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June 13th, 2017 Archives




Reuters/Youssef Boudlal

Cities and states may be able to officially join the Paris Agreement after all. Patricia Espinosa, head of the United Nations climate change body that negotiated the accord, told ministers at a June 11-12 meeting that she hopes to bring U.S. cities and states into the fold.

“This is obviously important, because cities like New York and states like California that intend to pursue the same direction — of reducing emissions very ambitiously — will have a voice and will be able to sign agreements inside the international convention on climate change,” said Espinosa, as reported by Politico.

After Trump announced the U.S. would drop out of the Paris deal, numerous states, cities, and businesses reiterated commitments to reducing emissions. But the actual legality of cities and states joining international treaties remains murky under the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s a little bit early to know what exactly is meant by” Espinosa’s comment, says Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center. Arroyo says it could refer to subnational representatives, like governors, receiving credentials to attend climate talks and participate in discussions, rather than state or municipal governments literally signing on.

Emma Foehringer Merchant

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Settlements for Company Sins Can No Longer Aid Other Projects, Sessions Says




Water and sediment gush out of a pipe in a project to restore the beaches near Port Fourchon, Louisiana. Much of the funding came from fines paid by BP from the devastating 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.


William Widmer for The New York Times

When companies settle claims of wrongdoing, they are often compelled to pay for environmental or community development projects as well as pay fines and direct compensation to victims. Sometimes the third-party payments are only marginally related to the damages caused by the company’s actions.

To settle claims from the Gulf oil spill, BP was required to spend billions on coastal restoration projects that were not directly related to spill damage. Volkswagen is financing electric vehicle charging stations under its settlement of the diesel emissions cheating scandal. Duke Energy paid for soil restoration on federal land as part of its compensation for air pollution violations at some of its power plants in North Carolina.

That longstanding practice is now under attack on two fronts, potentially jeopardizing a source of financing for initiatives across the country that supporters say have paid great environmental and social dividends. Critics say the practice effectively creates “slush funds” for favored organizations or causes.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a memo issued this week, directed the Justice Department to no longer include funding for projects managed by outside groups in settlements with corporate wrongdoers. The settlement money will instead go exclusively to the federal Treasury or to victims of the company’s actions, Mr. Sessions said.

“It has come to my attention that certain previous settlement agreements involving the department included payments to various nongovernmental, third-party organizations as a condition of settlement with the United States,” Mr. Sessions said. “These third-party organizations were neither victims nor parties to the lawsuits. The department will no longer engage in this practice.”

The policy applies only to future cases.

A bill with similar intent, sponsored by Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, passed a House committee in February. It would prevent the government from using settlement money from civil cases for purposes other than direct victim compensation or remediation, like cleanups of environmental disasters. A version of the bill passed the House last year, but died in the Senate.

This year, groups including the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Americans for Prosperity, both closely linked to the libertarian billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, wrote to President Trump criticizing a recent settlement between the Obama administration’s Justice Department and Volkswagen.

The $14.7 billion settlement, over Volkswagen’s use of “defeat devices” to cheat emissions rules, included almost $2 billion that Volkswagen was required to invest in electric vehicle charging stations and other clean vehicle technology. The settlement also directed Volkswagen to pay $2.7 billion to programs that would reduce pollution from diesel cars and trucks. Volkswagen had been accused of manufacturing cars that spewed harmful nitrogen oxides at up to 40 times the levels allowed under the Clean Air Act.

Some of the money was in effect going to pay for clean air initiatives championed by President Barack Obama, the conservative groups said, initiatives that Congress twice refused to fund.

“Having been twice spurned by lawmakers, the Obama administration leveraged the Volkswagen settlement,” the groups charged. All settlement money, they argued, should “instead be deposited into the U.S. Treasury.”

The groups said that Congress has not authorized or provided money for electric vehicle infrastructure. They said the plan represents “an end-run around Congress’s lawmaking power.”

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Google’s New Product Puts Peer Pressure to a Sunny Use

The company’s “Project Sunroof” now shows you which of your friends have already put solar panels on their roof.


Project Sunroof now puts red dots over houses that appear to have solar panels on their roof, such as this neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado.



Updated on June 12 at 11:30 a.m. ET

One of the best predictors of whether people install solar panels on their house isn’t their age, their race, their level of income, or their political affiliation.

It’s whether their neighbors did it first.

