Archive for September, 2011

Hold that drum roll! More green than greenhouse progress here.

Monday, September 26th, 2011

California’s big deal, carbon cap-and-trade auction program—you know, the one that put Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on the front cover of Time in his elevator shoes—has boiled down to this: It’s going to be run by a consultant for the next two years for maximum compensation of $750,000. (See the California Air Resources Board’s recent presentation to interested consultants here.) CARB, which invented the program and has been rushing to finalize applicable rules, now even has to hire a consultant to train its own staff how to monitor and account for which companies hold which emissions rights allowing them to spew greenhouse gases into the air.

It all goes to show how Schwarzenegger’s big-muscle program has boiled down to little more than flab over the last five years.

It was 2006 when Arnie and former California Speaker of the Assembly Fabian Nunez swaggered onto a stage to announce that the golden state planned to lead the nation in tackling the global warming problem under AB 32, its climate protection law. The former muscle-man envisioned a gleaming carbon trading market that other states in the West and provinces in Canada would join. Soon, Schwarzenegger even raised the prospect that Northeast and Midwest state would join in.

But the more other states looked and watched, the less inclined they became to partner with California. Eventually, it became apparent that Schwarzenegger’s pumped up dream of California being the new financial headquarters for carbon trading had collapsed, leaving the state on its own today.

 Even in the America’s eco-bellwether state, a lawsuit by environmental justice activists and the deepening economic recession have whittled down the grand policy scheme to the point where it’s a relatively minor player in the state’s plan to cut greenhouse gases. It’s been overtaken by new approaches like a 33-percent renewable energy standard for electric utilities; cars that are lightweight, fuel efficient and employ hybrid vehicles to get almost 55-miles per gallon in another five years; and investments in insulation, shade trees, modern lighting, and tighter windows and doors to make buildings use less energy.

 Other states are following California in such measures, seeing them as better and surer ways to cut greenhouse gases. Yet, California regulators remain stubborn as a dog with a bone about plunging ahead with a California-only carbon market. So on October 20, CARB plans to adopt final amendments to its cap-and-trade rules and to quickly hire consultants to run the first carbon emissions rights auction in 2012.

 One glaring fact about the program is that companies will be able to meet some half their emissions reductions through offset projects—such as planting trees in Indonesia to take carbon dioxide out of the air, or capturing methane emissions from hog farms in Latin America. CARB plans to rely on privately-funded, third party entities to police these operations (no doubt, with a wink and a nod) to make sure the resulting emissions reductions are real and permanent.

 Meanwhile, CARB’s staff will be trained by private industry consultants on how to fully carry out the program they’ve invented. Let’s just hope the consultants doing the training can get to Sacramento since the governor won’t let state employees travel to get training, much less to inspect forestry projects or hog farms along the equator. He’s even taken away their cell phones due to the state’s budget mess.

 In the end, CARB, no doubt, is being realistic. Since it can’t carry out the carbon market program it’s unleashing by itself—starved nearly to death by legislators and company lobbyists that prevent any tax increases—it’s got little choice but to hand most of it over to the private sector, sort of like toll roads and charter schools. Cap-and-trade: another capitalist idea.

(Shameless sales pitch, since we’re on the money theme. Many of these controversies and issues are covering in our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles.)

The Dirt on Bill Burke, the Man Who’d Buy the Dodgers on Behalf of China: a Smogtown editorial

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Where’s Walter O’Malley when you need him?

 The revered owner of the Dodgers—who moved the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and privately financed and built Dodger Stadium in the early-1960s —was a man of stature unknown today in Chavez Ravine. Former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley once called the patrician O’Malley “the epitome of class.”

But who would say that about Dr. William (“Bill”)  Burke, a connected local businessman and political figure, with his offer leading an investment group to acquire the Dodgers for $1.2 billion?

