Expanded environmental study for Merced Irrigation District dam might force higher water flows...JONAH OWEN LAMB
Two dams on the Merced River may be forced to flow a little more in line with Mother Nature if changes in their licensing go through.
Merced Irrigation District's two dams -- the New Exchequer and McSwain, whose licenses expire in 2014 -- could be forced to release more water because of their cumulative impacts on endangered fish downstream.
Both were licensed in 1964.
In April, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which licenses dams, issued a document that could massively expand the environmental study area required for the relicensing. Now it may reach all the way to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. If the studies find that the dams hurt endangered fish populations, MID may be forced to release more water to keep those fish healthy.
The commission document expands the impact area of the dams north to the Sacramento Delta because of endangered fish species.
"At this time, we have tentatively identified the upper and lower Merced River, including the San Joaquin River, between confluences with the Merced and Sacramento rivers as our geographic scope of analysis for federally listed species," noted the report.
The commission document also concluded that the direct impacts of MID's two dams are to some degree limited by a diversion dam, the Crocker-Huffman, which lies downstream from both. Nonetheless, it reported that "the project may contribute to a cumulative impact downstream."
MID's initial scoping document, which set the geographic area that MID wanted to fall into the environmental impact study, intended to limit the scope to the immediate environs of its project.
Dan Pope, MID's general manager, said he isn't surprised by the expansion in the federal scoping. Still, he believes that cumulative environmental issues shouldn't be included in the dam relicensing.
"We have some stewardship responsibilities and accept those," he said.
MID has cooperated for years with fishery agencies. But if these changes are part of the final license, he said, MID would lose water. "It's possible that we would be required to release more water," he said.
Environmental groups, while hoping for the change, won't count the report's findings as a victory until they see what precisely will be studied in any environmental impact report.
Chris Shutes, project director for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said the federal expansion of the study area for ecological impacts is promising.
"I would consider it possibly a small step forward," he said.
But that doesn't mean the final environmental study will include the far-reaching impacts of the dams on endangered species, water quality or fish, he said. It remains to be seen whether the endangered steelhead on the Merced River and other factors will be taken into consideration in the dam relicensing.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, salmon and steelhead runs on the Merced River are 10 percent below average.
Letter: Tatum should go...GEORGE JERCICH, Snelling
Editor: Columnist Tom Frazier's April 18 article shows that even the critics of Merced County authorities simply don't get it.
The Sun-Star's eye on the county's chief executive officer, Dee Tatum, his planned retirement, certain supervisor's entreaties for him to reconsider, his retraction thereof, his Planada land deal, his wife's pay raise, an editorial stating he was hiding behind his public information officer, his salary increases from 2001 to 2009 and the county's well-established history of being close lipped about significant matters -- supported by written policy -- are not parade-type material. Rather, they nearly all smack of impropriety on the part of Tatum and mafioso tactics by the county -- nothing less.
When a problem formerly came up with personnel under Tatum, his words were to the effect: he didn't poke his nose in certain tents. To which I say, Mr. Tatum, as CEO of the county, you are responsible for everything your people do and do not do. He clearly doesn't get it either.
It's time for Tatum to go, now. And for the three to four moral supervisors we have to realize and act on the fact there are many under them who are moral manure.
Jobs, housing data undermine hopes...Martin Crutsinger, The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Worse-than-expected news on unemployment and home sales Thursday dampened optimism that a broad economic recovery might be near.
Many analysts don't expect the housing slide to show signs of stabilizing until the second half of this year. They said layoffs may be at their high point, but that the jobless rate, already at a 25-year high, will keep rising until the middle of 2010.
The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial claims for unemployment compensation rose to a seasonally adjusted 640,000 last week, up from a revised 613,000 the previous week. That was slightly more than analysts' expectations of 635,000.
Meanwhile, the National Association of Realtors said sales of existing homes fell 3 percent in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.57 million units, with February revised down to 4.71 million units. Sales had been expected to fall to an annual rate of 4.7 million units, according to Thomson Reuters.
The best reading of the new data is that late last year's alarming free-fall is coming to an end, analysts said "The economic downturn remains intense, but it is no longer intensifying," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com. "We are still falling, but we are no longer crashing."
Zandi said the weekly number of new applications for unemployment benefits, a key measure of layoffs, has begun to level off at a very high point. The unemployment rate, however, will keep rising for the rest of this year and into 2010 since it measures layoffs and the ability of new entrants into the labor market to find a job, he added.
On the housing front, IHS Global Insight economist Patrick Newport is still forecasting further declines in construction, sales and prices. He expects existing home sales will bottom out in the second half of this year, partly reflecting a significant improvement in affordability.
IHS forecasts unemployment, currently at a 25-year high, will peak at 10.2 percent in the spring and summer of next year, Newport said. The latest jobless claims data suggest the unemployment rate for April will jump to 8.9 percent with employers cutting another 625,000 jobs. That report will be released May 8.
Fresno tightens its rules for watering
Council nixes daytime irrigation amid drought....Russell Clemings
The drought strikes home for Fresno residents this summer as a result of tightened water use rules adopted Thursday by the Fresno City Council.
With the city facing reduced supplies from the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the council unanimously voted to bar all daytime outdoor irrigation. At present, outdoor watering is allowed between 8 and 11 a.m. on designated days, based on address.
The newly revised rules also require that a bucket be used for car-washing, although a hose with a shut-off nozzle can be used for what the rules term a "quick rinse."
The restrictions are mandatory and take effect immediately. There are fines for noncompliance, but first-time violators receive just a warning, officials said.
Strict as they might be, the restrictions are nowhere near as severe as those contemplated in February, before a series of winter storms boosted the likely federal water allocations, said Lon Martin, assistant public utilities director.
At that time, the Bureau of Reclamation was warning that the city might get only 25% of what its contract calls for. Now, the projection is for an 85% allotment. Those ups and downs led Martin to call the current drought "the most volatile water year on record."
The city gets much of its drinking water from wells. But it relies on federal water, typically delivered from Millerton Lake, to serve one-third of the city and refill the area's groundwater reservoir.
The goal of the rule changes is to reduce water use by 20%. That is in line with Gov. Schwarzenegger's Feb. 27 drought declaration asking cities to step up water conservation by enough to cut water use by 20%.
Fresno residents were already subject to bans on outdoor watering from 6 to 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily between March 2 and Nov. 30.
Under the new rules, residents can water only between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. In addition, homes with odd-numbered addresses may water only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Homes with even-numbered addresses may water only on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
There was one piece of good news. Martin said that the city's federal water supply may yet increase but is unlikely to drop, at least for the coming summer.
"I think it's a low probability we're going to have a reduction in our water supply for the rest of this year," he said.
In other action, the City Council:
* Authorized $1.3 million in repairs to two failed gas turbine engines, which generate electricity at the Fresno-Clovis sewage treatment plant.
* Agreed to apply for federal stimulus money to build two sewer systems. One application for $897,167 would serve the old Herndon town in northwest Fresno; the other for $400,000 would serve 80 homes along Fountain Way and Marty, Cortland and Gentry avenues in west-central Fresno.
* Tentatively agreed to buy 3.6 acres on the west side of H Street north of Monterey Street for $642,564 from the Union Pacific Railroad. The land will be used for a storage tank and other equipment intended to improve downtown water service. Homeless people now camping on the site are to be moved through a joint effort of the city and railroad.
