OPINION by RICHARD SCHMIDT
San Luis Obispo is going to save the earth from global warming. In 15 years. Faster than anybody – including the state of California or the United Nations — thought possible. We’re going to do it, by adopting a Climate Action Plan!
As a December staff report to the city council put it:
“Leadership is needed and the world is watching.” (their boldface)
“As a leadership city, San Luis Obispo has an outsized role in how cities throughout the world are addressing their greenhouse gas emissions. . . San Luis Obispo as a small city is an inspiration for the over 17.5 million people in the US that live in cities with 40,000-60,000 residents. . . many of which are watching San Luis Obispo closely . . .”
This “world is watching” trope is pilfered from a 1630 Puritan sermon in which John Winthrop addressed the first residents of a Puritan commonwealth in Massachusetts, a new kind of self- regulating Christian community rooted in love and disobedient to the Church of England. They
had an awesome obligation, Winthrop said, “we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” If they messed up, Winthrop warned, those eyes will see that too and “we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world,” cursed, despised, and ridiculed.
SLO staff didn’t remind the council of that last part, the cost of over-reach’s failure.
So, with the world watching, what’s the likelihood of SLO’s solo fight against global warming being successful? If the city follows staff’s “leadership,” I’d say none at all. In fact, staff admits they have no method to achieve the “carbon neutral city” this council has proclaimed we’ll be
But they do have the outline of a new Climate Action Plan, which is supported on six “pillars.”
No explanation why six rather than seven, five, a dozen, or 25. Six is what we get.
The problem with “pillars” is global warming cannot be solved with six marketing strategies.
This is time to heed Barry Commoner’s teaching that everything’s connected to everything else.
SLO’s approach suggests everything’s connected to nothing, that when seriously analytical thought is needed to solve complex interlocked problems, we can turn to internet memes and progressive political dogma for stand-alone solutions. And so it is with the six pillars.
Pillar 1, “Lead by Example,” posits a carbon neutral city government by 2030. Sounds great. But it’s a vague call for drawing up plans to accomplish something or other during several years before actually doing things to lessen government’s contribution to global warming. Like, “Integrate climate considerations into City decision making processes,” or under the seemingly unrelated subhead “green local economy,” “Research methods to support local contractors and labor.”
Given the megatons of global warming hot air from the Marx and Harmon councils, it’s remarkable the city hasn’t already integrated “climate considerations” into its decisions.
The goal stands in stark contrast to reality:
• We are supposed to put solar panels on our homes, but the city’s roofs mainly remain bare and its buildings suck power from PG&E.
• The city recently acquired four diesel transit buses rather than cleaner and more energy efficient natural gas or electric buses. This despite years of successfully running natural gas buses. This city regards natural gas as Demon Gas. But Dirty Diesel’s not a problem?
• Driving, the city tells us, is evil and we’re supposed to ditch our cars, yet the city maintains two large downtown parking lots for city hall employees. The mayor, council members, city manager and attorney have reserved spaces closest to city hall’s doors.
• The city’s utility system – water and sewer – is the biggest municipal energy user, but making it carbon-sensible isn’t on the menu, because the city made a bargain with the energy devil by deliberately choosing energy-intensive industrial sewage processing rather than nature’s free services to do the job.
It need not be this way. When I was a planning commissioner in the late 80’s, staff brought plans for a sewage plant upgrade. The EIR said the plant would use $500,000 additional electricity annually. Horrified at that environmental impact, I asked an energy consultant what would mitigate this increased carbon emission. (Yes, some of us were talking carbon that long ago.) 5,000 acres of new forest, he calculated, would sequester the carbon.
When I presented those facts to fellow commissioners, nobody cared. Staff didn’t care. When I proposed an alternative low-cost natural treatment system for upgrading sewage treatment, nobody cared.
Current councils have authorized yet another high-energy “upgrade” costing $120 million, which will drive our sewer bills sky high and suck still more energy, and have again bypassed the green opportunity to build a low-cost natural system to top off our sewage treatment without raising greenhouse gas emissions.
Pillar 2 says we’ll have “100% carbon free electricity by 2020.” This, staff says, is “the foundation” of a carbon neutral city.
The city claims Monterey Bay Community Power will provide us with such power. In fact, MBCP will provide us with nothing, unless you count the bill PG&E sends us on MBCP’s behalf.
