How are workers affected by PG&E power outage in California?

california map PGE_outage_10-10-2019The California utility company largely blamed for the catastrophic Camp Fire in 2018 is making headlines again.  In the midst of dry, windy weather conditions, Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to approximately 800,000 accounts (translating into 1.8  million people) on October 8, in an effort to reduce the risk of another wildfire caused by sparking from their electricity transmission lines.  The Los Angeles Times provides a general overview in “Gov. Newsom slams PG&E over ‘unacceptable’ power outages and failure to fix systems”  (Oct. 10) and “Millions Brace for Unprecedented Power Cuts in California” in Bloomberg News reports that shutoffs will affect major cities in the San Francisco Bay area,  including Oakland, San Jose and Berkeley, with a possible duration of up to 6 days.

The chaos, anger and inconvenience has additional  significance for workers, described briefly in  “Confusion reigns as California utility cuts power in 34 counties to reduce wildfire risk” (Oct. 10) in Energy Mix . More details appear in “What happens when a power company decides to turn off the electricity for millions of residents?” in Wildfire Today which states: “The indirect effects of having no electricity expand to a much larger population when you consider traffic lights not working, tunnels on highways being shut down, plus the closure of gas stations, schools, and businesses …. At some point, cellular telephone towers and infrastructure may exhaust their emergency power supply systems, not to mention the batteries in the public’s cell phones…And in an emergency, firefighters’ communications could be hampered by the disabling of their radio repeaters on mountaintops. Notifying residents of approaching fires and conducting evacuations in order to save lives could be challenging.”

And what of the PG&E workers?  The local Sacramento Bee newspaper reported “PG&E employee shot at ahead of utility’s massive Northern California power shutoff” (Oct. 9) as residents take out their frustrations on employees doing their jobs.  The Washington Post reported “PG&E pleads for employee safety amid outage after police report egging, gunfire at vehicle”  .  One worker’s wife is  widely reported to have issued a social media plea  stating that utility workers “are simply employees and have no say in any decision making so shouting profanities or resorting to violence towards PG&E workers will never do any good but it would instead hurt someone’s father, mother, brother, sister, husband or wife. ”  Truly a dark time.

Norway municipal pension fund divests from Canada’s oil sands

On October 7, the National Observer reported  “Norway public pension fund severs final link with Canada’s oilsands” . The article describes that KLP, which manages the pensions of Norway’s 900,000 nurses, firefighters and other local and state government employees, has sold off US$33 million worth of equity holdings and US$25 million in bonds from Canada’s Cenovus Energy, Suncor Energy, Imperial Oil (majority owned by ExxonMobil) and Husky Energy, as well as Russia’s Tatneft PAO. This follows the June 2019 vote by the Norwegian Parliament to to tighten the coal exclusion criteria of Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG), and the October 1 decision by the GPFG to divest from oil exploration companies (although it still maintains investment in downstream and integrated ventures).  The moves are seen as reflective of the instability of oil and gas investments, and it is notable that the KLP fund has had a 22.8 percent return so far this year, 1.5 per cent ahead of its benchmark.

In contrast to the Norweigian pension administrators, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) as recently as March 2019  invested $1.34 billion in a joint venture which will expand fracking in the western Marcellus and Utica shale basins of the U.S.. The CPPIB manages $400 billion to support the public pensions of Canadians, and continues to hold hundreds of millions of dollars in oil and gas companies, including Enbridge , Suncor  and Pembina Pipeline.   The Green Party of Canada platform in the 2019 election  commits to “regulate the CPP Investment Board to require divestment of coal, oil and gas shares and ensure that all investments are ethical and promote environmental sustainability.”

Another recent, high-profile divestment:  The University of California announced that by the end of September, the university’s $70 billion pension fund and $13.4 billion endowment  fund will have divested all investments related to fossil fuel extraction.  The reason given:  “The reason we sold some $150 million in fossil fuel assets from our endowment was the reason we sell other assets: They posed a long-term risk to generating strong returns for UC’s diversified portfolios.”  A September 18 article in Vox is one of many reporting on this high-profile decision.

