Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Or otherwise known as the original "Clash of the Titans" in Greek mythology. The plot of these stories is usually epic generational struggle between the dominant Elder God and the rebel generation, with one side winning out and establishing alternative hierarchies. These battles were fought before the existence of mankind, setting the backdrop of the fates and the direction of history.

In a similar fashion, the struggle of forces between cap-and-trade, just adopted by the State of California as part of its AB 32 legislation, and those who feel that a more appropriate solution is a direct carbon tax, has been playing out at the highest levels in government here in the US. However, the Federal government has yet to enact a program at the national level.

This clash between all sides can be appreciably viewed as "animation wars" as well. Annie Leonard kicked it off with her wonderful cartoon animation, "The Story of Cap & Trade" in December of 2009. Countering this is an animation from Clean Energy Works in January of 2010 called "The Facts of Cap and Trade" featuring Nat Keohane, economist for Environmental Defense Fund and a special assistant to President Barack Obama on energy and environmental issues in the White House’s National Economic Council.

Nonetheless, the California Air Resources Board approved the final adoption of a cap-and-trade system on Thursday, Oct. 20, per the Sacramento Bee:

Dubbed the economic equivalent of "a moonshot" by its backers and a "job killer" by detractors, the "cap and trade" system adopted Thursday sets limits on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be produced by 350 of the state's largest industrial polluters starting in January 2013.

The state will issue a set number of "carbon allowances." Companies that pollute less than their limit can sell their unused allowances to companies that pollute heavily, creating market incentives to reduce emissions.

The program will create the nation's largest market for trading pollution allowances. Congress in 2009 rejected legislation that would have created a federal cap and trade system. In California, 90 percent of the allowances will be given out free, but 10 percent will be sold on the open market, which some say could raise $500 million a year for the state's climate-change programs.

PCL Insider summarizes the challenges this puts before the state, which makes California THE model for national air pollution control:

This new market approach to lowering carbon emission will likely create a new industry, where firms functioning much like stockbrokerages and financial consultants will manage permit purchases and other trading tools for polluters to distribute from one to another. The Intercontinental Exchange (NYSE:ICE) powered organization Chicago Climate Exchange is such a company, being the largest and longest running carbon exchange firm in North America.

Let the Games begin!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A New Vision

The Hahamongna Watershed Park is undergoing a public review as a result of the public outcry against the devastation of the Arcadia Woodlands and the discovery of the LA County plans to move massive amounts of sediment into the park, which provides for the natural drainage of the Arroyo Seco. Hahamongna is a precious natural resource, not a sediment dump, as chief citizen defender Mary Barrie has documented extensively in public hearing. This has forced the County into an EIR process to show the public what it intends to do in response to the sediment piling up behind Devil's Gate Dam, as a result of lack of maintenance as well as a consequence of the Station Fire. The announcement for the scoping meetings by the County is here on their website.

Karen Bugge, the Altadena Hiker, has posted her story for the EIR process here. I have also participated in the scoping meeting, and submitted the following recommendation for management of this watershed in a new era that is "post-hydraulic" in terms of dealing with nature's processes and the consequences of treating natural water systems like a plumbing project:

Dam reconstruction is effective and entirely feasible in the restoration of natural processes which carry away the sediment instead of trucking it from behind an outdated and unmaintained dam. The short-term costs to change the dam structure and clear out the obstructions to natural flow are vastly smaller than ongoing sediment removal programs which are not actually carried out, for cost reasons, endangering all the communities downstream of the dam. Life cycle estimates (100 years) should be the basis for cost comparisons that include the maintenance and repair for all structures, and this would integrate the value of natural ecosystems into the equation.

Sediment management is the self-inflicted result of placing dams in the way of natural water processes that carry the sediment to the base of the mountains and create a fertile alluvial plain. In order to replenish nutrients in the soil, as well as recharge the natural aquifers that supply well water, these natural drainage patterns must be restored. That doesn't preclude artificial water storage, but these strategies must engage the natural terrain properties that exist free of charge. Water flow moves sediment, and managing that flow rather than stopping it provides a sustainable way to provide water, soil nutrients, sand, gravel and mud into areas that sustain the ecology of the region.

Natural flood protection can be attained by protecting and restoring wetlands and floodplains, and by restoring a river’s natural flow and meandering channel. Giving at least some floodplain back to a river will give the river more room to spread out. Furthermore, wetlands act as natural sponges, storing and slowly releasing floodwaters after peak flood flows have passed.

The following steps should be taken:

1. Adopt a strategic conceptual plan identifying the watershed region and its component functioning parts. Begin implementation of this concept by adopting public-private partnerships that can continually fund the ongoing restoration efforts through private fiscal investment repaid with bond or tax structures. Partner with communities and their leadership, mountains conservancies, conservation nonprofits and the County. Everyone working together can make this happen.

