would mean for utilities, vehicles, manufacturing plants and consumers. Kovacs predicted it could halt many of the projects funded under the just-passed economic recovery package. "This will mean that all infrastructure projects, including those under the president's stimulus initiative, will be subject to environmental review for greenhouse gases," he said.
EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy said in a statement that if the administration goes ahead with the proposal, it will be subject to public hearings and comment before becoming final, adding that it "does not propose any requirements on any sources of greenhouse-gas emissions" and "does not impose any new regulatory burdens on any projects, let alone those funded" under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said the EPA's proposal would allow the administration to tackle climate change if Congress does not limit carbon emissions through legislation. He added that even if the EPA were forced to regulate greenhouse gases, it would target emissions from coal-fired power plants and then vehicles -- which combined account for about half of the nation's global-warming pollution -- before requiring smaller operations to apply for new emissions permits.
"The way I see it, it's, in case of legislative gridlock, break open the Clean Air Act," Weiss said. "It's a backup option, not ideal, but it's a way to make progress on emissions reductions."
EPA rules under the Clean Air Act aren't the way to do the job. But a carefully crafted tax might be...Editorial
THE ENVIRONMENTAL Protection Agency has told the White House that global warming is endangering public health and welfare, The Post's Juliet Eilperin reported yesterday. This "finding" under the Clean Air Act may seem like a no-brainer, given the potential ill effects of climate change. But that law, enacted in 1970, was never intended to deal with greenhouse gases and is not suited to that task. The Bush administration's failure to tackle climate change directly drove states and environmental advocates to seek back-door paths to regulation. If this one goes forward, the EPA would have to regulate greenhouse gases from all sources, including cars, houses and commercial buildings. This would create what Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) has called "a glorious mess." Congress should avert it putting a price on carbon.
Such a market-based solution could be accomplished either through a tax or, as the Obama administration supports, by setting a cap on greenhouse gas emissions and having polluting companies pay for the right to emit. Mr. Obama's budget anticipates collecting $645.7 billion over the next 10 years from such a cap-and-trade regime. But such a complex system would take time to develop and institute, even if Congress supports it. Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel, two EPA enforcement attorneys for more than 20 years in the agency's San Francisco office and writing as private citizens, released a paper last month advocating a "carbon fee" because, they argue, a cap-and-trade system "will not insure a competitive price advantage for clean energy over fossil fuel energy in the near future." Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, supports cap-and-trade. But when we asked him whether opponents of a carbon tax were right in saying that a tax would not guarantee emissions reductions, Mr. Pachauri said no. "If you rationally design the tax, you could meet the carbon emissions reduction goals," he said, because it "should lead to a shift to other sources of energy or other technologies that reduce energy use efficiently."
Yes, we know. A carbon tax is a politically unpalatable solution for some. But it has advantages over a complex trading system and should be considered. And either a carbon fee or cap-and-trade would be far superior to bureaucratic regulation under the Clean Air Act.
New York Times
The Fight Plan for Clean Air ...KATE GALBRAITH and FELICITY BARRINGER
The Environmental Protection Agency, about to declare heat-trapping gases to be dangerous pollutants, has embarked on one of the most ambitious regulatory challenges in history.
The move is likely to have a profound effect across the economic spectrum, affecting transportation, power plants, oil refineries, cement plants and other manufacturers.
It sets the agency on a collision course with carmakers, coal plants and other businesses that rely on fossil fuels, which fear that the finding will impose complex and costly rules.
But it may also help the Obama administration’s efforts to push through a federal law to curb carbon dioxide emissions by drawing industry support for legislation, which many companies see as less restrictive and more flexible than being monitored by a regulatory agency. And it will lay a basis for the United States in the negotiations leading up to a global climate treaty to be signed in Copenhagen in December.
Once made final, the agency’s finding will pave the way for federal regulation of carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping gases linked to global warming.
In practical terms, the finding would allow quick federal regulation of motor vehicle emissions of heat-trapping gases and, if further actions are taken by the E.P.A., it could open the doors for regulatory controls on power plants, oil refineries, cement plants and other factories.
On Friday, the E.P.A. sent its finding to the Office of Management and Budget for review, according to a Web site that lists pending federal rules. Once the budget office clears the finding, it can be signed by the E.P.A.’s administrator, Lisa P. Jackson. There is also likely to be a public comment period on the proposed finding, but there is wide expectation that it will be put in place.
