NOTICE OF PUBLIC HEARING NOTICE...2009 General Plan Cycle II...General Plan Amendment No. GPA08-003 and Zone Change No. ZV08-004 - Merced County
NOTICE OF PUBLIC HEARING NOTICE IS HEREBY GIVEN that a public hearing will be held by the Board of Supervisors, County of Merced, State of California, to consider the 2009 General Plan Cycle II on Tuesday, July 21, 2009, at 10:00 a.m. in the Board Room, Third Floor, County Administration Building, 2222 "M" Street, Merced, California The State Government Code limits the number of times a local General Plan can be amended to four times per year. To comply with this requirement, Merced County has processed all General Plan Amendment Applications in one of four "Cycles", which are presented to the Board of Supervisors approximately every three months. Cycle II consists of one application, General Plan Amendment No. GPA08-003 and Zone Change No. ZV08-004 - Merced County. All interested persons are invited to attend and will be given an opportunity to be heard. Board of Supervisors Office, By Maria Rios, Deputy Clerk. Legal JUNE 22, 2009
Big power line controversy...Editorial
The word "huge" aptly describes just about everything about the proposed electrical transmission line that would run from northeast California down the Central Valley into the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts and over to the Bay Area.
The 500-kilovolt line would stretch more than 600 miles, through more than a dozen counties and across thousands of privately-owned properties. The towers would stand up to 150 feet high. And the estimated cost starts at $1.3 billion, but likely will far exceed that.
Size and cost alone make this project controversial, but it has become even hotter because, so far, it has been handled so poorly by the people who want to build it, the Transmission Agency of Northern California. TANC is a joint powers agency comprised of 15 publicly owned utilities, including the MID and TID. The agency's commission is chaired by MID's general manager, Allen Short.
Not surprisingly, landowners all the way from Lassen and Shasta to Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties are upset -- and angry -- at the prospect of a huge transmission line and towers crossing their property.
To be sure, it will be ugly. It will tarnish scenic vistas. It will interfere with farming. And then there are lingering safety concerns about electromagnetic fields.
In addition, many property owners say they were not properly notified of the "scoping" meetings. The uproar is exacerbated by the fact that preliminary maps show multiple routes and swaths 1,000 feet wide, when in fact eventually there would a single route with rights of way of about 200 feet.
It's not just landowners who are upset; the anger extends to many organizations and elected bodies, including city councils and county supervisors. The chairman of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors spoke bluntly with Capitol Public Radio, saying the project should stop and start all over because Yolo officials were not adequately notified of the plans.
The controversy is so great that TANC hired one of the state's premier lobbying-public relations firms and a second public relations consultant. TANC also has twice extended the comment period on the scoping maps.
Those were good moves, but they came too late. It will take a lot of work and persuasive arguments to quell the storm -- and that will add to the cost of the project.
Short says TANC plans to add a step to the normal process. After reviewing the public comments, it will issue a new alignment; this one will do what the first one should have -- for example, avoiding schools and houses.
After the second route map is completed, the formal environmental review process will begin. Only after the EIR is done will the elected boards of the partner utilities make a final decision on whether to proceed. That most likely will be in 2011 or beyond.
Most of the opposition so far has focused on the route and the disruptive impacts of the transmission line. Common questions include, for example, whether all or parts of of the line could be put underground.
But some opponents also challenge the justifications for the project. Basically, there are two:
Renewable: California voters and legislators want more electricity to be produced from renewable resources (solar, wind and geothermal) rather than coal-burning power plants.
Currently, utilities are expected to get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources; there's a push afoot to make it 33 percent.
Short argues that this project provides the best option to achieve the 33 percent. He cites a study showing that a solar panel on every rooftop in Modesto wouldn't generate enough power to meet the mandated level.
Reliability: The East Coast blackout of 2003 and a much smaller power failure in the MID and TID in summer 2007 are examples of why the districts want to be sure they have multiple transmission lines.
It's the same reason they are reluctant to put multiple lines on the same towers or the same rights of way. The fear is that one incident -- a wildfire, plane crash or even a terrorist act -- could black out a whole area.
While these are both important considerations, we believe there are a number of major questions that need to be answered before the MID or TID commit to this huge project:
Building the transmission line presumes that other utilities or private enterprises will then build the solar and wind farms to produce the power that will move across the line. Is that a good presumption given that the Lassen area ranks fairly low as a competitive renewable energy zone, according to a study by the state Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative?
By the time this line is built, will solar technology have advanced to the point that it will make more sense to install panels locally and avoid the transmission cost?
A controversial segment of the line, from New Melones to Riverbank, is proposed by the federal Western Area Power Administration to move hydropower. Is it truly needed?
The MID already carries substantial debt for its other projects -- and electricity customers are feeling that with rising rates. Is this project too much of an added burden?
If this transmission line isn't built -- and even if it is -- Short argues that someone else will build one, so better it be a public utility such as MID. That, of course, assumes that public ownership is always less expensive. Given the fact that MID residential customers now pay as much for electricity as many PG&E customers, is this assumption still valid?
