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Say No to National Environmental Policy Act Proposed Changes

Democracy requires the engagement of the people.

Your children and mine need you and me to give ten minutes of our time today to support the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Read on to find out why.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is one of the most, if not the most, important pieces of environmental legislation ever enacted by the U.S. Congress—so far. President Richard Nixon signed NEPA into law on January 1, 1970. Fifty years later, instead of celebrating and upholding this landmark legislation, the Trump Administration is doing everything it can to undo NEPA’s protections for people and the environment.

Before the National Environmental Policy Act, there were no national environmental laws. If you think the environment is messed up now, imagine what was going on fifty years ago when there were no restraints. Pollution was spewed into the air and water at will, pesticides were routinely sprayed everywhere, and entire ecosystems were bulldozed without a thought to make way for freeways and suburbs.

The Los Angeles Civic Center in California is smothered by smog in 1948. Click here for the image source.

Fortunately, for those of us living in the U.S. today, during the 1960s and 1970s millions of Americans called and wrote to their members of Congress and millions more took to the streets demanding a stop to the environmental degradation that was endangering the health and wellbeing of themselves, their families, and the nonhuman beings sharing the country.

Apparently, back then, Congress actually worked for the people they represented so they listened and then acted. President Nixon, no fan of government regulation himself, got on board.

Nixon established two environmentally-related federal agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Some of the far-reaching environmental legislation enacted by Congress and signed into law by Nixon during the 1970s included the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.

Bald Eagle in Flight at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge
Bald eagle in flight at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge – photo credit Tom Koemer, USFWS. At one point, the bald eagle, the national emblem of the United States, was considered an endangered species.

Now that you have a little background (or perhaps were reminded of stuff you already knew) about the environmental situation that led to the National Environmental Policy Act, let’s talk about the Act.

NEPA Overview

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (Public Law 91-190) is a 4 ½ page document that was probably prepared using a typewriter. The purpose of the Act was to declare a national environmental policy and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality to advise the president and oversee the regulatory process.

An Excerpt from the Law

Congress lays out its rather human-centric reasons and goals in Section 101. You will not see the words global warming or climate change, but it seems clear Congress understood that humans were changing the environment and not in a good way. They knew that people needed to change and live in harmony with the rest of nature for the benefit of the people living fifty years ago and the people who would come after them.

This part is important so it is worth reading (a couple of times if needed).

Sec. 101 (a) The Congress, recognizing the profound impact of man’s activity on the interrelations of all components of the natural environment, particularly the profound influences of population growth, high-density urbanization, industrial expansion, resource exploitation, and new and expanding technological advances and recognizing further the critical importance of restoring and maintaining environmental quality to the overall welfare and development of man, declares that it is the continuing policy of the Federal Government, in cooperation with State and local governments, and other concerned public and private organizations, to use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance, in a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.

(b) In order to carry out the policy set forth in this Act, it is the continuing responsibility of the Federal Government to use all practicable means, consistent with other essential considerations of national policy, to improve and coordinate Federal plans, functions, programs, and resources to the end that the Nation may—

(1) fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations;

(2) assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings;

(3) attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health or safety, or other undesirable and unintended consequences;

(4) preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage, and maintain, wherever possible, an environment which supports diversity and variety of individual choice;

(5) achieve a balance between population and resource use which will permit high standards of living and a wide sharing of life’s amenities; and

(6) enhance the quality of renewable resources and approach the maximum attainable recycling of depletable resources.

(c) The Congress recognizes that each person should enjoy a healthful environment and that each person has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment.

Adult Handing an Earth Globe to a Child
Photo credit – iStock/Nastco.
NEPA Requirements

NEPA requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impact of their proposed actions and projects as part of their decision-making process.

By law, these agencies must use a systematic interdisciplinary approach for evaluating impacts and alternatives. At various points in the process, they are required to make information available to the public and to allow the public to comment on it. This enables the federal government to obtain information and expertise from the public and ensures that the people have a voice in projects that may affect their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren.

Council on Environmental Quality

The Council on Environmental Quality is a 3-person committee whose members are appointed by the president. Per NEPA their responsibilities include advising the president on the environment, formulating policies, and preparing the president’s annual report on the environment. This report was eliminated in 1997 after Congress passed the Federal Reports Elimination and Sunset Act to reduce government paperwork.

If you are interested in learning about how NEPA works, click here for an easy to read overview prepared by ProtectNEPA.org (a coalition of nonprofits). The Council on Environmental Quality website contains useful information, too.

