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November 20, 2013 / franteplitz

What Do Your Credit Card Charges Support?

Cash or credit? In 2012, purchase volume in the United States from credit card companies Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover totaled close to $2.1 trillion. Of these $2.1 trillion worth of transactions, cardholders’ issuing banks collect 1-3% in the form of an interchange fee. While 1-3% of the cost of a sandwich at Subway for lunch may seem negligible to you, consider all of the other people in the same restaurant using their credit cards, multiplied by the number of locations across the country, multiplied by the number of lunches each person purchases each year, and so on. If we crunch the numbers, we can deduce that credit-issuing megabanks collect between $20.5 billion and $61.4 billion each year on credit card transactions.

The majority of that money goes to the 10 largest credit card issuing banks in the U.S. It’s difficult to believe that just a few institutions get to divvy up such large sums of money amongst themselves, especially when the individual charges to an everyday person’s credit card go largely unnoticed. As you might guess, those billions of dollars pay for high salaries and bonuses, and finance lending to fossil fuel polluters and other destructive industries around the globe.

Let’s think for a minute about just how much money large banks amass from the collective totals of millions of miniscule charges, and how that money could be used to fund projects that could add real benefit to our society – the kinds of projects that community development banks and credit unions finance every day. Consider one of our largest expenditures as a nation – energy. According to EnergyStar.gov, the average cost of retrofitting a residential home in New York State with efficiency upgrades to generate proven energy savings falls between $5,600 and $8,500. Assuming the credit card industry has a bad year and only generates $20.5 billion on interchange fees, and that 100% of the retrofits will cost $8,500, the money scooped up by megabanks could instead fund roughly 2,470,600 energy efficiency installation projects in New York homes.

Alternatively, the price of installing a new wind turbine in the US is roughly $4 million on the high end. A new wind turbine generally provides 2 megawatts of power-generating capability. Once again let us assume that interchange fee revenue is at the low end of $21 billion. At that amount, about 5,250 new turbines, or 10,500 megawatts of electric capacity could be financed, instead of covering credit card promotion, executive compensation costs, and other dubious expenditures. If credit-lending megabanks had a good year and collected $61 billion, that’s about 15,250 new turbines, or 30,500 megawatts (30.5 gigawatts) worth of clean, renewable electric potential shifted primarily into the pockets of bank executives, and away from the collective benefit of our environment and our economy. To further illustrate, the United States’ current wind capacity is about 60,000 megawatts, or 60 gigawatts. In one good year for the credit-issuing industry, revenue from interchange fees alone could increase the current national wind power capacity by 50%, yet we continue to pay high near-and-long-term costs for dirty, non-renewable sources of electricity.

The choice is ours to make.  We can continue to support megabanks.  Or, we can sign up for credit cards issued by community investment banks and credit unions that support programs like clean energy development, organic farming, and low-income housing. Instead of supporting the 1%, you can direct your interchange fees straight back into your community! Join our Take Charge of your Credit Card campaign and say goodbye to megabanks. Apply for a responsible credit card today, and take our pledge to let us know that you are breaking up with your megabank.

This post was researched and written by Sam Catherman, Green America’s Responsible Banking Intern.

November 12, 2013 / Todd Larsen

Newsflash: Regulating Banks is Good for Credit Card Customers

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When Congress decided to reign in the abuses of the credit card industry four years ago through the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act (the Card Act), a lot of industry observers declared that increased regulation would lead to high costs for consumers overall.  Not so.  As reported in the New York Times, a recent study by Neal Mahoney, an economist at the University of Chicago found that federal regulation of credit card abuses has been unequivocally beneficial to consumers, to the tune of $20 billion per year.

Before the Card Act, megabanks would regularly charge excessive fees and interest rates to cardholders, particularly low-income cardholders.  For example, banks would regularly jack up the interest rate on credit card holders for no reason – the cardholders were not delinquent in their payments – often to rates exceeding 25%.  Banks also played with the due dates for payments to engineer more late fees, and charged customers extra for paying by phone or over the internet.  These interest rates and fees boosted profits at megabanks, and acted as an enormous transfer of wealth from mostly working class and poor Americans to our wealthiest financial institutions, helping to drive record salaries for CEO and upper management.