The power MBCP customers receive will be identical to that PG&E customers receive. It will be no more than 60% carbon free. That’s because what’s delivered is the “California power mix” that’s in power lines. This is an important point to remember when we get to Pillar 3.
MBCP is a power broker. They buy and resell power; they don’t make or deliver power. They’ve put their name on a collection of power purchases they claim are carbon free. This power is dumped into the grid where it’s produced, and for MBCP that’s mostly out of state.
Two-thirds of MBCP power is old hydro from the Pacific Northwest. Somebody else’s name was on that power before MBCP’s, so having this power in its portfolio is feel-good global warming greenwash, not an act that reduces carbon emissions like new renewables would do.
It’s unclear whether MBCP’s buying old hydro might force somebody else to use fossil fueled power. In current proceedings before the Public Utilities Commission, Southern California Edison proposes a 3-year study to determine if it’s possible to divert surplus northwest hydro to California without increasing emissions elsewhere. This suggests MBCP’s assurances on this are “trust me,” not fact-based.
Fake “100% carbon free” electricity is an unstable foundation for a carbon neutral city.
Pillar 3 concerns green buildings. The keystone here is essentially prohibiting new buildings with natural gas connections on the pretext electrification with MBCP’s “100% carbon free” power cuts GHG emissions.
SLO is doing this because Berkeley did it; as a leadership city we follow Berkeley.
Politically, this is working out poorly. SLO’s first passage of a gas-free building ordinance requires a second passage to become law, but that’s on hold because a conflict of interest complaint against council member Andy Pease alleges Pease, who has an energy compliance architectural firm, will profit from her vote.
This allegation is what’s called a “statutory” conflict involving money gained or lost due to a vote. I doubt the California Fair Political Practices Commission will find Pease has a statutory conflict. The extra certifications to meet city gas rules are a small add-on to things builders must already certify under state law. It’s hard to see a profit center in the extra certifications.
Statutory conflict, however, isn’t the only kind. There’s also “smell-test” conflict of interest – things that don’t smell right. These generally are not legal conflicts, but since they undermine public trust in government, government officials avoid them. I wish Pease accepted she’s in a “smell-test” conflict and sat out this vote. It would be a good gesture on her part.
Meanwhile, what’s happening in Berkeley foreshadows what may happen here. A federal lawsuit throws a kitchen sink full of allegations at Berkeley. Plaintiffs’ most interesting allegations claim state and federal pre-emption of natural gas regulation. Similar allegations were sent to San Luis Obispo prior to the Berkeley suit.
Getting caught up in stuff like this suggests our “leadership” doesn’t understand important details of what they’re doing.
Even more alarming, however, is leadership’s inability to understand the entire premise of the ordinance is false.
Getting Demon Gas out of our buildings is supposed to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, it will increase emissions by replacing gas with fossil-fuel-generated electricity.
Recall our electricity sources: 40% — possibly more – from fossil fuel power plants. The 100% carbon-free electricity the city prattles about doesn’t exist in SLO’s power lines.
Perhaps our leaders also don’t understand how electricity is made. Fossil fuel generation is inefficient. Every unit of electric energy produced requires about three energy units of natural gas or four of coal (our power includes both). That means two-thirds to three-quarters of fossil energy going into electricity is wasted. Wasted, as in putting GHG emissions into the air.
On the other hand, burning natural gas for heat or cooking is efficient – waste may be only about 10%.
So electrifying homes isn’t a GHG solution with today’s electricity. It increases emissions.
Leaders also don’t understand our place in the natural gas economy.
Which home would burn more natural gas, one in SLO, or one in Minnesota? No brainer. Our use of heating gas is relatively trivial.
Eliminating all our gas usage would have the impact of a gnat’s buzzing wings on the universe. Expending political capital bloviating against gas cook stoves is leadership malpractice.
One council member told me it’s important to ban gas because gas infrastructure leaks methane – a GHG more potent than CO2. Indeed, this is a problem, but any hypothetical local contribution pales in the bigger gas economy. Besides, existing gas infrastructure isn’t going away because of this ordinance, so the argument makes little sense.
Today, the United States is awash in cheap natural gas. There’s so much nobody wants much of it.