* Took no action from its closed-session discussion of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum. Council members went behind closed doors because the city may sue the museum. The city in 2007 guaranteed a $15 million bank loan to The Met for a renovation project. The loan is due in June, and museum officials have said they don't have the money to repay it.
FAA makes public its airplane-bird strike data...MICHAEL J. SNIFFEN,The Associated Press
WASHINGTON The Federal Aviation Administration has made good on its promise to release for the first time, records of where and when airplanes have struck birds over the last 19 years.
The disclosures come thanks largely to pressure after the dramatic ditching of a US Airways jet in the Hudson River after bird strikes knocked out both its engines in January.
The FAA published the data on the Internet. It lists details for more than 89,000 incidents since 1990, including 28 cases since 2000 when a collision with a bird or other animal such as a deer on a runway was so severe that the aircraft was considered destroyed.
The data shows that since 2000, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York reported at least 30 accidents where damage was either substantial or the plane was actually destroyed. Sacramento International Airport in California reported at least 28 such accidents.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Federal Aviation Administration has made good on its promise to release for the first time, records of where and when airplanes have struck birds over the last 19 years.
The disclosures come thanks largely to pressure after the dramatic ditching of a US Airways jet in the Hudson River after bird strikes knocked out both its engines in January.
The FAA published the data on the Internet. It lists details for more than 89,000 incidents since 1990, including 28 cases since 2000 when a collision with a bird or other animal such as a deer on a runway was so severe that the aircraft was considered destroyed.
The data shows that since 2000, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York reported at least 30 accidents where damage was either substantial or the plane was actually destroyed. Sacramento International Airport in California reported at least 28 such accidents.
California adopts low-carbon fuel standard...Kevin Yamamura
California became the first state in the nation Thursday to mandate carbon-based reductions in transportation fuels in an attempt to cut the state's overall greenhouse gas emissions
The California Air Resources Board approved a phased-in reduction starting in 2011, with a goal of shrinking carbon impacts 10 percent by 2020. Fuel producers could comply in different ways, such as providing a cleaner fuel portfolio, blending low-carbon ethanol with gasoline or purchasing credits from other clean-energy producers.
California's low-carbon fuel standard could lead to a national measure under President Barack Obama, as well as shape how the transportation sector evolves. But businesses and oil industry critics warned that the air board was moving too quickly and that its action would lead to higher costs for consumers in a recessionary economy.
Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols hailed the low-carbon fuel standard as a major step in moving the nation away from oil dependence and toward alternative fuels that generate lower greenhouse gas emissions.
"By changing the way we think about fuels and requiring them all to be lower carbon, I think we are now finally creating an opportunity for other types of advanced transportation to compete on a level playing field," Nichols said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked the air board in 2007 to consider a low-carbon fuel standard as way to meet the state's overall goal of cutting greenhouse gases 25 percent by 2020, as mandated by a 2006 law.
As California water wars heat up, GOP congressmen say there's no real shortage...Rob Hotakainen
WASHINGTON – As the politics of water grow more intense on Capitol Hill, Republican Rep. Tom McClintock is skeptical that there's really a shortage in California, even though the governor has declared a drought emergency.
"Don't forget we have the most water-rich region in the state," said McClintock, a newcomer on the House Natural Resources Committee, who represents California's 4th Congressional District. "And yet our communities are in … drought alerts, not because of a shortage of water, but because of water that the environmental regulations allow us to use."
It is becoming a common refrain for some Republicans in Washington: California's drought is human-made and could be resolved easily if government focused more on people, less on smelt.
Republican Rep. Wally Herger of California's 2nd District called it a "regulatory drought" that has been intensified by the Endangered Species Act.
And Republican Rep. George Radanovich of California's 19th District assailed "the draconian regulations that turn simple fish into the worshipful gods of the environmental community" while ignoring the rights of people.
"We need the government to protect the safety and happiness of people, not fish," he said.
As Congress considers whether to ease federal pumping restrictions in response to California's situation, there are signs that patience is wearing thin.
On Friday, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of Visalia went so far as to call for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's resignation.
"When a government can't provide the people access to a reliable source of water, it has failed," said Nunes. "This government has utterly failed, and Governor Schwarzenegger should resign from office."
Lester Snow, director of California's Department of Water Resources and a Schwarzenegger appointee, called Nunes' statement "ridiculous" and said such talk "comes from people who have not been helpful" in responding to the state's water crisis.
"Instead of people throwing darts or making statements, we need help," Snow said. "And that's what we expect from Congress, and that's what we expect from the new administration."
On Tuesday, the state launched a "Save Our Water" public education program (you can read about it at www.saveourH2O.org), and the governor urged all Californians to participate.
"With a drought, court-ordered water restrictions and an increasing population, the time for action is now," Schwarzenegger said. "Making sure Californians have the water we need to keep our economy strong and our people working has never been more critical.
"This is what the 'Save Our Water' campaign is all about, and I encourage all Californians to be a part of the solution."
Among the ideas: Every California household should save 20 gallons of water a day for 20 days as a way to respond to the state's drought emergency. Suggestions include filling your bathtub halfway or less, turning off the water when brushing your teeth, reducing lawn watering and running the dishwasher only when it's full.
"We're at a point in California where saving water helps save jobs," Snow said.
McClintock is not impressed with the state's approach.
"The great leaders of the past recognized that government's responsibility was to produce an abundance of water," he said. "There's only so much that people can cut back before it begins to have a dramatic impact on our economy, starting with agriculture. … These are ways to manage a shortage that has been artificially created by government regulation and obstruction of new water projects."
McClintock called for a "top-to-bottom review" of all environmental regulations that he said are now consuming half of the state's water supply. And he said that easing federal pumping restrictions is "absolutely essential," adding: "The question comes down to a very simple choice between people and fish."
Many Democrats in Congress say they would oppose efforts to ease pumping restrictions.
"Easing up on the pump restrictions at this point would only speed the rate at which the Delta is failing," said Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento. "Why would we do that?"
Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson, who represents parts of Yolo County and the coastal north state, said he understands the frustration of farmers who are facing tough times because of drought conditions. But he said easing the pumping restrictions would not make sense.
"For the last three years, fishing families in my district and up and down the states of California and Oregon have faced similar problems because the salmon fishing seasons have been canceled due to drought and poor water management," he said. "If you ease federal pump restrictions, you will conversely place additional hardship on the fishing and farming families of California and Oregon. Before we start changing the plumbing of the Delta, we need to make sure there's a strong management strategy in place so there's a clear path forward."
One thing that would help California, Snow said, is more money from Washington.
The Obama administration already is promising to send $260 million in stimulus funds to California to help alleviate the drought.
March new home sales down 0.6 pct...AP Real Estate Writer
WASHINGTON -- The government says new U.S. home sales dipped slightly last month, but still beat expectations as builders start to see long-awaited encouraging signs about the housing market.
The Commerce Department said Friday that sales fell 0.6 percent in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 356,000 from an upwardly revised February rate of 358,000. February's results were adjusted upward by more than 6 percent.
March's results exceeded the expectations of economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters who expected a sales pace of 340,000 units. Sales were still down nearly 31 percent from March 2008.