When the Card Act passed in 2009, the industry warned that consumers would be penalized overall with less access to credit and higher rates in general.  Overall, that has not happened.  While banks have pulled back on the credit lines offered to riskier customers and been a bit stricter about giving out cards on the whole, they’ve continued to offer competitive rates to lure in new customers.  The major difference now is that credit card customers are not being ripped off on a regular basis with no recourse.  Collectively, these customers have $20 billion more in their pockets than they would have had if banks were permitted to keep overcharging them.

The regulation of the credit card industry demonstrates that cracking down on the worst practice of megabanks is good for consumers, and that more regulation of the industry is needed. Overall, megabanks are still charging high fees on bank accounts and are failing to lend to the small businesses that need capital to grow, while continuing to support coal mining, tar sands excavation, and other destructive activities.

For these reasons, many consumers have long ditched megabank cards.  For any consumer that wants to break with their megabank now and support responsible institutions, they can choose from a growing number of credit cards issued by community development banks and credit unions.  Green America’s Take Charge of Your Card campaign has options from leading banks and credit unions nationwide.  Apply for a responsible card today, and take our pledge to let us know that you are breaking up with your megabank.

November 7, 2013 / Todd Larsen

Green America supports the EPA in regulating power plants

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been hosting a listening tour across the country to gain feedback from citizens and organizations about proposed regulations of carbon emissions from existing power plants.  Green America has already supported the EPA’s proposal to regulate emissions from new power plants.  Now, the EPA is proposing to regulate existing power plants — a far greater source of carbon emissions in the US — particularly emissions from coal-fired plants.

At a number of listening sessions, the coal industry has presented testimony that EPA regulations of coal-fired power plants will harm the U.S. economy.  However, all of the evidence demonstrates that the opposite is true.The continued reliance on coal as major source of electric power in the U.S. is harming our economy and preventing job growth.

On behalf of Green America, I presented the following remarks at the listening session in Washington DC today.

Thank you for hosting these listening sessions across the country to receive input from Americans on the important issue of regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

My name is Todd Larsen, and I serve as the corporate responsibility director of Green America, a national non-profit organization with 170,000 individual members and 3,500 business members nationwide.  Our green business network is the largest network of certified green business in the United States.  Green America is also a member of the American Sustainable Business Council, which represents over 150,000 businesses nationwide.

On behalf of our members, Green America strongly supports the EPA using its authority under section 1119(d) of the clean air act to develop and issue standards by June 2014 to address carbon pollution from power plants.  We also support president Obama’s directive to build on state innovations and leadership in reducing climate emissions.

The need to regulate carbon is clear.  Carbon emissions are at their highest levels ever and the effects of those emissions on climate change are now undeniable.  This impacts not only the environment, but also the economy.

Small business owners will be negatively affected by climate change.  From disruptions in their supply chains, to physical damage and disruptions of their operations from increasingly extreme weather, small businesses are at a high risk from rising greenhouse gas emissions.

That is why polling conducted by the American sustainable business council found that 63 percent of small businesses owners support EPA regulation of carbon emissions from power plants and 72 percent support incentives for clean energy.

Regulating existing power plants will help to protect small business owners and will be good for the economy in general:

  • According to data from Natural Resources Defense Council, reducing carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2020 would cost 4 billion dollars, but would create economic benefits of 25 to 60 billion dollars.  The benefits could outweigh the costs by a factor of 15.
  • These projected benefits would be in line with prior economic advantages from enforcement of the clean air act.  EPA analysis demonstrates that the benefits of emissions reductions from 1990 to 2010 outweighed the costs four to one.

EPA regulations of existing power plants will also spur greater innovations in clean energy technologies, which will boost the economy, job creation, and small businesses nationwide.

  • Several studies have found that renewable energy generation produces more jobs than fossil fuel sources of energy per unit of energy delivered.
  • Renewable energy jobs also are often better paying jobs and are much more likely to stay in the U.S.
  • Many of the clean energy jobs created – including manufacturing and installation – are housed in small businesses that are thriving and creating jobs across the country, including in regions that have lost jobs from the closures of traditional manufacturing facilities.

For all of the above reasons, Green America and its members support the EPA proposing strong carbon pollution standards for existing power plants.

Thank you.

November 1, 2013 / franteplitz

JP Morgan Chase — Accountability Needed!

Banking giant JP Morgan Chase is in the midst of finalizing a settlement with the Justice Department, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and the New York State District Attorney regarding its involvement in the 2008 financial crisis. While the exact number remains the subject of much debate, the bank could pay out as much as $13 billion for defrauding investors regarding securities it issued years ago.

