Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Closer Look at Pork

It's so bad it's painful to look at. I've deconstructed it before, but now it's worse, with our Governor now backing the California High Speed Rail (HSR) as part of his legacy. "Moonbeam" is appropriate for this one as well, it won't give him a "re-do".

The California HSR project is a conceptually flawed design that's basically laid out by "let's make a deal" strategies. Let's look at the pit stops on the first leg, starting at a San Francisco terminus:

Palo Alto
San Jose
Los Angeles

This is not a high speed rail design, it's a Metrolink system (choo-choo train) at best; perhaps 4 hours transit under good conditions. This is a gerrymandered design by politicians, not engineers, which won't comply with the bond requirement to make the transit in 2.5 hours. HSR doesn't make pit stops, it's a very large machine that requires intensive engineering and very high maintenance on straight routes. Needless to say, it can't safely share tracks with regular rail, as is now proposed. The land has not been purchased yet, and many lawsuits are brewing over the "taking" of farmland, among many other issues, because the route cuts across acres of farmland, rather than paralleling the I-5.

The bids are questionable and costs are not reliable. The low bidder has not been found to perform on previous projects. Newspaper editorials recommend scuttling the project for these reasons. The Reason Foundation has issued a report for this design citing ballooning subsidies that haven't been financially thought through. It is, overall, a sad example of patronage.

The solution for an HSR system is to build out regional transit in SF area and LA area with light rail and busses, which can be accommodated with existing facilities, stations and routes. This is the more appropriate development of urban transportation systems. They all need to work together at the right scale, and the connection to the big HSR system can happen at the two end points, just as they do in European systems. The route should run adjacent to the I-5 highway which already has clear right-of-ways and grading.

Spare the taxpayers from this pork, the state's already broke.

Update 3/15/16:  Calif. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s husband wins CA rail contract

Update 10/3/16:  Jerry Brown’s Train Wreck

Update 11/22/17: Another setback for the bullet train

Update 11/24/18: Cost overruns caused by poor planning, contract mismanagement 

Update 9/9/20: Newsom's bullet train faces rising costs, sinking funding

Monday, April 22, 2013

Earth Day 2013

In the face of the shenanigans around the climate change issue, it has become critical for action as more voices speak out about our unstable global climate, the dying natural world and the lack of potable water and fresh air as global resources.

Disturbing is the fact that those who are working through the process of negotiation and goal-setting on human emissions limits have abandoned any position that creates backlash that they don't know how to address.  I can see why it's turned into acting like politicians with endless justifications for that, but I think that's fatal in the case of establishing bounds on carbon emissions - which is the whole point of the global exercise! Someone has to forge leadership under the hardest problem the human race has ever inflicted on itself.

It makes me think of the nuclear brinksmanship of the '60's. How can any kid forget the "dive under the desk" drills that were pathetically useless but made people think that somehow they were taking effective action? That was just crowd control. This is starting to look like the same kind of an exercise, but the stakes are far, far higher and it can't go on like this. We are looking at a future of resource shocks and global conflict over diminishing worldwide resources that were initially exacerbated by global trade and cheap oil.

Where is the leadership, the intelligence and the solution-making consensus? Somebody over there at UNFCCC has got to get a grip. There are models out there for the  Precautionary Principle, even entire adopted practices and regulations, it's not that hard and is a very effective "standard of care" that would tamp down a lot of criticism. It's like the Hippocratic Oath, "do no harm" - which is where professional standards of care come from. The UNFCCC doesn't even know it exists, apparently.

What folks are failing to understand is that decisions and policies forged under the Precautionary Principle can always shift as the science and understanding of all the complex factors become more clear, because there's room to maneuver and accommodate more information. This kind of a position is on solid ground. The way they're operating now, it's already too late because they're ignoring scientific reality to accommodate politics.

That's why the US is going its own way, but that doesn't work on a global basis, as has been abundantly made clear; a consensus is required for this to work as a solution to a global problem. Maybe a General Eisenhower or MacArthur will emerge out of all this before too much longer and drag everybody in that direction.

For example, there's a call to action in Orion magazine. California is facing definite climate changes that require dealing with emissions. Gorbachev is now urging global action because of the failure to address climate change:

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says that among his top hopes for 2013 is reaching a new agreement on climate change. Two-decade-old U.N. climate talks have so far failed in their goal of reducing the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions that a vast majority of scientists says are warming the planet.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Trade Leverages Carbon Caps

The recent China Trade agreement by the newly-established California China Trade Office in Shanghai illustrates why California's progress in dealing with carbon emissions - in concert with our huge Chinese business trading population in Southern California that lives part-time in China - is creating a situation where carbon emission reduction is OK with Wall Street and Main Street and an "economic formula" embedded in climate agreements is unnecessary. It's already going ahead without any of that, and the US Government is looking to California for this leadership, as my blog post from the other day talks about - using the REDD program for carbon offsets in foreign countries.

An LA Times article goes down a little further into the dynamics of this emerging relationship:

China is more open to help from California than from elsewhere, experts say.

"California is perceived in China as a leader in cleaning up the environment without any ulterior motive," said Yunshi Wang, director of the China Center for Energy and Transportation at UC Davis. "If these requests or demands come from Washington or Brussels, there's some attitude in China that it's some kind of effort to slow them down economically."

This, coming from the largest emitter of carbon dioxide on the planet.

Positioning California to attract a growing share of China’s massive foreign investment pool and bolstering California-China trade, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr., the Bay Area Council and the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) opened the California-China Office of Trade and Investment. This is the official public-private program  between the State of California and China, and it follows more than a year of significant diplomatic and business exchanges between the two entities. China has been investing in California businesses and properties for years, and this agreement is a formalization of that relationship.

Outlined in the California Newswire are some of the specifics of the intent to establish non-binding carbon reduction goals:

To enhance cooperation in the area of low carbon development and based on the Memorandum of Understanding to Enhance Cooperation on Climate Change, Energy and Environment between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of the United States of America signed in July 2009, the Government of Guangdong Province and the Government of the State of California have reached the following understandings:

1. Purpose
This purpose of this Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is to support efforts between the Parties to help each achieve its low carbon development goals. This MOU establishes a fundamental framework for the Participants to carry out pragmatic exchange and cooperation based on the principles of equality and mutual benefits and is not intended to give rise to legal binding rights or obligations.

This unique carbon-trade aspect of the trade agreement is meant to provide the means by which China can develop its clean technologies and infrastructure via a transfer of trade with the USA. The NRDC has been involved with developing this interlinked strategy for many years.

George Skelton takes issue with this relationship in The Capitol Journal, citing corruption and lack of accountability with infrastructure project in China. He doesn't feel that California should adopt their practices of steamroller development without citizen participation. I'd say we're already seeing that kind of thing here with development on the upswing and the economy in recovery. It remains to be seen how this relationship plays out.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


The word came from Arcosanti today:

"Thank you to all the alumni, architects, writers, artists, journalists, publications, and many others who have shared their thoughts on Paolo Soleri and his work. We, at Arcosanti, are looking forward to continuing this work with even more rigor in the future.", as well as a page in memoriam on the Arcosanti website.

It was significant to me, having spent a college summer working with the building teams out on the mesa, taking in his lessons and living his examples of space and form. Most memorable, to me, was the experience of place, which is situated at a very powerful locus in the Arizona desert. Thank you Paolo. So long....all those lectures in the amphitheater, building East Crescent at dawn in 1978. Experiencing the transcendent power of moonlit desert nights. Bells in the wind. Watching those billowing electrical storms from the apse...

The New York Times provided an excellent writeup, but there are books and books out there. Paolo was prolific in his writings and drawings, and a special volume worth having is the black book full of the renderings of his ecocity dreams. Ecotecture magazine has interviewed Richard Register, who outlined the origins of Soleri's urban approach, resulting from a conference at Arcosanti in 2000. He discusses the idea of the arcology as a node of conciousness that is part of the evolution of the human species, expanding on the concept of the "Omega Point" espoused by Teilhard de Chardin and carried out even further by Soleri's habitation experiment. Soleri took the concept to its most extreme in designs and models for future cities and even space habitats for the human seeding of the universe. He saw the future as infinite and intelligent, with the principles of natural processes at its core.

And the bells! You didn't leave Arcosanti without a bell; a city built from bells...

Update 10/12/19: The history of energy in arcology at Arcosanti

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Great Expectations

California passed its “Assembly Bill 32” law in 2006 that forced the state to reduce its greenhouse gas levels to 20% below its 1990 level of emissions by 2020. Since then, California has passed one of the nation’s most aggressive fuel emission standards, a renewable portfolio standard at 33% of total energy use, and the country’s first economy-wide cap and trade program. This cap and trade program is evolving even as initial auctions were held on November 14, 2012, and the second on Feb. 19, 2013.

The backstory on this issue is that the entire program is moving forward on a more or less contingent basis. A statewide organization called Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) is working against the AB 32 implementation. In 2010, it joined a coalition that sued the agency, claiming that cap and trade violated the intent of the law and that the ARB had charged ahead with the program before fully considering public comments and alternatives, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act. The plaintiffs won an injunction in March 2011. But an appeals court allowed cap and trade to proceed while the state revised its CEQA analysis. In September 2011, the California Supreme Court also ruled that cap and trade could move forward. In the summer of 2012, several of the same petitioners filed a civil rights complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency, arguing that cap and trade “disparately and adversely affects communities of color.” The EPA rejected the complaint in January of this year, stating that it’s too early to prove these claims.

The cap-and-trade rules came into effect on January 1, 2013 and apply to large electric power plants and large industrial plants(select "California" to get the EPA emissions in that state). In 2015, they will extend to fuel distributors (including distributors of heating and transportation fuels). At that stage, the program will encompass around 360 businesses throughout California and nearly 85 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions.The official site for California's cap-and-trade program is here.

At the same time, the State of California is holding public workshops to provide input on the development of an investment plan for the auction proceeds from the Cap-and-Trade program to reduce greenhouse gases. The Proposed State Budget for 2013-14 includes a brief discussion of Administration priorities for investment, emphasizing investments in the transportation and energy sectors from which large reductions in GHG emissions are possible. Offsets are not only covered instate, but are also being developed through oversight of foreign trading in carbon sinks. This oversight is potentially overseen by nonprofit entities that are registered by the state. For example, Climate Action Reserve’s role is that of an accredited offset project registry, which is an official recognition by the State of California, to review offset project documentation, oversee verification, and issue credits that ARB then converts into compliance offsets for use in the cap-and-trade program.

Carbon offset programs include three primary areas where emissions reductions can be had and can create offsets. One area, forestry, involves sequestering carbon. As trees grow, they take carbon out of the atmosphere, hold it in their roots, trunks, and limbs. Under the rules that have been drafted and that were adopted by ARB, there are a number of mechanisms to ensure the ongoing permanence of that sequestration (permanence here meaning holding it for 100 years). Then credit is generated that can be used to offset emissions at a covered entity like a power plant or refinery.

This carbon offset program is now being developed through symposiums in the state in order to establish the basis for these offsets in forests in foreign countries. Critics say the offsets are difficult to verify. According to Carbon Market Watch, it’s hard to prove that the European Union’s offset program is actually creating the kind of emission savings it alleges for a large number of wind, hydropower and biomass energy offset projects. And the offset market in the EU has generated several high-profile cases of fraud.

Under discussion are potential benefits and challenges of linking programs in foreign jurisdictions directed at Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) to California’s cap-and-trade program as sources of offsets.  The focus is on regulatory design elements and the legal and institutional mechanisms that would be required to enable California to recognize emissions reductions from jurisdictional REDD programs as offsets under California’s cap-and-trade program. There are legal and institutional mechanisms that are required to enable California to recognize international REDD-based emission offsets for compliance purposes. Unlike the U.N.’s costly and bureaucratic global offset program, the Clean Development Mechanism, California uses a “performance standard” to determine whether projects are “additional.” The most recent press release from the REDD Offset Working Group outlines the concerns of indigenous people in countries that would participate in the preservation of their forested lands.

These great expectations and ambitions will play out in ways unforseen today. Will these goals be attainable?