Vote assures changes for Rubicon Trail
Hundreds attend meeting; closing route at times a possibility...Dana M. Nichols
RANCHO CORDOVA - Regional water pollution regulators Thursday ordered El Dorado County and the U.S. Forest Service to make big changes in coming years in how they operate the Rubicon Trail, possibly even closing the recreational Jeep road at times during wet weather or forcing users to pack out their excrement.
The Rubicon Trail is the nation's most famous four-wheel-drive recreational trail, a boon to tourism in the region and a constant source of controversy because of the otherwise pristine mountain forests through which it passes. Hundreds of people - too many for the meeting room - turned out for Thursday's hearing at Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board headquarters in Rancho Cordova.
The unanimous vote by the seven-member Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control board does not tell the Forest Service and the county exactly how to prevent water pollution from use of the trail, but it does set deadlines in the next year or so for the two entities to come up with various plans for preventing contamination to mountain streams and lakes from the human feces, motor oil and eroded soil left behind by use of the popular trail.
The order also requires forest and county officials to at least consider closing the trail during times when rain or snowmelt make the trail particularly soft and vulnerable, as the Eldorado National Forest already does for nearby dirt roads over which it has full control.
That proposal is the most controversial element of the order, prompting fear on the part of recreationists who have driven the trail for generations and hope for trout anglers and other environmentalists hoping to protect area streams from being clogged with silt and pollutants.
"It was the worst unchecked erosion I've seen in my 37-year career with the Forest Service," Rich Platt, a retired Eldorado National Forest resource officer, said of erosion he witnessed along the Rubicon Trail. Platt testified as part of a panel of conservation groups advocating in favor of adopting the order and also urging the board to toughen it to include mandatory trail closures during wet weather.
Motorized recreation advocates said the photographs and other evidence presented by board staff and conservationists exaggerates the extent of the damage.
"The trail, in its context, blends into the forest nicely," said Randy Burleson, president of the Rubicon Trail Foundation.
Although authorities have known for years of problems along the trail, progress has been slow in part because no governmental entity wants to claim responsibility.
Unlike most unpaved roads that cross National Forest land, it is not controlled by the Forest Service. That's because El Dorado County in 1887 designated it a highway under a now-obscure law passed in 1866. El Dorado County officials also say that though it is designated a roadway, they never accepted it as a road that they would maintain.
Yet El Dorado County officials in recent years have worked with a variety of groups, including the Friends of the Rubicon Trail and the Rubicon Trail Foundation, to repair damage. And Forest Service rangers often patrol the road.
Regional board staffers say the county and Forest Service need to cooperate fully with each other.
"What we are doing is giving them a timeline," said Wendy Wyels, environmental program manager for the regional board.
Rubicon Trail Order
The cleanup and abatement order approved Thursday by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board requires El Dorado County and the Eldorado National Forest to:
• Make a plan for preventing sediment runoff from the trail during times when rain or snowmelt have saturated the soil. That plan might include temporarily closing the trail to motorized vehicles.
• Negotiate with each other to fully define each entity's responsibilities on the trail, including who will provide adequate law enforcement.
• Accurately count the number of people and vehicles using the trail and come up with a long-term management plan for protecting water quality, including plans for removing human waste from along the trail, enforcing the use of kits to clean up oil spills and finding a way to pay the costs by charging fees or selling permits to trail users.
Repos ripple through S.J.'s economy
Fewer default notices in county, while California sets new records...Bruce Spence...4-23-09
Mortgage default notices went out at a record pace throughout California in the first quarter of this year, according to a new report from RealtyTrac, an Irvine-based foreclosure listing service.
But not in San Joaquin County, which has long been in the forefront of foreclosure activity in the state. In the Stockton metro area, the number of default notices sent out last quarter dropped 9.2 percent, although the total number of notices remained high.
DataQuick President John Walsh attributed the increase to the result of the recession and of lenders playing catch-up after a temporary lull in foreclosure activity because of voluntary lender moratoriums and a new state law took effect requiring lenders to take added steps aimed at keeping troubled borrowers in their homes.
Last quarter's statewide total of 135,431 default notices was an all-time high for any quarter in DataQuick's statistics, which for defaults go back to 1992.
Terry Hull, whose Stockton-based family business Property Management Experts manages apartment complexes, duplexes, triplexes and rental homes from Elk Grove to Fresno, said he thinks foreclosure activity may be slower in the Stockton-area because this region got hit earlier and harder than most areas in California.
"Maybe it's a little better, but it's all relative," he said. "We're still worse off than a lot of the rest of the world."
Numbers from RealtyTrac showed that repossessions by lenders dropped sharply in San Joaquin County, from 2,470 in the fourth quarter of 2008 to 1,871 in the first three months of this year. That mirrors anecdotal reports from Stockton-area real estate brokers and agents who say that the number of new foreclosures has slowed in the past few months at a time when sales remain high.
An expected increase in new foreclosure properties hitting the market has yet to materialize, brokers report.
JPMorgan Chase Bank spokesman Gary Kishner said he doesn't know why foreclosure activity would be slowing in this area.
The bank was one of several big lenders that imposed a voluntary foreclosure moratorium. The bank's moratorium ran from October through December. Chase, which last fall swallowed up Washington Mutual, has been aggressively trying to improve the foreclosure scene by getting struggling homeowners to contact the bank before they get to mortgage default.
"I couldn't tell you why because San Joaquin County has been the troubled child in the state," he said. "I hope it is because of our increased efforts in trying to reach out to people before they get into trouble."
Home sales rise in county
But figures down in U.S....Staff and wire reports
First-time home buyers looking for bargains snapped up about half of all homes sold last month, but the spring selling season is getting off to a lackluster start with sales falling more than expected from February levels.
In San Joaquin County, existing home sales jumped almost 19 percent, from 888 in February to 1,056 in March, according to figures from the latest Grupe Real Estate-Trendgraphix monthly sales report, based on Multiple Listing Service data.
Foreclosure properties continued to dominate the residential market in the county, selling so well that the number of houses on the market plunged last month as sales jumped.
The median sales price continued to slip in the county, sliding from $152,000 in February to $149,000 last month, the report said.
Home sales nationally fell 3 percent to an annual rate of 4.57 million in March month from a downwardly revised pace of 4.71 million units in February, the National Association of Realtors said Thursday.
Sales had been expected to fall to an annual pace of 4.7 million units, according to Thomson Reuters.
The results were "a little disappointing" given that homes are more affordable than they've been in years and mortgage rates are near record lows, said Lawrence Yun, the group's chief economist.
The median sales price in March was $175,200, a plunge of 12.4 percent from a year ago but higher than February's median price of $168,200. While median sales prices typically rise slightly in early spring, the 4 percent monthly increase was larger than expected.
Yun also pointed to a strong sales recovery in Western cities, where prices have plunged the most. He said the rest of the country could start to see sales improve by early summer.
As unemployment grows and fallout from the mortgage crisis continues, foreclosures and distressed sales are dominating the market - especially in California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona. The Realtors group estimates that about half of sales nationwide are from foreclosures or other distressed property sales.
Sales, while plummeting compared with last year in most of the country, were up by 23 percent in the West from a year ago, without adjusting for seasonal factors. For distressed Western cities, "this is a sharp recovery," Yun said.
Real estate agents are getting calls from first-time buyers looking to take advantage of a new $8,000 tax credit. And that should give a boost to sales figures for early summer.