Based on its acquisition of Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual in 2008, JP Morgan is currently the subject of a massive investigation by the federal government into its mortgage lending practices. The two acquired companies were among the largest mortgage lenders in the nation, and they had reached that point largely by offering home loans to individuals with low income, bad or no credit history, or subprime borrowers.  To further complicate the matter, subprime mortgages were then “packaged” into securities and sold to investors at large scales. With hands off regulation from the government, paired with a highly competitive sales culture amongst the issuers of mortgage-backed securities, the subprime industry became too big and fast-paced to control. As we all learned, the bubble was unsustainable; when the bottom dropped out, financial institutions and insurers teetered toward collapse, and the US economy spiraled downward.

If Bear Stearns or Washington Mutual had declared bankruptcy in 2008,the economy would have taken an even greater hit than it did. The federal government realized this, and asked JP Morgan Chase for help. The bank, with $2.4 trillion in assets, agreed to merge with the failing institutions. For a ridiculously low price, JP Morgan could now have access to West Coast markets almost immediately. It was an attractive deal that transferred a lot of wealth to JP Morgan. Through government-brokered deals, the big bank absorbed the two smaller banks, the subprime mortgages stopped being issued, and the US economy began its slow crawl towards recovery.

So why is JP Morgan in trouble today? Though leaders of the bank did not personally issue bad mortgages through Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual, they certainly knew about the toxic assets backed by the mortgages. In fact, CEO Jamie Dimon was quoted telling investors on a conference call in 2008 that “Any liability related to the assets themselves will come with us.” The case brought forth by the Federal Housing Finance Agency asserts that JP Morgan failed to warn investors at government-controlled mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that the securities it sold were as risky as they were.

The New York Attorney General also filed a suit against JP Morgan, claiming that Bear Stearns provided the same type of misinformation from 2005 to 2007, in violation of contracts held with investors. Dimon and associates believe they should not be held responsible for purchasing a company (especially at the request of the government), while the Justice Department asserts that the bank should be responsible for losses incurred by shareholders as a result of the blatantly misrepresented toxic assets. No official settlement has been reached yet, as JP Morgan is still dragging their feet against a criminal case. Projections of the settlement total around $13 billion, while legal tax deductions could render the grand total closer to $9 billion. While this appears to be a huge sum of cash, it’s hardly a detriment to JPM’s bottom line. And, Green America and allies are encouraging Attorney General Holder to include language in the settlement agreement prohibiting JP Morgan from deducting the settlement from its taxes.  The settlement won’t even deplete the firm’s legal expense fund, valued at $23 billion. So far, Attorney General Eric Holder is standing his ground against the banking giant, refusing to promise an exemption from criminal liability, though actual indictments of JPM higher-ups involved in the crisis seem unlikely. It is the Attorney General’s refusal to drop any potential criminal charges against JP Morgan that has held the settlement up so far.

If the preceding story sounds like a confusing mash of events involving millions of people, billions of dollars, and a huge lack of regulatory foresight, it’s because it is. Designating responsibility for the phenomena observed throughout the subprime mortgage saga remains difficult for prosecutors, and conspicuous by their absence are any substantial efforts to pursue criminal proceedings by government officials. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts wrote a letter to the heads of three financial regulatory agencies, urging for greater accountability “for those who engaged in illegal activity” during the 2008 crisis.  In the absence of serious criminal liabilities, JP Morgan still stands to profit from its acquisition of the two failing institutions in 2008 with minimal expense to its own. It seems an awful lot like the mega-bank is paying for its immunity from the laws designed to prevent the misconduct and fraud observed in 2008.

So what can regular Americans do to promote better banking for our communities and nation? The answer is simple; Break Up With Your Mega-Bank. By moving your money out of large banks and into smaller, community-based banks and credit unions, you can see the benefits of responsible saving and investing in your own town. Community investment helps create jobs, housing for those in need, and social services where mega-banks won’t help. You will support local businesses, and remove support for big polluting industries such as fossil fuels (JP Morgan is among the leading financers of coal power since 2005). You will offer disaster relief for communities in need, avoid outlandish hidden charges and fees on your accounts, and develop a personal relationship with your bankers. Moving your money off of Wall St and back into your own community is a great first step in mitigating the economic harm caused by the antics of large conventional banks.  If you have a credit card with JP Morgan (e.g., a Chase Visa card) or a credit card with another megabank, such as Citi or Bank of America, you can get a card from a community bank or credit union instead.