The MID and TID have strong reputations, and over the years their leaders have shown great foresight in making sure that the future water and power needs of their customers could and would be met.
At this point, the transmission line project requires much more study -- and much more sensitivity to the property owners who would be most directly affected. Many of them, in Escalon and Oakdale, for example, are outside the irrigation districts and won't benefit from the electricity. But they'll have to live or work around an unsightly tower or transmission line.
Before the boards make their final decisions, they and the public need to be absolutely certain that the transmission line is needed, that it is environmentally sound, and that it is a wise investment for the future.
Dan Walters: Pension hike of a decade ago backfires...Dan Walters
A milestone on California's meandering journey toward fiscal insolvency occurred exactly a decade ago when the Legislature enacted a massive increase in state employee pensions on the expedient assumption that it would cost taxpayers nothing.
Although the new pensions would generate almost countless billions of dollars in extra income for retirees in the years ahead, the CalPERS board, dominated by union representatives, told legislators that taxpayers wouldn't have to bear the load because investment income, which was flowing into the pension trust fund from high-tech stocks, would continue indefinitely.
"They (CalPERS) anticipate that the state's contribution to CalPERS will remain below the 1998-99 fiscal year for at least the next decade," said a final Senate analysis of the 1999 legislation that expanded state pensions, allowing Highway Patrol officers, prison guards and other "safety" workers in some cases to get more than 100 percent of their salaries.
Within a few years, the dot-com bubble had burst, CalPERS had suffered major losses and the state's burden for pensions had pushed into the multibillion-dollar range, not counting the heavy impact on local governments that had cavalierly followed the state's lead on boosting pension benefits.
The situation was ripe for a backlash, such as an initiative measure that would rein in public pensions, but union-controlled CalPERS lowered the political heat by offering employers a "smoothing" policy that would protect them against immediate jolts, spreading out the increases over a number of years.
By and by, the economy improved, albeit through an unsustainable explosion in real estate development, and the pension issue dropped from the political radar screen. But now we're mired in the worst recession since the Great Depression, CalPERS' investments have dropped by nearly a third and the state is paying more than $3 billion a year into the pension fund, nearly 10 times what it paid a decade ago when CalPERS made its bogus assertion to lawmakers.
CalPERS is poised to hit the state for nearly another billion dollars a year in 2010-11 to cover its investment losses and the payout to baby boomer retirees who are enjoying the enhanced benefits enacted a decade ago, but is offering state and local governments another, more aggressive "smoothing" scheme to sharply reduce the immediate hit and spread out the investment losses over many years.
Last week, its board adopted the plan for local governments but after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger criticized it, postponed any action on the state's contribution. "By deferring pension contributions, CalPERS would not only be gambling that its investment earnings in this economy will grow faster than its pension obligations but would also be using our kids' money to do so because they will be the ones stuck footing the bill," said Schwarzenegger, who wants to overhaul pensions and medical care for retirees.
Here we go again.
South county habitat plan aims to balance needs of species, growth...Loretta Kalb
The South Sacramento Habitat Conservation Plan – in the works for more than a dozen years – is about to get wider public exposure.
Sacramento County has released a partial draft of a plan to govern habitat and development over vast acreage south of the American River.
If approved in two years, the habitat conservation plan is expected to become California's latest blueprint for balancing the demands of growth over 50 years with the needs of resource conservation.
A habitat conservation plan requires support from unlikely bedfellows – federal and state regulatory agencies, environmentalists, developers, property owners and local jurisdictions.
"It seems to me that everybody is on board, at least with the process," said Senior Planner Richard Radmacher, project manager for the Sacramento County Planning and Community Development Department. "The cliché is, it's like herding cats."
Broad-scale habitat plans protecting species and endorsed by federal and state wildlife agencies were virtually unknown 25 years ago.
That began to change in 1983 when San Bruno Mountain, home to the endangered Mission blue and San Bruno elfin butterflies, became ground zero for the nation's first habitat conservation plan.
A dozen years later, a fight between developers and environmentalists over the California gnatcatcher, a threatened bird species with a song like a kitten's call, produced another new approach to protecting wildlife. That one dedicated 58 square miles of coastal land in Orange County as a preserve for the California gnatcatcher as part of a multispecies, regional effort proposed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson. That focus on multiple vulnerable species was touted as a quicker, more effective way to save plants and animals than the federal Endangered Species Act.
Now such efforts are better known.
In California, more than 20 habitat conservation plans tied to population centers exist or are in planning, according to John Hopkins, vice chairman of the South Sacramento HCP and president of the Institute for Ecological Health in Davis. Most are in the north state.
Nationally, about 30 large-scale habitat plans existed as of 2007, Hopkins said.
These days, habitat plans typically include a range of species.