 

Calls for public banks to finance a Green New Deal and Just Transition

Two new reports in September call for a greater role for public banks to finance a Green New Deal and just transition.

A US Green Investment Bank for All: Democratized finance for a Just Transition   was published by the Next System Project in September, proposing  a new, democratically- managed  structure for financial institutions so that they function in the public interest to achieve a green and just transition.  From the report: “Of the $454 billion in climate finance invested in 2016, the private investment sector, which controls 80 percent of all banking assets, contributed $230 billion, while the public sector contributed $224 billion. That is, with only 20 percent of total assets, public banks invest nearly as much as all private banks combined. The short-term, return-maximizing horizons of private finance have failed, utterly, to drive anything like a green transition. The future of climate finance must look to the public sphere, not the private.” ….  “ The key political-economic decision in the design is the balance between concessionary lending (nonprofit and loss-making operations) and non-concessionary lending (that is, for-profit). The answers must follow from the bank’s public interest mandate and triple bottom line.” The full report is summarized in “We need a democratized Green Infrastructure Bank  for a Just Transition ” in Open Democracy.

A second report also cites the failures of the international global market-based financial system.  The 2019 Trade and Development Report: Financing a Global Green New Deal  was released by the  United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) on September 25,  and states: “We can meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, but only if we find the political will to change the rules of the international economic game and adopt policies that scale up the resources needed for a big investment push led by the public sector and set the global economy on an expansionary course.”

UNCTAD economists project that a net increase in global employment of at least 170 million jobs, with an overall reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, if total green investment were increased annually  by around US$1.7 trillion, which they estimate at one third of what is currently spent by governments on subsidizing fossil fuels.  Although each country will require a unique policy mix, the report calls for changes for all to include fiscal stimulus, public investment in infrastructure and green energy, and measures to boost wages. The report also contends that the 2030 Agenda goals  to eradicate poverty and meet nutrition, health and education goals will impose unsustainable financial burdens on many developing countries, also requiring reforms to the international trade, financial and monetary system.

Will the fossil fuel industry hijack energy policy in Canada’s election?

As the Canadian federal election campaign counts down to October 21, The Narwhal’s Explainer from September remains one of the most readable and interesting overviews of the parties’ energy and environmental platforms;  the survey responses from a consolidated questionnaire from the major environmental advocacy groups remains the most complete.  Climate activism has been a backdrop to the campaign: according to Fridays for Future Canada, over one million Canadians in 245 communities participated in climate strikes between September 20 to September 27 (a summary from Energy Mix gives more details).  On October 7, Extinction Rebellion began their demonstrations, blockading  bridges in Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, Edmonton and  Halifax –  and according to the Vancouver  Star, pledging to escalate actions.

New publications regarding the fossil fuel industry:

Canada’s relationship with its oil and gas industry was the subject of a country profile of Canada published by Carbon Brief on October 8, providing the basic facts and figures.  The Narwhal published an Opinion Piece highlighting  the issue of fossil fuel subsidies:  “Canada’s fossil fuel subsidies amount to $1,650 per Canadian. It’s got to stop.” The article is based on a May 2019 report from the International Monetary Fund  which estimated Canada’s fossil fuel subsidies at close to $60 billion in 2015, despite the government’s G20 commitments to phase out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies. A related report by Environmental Defence and the International Institute for Sustainable Development in February, Doubling Down with Taxpayer Dollars , examined $2Billion in fossil fuel subsidies in Alberta.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP)  Energy Platform – essentially  a “wish list” from the fossil fuel industry – calls for expanded production for oil and gas and Liquefied Natural Gas.  In report released on October 7, Environmental Defence estimates that the CAPP proposals would increase  oil and gas emissions by 60% from 2017 to 2030.  The report,  The Single Biggest Barrier to Climate Action in Canada – the Oil and Gas Lobby, documents the two types of barriers created by the oil and gas lobby: 1. the actual carbon emissions of the sector, which are responsible for 27% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions and for 80 % of the increase in Canada’s overall emissions; and 2. Industry campaigns and lobbying to block or weaken climate change policies.

env diefence re Oil-Lobbyin electionRegarding the economic benefits which the oil and gas industry claims, Environmental Defence states:  “… job creation in oil and gas is far from guaranteed even as the industry expands and reaps significant corporate profits. Despite growing production since 2014, almost 30,000 jobs (10 per cent of the workforce) have been axed in the oil patch in the following four years, with another 12,000 expected to be cut in 2019. That’s because oil and gas companies are moving increasingly towards automation, with the stated goal to “de-man” the industry. Meanwhile, the CEOs of companies such as Suncor, Encana, TransCanada, and CNRL rake in salaries north of $10 million per year.”