The next step would be to put pressure on your elected officials to pass regulations that serve as effective deterrents of misconduct for the banks.  While the Dodd-Frank Act was a step in the right direction, it is too weak to counter the inconceivable sums of money individuals stand to gain by breaking the rules. The mega-banks have grown even larger, and our economy is still at risk. As we watch to see the exact sum JP Morgan Chase will hand over to the federal government, take back control of your own investments and make it very clear that the harmful practices of mega-banks are unacceptable.

This blog post was written by Sam Catherman, Green America’s Climate Program intern.

October 18, 2013 / franteplitz

Oil Spill — Yet Another Wake-Up Call

Oil Slick

Oil Slick

One of the largest, recent onshore oil spills in the U.S. occurred on September 29, 2013, though a statement was not released by authorities until October 8. Officials were delayed in their response in part due to the ongoing government shutdown, and in part due to an initial underestimation of the amount of oil spilled. In addition to the 750 barrels cleared from the surface, state environmental geologist Kris Roberts estimates about 20,000 barrels trapped below a 7-10 foot layer of clay over a 7.3 acre area.

The oil, which was fracked from the Bakken Shale in the northwest corner of the state, was spilled as the result of a hole in the six-inch diameter High Plains pipeline. The 20-year-old pipeline, owned by Tesoro Logistics, runs about 35 miles from Tioga, ND to a rail facility near the Canadian border. Canadian Pacific then carries the crude oil to Albany, NY, where it is shipped down the Hudson River to refineries along the East Coast.

Cleanup efforts have been ongoing, despite the lack of an official public statement by North Dakota state authorities. Tesoro has employed the use of trenches to collect the crude on the surface, which is then recovered by vacuum trucks. As of Sunday, an estimated 1,800 barrels of oil have been recovered. As winter approaches, snow and cold rain are slowing the remediation process further.

The spill was first noticed by local wheat farmer Steven Jensen. Jensen reports that he could smell the crude oil for days before noticing an area in his field where the oil was spewing from the ground about six inches into the air. Though he had harvested the majority of his crop before the spill occurred, he did report losing a small amount of wheat. He also fears that he will not be able to farm his land for several years to come as a result of the spill.

North Dakota and Tesoro officials report no contamination of local water supply, and no apparent harm to the environment as a result of the spill, though the delayed response and initial underestimation of the amount of crude spilled leaves many skeptical as to the long term effects.

North Dakota is the nation’s second largest producer of crude oil after Texas, clocking an average of 874,000 barrels per day. The pipeline-railroad network ships between 149,000 and 157,000 barrels of Bakken crude per day. North Dakota’s Petroleum Council, with John Berger, a manager of a Tesoro refinery, stated that oil spills are expected to occur, and that the companies drilling for the oil should be fully responsible to take care of them.  As long as oil production continues in the United States, it is essential that both government agencies and oil manufacturing companies take responsibility for preventing and mitigating spills such as this, which released about 4 times the amount of oil as the recent spill by Exxon Mobil in Arkansas. Strict oversight and safety regulations are necessary for preventing damage to the environment, water supply, and productive capacity of industries like agriculture, not to mention the loss of the very source of energy that such dangerous processes as fracking seeks to provide in the first place.

The need to shift to clean, alternative sources of energy is more apparent now than ever. Green America urges you to support Clean Energy Victory Bonds, which will provide crucial financing for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects across the country. This environmental disaster is only the most recent caused by hasty domestic oil production, and will surely not be the last.

The blog post was written by Sam Catherman, Green America’s Climate Program Intern.

October 13, 2013 / franteplitz

Production Tax Credit for Wind Set to Expire, Extension Could Support Renewable Energy’s Transition to Substantial Growth

Ian Britton 2001.

Ian Britton 2001.

The federal renewable energy production tax credit (PTC) offers tax relief on a per-kilowatt-hour basis to producers of electricity generated by qualified renewable sources. It was introduced as a part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992 in an effort to foster growth in clean energy markets. The credit has been largely utilized by the wind industry, resulting in substantial growth over the past 2 decades. Congress has allowed the credit to expire four times and has extended the timeline five times, with the most recent extension passed earlier this year. The credit is poised to expire at the end of 2013 again. In light of all the PTC has enabled the wind industry to accomplish, the uncertainty surrounding its extension drags companies even further into the cycle of boom-and-bust that mirrors the frequent expirations and renewals. A current proposal to extend the PTC for a ten year period is estimated to cost $24.7 billion, and windmakers assert that such an extension, paired with a strategic phase-out toward the end, will give the industry the time it needs to continue to grow at a sustainable level, without the help of further subsidies. At a fraction of the cost of subsidies given to the fossil fuel industry, the long-term public health, environmental, and social benefits of an energy infrastructure that doesn’t produce massive concentrations greenhouse gases such as CO2 far outweigh the cost of extending the production tax credit for wind.