The South Sacramento HCP will cover 40 species of plants and wildlife. It's expected to have a combination of federal, state and local agencies as signatories, including the county and the cities of Rancho Cordova, Elk Grove and Galt.
But conservation isn't the only plan driver.
"Overall the goal is to provide a streamlined permitting process for development projects and the like," said the county's Radmacher. "In return … we make a commitment to provide a solid conservation strategy that state and federal resource agencies are comfortable with."
There is also a sense of urgency because the Sacramento County Water Agency expects to "flip the switch" on its intake water facility in Freeport in 2011, Radmacher said.
"They need to make sure they are in biological compliance," he said. And the simplest way to do that is to have an adopted habitat plan in early 2011, he said.
Other area habitat plans already are established.
The San Joaquin County Multi-Species HCP, run by San Joaquin Council of Governments Inc., covers 97 species.
The Natomas Basin Conservancy, in operation for a decade, oversees habitat for 22 species, ranging from the Swainson's hawk to the giant garter snake.
"In the Natomas Basin HCP, development was anticipated to occur over a period of up to 50 years," said Paul Junker, planning director for Rancho Cordova and the vice president of the Natomas conservancy board.
But starting in the late 1990s, the hot real estate market fueled rapid growth. In less than a decade, Junker said, nearly half the development allowed under the plan's 50-year timeline had occurred.
Now the need for levee work has forced a moratorium on development in Natomas. And the conservancy is operating with cash on hand until the next development permits are issued, likely in 2011.
No decision has been made about how fees will be structured in the South Sacramento Habitat Conservation Plan or how the effort will be governed.
John Hodgson, chairman of the steering committee and a principal with the real estate development company RCH Group, said the plan needs to address the resources issues on a comprehensive basis. It has to be affordable, he said, and it should provide certainty and simplicity in the permit process.
That won't be easy. But Hodgson said it can be done.
"If any of the major interests are not satisfied, the HCP is toast," he said. But he added, "I believe we are addressing all of those interests.
"This is a deal that needs to happen. The question is, how can we make that work?"
Restoring fisheries above Folsom, Shasta dams faces high hurdles...Matt Weiser
The American River once hosted thousands of steelhead migrating upstream from the ocean in three separate runs. Today it's down to just two runs of a few hundred fish.
The Sacramento was the only river in western North America with four salmon runs. They numbered in the millions – so numerous that American Indians and settlers could catch a salmon dinner with their bare hands. Now one run is gone, and two are endangered. The fourth could join them soon.
Restoring a fragment of that spectacle to the Central Valley is the goal of rules proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The service wants, among other things, restoration of winter- and spring-run salmon above Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River, and steelhead above Folsom Dam on the American River.
Combined, the fish transit order is considered the biggest of its kind in U.S. history.
Making it happen presents huge financial and engineering challenges. Costs could exceed $1 billion at a minimum – more than 10 times the original construction cost of both dams.
"It's pretty substantial, the amount of work that's required," said Mike Chotkowski, regional environmental officer at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dams. "We still haven't even determined whether it's feasible."
The fisheries service says that without restoring access upstream, it's likely the three fish species will go extinct. Climate change means it will be harder to maintain cold-water habitat below the dams, so they must have access to better habitat.
"The fish are at that jeopardy point where it's important for us to take immediate steps," said Howard Brown, Sacramento River basin chief for the fisheries service.
The rules proposed this month, called a biological opinion, were developed in response to a lawsuit brought by environmental groups. Federal Judge Oliver Wanger agreed with their claim that prior rules, which had no fish passage requirement, did not prevent extinction.
The ruling raised anxiety among California water managers. Thirty agencies sued last week, alleging that the fisheries service didn't follow procedure in adopting the rules.
Other experts argue there are cheaper ways to rescue the salmon populations.
Among them is the volunteer group Save Auburn Ravine Salmon and Steelhead. It has worked quietly over the past year to remove small obstructions on Auburn Ravine, a little-known tributary of the Sacramento River.
The natural ravine flows with spring water and sewage treatment outflows starting in Auburn.
Accounts as recent as the 1960s show that the ravine once hosted robust fish runs, said John Rabe, a member of the group's board.
Four adult salmon were observed in the ravine last winter. The group expects hundreds next winter and plans a salmon festival in Lincoln to welcome them back.
Rabe said 600 small creeks between Modesto and Redding also could be restored – at far less cost than fixing the big dams.
"Don't waste time and money on the dams. Spend it on the creeks," he said. "That would open literally thousands of miles of spawning, which would make a huge, huge difference."
The federal rules don't specify how salmon and steelhead should be moved around the dams. Instead they require studies, starting in December, to find the best solution that can be in place by 2020.
By March 2012, water agencies must begin moving fish around the dams on a trial basis. This will probably be done by loading fish into trucks.
Experts say moving fish around Folsom and Shasta dams is a job as big as the dams themselves. Shasta, completed in 1945, stands 602 feet high. Folsom was finished in 1956 and soars to 340 feet tall.