The chairman of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), the L.A.-region’s smog-control agency, and member of the California Coastal Commission, is simply carrying the money for Chinese interests seeking to buy the Dodgers from the bankrupt and disreputable McCourt family. And by Chinese interests, we’re talking the government of the People’s Republic, if initial news reports are accurate.

Burke is no O’Malley, that’s for sure. Here’s some background on him, with much more in our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles.

Where O’Malley built a top-notch baseball empire with private funds, Burke has made a career acting essentially as a high-class bagman carrying money from other people to politicians, with more than a little self-aggrandizement along the way.

Burke is well-known for his political action committees, which have delivered millions of dollars to legislators and city council members throughout his career and given him access and clout in L.A. City Hall and Sacramento.

Not surprisingly, he constructed his for-profit L.A. Marathon on public subsidies and then cut corners when it came to paying legitimate fees levied by the city. The L.A. council looked the other way in Burke’s case, particularly those to whom he doled out campaign contributions. Compare that situation to a more recent one, when the council pulled the plug on the popular Sunset Junction Music Festival because the promoters failed to pay fees. The cancellation, just days before the festival was scheduled, left musicians and vendors hung out to dry, a fate never visited upon Burke.

Beyond the hypocritical spectacle of the region’s top clean-air advocate representing as a private businessman a country where air pollution kills an estimated 655,000 people annually, according to this 2008 study, there’s also ground-level dirt in the district chair’s past.

In 1994, the L.A. City Ethics Commission, along with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, fined Burke’s corporation $436,250 for laundering campaign contributions. But at least that was out in the open. As we document in Smogtown, Burke quietly arranged a $53,000 AQMD public relations contract for Layne Bordenave, the mistress of former-California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, records and interviews show. Bordenave simply took the money and ran without providing any service. Burke bragged that in exchange for the money, Brown promised to block legislation trimming the district’s authority during a rough economic patch in the 1990s.

Burke was back to bidding again in 2001, helping to kill the first California electric car mandate as General Motors wanted. Burke argued it was unfair to require electric cars when working-class stiffs of color still had to breathe diesel fumes from trucks on freeways and at the ports. He said he’d brokered a deal with G.M. to deliver a half-billion dollars to end diesel pollution in Southern California, if only the state would release G.M. from its obligation to build electric cars. G.M. got rid of the obligation, but never delivered the money, leaving L.A. and the state with pollution from both cars and diesel soot from trucks. Today, the electric car is making a huge comeback.

Not too shrewd, Bill. But that’s what happens to those in public service who are willing to carry money for special interests to get ahead. Repping the Chinese, with their reputation for environmental lethality, and G.M., whose recalicitrance to install exhaust-trapping technology helped entomb Southern California in dangerous fumebanks of smog for decades, fits a pattern.

Let this cautionary tale about Burke’s attempt to buy the Dodgers with the investment group sink in. Once it does, it’s easy to imagine Walter O’Malley spinning in his grave at the notion that the team he loved could pass to such hands.

For more, read William’s L.A. Weekly feature about Burke’s stewardship at the district, and Chip’s Pasadena Weekly expose on cap-and-trade fraud there under his watch..)

AQMD chairman representing smog-smothered China in a deal with the Dodgers, Obama caving in on a critical ozone rule: just another jaded day in Smogtown

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

* Bill Burke, longtime chairman of Southern California’s regional smog-fighting agency, is leading a group that includes the Chinese government, to purchase the L.A. Dodgers for $1.2 billion from beleaguered owner Frank McCourt. Burke, who founded the L.A. Marathon and is the husband to former congresswoman and County Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, has given no official comments. But we have a couple: first, representing an ownership group with funding from China is incendiary, given Burke’s job with the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the fact that China has ghastly air pollution problems far beyond anything us current Westerners can imagine. (Folks who lived through the “great” L.A. smog crises might be about the only ones with damaged lungs and psyches who could relate). What message is Burke sending by aligning himself with a dirty, industrial powerhouse like that? That green (thimk dollars) counts more than brown, as in brown, crusty, noxious air pollution? Also, Burke has some questions to answer, and we’re not talking about the L.A. Marathon. In our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, we discover the smelly deal he cut with then state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. Let’s just say it involves political promises, a taxpayer-funded P.R. contract that produced no P.R. and a mistress.