Oil fracking releases huge quantities of gas as an unwanted byproduct. The gas market is flooded. Gas is being shipped offshore as fast as possible, and there’s still too much. This cheap stuff has stimulated production of single-use plastic – yes, stuff like our banned straws and bags – because there’s a vast worldwide market for this ocean-filling crap. Even so, there’s still too
So what to do with it? If you’re a small fracker, it’s not economical to collect gas, so you release it into the air at your wellhead. Deliberately releasing methane into the atmosphere should be a crime, but it’s not. If you’re a bigger fracker, you “flare” your natural gas, which means you
burn it just to get rid of it, sending a mix of CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere.
Much of the gas that comes out of the ground never makes it into the gas economy. It’s just GHG emissions.
Banning Demon Gas in SLO is no part of a solution that makes sense in today’s larger gas economy.
Pillar 4 is transportation. It’s utterly hallucinatory.
By 2030, 20% of all trips in SLO will be by bike, 12% by transit, and 18% by foot or “other.”
Vehicular trips will be cut by half, 40% of those by electric vehicle. That apparently means only two out of 10 trips will be by gas, diesel or hybrid vehicles such as we own today, though it’s hard to tell for sure since staff’s discussion indiscriminately switches back and forth between two different metrics, “vehicle miles traveled” versus “trips.”
And this is happening by 2030, just 10 years from now, which is five years sooner than the general plan’s preposterous transport provisions previously projected.
You can double-down on nonsense in a plan, but that doesn’t make it happen. What it does is allocate limited transportation funds to advance ridiculous goals rather than things that make more sense, like keeping traffic moving, which, dear progressives, is a way to reduce GHG emissions compared to our stop and go traffic congestion.
Pillar 5 sounds sensible: “Circular Economy,” which staff says is an economy reliant upon reuse, recycling, refurbishing and eliminating waste (Listen up Amazon cardboard-hogs!). Sounds like these guys finally understand Barry Commoner.
Then reality and disappointment descend. The proposals are mundane and irritating, like:
• “Adopt an ordinance requiring organic waste subscription for all residential and commercial customers by 2022.” Another plastic garbage can and higher garbage rates?
• “Develop and implement a waste stream education program for HOA/Property Managers and the commercial sector.”
• Update wastebin enclosure standards. Uh, oh – more where-you-can’t-put-your-garbage-can rules!
• “Develop a Solid Waste section in the Utilities Department.”
The earth feels no cooler after reading Pillar 5.
Finally, we come to Pillar 6, “Natural Solutions.” This is a nod to the two ways to reduce atmospheric carbon: put less carbon into the air, or take more carbon out. Staff’s proposed “natural solutions” have to do with the latter.
This pillar is another disappointment.
For example, “natural solutions” could include buildings designed to capture free natural energies (heat, light, coolth) that radically reduce demand for gas and electricity. It could also include low-energy biological sewage treatment, or lots of other things.
Instead, the menu has two “natural solutions,” both having to do with locking up atmospheric carbon in soils or plants: mechanically spreading composted municipal garbage (green and food waste) on our open space, which staff calls “carbon farming,” and planting trees.
Staff says there should be 10,000 new trees by 2035, a number apparently pulled from thin air, and Mayor Heidi Harmon says there should be 15,000, so there are to be 15,000. Given all SLO’s new subdivisions, my guess is their developer-required tree plantings may amount to that many.
Staff says all you have to do is spread garbage on open space, and miraculously, carbon will be sequestered in the soil. Another likely outcome, however, is the carboniferous garbage will do what carbon from chipped trees does – dissipate into the atmosphere as GHGs.
Let’s give staff’s vision the benefit of the doubt, and see how it might play out. The primary plants on targeted open spaces are non-native grasses.
Fertilized with garbage, they will grow like crazy, creating a fire hazard that will have to be vigorously grazed by cattle, who we all know cause global warming by belching and farting methane, thus putting more GHG emissions into the air.
Another likely outcome is this: Spread garbage will leach nutrients into rain runoff, which will pollute our urban streams, causing eutrophication, stinky creeks, and the death of cherished trout and steelhead.
That’s just the beginning of this plan’s problems. This stuff is garbage, not clean garden compost. What’s in it? Who knows, but you can depend on this: pesticides, herbicides, plastic, metallic stuff, paint residue, chemical residue. If manure’s included, add pharmaceutical residue. Why feed this junk to Bambi? Already crews of nice people go to natural places to collect human detritus that harms wildlife. Why in the name of “natural solutions” would we compound this problem?