They were built without any means to pass fish upstream, and each has a smaller dam downstream to regulate flows: Nimbus on the American, Keswick on the Sacramento.
Distance and elevation required to move fish upstream may eliminate the option of a traditional fish ladder at both dams, said Alex Haro, a research ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey fish laboratory in Turners Falls, Mass.
Fish might not be able to cover the distances up and around the dams in a single day. As night falls, if fish are partway up a ladder, their instinct is to stop and rest, so they give up and turn around.
An alternative is a fish lift – essentially an elevator to raise fish straight up the face of the dam in a container. But like a fish ladder, it has limitations. One is that the fish then are released in a stagnant reservoir, without flows to guide them to spawning habitat.
Because of this, trucking and hauling fish could become the permanent solution.
In short, salmon and steelhead blocked from their historic habitat for decades instead could be driven home like commuters on a bus.
Fishery managers typically don't like truck-and-haul operations because fish survival in the past has been poor: Roughly half of the fish sometimes die from stress, oxygen loss or high temperatures.
But Kozmo Bates, a fish passage expert in Olympia, Wash., said survival is typically better than 90 percent in modern trap-and-haul operations.
"There's a certain protocol that makes it safe for the fish," he said. "I can't say it's 100 percent, but in new, contemporary facilities I've rarely heard of any problems with the fish, and when there are problems they get fixed quickly."
Sounds easy, but it is wrong to assume trucking fish is a cheap fix, experts said.
One reason: The collection facility at the base of the dam is essentially the same whether it serves a fish ladder or a trucking operation.
The fish must be directed from the river below the dam into a confined space. It's against their nature to do that, so they must be tricked with precise flows and temperatures, and a perfectly designed containment space.
This comes with a cost to water supplies. Dam operators must give up 3 percent to 5 percent of the water stored in the reservoir to create flows for fish passage through the containment structure, Haro said.
Also, juvenile fish have to be moved back below the dam after they've spawned. This requires a different collection system above the dam, one that ensures young salmon or steelhead don't get lost in the massive reservoir or eaten by predators such as bass.
One example of a modern downstream passage structure was built at Baker Lake in Washington state in 2008. It consists of nets spanning the reservoir near the dam, which direct fish into channels, and then mobile tanks mounted on floating barges.
Tanks are hoisted onto trucks, which deliver fish to ponds below the dam, where they acclimate to downstream conditions for a day or two before being released.
Bates estimates both upstream and downstream passage for truck-and-haul systems could cost $500 million each for Shasta and Folsom.
That's conservative, because each lake may need multiple downstream collection facilities, since each has multiple tributaries feeding the lake that may hold spawning fish.
"You have high dams, you've got predators in the reservoirs, you've got reservoirs that fluctuate greatly, and you have big rivers, too," Bates said. "You have four things there, and each one quadruples whatever price you start with."
The new rules, however, do provide something of an escape clause.
If a panel of water agencies and fish experts decides fish passage around the dams isn't feasible, salmon and steelhead must be restored elsewhere. That would turn the focus back to the Central Valley's many neglected creeks.
That's what John Rabe and the Auburn Ravine group are working on – a solution he said is "more realistic and a lot less expensive."
San Francisco Chronicle
Court OKs dumping gold mine waste in lake...H. JOSEF HEBERT, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a federal permit to dump waste from an Alaskan gold mine into a nearby lake, even though all its fish would be killed. Environmentalists feared the ruling could weaken protection of other lakes, streams and waterways from mining waste.
By a 6-3 vote, the justices said a federal appeals court wrongly blocked on environmental grounds the Army Corps of Engineers waste disposal permit for the Kensington gold mine 45 miles north of Juneau. The mine, which had been closed since 1928, has been awaiting a resumption of operation, pending approval of the waste disposal issue.
The court ruling clears the way for as much as 4.5 million tons of mine tailings — waste left after metals are extracted from the ore — to be dumped into Lower Slate Lake in the Tongass National Forest and about 3 miles from the mine, instead of being disposed of in a special tailings pond.
The court, in its majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, said that the Army Corps was correct in agreeing with the mining company that the waste should be considered "fill material" and not subject to more stringent Environmental Protection Agency standards under the federal Clean Water Act.
The Army Corps issued the permit in 2005, three years after the Bush administration broadened the definition of fill material so that waste, including some contaminated materials, can be dumped into waterways.
Kennedy cited an EPA memorandum of understanding that the EPA acknowledged agreement with the Army Corps that its more stringent requirements do not cover fill material. He wrote that the court should "accord deference to the agencies' reasonable decision" that such fill material be regulated by the Army Corps, and not the EPA.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it is "neither necessary or proper" to interpret the waterway protection law "as allowing mines to bypass EPA's zero-discharge standard by classifying slurry as fill material." She argued the lower court had been correct in concluding that the use of waters as "settling ponds for harmful mining waste" was contrary to the federal Clean Water Act.