The PTC provides a 2.2-cent/kWh credit for the first ten years of a renewable energy facility’s operation. Eligible companies include wind, geothermal, and closed-loop biomass (crops grown specifically for energy production). Open-loop biomass (forestry and industrial waste), efficiency and capacity upgrades for existing hydroelectric facilities, landfill gas, municipal solid waste, and other technologies receive a 1.1-cent/kWh credit under the PTC’s provisions. If a company wants to receive the benefits of the credit on a new project, significant work and/or investment must have commenced by December 31, 2013. This deadline has many wind producers scrambling to get their projects underway, and just as many turning away from their projects, averse to the financial risk of not receiving the funding necessary to proceed.

PTC-Graph UCSUSAIf there’s one thing we know, it’s that the production tax credit has a positive effect on clean energy industries. According to a recent press release, LM Wind Power, a major supplier of turbine blades, has doubled its US workforce in the time period between April and August, from 350 to 700 employees. LM projects its employment will reach 1,200 in the US in 2014. And the jobs created by the wind industry are good, reliable jobs. Wind turbines are massive pieces of equipment, requiring many unique parts. Because of the complexity of the manufacturing process, and the actual size of the pieces, the United States has a competitive advantage for producing turbine parts domestically. In addition to securing work for thousands of Americans, extending the PTC will ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels.

While extending the production tax credit has clear benefits for wind and other clean energy industries, there is still much opposition to the measure. Opponents claim that electricity generated by turbines is inefficient because the wind blows intermittently, and a background source of power is required to compensate for calm days. And in most cases, this background power comes from fossil fuel sources. This shouldn’t serve as a reason to let the credit expire, however. If wind continues to receive the assistance it needs to thrive, future investment in clean energy technologies like solar, hydropower, and battery and storage technologies to provide background electricity for turbines seems highly likely. The long term public health, environmental, and social benefits of an energy infrastructure that does not emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at a high level far outweigh the short-term costs of giving windmakers the help they need to stand on their own two feet.

The PTC is only offered to companies that meet clear, performance-based standards. The credit has allowed 550 wind facilities to open and operate within the United States. It provides strong incentives for growth amongst wind producers, and its constant expiration and renewal leaves investors wary and uncertain about the future of wind power. Industry experts recommend phasing out the credit over the next ten years, and introducing mechanisms such as Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), which will give wind companies tax structures similar to those of fossil fuel companies, who collect billions of dollars in profit each year. Green America strongly urges policy makers to extend the production tax credit so that wind power and other clean energy technologies can develop more rapidly – the time has never been more urgent.

A provision to extend the PTC for ten years is included in the Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act, which would provide funding on a national scale for clean energy development.

A summary of the production tax credit’s history can be found here.

This blog posting was written by Sam Catherman, Green America’s Climate Action Program Intern.


October 7, 2013 / franteplitz

Can Crowd Funding Kickstart Clean Energy?

Solar PowerCrowd funding refers to the collective contributions of many individuals to fund a larger effort by other people or organizations. Internet platforms like Kickstarter are the most common vehicles for collecting donations for projects, but recent legislation may begin a shift to a new method of actual financing, where investors can potentially see a return on investment. The JOBS Act of 2012 removed several limiting regulations from the Securities Act of 1933, which would allow average Americans to invest directly in small business.  This increased access to financing would allow small businesses more freedom to grow and achieve their goals. For example, the JOBS Act included provisions that increased the number of shareholders a company may have before it must register its common stock with the Securities Exchange Commission. It also allowed the use of government-registered funding portals, or websites used to collect investments, on the condition that investments are capped at a level based on the investor’s net worth. These provisions will allow average investors to easily invest in small businesses for the first time, and will offer protections from the risks involved with investing in new companies.

The JOBS Act took a few steps towards freeing up capital for small businesses, but the provisions allowing average investors to get involved won’t be approved until 2014. In the meantime, companies such as Mosaic Inc. have used existing legislation in approved states to finance clean energy projects that have been largely successful. However, until the SEC implements crowdfunding regulations nationwide, it will be difficult for a startup company to sell shares to the general public nationally.