The report concludes: “ Canada is bigger than oil. The opportunities that are available to Canadian businesses, citizens, and governments get shortchanged when one industry is able to hijack public policy on energy development and environmental protection.”  Or, as Richard Heede wrote more bluntly in a new series in The Guardian called  The Polluters: “It’s time to rein in the fossil fuel giants before their greed chokes the planet” . Heede’s Opinion article is based on the latest research about the global fossil fuel industry by the Climate Accountability Institute.  The research found that “chiefly from the combustion of their products, the top 20 companies have collectively produced 480bn tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane since 1965 – 35% of all fossil fuel emissions worldwide in that time.”  The press release names the top 20 polluters, led by Saudi Aramco, Chevron, ExxonMobil, GazProm, and BP. All research and data is here .

Documenting Environmental injustice for Canada’s First Nations

As part of the  Access to Justice week  of the Alberta Branch of the Canadian Bar Association, the Alberta Environmental Law Centre published a blog in September, Access to Environmental Justice: Costs and scientific uncertainty raise barriers to protecting communities  .  This brief blog acts an introduction to the issue of environmental injustice in Canada by providing brief but well-documented overviews of case studies which illustrate the barriers to legal action (procedural costs and evidential uncertainty) experienced by Alberta First Nations. The  specific cases described are Kearl Oil Sands Environmental Assessment (2007), Fort McKay (2016) and the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. The blog also notes examples of Sarnia Ontario’s Chemical Valley, and Africville Nova Scotia, and briefly discusses the concept of climate justice. Other current information is described by reporters at The National Observer – for example, “How Alberta kept Fort McKay First Nation in the dark about a toxic cloud from the oilsands” (April 2019)  and “Alberta officials are signalling they have no idea how to clean up toxic oilsands tailings ponds” (Nov. 2018) .  The Narwhal maintains an archive of articles concerning Canadian mining examples, including the Mount Polley and Taesko mines. One example, “‘This is not Canada’: inside the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s battle against Taseko Mines” (August 2019) .

Syncrude_mildred_lake_plantThe environmental injustice of toxic and chemical waste is not only a problem in Alberta. An overview of the Canadian situation appears in The Statement of United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, issued following his visit in May/June 2019.  The Statement identifies “a pervasive trend of inaction of the Canadian Government in the face of existing health threats from decades of historical and current environmental injustices and the cumulative impacts of toxic exposures by indigenous peoples. ”  The Statement commented on the specific cases of the oil sands (Fort McMurray, Fort MacKay and Fort Chipewyan), Sarnia, Muskrat Falls, and mining sites such as Elk Valley.  He noted that Canada has “the second highest number of known mining accidents from 2007-2017, increasing significantly from previous years.”  The Special Rapporteur concluded: “It was clear during the course of my visit that many communities in Canada continue to be exploited by toxic exposures.  Some key concerns include: (1) the limited degree of protection of human health and ecosystems under various legislation; (2) the lack of environmental information and monitoring in areas of high risk; (3) long delays or absence of health impact assessment for affected communities; (4) the inadequate compliance with and enforcement of laws and policies; (5) systemic obstacles to access to justice, in particular for cases of health impacts due to chronic exposures; and (6) the recalcitrance to ensure that victims can realize their right to an effective remedy.   The situation of affected communities outside Canada is of equal concern in many of these regards, including the inordinate power imbalance faced by communities in low- and middle-income countries relative to Canadian corporations.”

The complete country  report on Canada by the Special Rapporteur will be delivered to the U.N. General Assembly in Fall 2020.