Category Archives: Controversy

Find Out What is Keeping Our Parks in the Dark

Imagine a permanent haze smothering the panoramic view from the peak of your favorite hike at Big Bend in Texas, the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma, or the Caney Creek Wilderness Area in Arkansas. Read on to learn how to prevent your childhood memories from being clouded over by pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is finalizing a decision on whether dirty Texas coal plants will continue to release their haze air pollution without regulation. This haze pollution damages our beloved National Parks (NP) and wilderness areas in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.

Image 1.1  - Pictures taken from Big Bend and Guadalupe on Clear and Hazy Days to illustrate the immense differences in visibility.Photo Credit: NPCA

Image 1.1 – Pictures taken from Big Bend and Guadalupe on Clear and Hazy Days to illustrate the immense differences in visibility.Photo Credit: NPCA

Haze is a visible and quantifiable measure of the levels of specific pollutants such as Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) and Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) that cause haze in the atmosphere (See image 1.1). These specific haze pollutants are released in large quantities from the northern and eastern Texas coal plants. The pollution travels from these locations into federally protected national parks in four surrounding areas: Big Bend NP, Guadalupe Mountains NP, Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, and Caney Creek Wilderness Area.

EPA is finalizing its decision for whether Texas coal plants have to follow the same kinds of rules for SO2 and NOx pollution that other out-of-state plants have to strictly follow. Strong standards would ensure the protection of our national parks and federal lands. The decision will play a pivotal role in propelling Texas towards a breathable future.

The Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ),  the state environmental agency in Texas, proposed a do-nothing plan that would allow the biggest polluters to keep on pumping out visibility and health-harming pollution. With an obsolete plan that requires no changes, no progress towards clear skies, EPA should reject the TCEQ plan and take action to protect the our environment until the coal plants in Texas do their fair share like many other out-of-state power plants.

How do I get started? Call EPA and ask them to follow the law and protect the environment from old, dirty, unregulated Texas coal plants. Tell them that the law requires EPA to hold polluters accountable and that they need to implement a plan that protects our national parks and defends public health by reducing pollutant emissions. As other states like Oklahoma move forward by reducing their power plant emissions, Texas coal plants should not be the forgotten and left in the dark.

With just a few minutes of your day, you could have an impact that lasts through generations – Let’s work together to get EPA to make the right decision! Click Here! 

by Sarah Sharif

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The Corporate Coup and TPP

Written By:  Stephen Agwu, Labor & Trade Intern, Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter

The Corporate Coup

Systems of governance have always encountered entities which would create laws against/circumvent the will of the people. In grade school, we all learned that the Magna Carta started the proverbial wheel which eventually drove western society toward the height of democratic ideals, not seen since the time of ancient Greece. What is good to remember about these ideals is that the proverbial wheel goes both ways.

There has always been, and currently are, forces that would deny  the people their democratic voice. At this time there are corporations vying for their private interest, which seeks to overthrow the autonomous control of the people and their governments. This corporate coup d’état is being driven by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. The TPP is a set of secret negotiations being conducted between trans-pacific countries such as Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Peru, and other countries such as the USA, Mexico, and Canada.

tpp

The negotiations include 29 chapters (with only about five focused on trade) with known topics ranging from intellectual property to investor state arbitration. Because the negotiations only take input from 600 of USA’s top corporations and none from average citizens, it is the corporation’s interest that is negotiated in place of the people of the USA, and it is corporations that are achieving their goal at the expense of the consumer. The fact that corporations are using these negotiations to create a set of rules that would benefit themselves while being deleterious to the majority of the population is not the main problem (you can decide how deleterious these changes are as these changes are illuminated later). The problem is the fact that their means for creating these set of laws involves circumventing our democratic principles.

Establishing Corporate Rule as Government Law

The important thing to remember about TPP is that of its 29 chapters, only about 5 pertain to traditional trade law (tariffs, subsidies, etc). The main point of the TPP is to get all the participating countries to conform to a set of non-trade related regulatory policies. For example, lets do a more in depth analysis of the effect TPP would have on copyrights and patents on intellectual properties, and other protections investors would gain with the ratification of TPP (this example is used because it is one of the few chapters leaked to the public).

Investor State Arbitration is one of most far-reaching clauses of TPP. This provides the corporation investing in a foreign country investment protection that ranges from patents with pharmaceuticals and information technologies, to changes in the host countries laws and practices. Investor state arbitration provides the investing corporation a means to enforce TPP standards and protect any investment that company might make.

An example of what would call for a investor state arbitration can be found here, with a focus on the suit filed by the Swedish company on the German government. In summary, Germany made a move to phase out nuclear energy following the tragic nuclear explosion which took place in Japan, their reason being the safety of their citizens and the safety of the environment. The protections offered to investors, however, allow the Swedish corporation to sue the German government for potential loss of profits due to their change in policy.

The point is that the people of Germany, which its government represents, are now under the rule of the Swedish investing corporation. The German government has lost autonomous control over its policies and laws which conflict with foreign corporate interest.

Under the TPP, this would become the standard. An international tribunal would be created, with corporate lawyers presiding as judges in the hearings. These judges will be able to assess loss of profits and bring government and domestic policies under the watchful eye of domestic and foreign corporations.

The implications are far, and frankly, terrifying. Take the Keystone XL pipeline, for example. If a foreign investor, say China, were to invest in the pipeline in Canada, then Canadians would need Chinese permission to stop the pipeline from operating. What’s worse, the investor need not worry about environmental or health cost or externalities because any attempt the host government made to protect themselves, or internalize the cost to the investors could land them in the international tribunal court. Environmentally speaking, the use of “dirty” energy would be further ingrained in society because the people may be unable to monetarily afford to democratically change their laws under the pressure from foreign corporations (more on environmental impact here, and for investor state impact here).

Medicinal and Pharmaceutical copyrights and patents would be more uniform under TPP. Patents on pharmaceuticals would continue to last for 20 years, but even more extensive patent protections would be introduced onto the world stage. This would make the process of “evergreening” or the extensions of patents over a drug more frequent and longer lasting (very nearly indefinite). TPP would also require that surgical practices, treatments, and medical tests be patented, reducing its availability in less affluent nations.

If these TPP measures are enacted, a rise in the global cost of health would ensue as generic drugs became less available. At the same time, medical practices and innovations would not focus on the most prevalent diseases if the people afflicted came from a poorer nations, because they would not be able to afford rights to the patent, instead innovation would be monetarily driven to less prevalent diseases that afflicted more affluent people. Both these patent protections would drive the global medical industry towards one that is focused on making money from the consumer, not one which focused on making the consumer healthy, much like the one in the USA, which is considered highly inefficient when it comes to treatment cost per capita (more on Medical impact of TPP here and here )

The Intellectual Properties chapters would seem very familiar to anyone familiar with the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) of 2011-12. SOPA was an attempt to redefine copyright infringement so as to combat online piracy. The act was controversial in its redefinition of copyright infringement and ended up never being drafted as a bill due to widespread public protest against such legislation.

TPP seeks to not only bring back such copyright re-definitions, but to make them global. Similarities include the criminality of unauthorized streaming of copyright content (even if it is not for profit), blocking of sites which facilitate copyright infringement, and allowing copyright owners to interfere with a sites ability to host advertising. (For a full account of TPP chapter of information technology click here, for SOPA click here). The danger of this provision in TPP is that as a democracy we have already expressed our discontent at such changes. SOPA attempted to make these changes through the proper democratic processes and failed. TPP should not be able to force these changes upon a democratic body which has voted against it. (More here).

TPP revitalizes SOPA without public input

TPP revitalizes SOPA without public input

The secrecy in which the negotiations are being held can be identified as the main moral problems with TPP. The specific problems highlighted in the leaked chapters highlight other problems which all consumers would be subjected to at the hands of corporate investors, but they are moot points if these trade laws were to be debated in public.

The rub is that the negotiators know this. As it is, only a select 600 corporations and the United States Trade representatives are allowed to participate in the negotiation process. Other members of congress may view the document, but are forbidden to talk of it. When asked why the need for secrecy, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk claimed the secrecy was needed to preserve negotiation strength. He and all the business men of every country know that if this information reached the ears of the masses we would revolt. We would shoot these propositions down quickly, decisively, and most importantly, democratically. If that wasn’t enough, there are even talks of using fast track negotiation authority which would prevent the public from seeing the final TPP proposal, and our lawmakers from amending the document before it is ratified. (More here).

The Fight What we must realize is that more is at stake than the individual mandates which change copyright infringement laws, or the duration of patents. What is at stake is the ability for the people to be able to decide these changes themselves. What is at stake is the fundamental principle of democracy which we have established in our government; the ability to contribute the formation of laws and to have litigation contested by our peers; not to have laws decided and evaluated for us like commoners had done for them by nobles.

The time of the Magna Carta may have passed, but the fight for democratic control over the decisions made in society still wages. In our time the players are corporations and their personal interest using the vehicle called the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a means to create a new nobility system which supersedes the democratic body of the people represented by their government. To put it shortly, the TPP is corporations attempting to assume over governments, and through governments, the individual. We must fight back! As the dream of America has progressed it is believed that the democratic ideals for which this country was founded on has extended through demographics: to women, to the African American ethnicity and now the frontier of sexual orientation.

Though the United States practice of democracy has not always been perfect, we all would like to believe that each year, each generation, we come closer to achieving these ideals. In order to continue to move forward we must get the TPP to be discussed openly and with input from all demographics so as to achieve an end that benefits all those in society.

*Interested in this topic and want to get involved? Its as easy as getting in contact with your representative and demanding that they release the negotiations over TPP to the public. Or you can like or comment on this blog post. Comment on the blog and lets make change happen together!

Humans vs. Earth’s Climate: Preparing for Battle

When I first heard the phrase “climate change”, I, like many others, was undecided on the matter and really didn’t have a clue what that phrase was supposed to mean. Should I be scared? I hope the daily climate would change all the time over here in Texas. This confusion led to a trip to the internet, where ignorance is optional, and over time I read a lot about it, trying to avoid opinionated rants while relying on credible sources of information to mold my perception of the truth. I found myself studying the carbon cycle, reading those really long and uninteresting scientific papers, and watching documentaries such as Chasing Ice, where a scientist captures glaciers in motion through time lapsed photography as they recede and disappear. I really dove in. The deeper I dove the more evidence came to support the notion that earth’s climate system is changing and our planet is slowly warming in a way that will likely be detrimental if not dealt with.

the blue marble

Home Sweet Home

What a massive and complex force to have to deal with. Trying to mitigate a change in the Earth’s climate seems like a pretty daunting feet. So, how do we solve this problem? I guess the default answer would be, “to find the solution.” However, I believe “the solution” needs to be rephrased with “many solutions, collaboratively recognized and implemented worldwide.” A major part of this solution needs to face one of the most influential causes of climate change, such as our current escalated contribution of greenhouse gases (GHG’s), namely carbon dioxide and methane, to the atmosphere.

Explanation of Green House Gases (GHG’s):

GHG’s, when in higher concentration in the atmosphere, cause the atmosphere to trap more and more of the sun’s energy, resulting in the warming of our planet.

Nasa's explanation of GHG's

Nasa’s explanation of GHG’s

This process becomes worrisome when you consider that the carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere has increased by more than 35% since 1975 and is at an 800,000 year high. Even more worrisome is the fact that, according to the National Research Council, “the average temperature of Earth’s surface increased by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit  over the past one hundred years with 1 degree of this warming occurring over just the past three decades.”

So if this is really happening, how do we stop it? Well, one could start with the major source of this greenhouse gas concentration increase, which can be attributed primarily to the growth in carbon dioxide emissions from rapid expansion of fossil fuel burning. Other attributing factors include deforestation and land use and land cover changes.

Explanation of fossil fuel burning’s role in the carbon cycle:

Previous plant and animal remains trapped within geological structures in places all over the world, along with millions of years of heat and pressure, have created reservoirs of natural gas, oil, and coal. These reservoirs, in the form of hydrocarbons (long chains of Hydrogen and Carbon), have been stored sources of Carbon for a great amount of time. When these reservoirs are extracted and undergo a combustion reaction, they produce energy in the form of heat with new chemical species being formed, such as carbon dioxide (a green house gas).

I’m fascinated by our capability to discover these remains of ancient life forms and even more so at our ability to use them to meet the present day needs of our energy-reliant society. However, with a global oil production of 83.6 million barrels a day in 2011, this Carbon which has been stored underground for an extremely long amount of time is now being released into our system at a rapid rate… so would the statement, “too much of a good thing, is a bad thing” apply here?