Environmentalists, who had sued to halt the mining company's waste disposal plan, said dumping 200,000 gallons a day of mining waste water — containing aluminum, copper, lead, mercury and other metals — has dire implications not only for the Alaska lake, but possibly other lakes and waterways.
"If a mining company can turn Lower Slate Lake in Alaska into a lifeless waste dump, other polluters with solids in their water can potentially do the same to any water body in America," said Trip Van Noppen, president of EarthJustice, which had participated in the litigation.
Rob Cadmus of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council said there were better ways to dispose of the mine waste such as dry land storage. But the mining company argued that the alternative would have been to put the material into nearby wetlands, which it maintained was more environmentally harmful.
Officials of the Idaho-based Coeur d'Alene Mine Co., owner of the Alaska mine, said the decision was the last hurdle to building the tailings facility so that mining activities can begin.
The court ruling "confirms that this thoroughly studied permit and plan is the best environmental choice" for disposal of the mine's waste, said Tony Ebersole, the company's director of corporate communications. Company lawyers said in court arguments that after mining activities are halted the lake will be restocked.
"The lake will be as good or better as a fishery than it is today," Ebersole said. He said the mine will have "huge future economic impact" creating 300 construction jobs and 370 direct and indirect jobs linked to operations.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, welcomed the court ruling and said it "resolved the most significant obstacle to the creation of hundreds of direct and indirect jobs and a major boost for the economy of Juneau and Southeast Alaska."
The disposal plan had been approved by various state agencies and a federal district court. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in 2007 blocked the permit, saying the dumping violated EPA requirements, prompting the mining company and the state of Alaska to take the matter to the Supreme Court.
Joining Kennedy in approving the disposal plan were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito Jr.
In addition to Ginsburg, dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter.
On the Net:
U.S. Supreme Court: www.supremecourtus.gov
Southeast Alaska Conservation Council: www.seacc.org
Coeur Alaska Inc.: www.kensingtongold.com
Critics fault climate-change legislation...Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Hearst Newspapers
Washington -- At the Joseph Farms dairy in Atwater (Merced County), farmers aren't just transforming milk into cheese. They've also figured out how to turn manure into fuel - and a paycheck.
By storing waste from the dairy's 5,000 cows in a covered 7-acre lagoon and removing methane from it using sophisticated equipment, the farm is generating power that keeps refrigerators, lights and pumps running at its cheese plant.
The project keeps the heat-trapping greenhouse gas methane out of the atmosphere, thereby netting the farm another payback in the form of carbon credits traded on the 6-year-old Chicago Climate Exchange and the voluntary California Climate Action Registry, a nonprofit organization formed by the state.
Across the nation, dairy operations such as Joseph Farms, as well as landowners growing trees on previously empty land and vegetable farmers who plant seeds over old crops without tilling their fields, could win big under climate-change legislation advancing on Capitol Hill.
The measure, which might be considered by the House this week, would force businesses to meet steadily tightening limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming. To meet the new caps, companies could cut their emissions or buy allowances from the federal government or other businesses to spew more of the pollutants.
But the legislation also would allow companies to "offset" as much as 2 billion tons of their emissions each year by investing in pollution-reducing projects.
Although Joseph Farms would not disclose confidential financial data, its manure-treatment system, installed four years ago at a cost of about $3 million, has been found to sequester about 25 thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide or its equivalent each year.
With recent trading prices in single digits and estimates that the price could rise to $10 if Congress mandates a carbon-trading scheme, the potential payback is significant.
Without that revenue, general manager Carl Morris said it would be a tough investment to sustain.
"It makes a big difference," he said. "These things are costly, and there are a lot of operational and logistical issues getting them up and approved and running and operating. The revenue stream from carbon offsets is very important."
Generous offset program
Businesses that generally back the climate-change bill - including NRG Energy Inc., ConocoPhillips and the Dow Chemical Co. - have insisted that their support hinges on a generous offset program that could help cushion companies from higher costs of complying with the new emission limits.
But the bill's offset plan has been battered by environmental activists as too generous. They argue that the offsets would undermine the new greenhouse gas emissions limits that would be mandated by the legislation.
The fear, said Emily Figdor of Environment America, is that if carbon offsets are cheap and readily available, companies may purchase them instead of cutting their pollution.
As a result, U.S. emissions might not dip for years - and could even increase in the short term - despite new greenhouse gas limits.
"The fact that 2 billion tons of offsets were included puts in jeopardy the environmental goals of the bill," Figdor said.
An analysis by the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank in Oakland, found that if polluters purchase the "relatively cheap carbon offsets ... emissions in supposedly capped U.S. sectors (could) rise by up to 9 percent between 2005 and 2030."
Although carbon-offset trading in the United States is in its infancy - and an entirely voluntary market - a mandatory carbon market has existed in Europe for years.
Carbon offset champions say the programs they reward play a valuable role in capturing potentially devastating greenhouse gases. For instance, reforestation projects can ensure carbon dioxide-loving trees are returned to once-lush Central American jungle areas.