2. Implement reconstruction/modification of the dam to allow water and sediment flows downstream into the areas that need these natural flows. Develop water storage strategies that are effective and multivalent, possibly a series of check dams that work in optimal natural locations and recharge the Raymond Aquifer.

3. Establish a flood plain easement program to minimize flood impacts, reduce repeat damages and store floodwaters for benefits of downstream residents and communities.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Baby Steps

The maps above show the intermodal density maps for several large rail operators, and reveals the volume of rail activity across the country. Rail is a huge part of the equation for energy consumption and pollution in all regions, but the picture is immediate and obvious in the scale of activity locally here in the Los Angeles basin. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the busiest container seaports in North America. The two ports combined move more than $350 billion worth of goods and materials annually. (Here's my earlier discussion of the rail network.)

That, combined with our unique geography of mountains that ring the regions and capture pollutants under an inversion layer, makes our environment the third worst air quality region in the nation, even under the old EPA standards that remain in force as Obama just recently scrapped new EPA regulations.

The ports have made a commitment to reducing these pollutants as well as lowering emissions of toxic chemicals. They are among the biggest contributors to the environmental problems we're dealing with, as well as the player with the largest capability of making major changes to the big environmental picture. Since the ports require upgrades and rebuilding in order to handle the growing cargo traffic, major upgrades are being incorporated into the rebuilt infrastructure. Many strategies are being implemented to deal with the transport issues.

These include The improvements to existing port rail stock and enhancement of the short rail system for "first-mile" and "last-mile" cargo loading and unloading. Their Clean Trucks Program was just recently decided in favor of the ports, which means that trucking companies are responsible for keeping the rigs in compliance with the emissions guidelines, weak as they are.

BNSF Railway has proposed a Southern California International Gateway (SCIG). This near-dock rail facility, located a few miles from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, could allow cargo to be transferred onto rail closer to the ports, increasing use of the Alameda Corridor and improving local traffic and air quality. This is controversial due to its impact on residential areas near the ports, but it gets the truck traffic off of the 710 freeway by relocating the rail yards 20 miles closer to the ports.

This is among many steps the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are undertaking, but some game-changers would rapidly transform the region and move it towards Net Zero energy consumption and emissions. The ports have technology incubators that are developing new initiatives to address these issues. PortTechLA and San Pedro Bay Port Technologies Development Center
are examples of the kinds of incubators that can team with cities and universities to bring innovation into the redevelopment picture.

For example, at the international scale, energy is the biggest single driver in the environmental picture. China is buying energy in this country in the form of extractive oil and tar sands with its contracts and investments within the USA to foster its growth. A better scenario would be for the ports to be part of an energy production center on the coast, with biofuels from algae, which can be produced and sold without the destructive impact of mining and drilling. These renewable fuels are easily and most cheaply shipped from the ports to global destinations, as well as burning the biofuels as they go. In this very big picture, it's a major impact that can also clean up the ports and eliminate the toxic load of oil production and refining. When you have a clean port, then people will be interested in living in the area. Port cities have been the most vital and dynamic cities throughout history, and an integration of living areas, commerce, and restored environmental marshes and habitat could create a new nexus for Los Angeles that actually regenerates the environment rather than retaining the old destructive industries, even as it accommodates more living space for people in a sustainable way.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Closed Loop

The earth as an entire system is interrelated, and everything that happens in this system propagates throughout its harmonic structures. Its energy is subject to a strict global conservation law; that is, whenever one measures (or calculates) the total energy of a system of particles whose interactions do not depend explicitly on time, it is found that the total energy of the system always remains constant. So the release of carbons from mining, energy and manufacturing industries, as well as the removal of forests and watersheds, increases the carbon energy in the biosphere which spent eons sequestering it and increasing the diversity and complexity of living systems. These are now in decline, which means the earth is less capable of supporting life as we've known it, in the face of the increasing demands of human population.

So how do we change this direction? Here's the rationale behind the building known as NASA's "Sustainability Base", which I discussed earlier; it is now complete and operational. Its myriad sensors are measuring its performance and establishing the benchmarks for high-performance building structures.

The building demonstrates how closed loop systems developed by space-based technologies can be applied to structures on this planet to bring their energy and carbon impact down to zero. Ideas such as the structural exoskeleton, use of natural light and processes, as well as a "bare-bones" approach to materials use can reduce human habitation demands on ecosystems as well as assist in the restoration of the natural world.

The planets we imagined exploring turns out to be the one we're living on.