The number of unsold homes on the market at the end of March fell 1.6 percent from a month earlier to 3.7 million. But due to the slumping sales pace, it would still take almost 10 months to rid the market of all of those properties.
Stockton bank further restricted by Fed...Reed Fujii
STOCKTON - Federal bank regulators have reached agreement with Bank On It Inc., the holding company that owns Community Bank of San Joaquin, limiting its ability to pay dividends, take on additional debt or redeem shares of its stock.
The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco announced the settlement Thursday, which set a goal "to maintain the financial soundness of (Bank On It) so that the company may serve as a source of strength to the bank."
"Essentially, all they're saying is the holding company, to the extent that it can, should provide capital support to the bank," said Jane Butterfield, chief executive of Community Bank.
The settlement - which can be found at www.federalreserve.gov and by clicking on What's New - says Bank On It must get the Fed's written approval to pay dividends, pay interest or principal on certain securities, take on new debt or purchase shares of its stock. It also must provide annual cash flow projections and quarterly progress reports to the regulators.
The settlement will have little effect on bank and holding company operations, Butterfield said.
"We've never paid a cash dividend, so that's not a problem for us," she said. And, she added, "We don't intend to take on any additional debt."
The bank has worked to clean up its books since a routine examination in May triggered concerns at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and California Department of Financial Institutions.
As previously reported, those agencies in December issued a cease and desist order requiring Community Bank to be more aggressive about identifying potential problem loans, restructuring loans or seizing collateral.
The Federal Reserve's action this week is more of a follow-up to the earlier order and applies to the holding company rather than the bank, Butterfield said.
Under the gun in 2008, Community Bank set aside $5.7 million in loan loss reserves last year, which created an operating loss of more than $5 million. After some tax benefits, it recorded a net loss last year of just under $3 million.
The regulatory scrutiny has "not been pleasant," Butterfield added, but has pushed the bank to strengthen its finances.
"We're making progress," she said, "So, when the day is done, that's the most important thing."
The Stockton-based bank, founded in November 1999, has two branch offices in the city.
San Francisco Chronicle
Congress warned about new climate change plan...Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Hearst Newspapers
Leaders from Dow Chemical Co. and other U.S. manufacturers joined labor unions Thursday in pleading with Congress to insulate U.S. jobs and industry when the lawmakers write new climate change rules.
At issue is the energy proposal advanced by Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, which is designed to spur renewable energy production and combat climate change. Its centerpiece is a cap-and-trade program, under which power plants and other businesses could comply with new limits on carbon dioxide emissions by buying allowances to spew the pollutant blamed for global warming.
Rich Wells, Dow's vice president for energy, told lawmakers that they must carefully design any cap-and-trade program to ensure that U.S. manufacturers are not put at a disadvantage against competitors in countries without similar emissions limits. If lawmakers aren't careful, they "will fail to protect American jobs in the manufacturing sector," Wells told the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Tom Conway, the international vice president of the United Steel Workers, said lawmakers must "ensure that the jobs that exist today in energy-intensive industries are not lost," either because U.S. companies move manufacturing operations overseas to less restrictive countries or because the American firms lose business to international competitors.
There is a "critical need to mitigate the competitive disadvantage that will be placed on these industries," Conway said.
Energy-intensive industries that could face higher costs under any cap-and-trade plan include paper mills in the Pacific Northwest, oil refiners in Texas, and Rust Belt steel and chemical companies.
Dow and other manufacturers are asking lawmakers to give away pollution permits to heavily affected industries that rely on fossil fuels for power and for other products - at least when the United States is "in transition" to lower-carbon energy options and other countries haven't imposed similar emissions limits.
That conflicts with President Obama's preference for auctioning all of the allowances, an idea favored by environmental advocates.
The 648-page Waxman-Markey draft bill dodges details on distributing the allowances and how to use any money raised from their sale.
To win support for their legislation, Waxman and Markey will have to find the middle ground between freely distributing allowances and selling the pollution permits. If their legislation ultimately tilts too far in favor of free distribution, they risk alienating environmental advocates.
If the measure requires most of the allowances to be sold, Waxman and Markey are sure to lose support from lawmakers whose districts include hard-hit industries.
"You've got this great tension between the auction system that the president supports and the free allowances system that (industry) supports," said Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
On the energy panel, Democratic Reps. Jay Inslee of Washington and Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania are developing a plan that would give allowances - or allowance rebates - to heavily affected, energy-intensive industries.
Wells said a cap-and-trade program could require chemical manufacturers to pay for allowances to emit carbon dioxide, encounter higher electricity bills, and spend more to procure petroleum used as a feedstock for other products.
He noted that globally, Dow uses "the energy equivalent of 850,000 barrels of oil every day" - an amount that exceeds oil consumption in some countries, such as Australia and the Netherlands.
Wells urged lawmakers to give away pollution allowances to hard-hit sectors until other countries agree to similar carbon caps as part of an international accord.
Environmental advocates caution that if the federal government gives away too many allowances - or for too long - any new carbon dioxide cap would be undermined.
Volunteers busy as bees counting population...Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
Thousands of volunteers are planting sunflowers in the Bay Area this spring in an effort to fight the worldwide decline of bees by observing the busy insects carrying pollen to and from backyard flower gardens.
A San Francisco State University biology professor is signing up the citizen researchers for the Great Sunflower Project, a program in the United States and Canada that aims to assess the health of bee populations, some of which are collapsing.
"There is a crisis in bees," said Professor Gretchen LeBuhn, "but there's been no global survey, no continental survey, no national survey. We realized that we have to pay attention."
Known to her students as the queen bee, she began the project last year, and next week she will oversee the mailing of the last packets of Lemon Queen sunflower seeds to 65,000 North Americans who have signed up for the at-home research project.
Her volunteers agree to plant one of bees' favorite flowers and record how often the furry, black-and-yellow buzzers visit. Almost 3,000 people in the Bay Area - most in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose - have answered her call.
When the sunflowers bloom in mid-June, volunteers will record the first five bees that show up at a sunny time of day, observing the insects for up to 30 minutes.
Bees need help, scientists say, because they are suffering from a world of hurt - diseases, parasites and pesticides, and the loss of food and nesting places.
LeBuhn picked the sunflower because it is an important seed and oil crop and is native to all of the continental 48 states. The daily bee behavior that researchers observe will offer clues on how well neighborhood populations are doing.
"Sunflowers are the best bar in town for bees. If you're not getting visits to your sunflowers, it really says something about the bee population in your area," LeBuhn said.
While researchers have looked at parks to assess what kind of habitats bees like - including certain mixes of flowers or nearby open space - the new citizen science will reveal the attractive qualities in various kinds of backyards.
Mapping the population
LeBuhn and her students are making maps that reflect the prevalence of the bees, which could lead to planting more pollen-producing vegetation or the control of pesticides. To increase the validity of the data, LeBuhn asked volunteers this year to take photos if they can.
In the United States, bees pollinate about $15 billion a year worth of crops, including about $6.5 billion in California, said UC Davis entomologist Eric Mussen, including nuts, fruits, vegetables and commercially sold seeds. Crop yields increase when bees visit more often.
"Without honeybees, fruit trees bear few fruits, berries tend to be small and misshapen, and vine crops like melons, cucumbers, squash and pumpkins bear small fruits that do not fill out and mature properly," Mussen said.