Hopefully, at this point, you have a basic understanding of NEPA and why it is so critically important to the health and wellbeing of people and the environment.

Next, let’s talk about why you and I need to take time out of our busy schedules today to support NEPA.

Call to Action – Support NEPA

Article II of the U.S. Constitution covers the executive powers of the president. Section 3 states “…he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed…”

The current president, Trump, is deliberately undermining and destroying regulations and policies put in place to carry out the laws enacted by Congress to protect the American people. He uses the economy as a shield for his actions intentionally ignoring the fact that a healthy environment is a critical part of the economy.

On January 1, 2020, the fiftieth anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act, Trump made it clear that he is willfully and proudly attacking this law.

“Moreover, my Administration is delivering on my promise to continue cutting burdensome regulations and has issued almost eight deregulatory actions for every one new regulation imposed over the past 3 years, helping unleash the full potential of America’s economy.”

Donald J. Trump, Presidential Message on the 50th Anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act, 01/01/20

At Trump’s request, the Council on Environmental Quality has been working on developing revised regulations for implementing NEPA. They issued their proposed changes via the Federal Register on January 10, 2020, under the guise of modernizing and clarifying the regulations.

Docket ID: CEQ-2019-0003 Update to the Regulations Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act. Click here for the docket folder.

It is a lengthy document.

Some proposed changes make sense like eliminating mandatory distribution of printed documents since everything is available electronically nowadays.

However, other proposed changes will endanger the public and the environment. This includes narrowing the range of actions and projects that would require NEPA review, eliminating the requirement to evaluate cumulative effects like climate change, and removing conflict-of-interest protections, to name a few.

Make a Public Comment

The Council on Environmental Quality is accepting public comments through March 10, 2020, at 11:59 PM ET.

Please take a few minutes to make a public comment (anonymously if you chose) telling the Council that you do not believe that their proposed changes are in the best interest of the American people or the environment. Click here to make your comment.

Thank you.

If you are interested in reading my comment, click here.

Featured Image at Top

The partially submerged Statue of Liberty is shown in heavy seas with the New York City skyline in the background – photo credit iStock/jcrosemann.

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What is Community Choice Energy and Why Should You Care?

Power to the people.

Community choice energy programs in California and other states are helping our country shift away from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy.

Are you thinking something like “That sounds great but what the heck is community choice energy?” If you are, you have plenty of company so do not worry about it.

I only learned about community choice energy because I chanced upon the SLO Climate Coalition when I was looking for a group promoting clean renewable energy where I live in San Luis Obispo County, CA. When I met them in October 2018, they and their predecessor group SLO Clean Energy had been working for years to bring community choice energy to the cities and unincorporated areas in our county.

Because of their efforts and the efforts of many other people this initiative is succeeding. On January 9, 2020, San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay became the first cities in San Luis Obispo County to begin receiving electricity through a community choice energy program provided by Monterey Bay Community Power. Other cities will be joining next year and hopefully, the County will get on board, too.

Community Choice Energy Flip the Switch Event in San Luis Obispo City Hall
San Luis Obispo City Council (Mayor Heidi Harmon in red), City staff, and members of the SLO Climate Coalition at the “flip the switch” event at San Luis Obispo City Hall on January 9, 2020 – photo credit San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce. Click here to read the article.

Through my work with the SLO Climate Coalition, I have had the opportunity to learn about community choice energy and became interested in researching the topic on my own.

This post is intended to serve as an introduction to community choice energy and will hopefully spark your interest in advocating for a program where you live and/or opting to stay in it if your community already has one.

First, let’s talk about electricity generation and greenhouse gas emissions.

Electricity Generation and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Global warming is being caused by excess greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) building up in Earth’s atmosphere overwhelming the planet’s ability to deal with it. Most scientists agree that humans need to stop burning fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas or the climate crisis will continue to worsen endangering our very existence.

This short video was prepared by the World Meteorological Organization in advance of the United Nations COP25 climate conference held in Madrid, Spain during December 2019.

How do greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation fit in the overall picture?

The process of generating electricity is the largest stationary source of CO2 emissions in the United States. In 2018, this represented 33% of all CO2 emissions sources across the country. 1

U.S. Electric Power Generation and Emissions 1990-2018 Graph
Fuels Used in Electric Power Generation (TBtu) and Total Electric Power Sector CO2 Emissions – source U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In a 2019 report, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded that community choice energy providers could reshape U.S. electricity markets and increase customer demand for renewable energy. 2

Community Choice Energy 101

The U.S. federal government has some involvement in regulating electricity markets but states are largely responsible for what happens within their own borders.

