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Sierra Club wants landmark climate law altered

Submitted by News Desk on Fri, 05/20/2011 - 2:21pm

California's quest to create the world's first clean energy economy was again under fire this week when the Sierra Club urged Gov. Jerry Brown to drastically alter key elements of the much criticized climate protection law.

The state's largest environmental group urged the governor in a May 9 letter to re-evaluate and revise proposed "cap-and-trade" business incentives, particularly the rules that would allow companies to offset their pollution by purchasing credits from clean businesses outside the state and country.

"Curbing global warming will require a fundamental transformation of our energy economy, a task that cannot be outsourced to other countries," wrote Bill Magavern, the director of Sierra Club California. "If polluters are allowed to outsource their emission reductions to other sectors and jurisdictions, the clean-energy revolution will be delayed."

Cap-and-trade has been an almost constant source of tension since 2006, when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act. The landmark law requires the state to reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, but it has come under repeated attack from groups on the right, who think the regulations are too strong, and organizations on the left, who think they are too weak.

Stanley Young, the spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, defended the law, which is scheduled to go into effect in 2012, as the state's best shot at establishing a green economy featuring solar energy, hydrogen power, bio-energy and renewable electricity.

"Our goal with the protocol for the offsets is to develop rigorous approaches to ensure that every ton of greenhouse gases obtained through these offsets is verified, permanent and beyond what the normal course of business would deliver," Young said. "We feel that the combination of the cap-and-trade program along with those specific measures will drive innovation and generate green jobs."
600 plants covered

The California program would cover 600 industrial plants, but Young said offsets could only be used for a small fraction of the required emissions reductions. An even smaller portion would be allowed to come from outside the state, he said.

"ARB is committed to fulfilling all the requirements of AB32, including addressing issues regarding impacts on low-income communities and the need to develop rigorous offset protocols," he wrote in response to the Sierra Club. "The regulation was developed over a year and a half and involved dozens of public meetings and workshops and considered and incorporated the input of the broadest range of stakeholders."

The first-of-its-kind program nevertheless took a hit in March when San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ernest Goldsmith accused the state of not looking hard enough at alternatives to cap and trade. The judge is expected to order the California Air Resources Board to analyze other options and conduct an environmental review before it can adopt the protocols.

That decision came after a failed ballot measure in November backed by Valero Energy Corp., and Tesoro Corp., that would have suspended the climate law. The two companies have refineries in California that emit greenhouse gases.

Magavern said Thursday that the Sierra Club actually supports AB32, but believes the cap-and-trade system as it is now written "bends over backward to accommodate oil companies and other big polluters," whose toxic emissions often waft over adjacent low-income communities.

He said logging companies like Sierra Pacific Industries have taken advantage, dedicating 60,000 acres of California forest to the carbon offsets market. The plan, he and others said, is to grow more trees than are chopped down over the next 100 years and sell credits for the carbon dioxide that is stored in the extra trees.

"We think that those protocols leave it open for Sierra Pacific to clear cut forests in California and to actually get incentives for doing that," Magavern said. "This shows the problems with offsets if you don't strictly oversee them. We don't think that clear cutting is the way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
Governor's statement

The governor's office issued a statement late Wednesday saying Brown would carefully examine the Sierra Club's concerns and "looks forward to working with them and other stakeholders in making sure that AB32 is properly and vigorously implemented."

Other environmental organizations support cap and trade, insisting that it is the only way to provide businesses with the kind of incentives that are necessary to fight global warming.

"The Sierra Club is not just looking for changes, but to derail or stop the program altogether," said Tim O'Connor, director of the California Climate Program for the Environmental Defense Fund. "It is not right to put a pause on this program. We need to reduce emissions now. We feel the program, as written, drives innovation and protects our economy as we try to reduce emissions."

The back and forth indicates that a rift in the environmental community is widening. Rainforest Action, International Rivers, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Natural Resources Defense Council have also criticized carbon-offset programs, including the one proposed by the Air Resources Board, for letting polluters off the hook.

Seven Western states and four Canadian provinces have joined California in writing regulations in anticipation of a regional effort to curb emissions.

E-mail Peter Fimrite at
This article appeared on page C - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle