Conservatives warm to climate concerns
From dams to power plants, GOP suggests its own fixes.
By E.J. Schultz / Bee Capitol Bureau
04/08/07 05:58:45Quick Job Search
How popular is global warming as a political issue?
So popular that even conservative state lawmakers are getting into the act, using the issue to sell everything from building dams and nuclear power plants to thinning forests.
The arguments are simple enough:
Higher temperatures reduce mountain snowpack, so more dams are needed to capture winter precipitation that falls as rain.
Nuclear power plants produce few greenhouse gases, the leading cause of man-made warming.
Forest fires, on the other hand, send plenty of gases into the air — so why not encourage timber companies to clear more brush to reduce fire risk?
Environmentalists, who are skeptical of the proposals, are peeved that the other side has stolen their issue.
“Clearly these legislators are just dressing up their existing legislation with a thin veneer of a pretended concern about global warming,” said Bill Magavern, senior representative for Sierra Club California.
Republican lawmakers strongly opposed last year’s landmark legislation to cut the state’s greenhouse gases by 25% by 2020. They criticized the bill as a job-killer and primitive attempt at placing local controls on a global problem.
Have they converted?
Not necessarily, says Assembly Member Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, author of the nuclear bill.
“It’s politics,” he said. “If the [Democratic] leadership has said this is a problem … then all I’m suggesting is maybe this is one of the solutions we should look at.”
That Republicans are now talking about climate change shows how far it has come, said GOP strategist Dan Schnur.
“You can always tell that an issue has evolved when both parties start using it,” he said. “They’re not arguing about global warming anymore in the state Legislature. They’re arguing about what issue it next influences.”
Without the backing of environmentalists, the Republican proposals will likely face an uphill fight in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
But if passed, the bills could have a major effect in the Valley. The Fresno area is being targeted for a new dam and nuclear power plant. And the region is home to a struggling timber industry.
Here’s a closer look at the legislation:
Momentum builds behind nuclear plants
DeVore’s Assembly Bill 719 would lift a 31-year-old state ban on new nuclear power plants, clearing the way for a $4 billion plant proposed for Fresno by a group of prominent business leaders. He’s titled the bill the “California Zero Carbon Dioxide Emission Electrical Generation Act of 2007.”
About 13% of the state’s electricity supply comes from nuclear plants, including two in California — San Onofre in Southern California and Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County — according to a report last year by the California Energy Commission. But a state law passed in 1976 prohibits the construction of more plants until the federal government finds a way to dispose of high-level nuclear waste.
The most-discussed proposal is a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The project, opposed by Nevada officials, has stalled, however. The delays led the energy commission to say in its report that it “cannot conclude that the [federal government] will ever operate the permanent repository at Yucca Mountain.”
DeVore says that even if a plant were approved today, it would be at least 10 years before it’s operational. So by keeping the ban in place, “other states will be the first in line to build new, modern, and highly safe nuclear power plants, delaying the availability of this large-scale and reliable source of zero carbon dioxide emission electricity,” he says in the bill.
Unlike plants that burn fossil fuels, nuclear plants emit few greenhouse gases. Such gases trap heat in the atmosphere, causing global warming, according to scientists.
Nuclear watchdog groups say nuclear plants are too expensive, pointing to cost overruns that have plagued previous projects. Construction of the Diablo Canyon plant exceeded the $320 million estimate by more than $5 billion, according to the energy commission.
Yet the emergence of global warming as a hot issue has given nuclear supporters some momentum. The 2005 Energy Bill passed by Congress includes federal loan guarantees for nuclear plant financing. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, has said nuclear power should at least be on the table.
But Rochelle Becker, executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility in San Luis Obispo, said DeVore is jumping the gun.
“Lifting this ban,” she said, “would be absolutely irresponsible” without a solution to disposal of nuclear waste.
State moves to build more dams
Gov. Schwarzenegger, whose drive against global warming has gained international attention, has not taken a position on the nuclear bill. But the governor has used climate change to push for more dams.
His plan — contained in Senate Bill 59 by Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto — would put a $4 billion water bond on the 2008 ballot, including $2 billion for two dams. One dam is targeted for Temperance Flat, upstream of Friant Dam.
The state Department of Water Resources predicts warming will result in a loss of at least a quarter of the state’s snowmelt runoff by 2050. This has led the department to recommend more surface storage to capture winter rain that today falls as snow.
“We are in desperate need to have more above-the-ground water storage,” the governor said at a recent appearance at Friant Dam.
Environmentalists, who prefer conservation and more ground-water storage, say the governor is misguided.
The proposed site at Friant sits at the base of some of the highest mountains in the state. So even with rising temperatures, there will be plenty of snowpack at those higher elevations, said Barry Nelson, a senior analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“If you’re going to build new storage to respond to climate change, probably the last place you’d build that storage is the southern Sierra,” he said.
Also, research suggests global warming will cause more evaporation, meaning less runoff from the state’s rivers and streams, Nelson said.
“You could be building a dam to capture water that won’t be there in the future,” he said.
Dam supporters say global warming is just one of many reasons to build dams. The other main argument is that more water is needed for the state’s growing population.
“In reality,” Cogdill said, “we just let too much [water] run into the ocean.”
Tweaking the timber laws
Cogdill said he voted against last year’s global warming legislation — Assembly Bill 32 — because he is skeptical that Californians can do much to reverse climate change: “To me, it’s a big stretch to say that human beings can turn this around.”
But now that the bill is law, Cogdill is not afraid to propose his own solutions. His Senate Bill 572 would direct the state to consider emissions created by catastrophic wildfires as officials implement AB 32.
Cogdill is still finalizing the bill’s details but said it could allow timber companies to cut down more trees without going through extensive and costly environmental reviews. That would give loggers more of an incentive to clear the smaller brush that fuels forest fires, he said, and at the same time could help revive the region’s long-struggling timber industry.
“The whole thing could be a win-win,” he said.
Trees absorb carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — from the atmosphere. But when forests burn, gases are released, contributing to warming.
Cogdill’s argument rests on the belief that reducing devastating forest fires will cut carbon emissions. But forest management is a delicate art.
Cutting down large trees can actually increase fire risk because “those are the fire-resilient trees,” said Dave Jaramillo, fire protection coordinator of the Sierra Forest Legacy, an environmental coalition.
When a forest burns, the amount of gases released depends on the intensity and size of a fire. But, in general, carbon dioxide emitted from forest fires pales in comparison to emissions from power plants, cars and airplanes, said Jim Randerson, a professor of earth system science at the University of California at Irvine, who studies fires and climate change.
In California, for example, fossil fuel consumption by vehicles accounts for 41% of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report by Schwarzenegger’s Climate Action Team.
In general, loggers can remove trees of up to 18 inches in diameter without going through a rigorous review, as long as they remove brush to reduce fire risk. Cogdill’s proposal would allow loggers to take bigger trees. (A bill by another lawmaker seeks to allow cutting of trees up to 24 inches.)
“I’m not talking about going in and massively clear cutting,” Cogdill said. “I’m talking about some tweaks to our law.”
The Sierra Club California hasn’t taken a position on Cogdill’s plan because it is still being developed.
Paul Mason, a legislative representative with the group, said the devil is in the details. If you allow for too many exemptions, he said, you “undermine the logging review process.”
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