And covers over livestock manure lagoons can trap methane - a gas believed to be more environmentally damaging than carbon dioxide - so sophisticated equipment can turn that waste into electricity.
But offsets sometimes have been criticized as providing illusory benefits.
If foresters are able to sell carbon offsets for trees they would have planted on their own or if farmers are paid for practices they would have employed anyway, there's no new benefit to the environment, said Patrick McCully, executive director of International Rivers in Berkeley. He questions the efficacy of existing international offsets in developing countries.
"It is very likely that most (of those) offsets are from business-as-usual projects," McCully said. "Because they do not represent emission reductions, most carbon offsets are junk 'subprime' carbon that allow big polluters to avoid cutting their emissions while tricking the public into believing action is being taken."
The climate legislation advancing in the House of Representatives so far dodges the tough political questions of what kinds of activities could qualify as offsets. Instead, Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, and Ed Markey, D-Mass., the bill's lead drafters, decided to leave those decisions to the Environmental Protection Agency and a new offsets integrity advisory board that the measure would establish.
Offset skeptics have applauded that move, saying it would help ensure the validity of U.S. carbon-cutting programs.
"It's the right approach to leave the scientific and technical decisions to the scientists," Figdor said. "Congress should not get into the weeds of some of the extremely technical issues with how they set up offset programs."
But farmers are worried that their interests will be overlooked if the EPA is at the helm. Their advocates on the House Agriculture Committee are insisting that the legislation give the U.S. Department of Agriculture a seat at the table when it comes to judging potential carbon-offset programs.
EPA officials "don't get agriculture. They don't get rural America," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater (Merced County). "They form their views of the world in large cities. I'm not so sure the EPA can understand the dynamics of rural America."
Farming groups also are pressing Congress to ensure that early adopters who have already launched carbon-cutting projects - like Joseph Farms - aren't disqualified from offset trading in the future.
"Why in the world would you want to punish some innovative farmer?" asked Ken Nobisof the National Milk Producers Federation.
Los Angeles Times
Under House energy bill, coal won't be going away
A proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions makes concessions to the industry in effort to attract support from congressional Democrats who represent coal-dependent areas...Jim Tankersley
Reporting from Washington — Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of heat-trapping gases that cause global warming, but President Obama's plan to fight climate change would result in the nation burning more coal a decade from now than it does today.
The administration's plan, the centerpiece of a 700-page legislative package, proposes strict limits on emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide.
But to attract vital support from congressional Democrats representing heavily coal-dependent areas, authors of the legislation, including Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), have made a series of concessions that substantially soften its effect on coal -- at least over the next decade or so.
As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency projects that even if the emissions limits go into effect, the U.S. would use more carbon-dioxide-heavy coal in 2020 than it did in 2005.
That's because the bill gives utilities a financial incentive to keep burning coal by joining the cap-and-trade system -- a kind of marketplace where polluters could reduce their emissions on paper by buying pollution reductions created by others. These so-called offsets, for example, could be created and sold by farmers who planted trees, which filter carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Environmental groups also say the bill could set off a boom in the construction of new coal plants because of provisions that would restrict legal efforts to block such projects.
Leading Democrats -- and some major conservation groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council -- say the moves have helped attract coal-district Democrats to support the bill without undermining the plan's environmental goals.
"We've ensured a role for coal" in the nation's energy future, said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), one of the leading coal champions in the House.
But some environmentalists remain skeptical that offsets can reduce greenhouse gases to avoid catastrophic warming of the atmosphere.
"This is greens making a deal with the devil," said Ted Nordhaus, chairman of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmentalist think tank that recently completed a detailed critique of the bill’s coal provisions.
Obama and House leaders "gave the coal guys everything they wanted," said Michael Shellenberger, the institute's president. "The result is legislation that, when all is said and done, will increase coal generation and make it harder to move away from it."
The EPA projects Obama's plan would slow the growth in coal over what would have occurred in the absence of emission limits. Emissions from coal would grow at roughly the same rate as overall coal use, until "clean coal" technology becomes commercially viable.
Under the plan, the EPA projects that after 2020, conventional coal use would begin to fall quickly. That prediction rests on a still-uncertain assumption that new nuclear power plants would begin to come on line.
The analysis also assumes scientists will master advanced technologies that could make coal more attractive from an emissions standpoint. As of now, no one has on a commercial scale.
Obama's Energy Department announced this month that it would spend more than $1 billion to restart a carbon-capture demonstration plant in Mattoon, Ill.
The focus on coal in climate legislation is directly linked to its abundance. Coal has been burned for heat since the time of cavemen. It stoked the smokestacks of the Industrial Revolution and powered the first steam engines. It remains the source of half of the electric power in the United States and is the nation's most abundant fossil fuel.
"Whatever the ideal vision of the future," said David G. Hawkins, director of climate programs for the NRDC, "coal will be there for decades at least."