Some states are not waiting for the federal government to act, and have implemented intrastate (state residents funding state businesses) equity crowd funding. Using provisions in the Securities Act of 1933, specifically a federal exemption for intrastate offerings, Kansas and Georgia have both passed initiatives that would allow companies to sell equity to non-accredited investors to a limit of $1000 (KS) and $10,000 (GA) per investor. Companies would be allowed to collect up to $1 million before they would need to formally register their stock, and they would only be permitted to sell shares to investors who were residents of the same state in which the company was registered. They would also be allowed to advertise the fact that they were seeking funds from new investors. In theory, this would allow the public to invest in whatever business they see fit. This would incentivize small business owners to carry on with their ideas, knowing very well that with enough support, access to capital would not be as big of a problem as it is now. The North Carolina state legislature is on the road to pass a similar initiative in the form of its own JOBS Act. It currently sits at the state senate waiting for the next session to begin, where many are confident that it will be passed.

In the first two years of crowd funding in Kansas, only six companies took advantage of the opportunity, and only one company has taken advantage of crowd funding in Georgia.  So what’s keeping ordinary people in Kansas and Georgia from crowdfunding their way to an economy envisioned by local business owners? There are a number of factors that keep this financing tool from really taking off. First, the types of small businesses that could rely heavily on crowd-sourced capital are often the least interesting to investors. The investment caps of $1 million limit the potential for initial revenues, forcing technology and other high-growth industries to seek other sources of capital. And perhaps most importantly, a very small number of people (both business owners and potential investors) actually understand the new regulations and what is allowed under their provisions. Education for small business owners and potential investors alike, as well as platforms that connect businesses with sources of capital, will be necessary to make crowdfunding work at the state and national level.

While achieving a more formal vehicle for non-accredited investors to purchase equity in startup businesses may still lie ahead, the idea of sourcing donation funds from many small contributors is steadily gaining steam. Many projects are funded by online platforms for donations, including software development, political campaigns, art, disaster relief, and small businesses selling a wide range of products.

Globally, crowdfunding has been used successfully to finance some impressive renewable energy projects. A Dutch company Windcentrale recently set a new crowdfunding record, selling €1.3 million worth of shares in the electricity from a Vestas V-80 2MW wind turbine in a matter of 13 hours. In the U.S., Solar Mosaic has created an innovative crowd funding platform that has already raised funds from 2,200 investors in solar installations nationwide.  Solar Mosaic has generated extensive interest from investors nationwide who want to create a clean energy future. This serves as proof that there is a high public demand for renewable energy, and when presented the opportunity to invest in projects that would bring clean power to homes, people won’t think twice about buying shares.

It is the hope of Green America that crowdfunding at the state and federal level can become a vehicle for growth of the renewable energy sector in the United States. Clean, inexpensive, and renewable power is something a large majority of Americans support. Given the opportunity to easily and safely invest in a project that would aid in the shift from a fossil fuel – based economy to a green energy-based one, the general public could play a crucial role in the propagation of wind, solar, and other renewable energy technologies.

This blog posting was written by Sam Catherman, Green America’s Climate Program Intern.

October 3, 2013 / franteplitz

New Report on Global Climate Change, A Rallying Cry for Action

www.freefoto.com, Ian Britton, 2006.

http://www.freefoto.com, Ian Britton, 2006.

Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their fifth assessment report on global climate change dynamics this month. In addition to reaffirming the assertions of the panel’s four previous assessments with greater statistical accuracy, the new report formally embraces a global upper limit for greenhouse gas emissions, past which the earth would experience irreversible changes to its climate. The models used by the panel are complex and a close eye is required while examining the results. Largely based on the averages of many simulations under many different assumptions, the findings of the panel must be critically analyzed against observational data in order to make useful statements and prescribe actions to mitigate the effects of a warming globe.