The Great Sunflower Project mirrors networks started in Europe, where people report the timing of the first spring bud burst, bird migrations, nesting and snowmelt as a way to measure how the planet's climate is changing. Some of LeBuhn's data will go to the National Phenology Network, a record of the timing of natural events.
She also works with the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance, whose schoolyard renovations include replacing concrete with plants. In addition, LeBuhn advises science and farm groups to plant flowering legumes off-season to produce pollen, the bees' source of protein and food for their young.
While scientific surveys of bee populations are spotty, limited data show that Napa and Sonoma counties each have roughly 250 native species, including bumblebees.
Honeybees - more svelte than the larger, hairier bumblebees - were imported to the United States to help with crop pollination and honey production. The honeybee species has been the victim of the mysterious colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in which adults vanish, leaving the brood to die.
An environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, is seeking documents from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to determine how well the agency is assessing the safety of clothianidin, a pesticide ingredient suspected of contributing to the collapse of millions of colonies.
California's richest bee region is the Pinnacles National Monument in Monterey and San Benito counties, home to 400 species of native bees. At 40 square miles, it is smaller than San Francisco, which has about 100 native species.
Like other cities worldwide, San Francisco is losing its bees. A century ago, the city had nine species of bumblebees. Now scientists can find only four.
LeBuhn got the idea for international cooperation in bee surveys eight years ago when she organized a meeting of a dozen native-bee researchers to set up a consistent protocol for studying bumblebees. When she started the project last year, she hoped to get 4,000 volunteers in the Great Sunflower Project, but was overwhelmed by six times that many.
School classes, civic groups, nature museums and gardeners from cities and rural areas planted 25,000 sunflowers. About 4,000 bee sightings were reported. In a surprise finding, 1 of every 5 of the gardens had no visits from bees, worrying LeBuhn that bee communities are compromised.
'It opened my eyes'
With the monitoring cycle beginning again, Glenda and Henry Corning's two granddaughters came to Corte Madera on Wednesday to plant 18 sunflower seeds for the season.
Glenda Corning, a sculptor, hadn't noticed the native bees until she participated last year. "I don't think anyone thought much of the pollinators before. It opened my eyes to the wonders of the bee world," she said.
The Great Sunflower Project is "bringing a lot of consciousness to gardening and to decisions about spraying or not spraying," she said. "Projects like this make people conscious that even the smallest decision they make affects the ecosystem and the community."
Why bees like pollen
It's their source of protein, and they feed it to their young. Females land on flowers and wiggle around, gathering pollen grains on their legs and under the abdomen. They fly back to their nests and roll the pollen into balls.
The bees lay eggs on the pollen balls, which hatch in two or three days and turn into larvae that eat the balls and turn into pupae. In the spring, they emerge as new bees looking for pollen.
Why bees are important
When bees gather pollen, they deposit grains from other plants into the reproductive parts of a flower. The result is pollination of the plant, which leads to fertilization and the development of fruit and seeds.
Fruits and seeds from insect-pollinated plants account for more than 30 percent of the foods and beverages consumed in the United States.
To get a sunflower seed kit, go to www.greatsunflower.org or call (415) 405-2409.
Group says flea collars for pets endanger kids...Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
OAKLAND -- Some cat and dog flea collars leave chemicals on fur that are hazardous to the pets and their owners, in violation of California's anti-toxics laws, according to a national environmental group's lawsuit Thursday.
The Natural Resources Defense Council urged federal regulators to remove the products from the market.
Two chemicals in the pet collars left residue sufficient to pose the risk of cancer and neurological damage to children - as much as 1,000 times higher than levels established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the group said.
"Just because a product is sold in stores doesn't mean it's safe," said Dr. Gina Solomon, a physician and a toxicologist with the environmental group and an author of the study.
Under California's Proposition 65, which was approved by state voters in 1986, "consumers have a right to know if a flea-control product could make their pets or families sick," Solomon said.
The group asked the federal environmental agency to cancel the registration for use of the two chemicals - propoxur and TCVP, or tetrachlorvinphos- on pets. The EPA has deemed exposure to flea collars insignificant.
Still, the agency considers the chemicals to be carcinogens and neurotoxins. Propoxur is on the state's list of carcinogens regulated by Prop. 65, and the state is considering adding TCVP to the list.
The federal agency did not immediately respond to the environmental group's petitions and allegations that regulators failed to safeguard the public and their pets from dangerous pesticides.
In its lawsuit filed in Alameda County Superior Court, the group alleges that 16 retailers and manufacturers, including chain pet supply and grocery stores, failed to warn consumers that they were exposed to unsafe levels of propoxur in violation of state law.
Officials at Central Life Sciences in Schaumburg, Ill., which has taken over two of the defendants named in the suit - manufacturers Wellmark International Corp. and Farnam Co.s - had not seen the study and could not comment, said Mark Newberg, director of corporate affairs.
Other manufacturers named in the suit - Hartz Mountain Group, Sergeant's Pet Care Products Inc. and Virbac Inc. - could not be reached for comment.
The environmental group conducted tests on nine dogs and five cats, a sample that was equal to or larger than studies used by the EPA to determine exposure to pesticides from flea collars, the authors said.
The tests for TCVP were conducted on Hartz Advanced Care 3-in-1 Control Collar for Cats and Hartz Advanced Care 2-in-1 Reflecting Flea & Tick Collar for Dogs. Tests for propoxur were done on Zodiac Flea & Tick Collar for dogs and Bio Spot Flea and Tick Collar for dogs.
Pet owners calling the National Pesticide Information Center have complained that dogs and cats wearing collars containing the ingredients had stopped eating or drinking and showed symptoms including vomiting, twitching and diarrhea. There was no confirmation that the collars caused the problems.
The environmental group's researchers followed common protocols, including wiping fur to simulate petting. Measured residues were compared to the EPA's acceptable levels using standard exposure and risk assessments for cancer and other ill health effects.
-- For TCVP, after three days, 60 percent of the dogs and 40 percent of the cats had residue levels that would exceed the EPA's acceptable level for developing brains of toddlers who spend an average amount of time with a pet.
For toddlers who have a lot more pet contact or have more than one pet, residue levels on 80 percent of the dogs and all of the cats would exceed the acceptable level.
After two weeks, none of the pets had residue levels that exceeded the acceptable level for average contact with a pet, but 67 percent of the dogs and all of the cats had residue levels that could be dangerous for children who have a lot of contact with a pet.
-- For propoxur, after three days, all of the dogs had residue levels that would exceed the EPA's acceptable level for developing brains of toddlers spending an average amount of time with a pet.
After 14 days, 75 percent of the dogs had residue levels exceeding the acceptable level for average contact with a pet, while all of the dogs had residue levels that could be dangerous for children having a lot of contact with a pet.
In 2000, the environmental group identified seven organophosphate insecticides as dangerous ingredients in flea-and-tick-control products. The EPA has since canceled residential uses for six of them, including in pet products, leaving only TCVP.
Toxics and pets
-- Read the Poisons on Pets II study at links.sfgate.com/ZGWC.
-- See the Natural Resources Defense Council's Green Paws product guide at links.sfgate.com/ZGWA.
Contra Costa Times
California regulators approve low-carbon fuel standard...Tracy Seipel, Mercury News
As part of their efforts to meet California's aggressive goals to reduce global warming, state regulators on Thursday approved a new standard for all transportation fuels aimed at cutting the amount of greenhouse gas emissions they create.