Some policy makers greeted the agency’s action as the first step in a new approach to climate change.
“This finding will officially end the era of denial on global warming,” Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who leads a select committee on global warming, said in a statement.
But Bill Kovacs, a specialist on global warming issues with the United States Chamber of Commerce, said that an endangerment finding would automatically provoke a tangle of regulatory requirements for businesses large and small.
If finalized, the finding by the agency could lead to a vast extension of its reach. Much is unknown about the details of what the E.P.A. is proposing, including how stringently the agency would regulate the emissions and how it would go about doing so.
But in February, Ms. Jackson indicated she was aware the agency could be stepping into a minefield by issuing such a finding. “We are poised to be specific on what we regulate and on what schedule,” she said at the time. “We don’t want people to spin that into a doomsday scenario.”
Experts said Monday that the E.P.A.’s action would put pressure on Congress to pass federal legislation that could supplant the agency’s plan or guide how it was carried out. A federal bill is preferred by many environmentalists and policy makers, as well as by industry.
John D. Walke, a senior lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he welcomed the agency’s decision but hoped it would ultimately lead to federal legislation.
“For some period we may have parallel efforts of Environmental Protection Agency pursuing or even adopting regulation while the eventual main show will be in Congress,” Mr. Walke said.
Still, many doubt that legislation to cap emissions can pass this year, in the midst of a recession and at a time when carbon dioxide emissions are down because production is lower.
The E.P.A.’s move is the latest in a flurry of proposals that signal its determination to break from the Bush administration, which infuriated environmentalists by sidestepping the issue of regulating heat-trapping gases.
Earlier this month, the agency proposed creating a greenhouse-gas emissions registry, which would require industries — including oil refineries and cement makers, as well as utilities and pulp and paper manufacturers — to report how much pollution they were emitting.
The endangerment proposal is another step. In 2007, the Supreme Court ordered the E.P.A. to determine whether carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases qualified as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Ms. Jackson, the agency’s administrator, suggested to The New York Times in February that she hoped to act on emissions of heat-trapping gases by early April, before the second anniversary of the court’s ruling.
The Bush administration had stalled in complying with the court order, opting for more study of the issue, although there was wide consensus among E.P.A. experts that a determination that carbon dioxide was a danger to the public was supported by scientific research.
Asked about the E.P.A.’s move, the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, emphasized the importance of going through Congress. “The way to deal with greenhouse gases,” Mr. Gibbs said, “is to work with Congress in order to put together a plan that deals with this and creates a market for renewable energy.”
There are several reasons that there is a widespread preference for a legislative “cap-and-trade” approach to regulating carbon dioxide emissions, as opposed to E.P.A. regulation.
A central reason, said Paul Bledsoe of the National Commission on Energy Policy, is that Congressional action is less subject to litigation and could not be easily overturned by a new administration.
But a deeper concern among the industry is that regulation by the E.P.A. is a blunt tool. The agency’s regulatory powers have previously been applied mainly to pollutants that do damage on a regional level, like nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons.
By contrast, carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping gases that the E.P.A. proposes to regulate do harm on a global scale.
“The act does not deal well with an emission that’s virtually ubiquitous and travels through the atmosphere,” said Carol Raulston, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, a coal industry group.
Environmentalists in a Clash of Goals...FELICITY BARRINGER
WHITEWATER CANYON, Calif. — As David Myers scans the rocky slopes of this desert canyon, looking vainly past clumps of brittlebush for bighorn sheep, he imagines an enemy advancing across the crags.
That specter is of an army of mirrors, generators and transmission towers transforming Mojave Desert vistas like this one. While Whitewater Canyon is privately owned and protected, others that Mr. Myers, as head of the Wildlands Conservancy, has fought to preserve are not.
To his chagrin, some of Mr. Myers’s fellow environmentalists are helping power companies pinpoint the best sites for solar-power technology. The goal of his former allies is to combat climate change by harnessing the desert’s solar-rich terrain, reducing the region’s reliance on carbon-emitting fuels.
Mr. Myers is indignant. “How can you say you’re going to blade off hundreds of thousands of acres of earth to preserve the Earth?” he said.
As the Obama administration puts development of geothermal, wind and solar power on a fast track, the environmental movement finds itself torn between fighting climate change and a passion for saving special places.
The conflict began playing out almost a decade ago in places like Cape Cod, Mass., where a plan to place 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound has pitted energy-conscious environmentalists against local residents who fear harm to aquatic life and the view.