Here are some statistical highlights from the 900-page report:

  • There is a strong consensus that the complex climate system on our planet is warming. The changes in temperature of the atmosphere and ocean, in the amounts of snow and ice cover, and in the concentrations of greenhouse gases are historically unprecedented.
  • The past three decades have experienced higher temperatures at the surface than any other decade since 1850.
  • The ocean accounts for over 90% of accumulated energy over the past three decades, resulting in a certain increase in upper ocean temperature.
  • Glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland, the Arctic, and Antarctica have consistently lost mass over the past two decades.
  • Over the last century, global average sea level has risen by about 0.19 meters. If emissions and subsequent warming continue at their current pace, the average global sea level may rise as much as a meter by the end of the century.
  • Greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have reached unprecedented levels in the past 800,000 years. CO2 levels have increased 40% since the preindustrial era, and the ocean has absorbed nearly 30%. The high concentration of CO2 in the ocean results in acidification of the water.
  • It can be stated with 95-100% confidence that human activity resulting in the combustion of fossil fuels and the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is responsible for the observed increases in average temperatures.
  • Across a range of scenarios, global average temperature may rise anywhere from 1.5oC to 4oC. The models account for decadal and regional variability, which the panel says explains the differences in average temperature projections from the last report.

To keep the magnitude of the warming below the internationally agreed target of 2o C above pre-industrial levels, the panel estimates that roughly 1 trillion tons of CO2 may be emitted into the atmosphere. At the current pace of emission, that threshold would be reached in 2040. The panel’s report fine-tuned the findings of a culmination of over 20 years of research. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has declared his intention to call a meeting of global leaders in 2014 to discuss an international treaty addressing the problem.

In light of this report, the need for President Obama to honor his stated commitment to lead in developing an international approach to adapting to a changing climate is clearer than ever. Developed nations must be held to a higher degree of accountability than developing nations when allocating costs for mitigation strategies. Investment in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies must increase significantly to offset greenhouse gas emissions while meeting global power demand. Education campaigns are essential to prepare populations for the impacts of drought, heavy rain, and rising sea levels as a result of global warming. This report is only the latest installment in a body of research that confirms human influence on the dynamics of the earth’s climate. It lays the framework necessary to begin tackling one of the largest issues of our time, and it didn’t arrive a moment too soon.

You can view the summary for policy makers or the full report here.

This posting was written by Sam Catherman, Green America’s Climate Program Intern.

September 26, 2013 / franteplitz

New Standards Proposed for Carbon Pollution from New Power Plants

On Friday September 20, 2013, the EPA released a new set of standards regarding carbon emissions from newly constructed power plants. Power plants account for about 40 percent of the United States’ carbon emissions, the largest portion of our nation’s carbon footprint. The standards state that no new large natural gas-fired plant may exceed emissions of 1000 lbs CO2 per megawatt hour, no new small natural gas-fired plant may exceed 1100 lbs CO2 per megawatt hour, and no new coal-fired plant may exceed 1100 lbs CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity produced. New coal-fired plants would also have the option to average their emissions across multiple years, for the purpose of flexibility.

Opposition to the new standards remains high from the coal industry, which views the implementation of technologies required to meet these standards as too costly. To bring a modern coal plant’s average emissions down to meet the new limit would require the installation of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology, which traps CO2 from the unit and sequesters it below the surface of the earth. Industry opponents of the rulemaking cite CCS technology’s cost as a barrier to meeting the new standards.  It is highly unlikely that CCS would ever be economical. This is a good thing since even if CCS technology could be implemented, we would still be burdened with the negative impacts of mountain top removal coal mining and impoundments of waste left over from burning coal. That is why Green America has called out CCS technology as a red herring that distracts people away from the fact that coal can never be “clean”.

On the surface, it seems as though the proposed standards will effectively prevent new coal-fired plants from being financed and constructed. The coal industry argues that this could mean short-term struggle for thousands of workers and their families. However, the proposed standards have taken into account the potential long-term costs of continuing to burn coal at its current rate. Global climate change caused by the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is predicted to lead to increased ozone pollution, higher average global temperatures, rising sea levels, and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events. These effects of climate change can lead to enormous costs to public health, agriculture, and infrastructure in coastal regions. The long-term costs, predicts the EPA, far outweigh the short-term expenses to the coal industry, especially considering the fact that nation-wide, only one coal-fired plant is currently in the planning phase before construction. Although not part of the EPA’s calculations, if we are not building new coal plants to meet our energy needs, we will be increasing spending on energy efficiency and clean energy programs – both of which create high-paying jobs that are safer than those in the coal industry. Increased investment in these areas will also almost certainly lead to long-term savings in public health expenses.

These new standards make a minimal splash in practice, as current economic trends indicate that the cost of constructing a new coal-fired plant is not nearly as feasible as the cost of constructing a new natural gas – fired plant, and even a number of clean energy technologies. The EPA’s analysis is focused on carbon emissions from power plants (not the complete life cycle of the fuel going into the plant). Gas-fired units produce much less CO2 than coal-fired units, and are able to meet the proposed standards without the addition of control technology like CCS. Based on this fact, EPA analysis reveals that unless economic conditions shift drastically, making coal-fired plants the feasible choice again, private investors will turn to technologies that are already able to meet the standards without additional technology.