The new regulation, which is the first in the nation, will be phased in starting Jan. 1 and over the next decade will require producers to cut by 10 percent the carbon emissions of all transportation fuels sold in California, including the gas drivers use in their cars. The regulation, which seeks to reduce 16 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, will play a key role in California's goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels. In California, transportation accounts for 40 percent of those emissions.
"The new standard means we can begin to break our century-old dependence on petroleum and provide California with greater energy security," said Air Resources Board Chairman Mary D. Nichols after the vote. "(This) will be a boon to the state's economy and public health — it reduces air pollution, creates new jobs and continues California's leadership in the fight against global warming."
Under the air board's new rule, it will measure the fuel consumed in 2010 to set the baseline for 2020 for all fuel producers. As the years progress, petroleum producers will meet their requirements by encouraging the use of alternative fuels — such as hydrogen, ethanol, biofuels and electricity — to power transportation, and by blending lower carbon fuels in their own petroleum mixes.
While some say this change will cause the price of gas to jump, the air board disputes that, saying that over time, as more alternative fuel producers enter the market, it will become more competitive and prices will come down.
Silicon Valley investors and developers of alternative fuels should benefit greatly, said Bob Epstein, co-founder of Environmental Entrepreneurs, whose 500-member California business organization supported the new standard.
Transportation fuel is "a multibillion-dollar market in California that is currently exclusively owned by the oil companies, and they're going to lose their exclusive franchise," said Epstein.
Environmentalists and health advocates praised the measure, but not everyone was happy, including petroleum and ethanol producers.
Catherine Reheis-Boyd, executive director of the Western States Petroleum Association lobbying group, which did not support the new regulation, complained that currently there are not enough biofuels available to meet the demands of the new regulation.
"It's hard to comply with a regulation when we don't have any other fuel to blend with ours to reduce its carbon intensity," she said.
While she praised the new regulation's "meritorious goal," Reheis-Boyd said there were too many uncertainties and unanswered questions for her members to support it.
The new regulation entails a complex mechanism to account for greenhouse gas emissions caused by a transportation fuel during any step of its "life cycle," whether during production, distribution or consumption.
Corn ethanol producers were unhappy with that provision, complaining that it targets their industry to account for "indirect land use change." That occurs when crop-based biofuels inflate grain prices, inducing farmers in the United States and elsewhere to convert forests, which consume carbon, to crop fields, which produce carbon.
But California Air Resources Board spokesman Dimitri Stanich said it is crucial to fully account for all the carbon that goes into fuels.
"They are concerned that the land use stipulation is unfair to them, but we're asking them to account for the emissions of the fuel that they bring to the market," he said. "If we don't catch the emissions in the production of the fuel as well as the consumption we may defeat the effort before we even get started,'' he said.
Brooke Coleman, executive director of the New Fuels Alliance, also opposed the regulation for the same reason as the ethanol producers.
"This sends a market signal right away that says biofuels do not have a robust future in California," he said.
Reheis-Boyd, of the petroleum group, said if her members cannot meet the standard because of a shortage of biofuels, they will be forced to buy credits from another industry, such as a utility, that is helping to create transportation systems that run on electricity. "So we would have to invest our dollars into something that isn't us," she said. "We don't do electricity. We do fuels. But we are still forced to comply."
Petroleum producers did get one major concession: they will be permitted to gradually reduce the carbon content of their fuels over several years to reach the 10-percent reduction.
Editorial: California air board makes good decision to move away from corn-based ethanol...MediaNews editorial
THE CALIFORNIA Air Resources Board is devising a plan to reduce the carbon content of the state's engine fuels 10 percent by 2020.
To reach that goal, the air board is considering greater use of alternative fuels such as electricity, hydrogen and biofuels. What California does is likely to drive federal policy on fuels in the future.
However, it is interesting and encouraging that the air board does not see a long-term role for corn-based ethanol. While biofuels show considerable promise to partially replace petroleum, making them from corn is the wrong method.
It takes a lot of energy to produce corn-based ethanol. In fact, it takes one unit of fossil-fuel energy input to create just 1.3 units of corn ethanol energy. That is hardly an efficient way to reduce the use of petroleum or other fossil fuels.
Furthermore, the greenhouse gas emissions emitted from corn ethanol are only 22 percent less than those produced by gasoline.
Ethanol made from sugar cane is far more efficient. For every unit of fossil-fuel energy used to make cane ethanol, eight units of cane ethanol energy are produced. Also, the greenhouse gas emissions from sugar cane ethanol are 56 percent less than from gasoline.
Depending on how it's made, cellulosic ethanol, made from grasses, forestry waste and agricultural residues, could be far more efficient than cane ethanol and have 91 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline.
Making ethanol from corn also has other adverse effects. It removes agricultural land from other uses. As a result, food prices, especially those that use corn or corn oil, have risen sharply, not to mention the huge taxpayer subsidies required.
Corn-based ethanol has a lot more to do with politics than energy. Massive subsides to farm states during the Bush administration were designed to produce political support, not a greener environment.
The state air board's plan supports biofuels made from sources other than corn, especially cellulosic ethanol, which would not have a major impact on agricultural lands.
When considering alternatives to gasoline and diesel oil, efficiency and environmental impacts must be considered. We are encouraged that the state air board is on the right track in its evaluation of corn ethanol.
Judge rules Silicon Valley water fee illegal; customers could get refunds...Paul Rogers
In a decision that could force Silicon Valley's largest water provider to refund millions — or perhaps tens of millions — of dollars to its customers, a judge on Thursday ruled that one of the Santa Clara Valley Water District's primary fees is illegal.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Kevin Murphy found that the district's "groundwater extraction fee" requires voter approval under Proposition 218, a state law passed in 1996.
If the judge's ruling is upheld, the consequences for the agency could be substantial. Last year, the district made about $72 million from the fee, roughly 20 percent of its $358 million total budget.
Whether a refund, or how much of a refund, will be required, is unclear. The judge is scheduled to decide next month.
"We're disappointed, obviously," said Debra Cauble, attorney for the water district, a wholesale water supplier to 1.8 million county residents. "It was a very complex case and we thought that we had made a good presentation to the judge based on the law and the facts."
Cauble said the district will appeal.
The lawsuit was filed in 2005 by Great Oaks Water Company, a privately held retail firm that provides drinking water to about 100,000 people who live in Almaden Valley and other parts of South San Jose.
Great Oaks said the water district overcharged it in 2005 and 2006 to pump water from the natural aquifers that lie underneath Santa Clara County, and that the fees, which critics have derisively called the "pump tax," are illegal.
The judge agreed, calling it "uncontroverted" that the district requires voter approval to collect the fee under Proposition 218, which mandates voter approval for fees and other government charges.
Further, the judge said the water district violated its own regulations, which require the agency to spend money collected from the groundwater fee on water supply, rather than areas like flood control.
"We see this decision as an opportunity for people in this county to stop paying too much for the water they get. It shows that public officials can be held accountable," said John Roeder, CEO of Great Oaks.
Great Oaks paid $5 million in groundwater fees in 2005. Tim Gustman, general counsel for Great Oaks, said the ruling means that all of the groundwater fees the district has collected from all customers since 2005 must be refunded.
Districtwide, that could total more than $250 million.