This finding has been shown repeatedly across space and time, including in California, Connecticut, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. “It happens at the street level, it happens within zip codes, it happens within states. It seems to be a common feature of human decision-making that crosses many boundaries,” says Kenneth Gillingham, a professor of economics at Yale University whose study helped establish the finding.

On Monday, Google will put the finding into practice with Project Sunroof, its free online tool that aims to make it easier for people to obtain and use home solar panels. Project Sunroof will now not only inform users how much sun hits their roof, or how much solar panels would save them per month, but also which of their neighbors have taken the plunge first.

Project Sunroof was launched in 2015 by Carl Elkin, an engineer at Google who had worked on local solar-installation campaigns in Massachusetts. It now provides data for 60 million homes across the United States that it has already assessed with its algorithms.

For the past two years, Project Sunroof has walked people through all the information-gathering steps of installing solar panels: After you tell it where you live, its algorithms estimate how much solar energy falls on your roof, calculate how much solar panels would reduce your electricity bill, and deliver estimates from local installation firms like Solar City.

It can also walk you through similar steps if you’re interested in leasing or borrowing panels. “It highlights that, for many people, solar is often free. In many cases, including for my house, solar is better than free,” Elkin told me last week.

Now—in a nod to the powerful peer effects of solar power—it will also show you which of your neighbors have already installed panels. In its map view, Project Sunroof will show a red dot over any home or structure that appears to have rooftop solar.

“People want to know: ‘What if there’s some hidden gotcha in the contract?’and usually there isn’t. ‘Does this work for other people like me? Is solar really viable in my neighborhood?’” Elkin says. “You can zoom around through your town and understand how common solar is in your neighborhood. And many people have found: Wow, there is a lot more solar in my neighborhood than I’d realized.”

“We want people to realize solar is absolutely part of the fabric of American life,” Elkin says.

Google created the data for this feature in-house, training a machine-learning algorithm on the common appearance of rooftop solar panels and then letting it loose on the cities and towns that Project Sunroof already covers. Right now, the company has analyzed installations on about 60 million buildings in the United States; it hopes to get to the remaining 40 million buildings in the next few years. The methodology doesn’t seem to be perfect yet—I noticed some rooftop solar installations in my own neighborhood that the algorithms missed—but it seems to identify most of them.

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Summit in Austin to focus on future of Texas solar power

By Ryan Maye Handy, Houston Chronicle Published 6:51 am, Tuesday, June 13, 2017

  1. pastedGraphic.pdf

    OCI Solar Power is building the 110-megawatt, Alamo 6 solar farm in Iraan in West Texas to provide renewable power to the city of San Antonio. The project is slated to come online by the end of the year. OCI signed a long-term power contract with San Antonio's municipal utility, CPS Energy.

    How does solar power affect electricity prices in Texas? What is the value of solar power in a state without net metering? And how much will the solar industry grow in Texas over the new few years?

    These are just a few questions that speakers will address during a two-day summit for solar power companies in Austin this week.

    Hosted by the national trade group the Solar Energy Industries Association, the conference on Tuesday and Wednesday will feature speakers from some of Texas' leading retail and electric companies.

    Looks for more stories from the conference on

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    Brown: ‘Grossly Hypocritical’ To Oppose Oil Production In California

    Monday, June 12, 2017 | Sacramento, CA | Permalink


    Gov. Brown Press Office / Twitter

    Jerry Brown’s trip to China earned him wall-to-wall media coverage — internationally and here at home.

    Much less covered was another environmental visit the California governor took just weeks earlier: to Bell Gardens in Los Angeles County, a transportation corridor with some of the worst air quality in the state.

    “It is a little surprising to actually be there (in Bell Gardens) and witness first-hand the amount of cement, the number of cars and trucks and trains, and the proximity of parks and basketball courts,“ Brown told Capital Public Radio's Ben Bradford in an interview last week during a car ride through Beijing. “But that’s the reality. California has 33 million vehicles and 39 million people. So they have to be somewhere.“

    Those two trips highlight competing tensions as Brown seeks to shape climate change policies in California and around the world.

    Click on the audio player above to listen to part of Brown's interview with Capital Public Radio's Ben Bradford last week in Beijing. The clip begins with the governor answering a question about whether he was surprised by what he saw in Bell Gardens.

    Despite Brown’s ascension to the global stage in the fight against climate change, as evidenced in his journey across China last week, he’s far from universally admired by environmentalists here at home.