However, the turn to natural gas is itself a problem. While natural gas produces fewer emissions than coal fired power when burned, drilling for natural gas releases the potent greenhouse gas methane.  Fracking, the method of extracting natural gas from the earth, pollutes the groundwater of surrounding communities with a long list of chemicals. The fluids used in the fracking process can even lubricate fault lines, contributing to earthquakes. The new EPA regulations do not account for these factors of natural gas -powered energy, and natural gas producers are not forced to pay for the negative impacts of their drilling.  That’s why Green America supports a level playing field for green energy technologies – such as wind and solar.  Even without equal support from the federal government, wind and solar power are two of the fastest growing energy technologies in the US.  If the federal government forced all energy producers to factor their environmental impacts into their costs, clean energy technologies would account for a much larger portion of our energy portfolio already.

Overall, Green America applauds the direction of the EPA’s proposed rules regarding new power plants. The potential savings in public health and infrastructure costs from mitigating CO2 emissions far outweigh the revenues to be gained through the construction of new coal-fired plants with no restrictions placed on emissions. Limiting the amount of CO2 poured into the atmosphere by power plants is an important step for our nation to take. The standards will emphasize existing sources of power with emissions rates inherently lower than coal, and create an incentive for the further development of green energy technologies for our nation’s grid. It’s important to note that these proposed rules will only apply to power plants that have not yet been built. The EPA plans to unveil its proposed standards for existing power plants in the near future, which stand to face much greater opposition than last Friday’s.  If those standards are implemented, and we level the playing field for clean energy technologies, we will see a truly green energy future for the US emerge.

For more information on the proposed standards regarding new power plants, click here

To write a comment to the EPA, click here

This posting was written by Green America Climate Program Intern Sam Catherman.

September 24, 2013 / Elizabeth

Update from General Mills’ shareholder meeting: A long way to go.

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“GMOs are safe and poised to feed the world,” shared General Mills’ CEO Ken Powell at the company’s annual shareholder meeting this morning in Minneapolis.  We hope that Mr. Powell is be prepared to eat his words soon.  

The executive’s tune has not changed over the past few months in spite of growing consumer concern about GMOs, not only related to health impacts but also due to the fact that GM crops have failed to deliver higher yields have in many cases required more pesticides than conventional farming.  Additionally, rather than feeding the world’s hungry GM farming has led to poorer condition for farmers in the US and abroad.

This morning, Green America’s campaigns director Liz O’Connell and Paula Luxenberg (former Green America staff member) represented Green America and  GMO Insiders at General Mills’ annual meeting for stockholders.

Harriett Crosby of As You Sow was also in the crowd to voice shareholder concerns about GMOs  We asked questions to the board regarding GMO labeling and the company’s increasing reputational risk by ignoring consumer concerns about GMOs.

Roughly 85% of shareholders, representing 543 million shares, sent in proxies to General Mills to vote on the company’s 2014 resolutions.  Two questions were asked relating to GMOs and Powell had artfully crafted answers on-hand to confuse the audience and demonstrate General Mills’ false commitment to consumer choice and safety.

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Based on the presentation made this morning and the answers given by executives, its clear General Mills is no better than the worst in the industry when it comes to labeling GMOs and phasing them out of the food supply. 

The company sites short-term, non-independent studies to prove the safety of GMOs, in spite of the fact that there is a growing body of scientific research that points otherwise and that some countries such as Austria, Hungary, Greece, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Bolivia, and New Zealand have flat out banned the cultivation and sale GMOs.  When it comes to labeling, General Mills said they strongly support a national labeling initiative that would allow non-GM products to voluntarily adapt labels showing they are so.  (This also passes the hassle of adopting a labeling  system on to farmers and companies who are making “real” apples, corn etc., while still not providing consumers with the knowledge of what products DO contain GMOs.)

GMO Inside began targeting General Mills in late 2012, calling for an elimination of GMOs in time and labeling of GMOs in the meantime.  Based on the statements shared this morning its clear we could not have picked a more worthy target.

Now, with the support of GMO Insiders, we will up the pressure.  The time for non-GMO Cheerios is now!

Please support Green America’s campaign  and sign up for updates from us to be in  the loop about how you can take action!

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