The coal industry spent $38 million in the 2008 presidential campaign to push its message, and it has succeeded in changing the nature of the debate.
"In the past, there was a drive to use climate policy as a wedge to take coal out of the energy mix," said Joe Lucas, senior vice president of communications for the industry-funded American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. "There's just been a fundamental shift."
Several of the most coal-dependent utilities have endorsed the House bill, but the coal coalition has not -- it wants caps on the price of emission permits, among other amendments. But Lucas said the bill was "closer" than it had ever been to industry acceptance.
Still, most Republicans, particularly those from coal-heavy regions, say the bill is still not a good deal for coal consumers, who include many of the poorest Americans.
"Why is it that the wealthy parts of our country continue to attack the lifestyles of the rural poor?" Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), a longtime coal champion, asked at a hearing on the energy bill last month. "If you're going to put a price on carbon emissions now, later or in the future, those that rely on [coal] are going to be harmed."
Family of UCLA lab fire victim criticizes investigation
Relatives of staff research assistant Sheri Sangji, who died of burns from a chemical explosion, say a state investigator ignored key information and seek harsher penalties for the university...Kim Christensen
State regulators performed a shoddy investigation and let UCLA off too lightly for violations stemming from a chemistry lab fire that killed a staff research assistant, the victim's family contends in papers filed with Cal-OSHA and the Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board.
Sheri Sangji, 23, suffered severe burns over 43% of her body when an experiment with air-sensitive chemicals burst into flame Dec. 29 and ignited her clothing. Sangji, who was not wearing a protective lab coat, died 18 days later.
Last month, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health concluded that Sangji was improperly trained and not wearing protective clothing. Cal-OSHA cited UCLA for one regulatory and three "serious" violations, levying fines totaling $31,875.
UCLA paid the fines but appealed the violations and is seeking a stipulation from Cal-OSHA that it admits no fault in connection with the findings -- a legal move aimed at limiting the university's liability.
Sangji's family followed with its own appeal, asking the state board to upgrade all four violations to "willful" and "repeat" status -- with penalties of up to $70,000 each. It was rejected last week, however, because only employers may appeal. So Sangji's family has filed motions with the board to become a party to UCLA's appeal, in hopes of making its case for harsher penalties that way. The University Professional and Technical Employees union, which represents UCLA chemistry lab workers, also has asked to participate in a yet-to-be scheduled appeal hearing.
Sangji, who had worked in Professor Patrick Harran's organic chemistry lab for less than three months, was transferring up to 2 ounces of t-butyl lithium from one sealed container to another when a plastic syringe came apart in her hands, spewing a chemical compound that ignites when exposed to air.
Harran and UCLA officials have described it as a tragic accident, saying Sangji had done the experiment before and was using appropriate methods. They also have corrected the four violations cited by Cal-OSHA, as well as nearly a dozen others noted in an internal inspection of the lab two months before the fire. Most were not fixed by the time of Sangji's accident, records show.
"UCLA has cooperated fully with multiple independent investigations conducted in the wake of the tragic accident and is confident in the independence and comprehensive nature of those reviews," UCLA spokesman Phil Hampton said, declining further comment.
Cal-OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer also declined to comment, saying that neither he nor the investigator on the Sangji case could discuss it because of the pending appeal.
In a June 18 letter to the head of Cal-OSHA, Naveen Sangji blasted the investigation as "absolutely inadequate" and said it "barely addressed" the factors in her sister's death.
"The investigation does not address whether the equipment Sheri was using that day was appropriate for the experiment or whether it (hood, vacuum, inert gas) was properly functioning," she wrote.
Sangji's letter also alleges that the investigator ignored key information she relayed to him from her critically burned sister, including that she had made three transfers each of 50 milliliters, or about 1.7 ounces. The investigator's report, obtained through a California Public Records Act request, put the volume of t-butyl lithium at 20 milliliters.
"Not only does this evince shoddy investigation and the investigator's complete disregard of information provided by the family, but also is significant given that it may be illegal to transfer a volume of 50 ml of tert-butyl lithium with a syringe in the state of California; further it is not recommended by the manufacturer," the letter stated.
The family also contends that the investigator ignored a UCLA fire marshal's report, which quoted Harran as saying that Sangji probably was transferring 40 to 50 milliliters of the chemical and that a different method would have been preferred for that amount.
The investigator also failed to take into account UCLA fire officials' initial concerns that the accident scene had been tampered with, Sangji's letter says.
On the night of the fire, a deputy fire marshal had ordered Harran and his researchers to stay out of the lab, which was then locked and secured with plastic crime-scene tape, records show. But the next morning, the deputy reported, he found that some 5-gallon drums of improperly stored flammable liquids were gone, and other items had been moved around.
There also was no sign of a container of highly flammable hexane that Sheri Sangji said had spilled and fueled the flash fire that engulfed her, according to a report by Los Angeles fire officials who interviewed her shortly afterward.