    Many of them believe the governor sides too often with oil companies on issues like fracking and isn’t doing enough to force cuts in air pollution in parts of the state with poor air quality.

    Take, for example, Americans Against Fracking co-founder David Braun of Oakland, who wrote in an email: “I'm wondering if you might ask Brown to reconcile the millions of dollars he has taken for himself and his projects from the oil industry, along with firing regulators at the industry's request, with his position on climate change. I'm curious as to how one can do the bidding of the same industry that is the worst polluter as far as climate change is concerned, and how he reconciles that within himself.“

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    Uber, Lyft cars have heavy impact on SF streets, study finds

    By Carolyn Said

    June 13, 2017 Updated: June 13, 2017 12:05am

    1. pastedGraphic.pdf

    Photo: Nicole Boliaux, The Chronicle

    Ride-hailing cars like this Uber vehicle make more than 170,000 trips within San Francisco every weekday, according to a report released by the County Transportation Authority.

    Uber and Lyft vehicles rack up over half a million miles every day on San Francisco streets, according to a report being released Tuesday by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, which manages local congestion.

    Ride-hailing cars make more than 170,000 trips within the city every weekday, while putting in some 570,000 vehicle miles, the report said. That figure is 6.5 percent of total weekday vehicle miles in the city. When only considering trips that start or end within the city — the focus of the authority’s study — ride-hail vehicles amount to a fifth of all vehicle miles.

    “The perception that there are a tremendous number of (Uber and Lyft) vehicles out on the streets today is, in fact, true,” said Joe Castiglione, the authority’s deputy director for technology, data and analysis. “We see huge numbers of trips across all days of the week, primarily concentrated in the most congested parts of the city and at the most congested times of day.”

    Some 5,700 Uber and Lyft cars roam the streets at the weekday peak of 6:30 to 7 p.m., the report said. The busiest time, Fridays from 7:30 to 8 p.m., sees more than 6,500 ride-hailing cars. The report did not distinguish between Uber and Lyft trips; the two companies account for virtually all ride-hailing in San Francisco.

    The app-summoned vehicles are heavily concentrated in popular areas such as the downtown core, South of Market, the Mission and Van Ness corridors, Pacific Heights and the Marina. In SoMa and downtown, ride hailing accounts for a quarter of all in-city trips at peak commute periods (6 to 9 a.m. and 3:30 to 6:30 p.m.). In outer neighborhoods like the Sunset, their impact is far lower.

    Still, Uber and Lyft cars “provide broader service across the city than taxis, particularly in the western neighborhoods,” the report said. But they provide fewer trips relative to the population in lower-income areas such as the southern and southeastern parts of the city.

    Friday is the busiest day, with 222,500 trips, while Sundays saw only 129,000 trips.

    San Francisco officials want to gauge Uber’s and Lyft’s impact on the city. That’s why the transportation authority, which is distinct from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, produced the report. It was based on data collected from the companies’ apps by Northeastern University researchers over a six-week period late last year.

    “Information is power,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who chairs the authority, describing the findings as “shocking” news. “This information will be used by me and my colleagues, and hopefully members of the state Legislature to ... take policy steps to rationalize this new frontier.”

    Uber and Lyft are regulated at the state level by the California Public Utilities Commission, while taxis are regulated by cities or counties. (In San Francisco, the SFMTA regulates taxis.) Peskin hopes the Legislature will allow cities like San Francisco where the services’ impact is acute to create “a certain amount of reasonable regulation.” He pointed to Supervisor Jane Kim’s suggestion of a per-ride fee as an example.

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    Sacramento streetcar project effort scores key local funding

    JUNE 12, 2017 9:13 PM


    The Sacramento streetcar effort got a major boost Monday night when the Sacramento Regional Transit bus and rail agency board agreed to put $25 million into the trolley project’s construction fund.

    That money would be part of an eventual pot of $100 million in local and state funds to match a hoped-for $100 million federal grant for the $200 million project.

    The money SacRT pledged comes from that agency’s share of a state high speed rail bond fund. Several bus and rail riders asked the SacRT board to keep that money for other transit needs, such as buying low-floor light rail vehicles or light rail improvements in the downtown railyard.

    Local leaders, including city Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Sacramento Congresswoman Doris Matsui, asked for SacRT’s financial support for the project, which will be jointly controlled by the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento. The streetcar line, if built, will run through the core areas of both cities.

    Proponents called the transit agency’s financial assistance critical to keeping the project hopes alive. But it does not assure the project will happen.

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