I understand that the burning of fossil fuels is integral to our way of life and energy needs. The intricacy and complications of making rapid emission cuts would have great impacts for our infrastructure and societies. However, the likely effects of climate change/global warming could have even greater, more damaging, impacts on our infrastructure and societies. This is why it is necessary to confront this issue now and progress towards a greater reliance on renewable energy for our present and future energy needs.

This progression is much easier said than done and will undoubtedly be met with great opposition, especially by those involved in fossil fuel energy production (people like my mom). However, I like to perceive it as simply as one of my favorite environmental quotes, “if you get to the cliff, you can take one step forward or turn 180 degrees and take a step forward”.

For one, we’ve already discovered, engineered, and implemented many new means of capturing energy (wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass), all of which are readily available in specific regions, produce nearly no emissions, and are, except for hydroelectric, far less water intensive. We already have a large part of the solution, all we need is implementation. More positive progression was initiated this week as President Obama, leader of a nation that ranks as a close second place behind China in GHG emissions and energy consumption, made a speech that presented some bold, progressive goals: using full authority of the clean air act of 1970 to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, accelerating the implementation of more renewable energy that will “power 6 million homes by 2020”, and reducing energy waste through new energy efficiency. He also is trying to push congress to end the tax breaks for big oil companies to invest in  “the clean energy economies that will fuel our future” and is calling for initiatives to prepare for the inevitable future effects of climate change.

Implementation of these plans will take time, will require governmental initiatives to speed up the process, and will require specific measures to alleviate the negative impacts such change will have on certain individuals. An example of governmental measures to take would be to reduce the massive amount of money that is used to subsidize fossil fuel production and to allocate that money to renewable energy implementation. To alleviate this energy production shift on individuals, retiring fossil fuel companies will need to provide a just transition for its employees: examples include a large preliminary warning, new training, and good retirement packages.

It’s very exciting that the willingness and need to change has been stated by one of the world’s most influential people, but the battle has only yet to begin and many other solutions will need to be presented and implemented if we hope to come out on top. However, optimism is reborn from the depressing ashes of climate change talk as I reflect on how incredibly smart we are as a human race, how much we already know about the issue, and our amazing problem-solving abilities and can’t help but think, this is going to be a good fight.

Written by: Chase Cobb

Texas Water Fluoridation Controversy

When you turn on the water faucet in your kitchen to fill up a water bottle, you don’t usually think about the origin of the water you’re about to drink, how it was treated, and what may have been added to it. The only thing you’re really thinking about is how thirsty you are. We all need water, so we’re all used to just drinking whatever water we can get, as long as it looks clean and comes from a home, business, or water bottle. So it’s not surprising that most people have no idea that fluoride is put into their drinking water every day for dental hygienic reasons, not water treatment.

Woman Drinking Glass of Water

                Water fluoridation started in the 1940’s, when tooth decay was a problem and scientists had been researching the differences in natural fluoride concentrations in water sources. What they found was that areas with moderate amounts of fluoride in the water had fewer cases of tooth decay than those with water sources with lower amounts of fluoride. While they also found that excessive amounts of fluoride could cause things like dental fluorosis, communities started adding moderate amounts of fluoride into their drinking water to keep teeth healthy, at the recommendation of several dental associations as well as the FDA.

Today, water fluoridation has stirred some controversy. The side that promotes water fluoridation states that the benefits of fluoridated water completely outweigh the negatives. Fluoridation costs about fifty cents a year per person, which is cheaper than dental visits, and it has been proven to prevent tooth decay, reducing a person’s risk by about 25%. People who oppose community water fluoridation state that the government should not be in control of medicating communities through public resources because it does not allow people to make the choice of whether or not they want to be medicated, especially since the amount of fluoride one should have for dental use differs per person depending on age, etc. They also state that with increased public knowledge of dental hygiene, there is no longer any reason for the public to be given extra amounts of fluoride. Lastly, they state that many countries in Europe and the US have similar amounts of tooth decay, but most countries in Europe do not use fluoridated water, so the true effectiveness may vary.

Here in Texas, around 80% of the population that uses public water drinks water that is fluoridated. Some communities, including places like College Station, Lago Vista, and Alamo Heights, have voted against water fluoridation, and many more have groups that are trying to end fluoridation. Whichever side you stand on for community water fluoridation, water is our most important resource, so continue to be educated about what is in your water and how it affects you.