- From the L.A. Times:

“In an international twist in the Dodgers’ ownership saga, Frank McCourt has been offered $1.2 billion to sell the team to a group indirectly financed by the government of China. The bid is headed by Los Angeles Marathon founder Bill Burke, according to a letter sent to McCourt on Tuesday. The letter was disclosed to The Times by two people familiar with its content but not authorized to discuss it publicly. The proposed sale price would set a record for a Major League Baseball team. However, the bid was received with skepticism within MLB, where executives wondered whether the proposal might be used by McCourt to stir negotiations with other potential buyers or to persuade a Bankruptcy Court judge to keep McCourt in charge of the team …”

Stay tuned.

* There’s a great bumper sticker out there that says, in effect, if you’re not cynical enough, you’re not paying attention. Optimists that we are, we’re also realists and pollution historians and we know that when the economy goes into the crapper, health-protecting environmental rules we all figured we’re mainstream and untouchable are suspended and put on ice. Well, one of the holy grails of enviromental protections against pernicious smog is about to spend time in regulatory purgatory. L.A. anti-smog crusaders like Ken Hahn must be rolling in their graves at the rollback built on so many people’s suffering. Then again, none of us are president of a hurting country. Ozone: what hath you done? We smell clusmy backpedal.

- The New York Times hits it on the head:

“The Obama administration is abandoning its plan to immediately tighten air-quality rules nationwide to reduce emissions of smog-causing chemicals after an intense lobbying campaign by industry, which said the new rule would cost billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs, officials said Friday. “If he continues to represent Republican interests, he should open the door for Democrats to choose a candidate who represents them, rather than the opposing party.” The Environmental Protection Agency, following the recommendation of its scientific advisers, had proposed lowering the so-called ozone standard from that set by the Bush administration to a new stricter standard that would have thrown hundreds of American counties out of compliance with the Clean Air Act. It would have required a major effort by state and local officials, as well as new emissions controls by industries and agriculture across the country. The more lenient Bush administration standard from 2008 will remain in place until a scheduled reconsideration of acceptable pollution limits in 2013, officials indicated Friday …”

- More about this from the L.A. Times:

“President Obama announced Friday that he has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to drop controversial rules to cut smog levels, a move welcomed by the business community that has long decried them as onerous but one sure to alienate the president’s environmental base even further as his administration backs away from key anti-pollution initiatives. In a statement issued by the White House, the president said: “I have continued to underscore the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover. With that in mind, and after careful consideration, I have requested that Administrator [Lisa] Jackson withdraw the draft Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards at this time. Work is already underway to update a 2006 review of the science that will result in the reconsideration of the ozone standard in 2013. Ultimately, I did not support asking state and local governments to begin implementing a new standard that will soon be reconsidered,” the statement concluded …

* As if this wasn’t demoralizing enough, here’s a story emblematic of the collossal missed opportunity to jump start an alternative enery industry in the face of global recession and global warming because politicas interfered. From ABC News

“Solyndra, a renewable energy firm that became the darling of the Obama Administration, shut the doors to its California headquarters today, raising sharp questions from the administration’s critics about political favoritism in the federal loan program. “We smelled a rat from the onset,” Republican House Energy and Commerce Committee members Rep. Cliff Stearns and Rep. Fred Upton said in a statement to ABC News of the the $535 million government loan guarantee awarded to Solyndra in 2009. The manufacturer of rooftop solar panels opened in 2005 and in 2009 became the Obama administration’s first recipient of an half-billion dollar energy loan guarantee meant to help minimize the risk to venture capital firms that were backing the solar start-up. Obama made a personal visit to the factory last year to herald its bright future.

* Lastly, not so Greenland anymore.