States have the authority to pass legislation authorizing community choice energy programs. As of this writing, nine states have passed such legislation including California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

Community choice energy legislation allows communities to choose who they purchase electricity from instead of being required to buy it from investor-owned utilities (IOUs) that are beholden to their shareholders.

How does it Work?

A city, county, or some combination of cities and counties may form an organization called a community choice aggregator (CCA). A CCA is a local or regional not-for-profit public agency that assumes the responsibility for procuring electricity on behalf of all customers in its jurisdiction.

The reason they are called aggregators is that they pool (aggregate) the electricity demand for their customer base and then procure electricity to meet that demand from one or more sources of their choosing. The electrons purchased are fed into the electric grid so as a customer you are not necessarily receiving your electricity from the source selected by your CCA.

At this time, CCAs only purchase electricity. They form partnerships with IOUs who continue to provide transmission, distribution, meter reading, billing, maintenance, and outage response services.

Where I live, the City of San Luis Obispo and the City of Morro Bay opted to join Monterey Bay Community Power an existing CCA that was already serving several counties on the California Central Coast.

Our house is in the unincorporated part of San Luis Obispo County so PG&E is still our electricity provider. However, we have a rooftop solar panel system on our home so we generate most of our own power. During the day we send our excess electricity to the grid and at night we draw electricity from it.

Benefits

For me, it is a tossup as to which is the best benefit of community choice energy.

Local control of electricity procurement decisions enables CCAs to offer their customers choices. Most CCAs procure a mix of electricity from both renewable and nonrenewable sources and allow their customers to choose a mix that meets their budget and desire to support renewable energy (or not).

Unlike IOUs, CCAs do not have investors looking to profit from their investments. This enables CCA’s to offer competitive rates that are often lower than the IOUs. In addition, revenue surpluses are used to fund community programs versus lining the pockets of shareholders. These programs can range from funding rooftop solar panels for low-income families, to adding electric vehicle charging stations around town, to awarding grants to local nonprofits.

Many CCAs are focused on procuring electricity from carbon-free renewable sources like hydroelectric, wind and solar which spurs investment in these technologies and helps transition the U.S. off fossil fuel-powered electricity.

CCAs are already embracing the Green New Deal creating jobs and investing locally and working on helping their communities become more just and resilient.

Drawbacks

Avid community choice energy advocates sometimes gloss over potential drawbacks but I think it is important to cover them, too.

Adding more buying entities to an already complex system does not necessarily promote cooperation and could take attention away from the critical work that needs to be done modernizing, securing, and making our electric grid more resilient.

IOUs have a lot of money and expertise available to keep on top of electricity-related legislation and to lobby government agency representatives and elected officials. CCAs may or may not have the funds and staff necessary to keep up and to effectively influence legislation. Recently, there has been a rash of mostly worrisome community choice energy-related legislation making its way through the California legislature.

Most CCAs are new and do not have a long-term financial standing with creditors possibly making them more vulnerable to changing electricity market conditions or unexpected problems.

For instance, of the seven states with active CCAs, California is the only state with a regulated electricity market. California CCAs are required to pay “exit” fees to compensate IOUs for their sunken investment costs and long-term contracts. The determination of these fees called the power charge indifference adjustment (PCIA) is a contentious and recurring process with little transparency. If these fees continue to escalate as they have been, it could endanger the financial viability of existing CCAs and preclude others from even forming.

Summary

Community choice energy is beginning to disrupt the electricity industry. I believe this a good thing.

U.S. Map Showing Community Choice Energy States

We need a massive and systematic change in the way we power our lives and businesses in the United States. Perhaps community choice energy can provide a lever to break the status quo and accelerate our transition to clean renewable energy.

Disruption can be frightening, too. I worry that while communities focus on local choice and control that the big picture may not receive the attention it needs and that further fragmentation of the electricity market may have unintended consequences.

However, as far as I am concerned, the need to change far outweighs the problems and roadblocks we are sure to encounter along the way.

By learning about and advocating for community choice energy where we live, you and I can be part of a clean renewable energy future for everyone.

Featured Image at Top

Four people are holding icons representing a solar panel, sun, wind turbine, light bulb, water drop, and battery – photo credit iStock/Rawpixel.

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References

  1. DRAFT Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2018, Chapter 3: Energy – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 02/12/20
  2. Community Choice Aggregation: Challenges, Opportunities, and Impacts on Renewable Energy Markets – by Eric O’Shaughnessy, Jenny Heeter, Julien Gattaciecca, Jenny Sauer, Kelly Trumbull, and Emily Chen – U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 02/2020

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