If the district is required to hold an election to make the fee legal in the future, he said, Proposition 218 mandates it obtain approval from either two-thirds of all Santa Clara County residents, or more than 50 percent from property owners who pay the groundwater fee.
Roughly 4,000 customers in Santa Clara County pay the groundwater fee. They include cities and private companies who pass the fee along to their own customers, but also farmers and rural residents who use private wells.
The groundwater basin is vital to Silicon Valley's water supply, providing roughly half of all the region's drinking water, with the other half coming from San Francisco Bay's delta.
The groundwater fee helps the district pay to pump water back underground every winter through percolation ponds and networks of pipes and reservoirs. Overpumping in the 1920s and 1930s caused widespread water shortages then and caused the ground to sink up to 10 feet in some parts of the county.
The fee also funds cleanup of chemicals, such as perchlorate and MTBE, that have contaminated some groundwater over the years. The district charges $275 an acre foot to pump groundwater in South County and $520 an acre foot in the North County. An acre foot is about 326,000 gallons, or the amount of water a family of five uses in a year.
The judge ruled in Great Oaks' favor that the water district mixed money between accounts; improperly subsidized some users, such as farmers, with low rates; and "overbudgeted for employees, cost of equipment, and water contract purchases" by placing excess money in its reserve accounts.
Emily Cote, a water district attorney, said money in the reserve accounts was saved to spend on water-related matters, making the district in compliance with its regulations.
Los Angeles Times
California to limit greenhouse gas emissions of vehicle fuels
The Air Resources Board adopts a landmark regulation expected to slash gasoline consumption by 25% and encourage development of low-carbon fuel sources for cars and trucks...Margot Roosevelt
California took aim Thursday at the oil industry and its impact on global warming, adopting the world's first regulation to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the fuel that runs cars and trucks.
The Air Resources Board voted 9 to 1 in favor of the complex new rule, which is expected to slash the state's gasoline consumption by a quarter in the next decade. It seeks to expand the market for electric and hydrogen-fueled vehicles and jump-start a host of futuristic biofuels to replace corn-based ethanol, as well as oil.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger praised the "first-in-the-world low carbon fuel standard," noting that 16 other states are looking to California as a model and that President Obama has called for a national standard.
It will "not only reduce global warming," he said, "it will reward innovation, expand consumer choice and encourage the private investment we need to transform our energy infrastructure."
The regulation requires producers, refiners and importers of gasoline and diesel to reduce the carbon footprint of their fuel by 10% over the next decade. And it launches the state on an ambitious path toward ratcheting down its overall heat-trapping emissions by 80% by mid-century -- a level that some scientists deem necessary to avoid drastic global climate disruption.
Experts say California faces droughts, fresh water shortages, rising sea levels and widespread extinction of plants and wildlife species from growing carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.
Scores of industry executives and environmental activists testified on the hotly debated fuel regulation at a daylong public hearing in Sacramento before the vote. Corn ethanol producers complained that the rule unfairly exaggerated the effects of using food crops for energy. Cattlemen argued that diverting corn to ethanol has upped their feed costs.
Canada's consul general in San Francisco charged that the rule discriminates against oil from Alberta tar sands. And former Gen. Wesley Clark, testifying for the ethanol industry, said the board failed to account for carbon-intensive effects of U.S. military forces protecting oil reserves in the Middle East.
The regulation calculates the life cycle of fuels from their extraction -- or cultivation, in the case of biofuels -- to their combustion. But the indirect effect of replacing cropland used for energy will also be included, and the board's calculations of those land-use effects is strongly disputed by corn ethanol producers.
Meanwhile, U.S. oil industry representatives were also divided. The Western States Petroleum Assn. opposed the rule, disputing the air board's contention that it will lower the cost of fuel to consumers.
"This is the most transforming regulation any of us has ever undertaken," said Catherine Reihis-Boyd, the group's Sacramento lobbyist, noting that it involved "fuels that haven't even been envisioned and certainly not commercialized."
But James Uihlein, a Chevron representative, endorsed the standard, and its indirect land-use provisions, as "sending the right signal to innovators" to produce advanced fuels.
Not all of the alternative fuel companies were in sync, however. An executive from Fulcrum BioEnergy, a Pleasanton, Calif., company that makes cellulosic ethanol from post-recycled garbage, said it will "create a market" for his product. But a representative of Verenium, a cellulosic ethanol company with offices in San Diego, asked the board to hold off on counting land-use effects.
Board members acknowledged that the science of evaluating the carbon footprint of all fuels is still developing. It asked staff to further study the land-use issue and report back in January 2011. The standard is scheduled to take effect in 2012, gradually ramping up to the 10% reduction by 2020.
"We have done a lot to make cars cleaner and more efficient, but the petroleum industry, which has a lot more reserves, has gotten off scot-free with respect to greenhouse gases," said board Chairwoman Mary D. Nichols. "Now we are creating the framework for a new way of looking at automotive fuels. No longer will petroleum be the only game in town."
Some environmentalists who favor a stronger emphasis on electric vehicles said the rule did not go far enough in questioning the land-use effects of ethanol from nonfood crops such as switch grass or farmed trees. Others urged the board to monitor the construction of advanced fuel facilities so they would not increase inner-city air pollution.
Roland Hwang, transportation director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, criticized the board's delay of final action on land-use impacts, which he said were "critical safeguards for our native forests . . . and scenic wild lands."
But he added that the new standard means "the handwriting is on the wall: Big Oil needs to stop investing in dirty, high-carbon fuels and move to produce more advanced biofuels."
Clean trucks for L.A.'s ports
Reducing pollution at the L.A. and Long Beach ports should be the goal, not unionizing drivers...Editorial
Monday is shaping up to be a bad day for the Teamsters, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and a handful of environmental groups, whose efforts to unionize port truckers will probably be squelched by a federal judge. That's just as well, but we're afraid the mayor and his union backers won't take no for an answer.
The clean-truck program at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, a long-overdue attempt to reduce the diesel pollution that sickens and kills thousands of Angelenos every year, forces truckers to buy cleaner, more modern vehicles and imposes a fee on shipping containers that pass through the ports in order to help pay for them. None of that is controversial, and if that were all the program did, it wouldn't be enriching an armada of lawyers. But it also contains concession agreements that the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has determined will probably be ruled unconstitutional.
At the Port of Los Angeles, the program would eliminate independent truckers, insisting that they all be employees of drayage companies by 2013 (opening the door for the Teamsters to unionize them). The Port of Long Beach doesn't insist on employee truckers, but it does impose other requirements that may not pass legal muster. That's because U.S. law forbids local jurisdictions from making rules that affect the price, route or service of motor carriers.
In response to a lawsuit by the American Trucking Assn., U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder refused to issue an injunction against the ports' concession agreements because of a loophole in the federal law: States are still allowed to impose safety requirements on trucks. But the appeals court overruled her, finding that few provisions of the concession agreements have anything to do with vehicle safety, and it remanded the case to Snyder for her to move forward consistent with that ruling. On Monday, Snyder is slated to issue a new ruling, and is widely expected to halt the employee-trucker plan this time around.