It has spread west to Mojave-area locales like flatland near the Ivanpah Valley, 130 miles northeast of here, where a proposal to install three clusters of 50,000 solar mirrors has prompted anxiety over the fate of endangered tortoises.
Terry Frewin, a local Sierra Club representative, said he had tough questions for state regulators. “Deserts don’t need to be sacrificed so that people in L.A. can keep heating their swimming pools,” Mr. Frewin said.
For traditional environmentalists, industrial intrusions have always been anathema. They have fought such encroachment since John Muir opposed the dam that inundated the Hetch Hetchy Valley next to Yosemite almost a century ago. Similar opposition governs today’s campaign against drilling in parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
At a national level, that strategy is meshing with support for new policies intended to change how electricity is generated, how cars are made and how people live. “It’s not enough to say no to things anymore,” said Carl Zichella, a Sierra Club expert on renewable power. “We have to say yes to the right thing.”
So environmentalists like Mr. Zichella and Johanna Wald, a lawyer and longtime ecowarrior at the Natural Resources Defense Council, have joined an industry-dominated advisory group that makes recommendations to California regulators on where renewable-energy zones should be created.
“We have to accept our responsibility that something that we have been advocating for decades is about to happen,” Ms. Wald said. “My job is to make sure that it happens in an environmentally responsible way.”
The nation’s new interior secretary, Ken Salazar, called this month for a task force to map potential energy sites. To counter those efforts, Mr. Myers has proposed that Congress put hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land in the Mojave Desert off limits as a national monument. The monument would stretch from Joshua Tree National Park to the National Park Service’s Mojave Preserve and would include the Sleeping Beauty Mountains.
The domain would encompass 960 square miles that the Wildlands Conservancy donated to the federal Bureau of Land Management for safekeeping plus a few hundred more.
Last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, also proposed a national monument to protect much of the same land.
“I’m a strong supporter of renewable energy and clean technology, but it is critical that these projects are built on suitable lands,” said Mrs. Feinstein, who heads a subcommittee that oversees the Interior Department budget.
There is particular urgency to the hunt for renewable-energy sites in California. A 2006 state law requires utilities to produce 20 percent of the California’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
The goal is already a stretch, experts say, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to increase it to 33 percent. Getting there will mean rapid construction of plants and power lines.
To balance that goal against guarding the habitat of endangered species like the desert tortoise, Mr. Zichella, Ms. Wald and other environmentalists have shuttled between Sacramento, San Francisco and desert communities to learn about the specifics of power grids, solar technologies and desert ecosystems.
They are not always greeted warmly.
“We’re environmentalists,” said Jim Harvey, whose Association for a Responsible Energy Policy represents a coalition of activists in the Mojave area. “These people, who are supposed to be sitting next to us, are sitting across from us.”
Mr. Harvey’s group says that rooftop solar panels could be vastly expanded in heavily populated areas around Los Angeles. With energy conservation that would make desert clusters of solar plants unnecessary, it says.
Mr. Zichella and others counter that a wide embrace of expensive rooftop panels will be slow in coming. “The most prudent course is not to put all our renewable eggs in one basket,” Mr. Zichella wrote recently.
A reconciliation between the two environmental camps seems likely. As national and state targets mandate more and more renewable-energy projects, many say, environmentalists will have an incentive to work jointly to broker solutions with politicians and the energy industry.
“We are learning and understanding the trade-offs between things, and they are hard,” said Pam Eaton, deputy vice president of the public lands campaign of the Wilderness Society, who has been working to bridge gaps between environmentalists.
“You’ve got the short-term impact of a project versus a long-term problem, which is climate change,” Ms Eaton said.
In the Mojave, the biggest fight centers on high-voltage lines that are needed to reach areas where energy will be produced. The likely spots are separated from customers by two large national park properties, several wilderness areas and military bases like the Twenty Nine Palms Marine Corps reservation.
Finding a route for a project called Green Path North, which traverses those installations, fragile ecosystems and angry communities, has been difficult. One path “goes right between my house and the mountains,” Mr. Harvey said.
That is the kind of strife that Mr. Zichella and Ms. Wald are trying to ease.
Aware that internal debate is unavoidable, Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, suggests a greater effort to balance competing priorities.
“What you have to do,” Mr. Pope said, “is show that you’ve done the best job you can.”