Then there’s wind blowing this stuff around.
LA decided to spread greenwaste over hundreds of acres of Western Antelope Valley, near Neenach. Nearby residents had wind-blown junk invade their yards. The stuff stinks. “My house smells like a cattle farm and garbage dump, together,” one local told a newspaper. Jeff Zimmerman, a retired SLO fireman, told the same newspaper the stench is overpowering and has caused repeated respiratory problems.
Carbon farming is a potentially legitimate thing, but it usually refers to actual farming involving plants that sequester significant quantities of carbon into the soil. It can also refer to tree planting.
Trees are good at sequestering carbon. Wood is carboniferous. Standing trees lock up huge quantities of carbon for the long haul. The bigger the tree, the more carbon it locks up.
For SLO, planting 15,000 trees over 15 years is a carbon joke. Remember Pillar 1 and the 5,000 acres of trees needed to sequester carbon from our 1990s sewer plant’s increased electricity use? This city, if it’s serious, needs to be talking thousands of acres not thousands of trees.
Evidence the city takes trees seriously is lacking:
• This council’s record on protecting trees is reprehensible. It has approved removal of a good thousand mature trees because developers wanted them gone. Like at “San Luis Ranch,” hundreds of mature trees, which a city press release labeled “dead or dying,” a mendacious excuse for clearcutting exactly where the developer wanted to build along Madonna Road.
Trees were chipped, which means tons of their long-sequestered carbon were dumped into the atmosphere.
• This council revamped tree regulations to please developers, taking review power away from a citizen Tree Committee and giving it to staff who know what to do to keep paychecks coming.
• We can see nibbling away at our unique downtown forest. Ruthless trimming is ruining the tree canopy. As big trees come down, they’re often replaced with species that will never be big – if they are replaced at all.
This reduces the forest’s free services: beauty, cleaning air, sequestering carbon, providing habitat and shade that cools downtown, reducing air
So, what are the prospects of SLO becoming “carbon neutral” by 2035?
With this “pillared” Climate Action Plan, none at all. Despite staff’s optimistic marketing chatter, they project a shortfall of 25%. If I had to guess, based on the incompleteness, inconsequentiality, incoherence and counter productivity of what they propose, shortfall will be a lot larger than that.
Which means our actual progress will be tied to state goals. California proposes to reach 100% renewable electricity by 2045, and reduce 1990 GHG emission levels by 80% by 2050. Note this 80% reduction is not the same as “carbon neutral,” what SLO promises by 2035.
California has done more to tackle global warming than any other state in this nation, and probably the world. We’ve done serious energy conservation research and taken actions ahead of the nation since the first Jerry Brown administration in the 1970s.
California reached its 2020 GHG reduction goal several years early.
How is that 2050 state goal going?
Well, this is both shocking and sad: at the rate it’s going, California is on target to reach its 2050 goal in 2157. That is not a misprint. At current speed, California will reach its 2050 GHG goal – 80% below 1990 emission levels — 107 years late! And this under the best measures anyplace on earth.
Speed in reducing emissions is trending down, not up, because low hanging fruit have been harvested and from here on out, things get increasingly difficult. Renewable electricity, for example, is low hanging fruit.
Legacy electric utilities made strides increasing renewables, but that progress has nearly flatlined. Why? Because outfits like MBCP, which are not subject to legacy utilities’ new renewables quotas, are stealing so many customers the utilities can meet their quotas for years to come with existing renewables, so why build more? MBCP, on the other hand, can buy old hydro from out of state, then bamboozle the credulous into thinking their power is pure green.
Our participation in MBCP, far from saving the earth, helps throttle the state’s schedule for transitioning to 100% renewable power.
Our city’s sloganeering will not get us to climate victory. Leaders would do better to forget their progressive climate dogmas and figure out how, as Commoner put it, everything’s related to everything else, then evaluate proposals on that very, very wide screen.
They might start by acknowledging carbon neutrality by 2035 is overly ambitious, is only a slogan, and focus instead on actions that will make significant global difference.
There’s something else to note. That “leadership city” “world-is-watching” puffery is the ancient sin of hubris — excessive pridefulness inflated with arrogance. Hubris, with which our little insecure city reeks these days, doesn’t end well. It’s precursor to tragedy, the downfall and destruction of the excessively prideful.