When UCLA fire officials interviewed Harran on Feb. 5, he said he knew nothing about the hexane. He acknowledged asking two researchers to clean up the lab and remove the drums, but said he had no ulterior motive.
"I just wanted to get all those drums out," he said. "It was my fault. . . . And it didn't relate to the accident, but it just looked bad."
The suspected tampering triggered a criminal investigation by UCLA police, who concluded in January that no crime had been committed, records show. Cal-OSHA's Bureau of Investigation has launched its own probe, as it routinely does in death cases, to determine if there is evidence of a crime. Fryer would say only that it is ongoing.
Here come the real estate vultures
REITs are raising cash to take advantage of bargain prices on distressed commercial properties and mortgages...Michael V. Copeland
(Fortune Magazine) -- These are tempting times for real estate bargain hunters. Whether it's the tony house down the street with an asking price that keeps dropping or office space at a deep discount, if you have the means, there are deals to be had. Individual investors snapping up foreclosed houses have helped boost home-sale figures sharply in recent months (although prices have remained depressed). And now some real estate investment trusts are raising money to fund acquisitions of distressed commercial properties.
In April we pointed out that financially strong REITs offered attractive yields. That remains the case. But now some of the equity REITs with stronger balance sheets are looking to move from defense to offense, building billion-dollar war chests to fund acquisitions of troubled properties on the cheap. Indeed, if you believe that now is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to buy low in real estate, REITs allow you a way to bet on a rebound in the market without getting approval for financing and taking possession of a piece of property yourself.
And there seems to be no shortage of prospective purchases. There is an estimated $90 billion in commercial real estate in the U.S. alone that is "distressed," according to New York-based real estate research firm Real Capital Analytics. These are properties that have been foreclosed on, or whose owners are in default on their loans or in bankruptcy. "On top of those properties, there is hundreds of billions more in debt coming due in the next few years," says Peter Slatin, editorial director at Real Capital. "Some REITs are getting prepared for that."
Are they ever. REITs have raised about $12 billion by issuing stock in recent months. Among them are well-known names such as Boston Properties (BXP), Regency Centers (REG), Simon Property Group (SPG), and Vornado Realty Trust (VNO). "Our mood here is getting a little bit more forward-thinking than it has been over the last six months," Simon Property chairman and CEO David Simon told analysts during the company's earnings call May 1. One big opportunity the gang at Simon is keeping an eye on is the portfolio of General Growth Properties, the real estate giant that filed for Chapter 11 in April, taking more than 160 properties with it, including such trophies as Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston and South Street Seaport in New York City.
The four blue-chip REITs cited above represent a fairly conservative way for individual investors to profit from the (hoped-for) real estate rebound. The fact that they have the resources to exploit today's weak market may set them up for years of healthy cash flows. "These are the commercial real estate companies that are going to survive," says Jim Sullivan, senior REIT analyst with Green Street Advisors. "They all have balance sheets that are stronger than average and management teams that have proven their ability to take advantage of downturns."
But there are other ways to play. The distress in the market has emboldened some privately held real estate funds (including newly formed ones) to raise money by offering stock to the public. These companies aren't focused on owning property but on the debt underlying it. On June 11, Cypress Sharpridge Investments (CYS), which invests in mortgage-backed securities (yes, those infamous bonds), raised about $100 million in an IPO. And several more IPOs are in the works, including a proposed $500 million offering from Starwood Property Trust, led by former chairman of Starwood Hotels Barry Sternlicht, and a $750 million offering from PennyMac Mortgage, run by Stanford Kurland and other former executives of Countrywide Financial (yes, that Countrywide). And Invesco Mortgage Capital is looking to raise about $400 million to go shopping for debt. But these IPOs are for high-risk investors only.
And anyone who goes bargain hunting in real estate today has to be patient. REITs fell earlier and harder than the broader real estate market. In the two years from March 2007 to March 2009, REIT stocks fell a stunning 75% on average. Lately, however, REITs have been on a roll, with the MSCI U.S. REIT index gaining more than 45% since the March low. Does this spurt mean that REITs are foreshadowing a sharp rise in real estate values? Some experts caution that there is more pain to come. "Prices have gotten ahead of the fundamentals in real estate," says Kenneth Rosen, chairman of the Fisher Center for Real Estate and a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. "It has gone too far, too fast." Rosen expects a correction in the coming months.
But many analysts like the longer-term outlook. "The underpinnings of the commercial real estate market are really in pretty good shape," says Philip Martin, a senior vice president of Golub & Co., a Chicago-based real estate investment and development firm. He notes that there isn't the kind of massive oversupply of commercial properties that existed during the slump of the late 1980s and early 1990s. "So when we do recover, you are likely to see a pretty healthy snap-back in real estate prices," he says. "This is an excellent environment for those REITs with the right combination of knowledge and capital. They are going to have an opportunity to make some great deals, and the risk-adjusted returns at this point in the real estate cycle are going to be pretty darn good."