There's nothing wrong with unionizing truckers -- and certainly not with efforts to clean up the ports -- but this approach has tried to accomplish too much. Despite the arguments of the proponents, there was never a compelling need to eliminate independent truckers, a move that would simplify record-keeping for port officials but do nothing to clean the air. Unfortunately, backers of this ill-conceived effort say that if they can't win in court, they’ll lobby Congress to change the law, an interminable process that promises only to heighten confusion in the trucking industry and potentially delay compliance with the ports' clean-engine rules.
We have a better idea: Let it go. The ports should do what this page repeatedly urged them to do when crafting the clean-truck program -- work with the trucking industry, which has no objection to the initiative's environmental requirements, to come up with a plan that cuts pollution without interfering with interstate commerce. That wouldn't be hard to do, if politicians, labor leaders and environmental activists would stop putting up roadblocks.
New York Times
Industry Ignored Its Scientists on Climate...ANDREW C. REVKIN
For more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.
“The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” the coalition said in a scientific “backgrounder” provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that “scientists differ” on the issue.
But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.
“The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,” the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.
The coalition was financed by fees from large corporations and trade groups representing the oil, coal and auto industries, among others. In 1997, the year an international climate agreement that came to be known as the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, its budget totaled $1.68 million, according to tax records obtained by environmental groups.
Throughout the 1990s, when the coalition conducted a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign challenging the merits of an international agreement, policy makers and pundits were fiercely debating whether humans could dangerously warm the planet. Today, with general agreement on the basics of warming, the debate has largely moved on to the question of how extensively to respond to rising temperatures.
Environmentalists have long maintained that industry knew early on that the scientific evidence supported a human influence on rising temperatures, but that the evidence was ignored for the sake of companies’ fight against curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. Some environmentalists have compared the tactic to that once used by tobacco companies, which for decades insisted that the science linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer was uncertain. By questioning the science on global warming, these environmentalists say, groups like the Global Climate Coalition were able to sow enough doubt to blunt public concern about a consequential issue and delay government action.
George Monbiot, a British environmental activist and writer, said that by promoting doubt, industry had taken advantage of news media norms requiring neutral coverage of issues, just as the tobacco industry once had.
“They didn’t have to win the argument to succeed,” Mr. Monbiot said, “only to cause as much confusion as possible.”
William O’Keefe, at the time a leader of the Global Climate Coalition, said in a telephone interview that the group’s leadership had not been aware of a gap between the public campaign and the advisers’ views. Mr. O’Keefe said the coalition’s leaders had felt that the scientific uncertainty justified a cautious approach to addressing cuts in greenhouse gases.
The coalition disbanded in 2002, but some members, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute, continue to lobby against any law or treaty that would sharply curb emissions. Others, like Exxon Mobil, now recognize a human contribution to global warming and have largely dropped financial support to groups challenging the science.
Documents drawn up by the coalition’s advisers were provided to lawyers by the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, a coalition member, during the discovery process in a lawsuit that the auto industry filed in 2007 against the State of California’s efforts to limit vehicles’ greenhouse gas emissions. The documents included drafts of a primer written for the coalition by its technical advisory committee, as well as minutes of the advisers’ meetings.
The documents were recently sent to The New York Times by a lawyer for environmental groups that sided with the state. The lawyer, eager to maintain a cordial relationship with the court, insisted on anonymity because the litigation is continuing.
The advisory committee was led by Leonard S. Bernstein, a chemical engineer and climate expert then at the Mobil Corporation. At the time the committee’s primer was drawn up, policy makers in the United States and abroad were arguing over the scope of the international climate-change agreement that in 1997 became the Kyoto Protocol.
The primer rejected the idea that mounting evidence already suggested that human activities were warming the climate, as a 1995 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had concluded. (In a report in 2007, the panel concluded with near certainty that most recent warming had been caused by humans.)
Yet the primer also found unpersuasive the arguments being used by skeptics, including the possibility that temperatures were only appearing to rise because of flawed climate records.
“The contrarian theories raise interesting questions about our total understanding of climate processes, but they do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change,” the advisory committee said in the 17-page primer.
According to the minutes of an advisory committee meeting that are among the disclosed documents, the primer was approved by the coalition’s operating committee early in 1996. But the approval came only after the operating committee had asked the advisers to omit the section that rebutted the contrarian arguments.
“This idea was accepted,” the minutes said, “and that portion of the paper will be dropped.”
The primer itself was never publicly distributed.
Mr. O’Keefe, who was then chairman of the Global Climate Coalition and a senior official of the American Petroleum Institute, the lobby for oil companies, said in the phone interview that he recalled seeing parts of the primer.
But he said he was not aware of the dropped sections when a copy of the approved final draft was sent to him. He said a change of that kind would have been made by the staff before the document was brought to the board for final consideration.
“I have no idea why the section on the contrarians would have been deleted,” said Mr. O’Keefe, now chief executive of the Marshall Institute, a nonprofit research group that opposes a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions.
“One thing I’m absolutely certain of,” he said, “is that no member of the board of the Global Climate Coalition said, ‘We have to suppress this.’ ”
Benjamin D. Santer, a climate scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory whose work for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was challenged by the Global Climate Coalition and allied groups, said the coalition was “engaging in a full-court press at the time, trying to cast doubt on the bottom-line conclusion of the I.P.C.C.” That panel concluded in 1995 that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”
“I’m amazed and astonished,” Dr. Santer said, “that the Global Climate Coalition had in their possession scientific information that substantiated our cautious findings and then chose to suppress that information.”
New home sales show signs of revival
Despite a decline in March, the annual rate remains above what economists expect after an even stronger than originally reported February...Ben Rooney
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Sales of newly constructed homes are showing indications, ever so slight, that the housing decline may be near an end, a government report showed Friday.
The Commerce Department said new home sales fell 0.6% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 356,000. But that was from a rate of 358,000 in February that was revised up from the originally reported at 337,000 -- the level economists were expecting for March.
The net revision to the prior three months equals an increase of 31,000 units, according to Wachovia Economics Group.
"This is clearly a better-than-expected number," said Michael Larson, a real estate analyst at Weiss Research. "Technically, yes, sales declined, but the last three months were revised higher and the raw number came in better than expectations."
"All signs are pointing to stabilization in market conditions, which is due to lower prices," Larson said. "We still have a problem with unemployment, and that's why any rebound we see will be muted."
Another signs of a bottom in the market: The estimated number of new homes for sale at the end of last month was a seasonally adjusted 311,000, according to the Commerce Department. Last month, it was 328,000 unsold homes.
At the current sales pace, it would take 10.7 months to sell through that inventory, according to the report. That's down from the previous month, when the estimated months of inventory was 11.2, and was nearly 2 months below January's level of 12.5.
"While the inventory correction will likely overshoot to the downside, we are getting closer to stability in the marketplace," said Adam York, economist at Wachovia Economics Group, in a research note. He added that new home inventory is now approaching late 1990s levels.
"As we have long said, getting the new home market back into equilibrium is an important precursor to broader housing market improvement," York said.
The median sales price of new houses sold in March was $201,400, down 3.5%from the revised $208,700 in February and 12.1% from March 2008, when it was $229,300.
"Median prices fell for the third straight month as builders fought the rising tide of foreclosure sales for buyers' attention," said York.
As buyers bargain shop for deals on foreclosed properties, homebuilders have drastically scaled back production to meet falling demand.
On Thursday, the National Association of Realtors said sales of existing homes fell 3% in March, after an unexpected rise the month before.